It’s been nearly three and a half years since I last sat down with Portland Mayor Sam Adams. To say a lot has changed — both in bike infrastructure/policies and our city’s relationship with Adams — since that time would be a vast understatement.
Adams and I sat down in a diner in Old Town. We were joined by his spokesperson Amy Ruiz and his transportation policy advisor Catherine Ciarlo (last time it was just him and I, which I prefer). Read the interview below…
2010 was a tough year for bikes [I shared a list of negative bike PR examples for him]. There was a lot of negative media attention and several PR crises around bike policies and projects. What do you think caused all that negative attention around bicycling?
The last time we did a public opinion poll and we asked people what do they want to spend their money on, the bottom of the list were bikes and freight. One of their top concerns was conflict between cars and bikes. So, active transportation is still an issue that has a lot of work left to do — even in bike-friendly, progressive Portland — for it to be fully respected and for its costs and benefits to be fully understood. To go from one level of effort to the next is always fraught with controversy.
Are we at that point now, going from one level to the next?
If you look at the last 18 months or so, it’s also been arguably the best year for bikes in Portland. Ever. 69 miles of bikeways either done or funded, going from 26 to 80 elementary schools in the Safe Routes to Schools program, going from 20-some thousand to 90-some thousand attending Sunday Parkways, and the list goes on. By the end of the year, we’ll have an estimated 85 bike corrals on commercial streets. All these things happened in that same time period. When you make change, and it’s significant change, you always get push-back. And maybe that’s what happened in 2010. Is that there was actually push-back, push-back in a city that is known for being a bike city.
Toward the end of last year, following all those PR problems, you stopped talking about bicycling in public. Do you think it’s fair to say all that negative attention caused you to shy away from being a spokesperson for bicycling?
Not consciously. I think that until we… [Adams trailed off momentarily and then gathered himself]… One of the reasons I campaigned to be transportation commissioner was I saw a lack of focus on basic safety that was holding back a higher utilization of biking and walking. That safety was a result of too slow-going on infrastructure, an outdated bike plan, and a lot of self-congratulatory back-slapping. So, in the past two years since the Bike Master Plan was put through Council and there was a lot of push-back, I just put my head down and got stuff done.
There has never been a year when we have gotten more, deeper bike change done than in the last two years. So, there’s always controversy and I don’t know that the bike advocacy community had had a lot of controversy since Earl [Blumenauer, Portland City Council member from 1987-1996] first put in bike lanes, and because it was easy for us to sort of read our own national press that everything is easy because we’re the bike capitol of America; I do think that [the backlash] took people by surprise. My job was to just put my head down and get the job done; and we have.
“The fact that we’ve pushed over the past two years, some notions that have been controversial to get funding in place to get the work done, I accept that. But, I would argue that it’s a matter of being at the cutting edge of the discussion as opposed to just riding along someone else’s path-blazing efforts.”
The numbers speak for themselves, the accomplishments speak for themselves. When John Canzano, the O[regonian] Editorial Board, and even the Mercury are taking me and the bike community to task by relating bike investments to mental health funding — which is as unfair as people could get — we’re still getting the work done. And that is the bottom line. 69 miles of bikeways done or funded, from 26-80 schools doing Safe Routes to School, adding green bike boxes, Sunday Parkways, all of that momentum got stronger in the last years.
Are you aware of the “bikelash” that’s going on in New York City?
Yes, and in Toronto they just elected a mayor running against bikes.
Do you think there are lessons for Portland from those places?
Yes, there are. You have to make smart decisions that you can show have a tangible benefit on the cost-benefit scale, that you are saving people’s lives and reducing injuries, and your smart transportation advocates need to stay at it. We’re not across the finish line. It’s a continuous effort.
“I’m not here to impress you Jonathan. Frankly, I’m not here to impress anybody. I’m here to deliver an infrastructure that would get more people biking…And, it might not be sexy to you or others, but it’s what we need.”
In NYC, Mayor Bloomberg hired a strategist and went on the offensive to defend a controversial bike lane; but when a similar backlash happened here, it seemed like you retreated a bit. There was nobody being strong and forceful in speaking up for bikes. Don’t you think the public tenor around biking is important?
I think what’s more important is that the work gets done.
We got through it. Yeah, I think handling it effectively is really important. I think in the last 18 months to two years we’ve done more in terms of investment in bikes and peds than I know at any time previously. The facts speak for themselves in terms of what we’ve accomplished.
Jonathan, there are going to be times of controversy on every issue and with every person. At some point your site will become wildly controversial, I’m quite certain. But you go forward and you persist and you persevere and you figure out where you’re at and you move forward from there.
At the BTA Alice Awards last year, you made it clear in your speech that you were getting a lot of negative push-back and you needed more support from the bike advocacy community. Did you get some?
Not a lot [laughs]. But, there are reasons for that unrelated to me. Like, a search for and a new leader at the BTA and a bicycling advocacy community that had had about a decade that lacked any controversy at all. I will tell you, and I was working at City Hall at the time, when Earl was putting through with Mia [Birk] the first bike efforts, it was blisteringly controversial. Nothing like you think 2010 was. It was blisteringly controversial and you just perservere. So, I guess I learned from observing that work of then-Commissioner Earl Blumenauer with Mia Birk.
You know, the benefits and costs of biking are obviously easy to misrepresent. So what looks expensive to some people, in reality is not. The benefits of biking are opaque from the visual eye, but significant when you are responsible for a transportation system. I think everyone knows where I stand on bikes. I don’t think that’s a mystery for Portlanders, so sometimes just getting the work done, instead of talking about the benefits.. If anything, over the past two years, instead of talking so much about the benefits, which was important to do for 5-6 years, just getting the work done and people seeing the benefits is what we’ve focused on.
“.. if the 50s Bikeway project isn’t sexy enough for you, too bad Jonathan Maus, I’m going to focus on the non-sexy life-saving stuff as I always have.”
We went from swales for sewers to people understanding that swales come with curb extensions which slow traffic down and saves everybody’s lives, including car drivers. The fact that we’ve pushed over the past two years some notions that have been controversial to get funding in place to get the work done, I accept that. But, I would argue that it’s a matter of being at the cutting edge of the discussion as opposed to just riding along someone else’s path-blazing efforts. Sometimes it takes a while for these things [the bioswales/bike safety connection] to sink in.
Bike Share has been on the table for several years now. It seems there is some new momentum. Are you actively supporting the bike-share project?
“He’s actively supporting it.” [Adams’ Transportation Policy Advisor Catherine Ciarlo interjected.]
Will there be something up and running by the end of the year?
I don’t know, I hope so. I’ve been pushing and prodding for six years. Staff and the experts have said, let’s wait to see the experience of other cities. I think they’ve been right to some degree. There have been some spectacular successes that have been very expensive and there have been some spectacular failures that have been very expensive. So, I think my team is right, but I’ve been anxious to move it forward.
The biggest challenge is financial. As you know, most of these bike-share programs have been built on a trade of the bike-share program for massive billboards and massive advertising in the city. I don’t want to trash portland with that kind of advertising and I don’t think Portlanders would support that. I’m not willing to put up billboards like other cities are. So, we’re coming up with some other ways to pay for it. These things don’t pay for themselves, but then again, every transportation mode is subsidized to a certain degree.
We have a list of $600 million in projects laid out in this bike plan. At our current spending levels, we won’t get there by 2030. Can you tell me where the money will come from to build this system?
I don’t know how we’re going to get $600 million. But I also don’t know how I’m going to get 8-10 times that for the automobile.
But people working on bike projects are fighting and scratching for a little bit of money here, a little bit of money there. You’ve said in the past that biking is the best ROI you get for transportation investment. What can you tell me about funding going forward?
There is no magic answer to that question and no city across the United States has come up with one either, or anywhere in the world that I know of. Where we have had a lot of success is the examples of Sellwood Bridge, or of Cully Blvd., where it [bikeways] gets done as part of the regular major maintenance or capital investment. We continue to hustle to get the money wherever we can, but we’re also working to change the way we do business so that it’s part of everything we do. Like the SW Moody TIGER grant project we got. It knits together the neighborhoods with pedestrian bridges and the transit bridge across the river, and the separated cycle track. That’s all part of the way we do business now, whereas before it might not have been an assumption.
What do you see, from where you sit, to being the key barriers to pushing forward on some big, high-profile projects? (Not like the neighborhood greenways, which are non-controversial).
I’m not here to impress you Jonathan. Frankly, I’m not here to impress anybody. I’m here to deliver an infrastructure that would get more people biking, and a different kind of people biking. The fact that a lot of our work over the next 2-3 years is going to be in East Portland where a lot of people don’t go, they’re not necessarily going to see it. Those greenways are just as important to meeting our goal of 25% as cycle-tracks on Broadway, in fact more so. So, I’m going where the need and the opportunities are. And, it might not be sexy to you or others, but it’s what we need.
Biking started out in central Portland, in the central city. It’s been viewed by a lot of people as an upper-income, white, amenity. To whatever truth there is to that, it doesn’t have to be that way. People that live east of 39th and 82nd and 122nd, people that want to be able to travel by bike safely north and south. Sorry if that’s not sexy, but that’s what we need right now.
What made you think you needed that type of focus? Was it hearing from citizens, was it “equity gap” research?
Part of it is seeing where people are getting injured and killed. The three most dangerous corridors in the city are 122nd, 82nd, Foster, and Burnside/Everett/Glisan. I’m not going to apologize for going from 26-80 schools… You might never see that, the average bicycle advocate might never see that. It might not be the big sexy thing you are looking for, but too bad! That’s what we need as a city, that’s the kind of work we do as a city to make biking reach it’s full potential and that’s what it’s going to take.
Now, I’m not going to use all our powder and give away all our secrets. There’ll be some good, sizzly things coming up; but a lot of the work we need to do, might not be something you see downtown. It might not be sexy, but dog-gone it, it’s going to work.
What do you see as the problems with our transportation system in the Central Business District right now?
We’ve lost a lot of businesses in downtown. We’ve lost a lot of jobs downtown through this recession. We’re working hard to get them back. So, from a transportation point of view for central Portland my biggest concern is actually around jobs and prosperous business. The biggest challenge for downtown is to get as high as possible, the work-to-home commute on anything other than a car. Whether that’s transit, pedestrian, bikes, or a combination of all that, it’s to the benefit of everything else. Because the #1 criticism, according to public opinion surveys, as to why people don’t come downtown, is the lack of available parking and congestion. So the win-win is relieving the congestion, freeing up parking, except for those that are here to play and spend money and those that don’t have a choice.
I’ve been to several ribbon-cuttings for very expensive transit projects over the years. Rail transit is comparable to highways in cost. Do you foresee sometime in the near future where we’re at a ribbon-cutting for a connected bikeway corridor that people can have the same level of comfort, safety and efficiency as you get riding a streetcar or light rail, but it’s for bicycles? Do you see that happening?
Right now we’re focused on the [neighborhood] greenways. You know, we’re working from a plan here. To be honest, this sort of, highly-expensive, downtown-focused, sort of big, expensive, you know, bike extravaganza project, you get — and sometimes maybe rightfully so — you get community-wide push-back.
I was in Toronto during that election. That is a liberal city and they elected Ford overwhelmingly. He talked about taking streetcars out of downtown and ‘quit spending so much money on bikes’ and, you know, the light rail to the suburbs was ‘ridiculous’ and they should have spent it on freeways.
So, do you see that election of Ford as being the result of push-back because Toronto did big, flashy bike projects that the public wasn’t ready for?
I think like any enthusiast, you know, you can send the wrong signals. And honestly, I’m going to prioritize life and safety over your sense of spectacular ribbon-cuttings any day. And so, you know, if the 50s Bikeway project isn’t sexy enough for you, too bad Jonathan Maus, I’m going to focus on the non-sexy life-saving stuff as I always have. We’ll continue to do the innovations, but they’re going to be innovations that make sense.
So, you know, push forward where we need to with the big, high-profile things and just do the bread and butter work.
You know, it’s a little bit arrogant for us to think we’ve got the basics covered on bike infrastructure. We don’t. And we’re going to get that much more underway than maybe bike advocates want to see. But then again, it sticks with the reason I ran to be transportation commissioner and that was to prioritize safety and to prioritize complete neighborhoods and the trip not taken.
And by basics, you mean where all Portlanders have access to some sort of bikeway?
Absolutely. That’s where you’re seeing our money go right now. I think the separated bikeways over the new light rail bridge and on the Sellwood Bridge speak for themselves. We have to raise a frickin’ neighborhood on SW Moody 14 feet and included in that right of way are separated bike lanes.
I look at that SW Moody project and wonder, what happens to the cycle track at the end of that project? The cycle track will just end at some point; but the streetcar will continue on all the way to PSU, all the way to NW Portland.
So you’re going to pit bikes against streetcars now?
No. I’m talking about the relative balance of what we’re doing with rail versus with our bike facilities. If you’re on a bike, you don’t have the same type of access you have with rail or bus right now. There’s some point in your trip when you have to make a scary crossing, or where you’re sharing space with a car. When are we going to come to the point where we can all come together and cut the ribbon on a $20 million bike project that takes people from NE Portland into downtown and they never have to feel danger and can feel safe enough to ride with their kids and grandparents?
Well, the network that we do have in the core of the city needs to improve, but we have swaths of the city that have no network. So, while you may be a central Portland bike rider by choice. There are bike riders and pedestrians in parts of the city where we have no infrastructure. And, excuse me but I’m going to focus on those areas for a while, before I come back and do the necessary, but sometimes very expensive retrofit of existing corridors. It isn’t necessarily an either/or, but what you’re going to get from this commissioner is more emphasis on parts of the city where they do not have anything but the busiest streets to go on… And I make no apologies for that.
It’s a matter of safety and fairness. Why should downtown Portland get all the bike money? Why should downtown Portland get all the bike infrastructure? Why are you promoting obviously necessary improvements to existing bike infrastructure when hundreds of square miles of the city don’t have anything at all. So, get on the bus Jonathan! I want this message to go out to bike advocates!
What about facilities in the Central City where you have demand outstripping supply?
Those are the ones we’ve prioritized for further improvements. Again, it’s not a total either/or, but you wanting your big ribbon-cutting of something that’s going to go from here to the moon on a bike — I’m just trying to get people from Lents to Midway… Alive! And if I can get more people alive and uninjured on something perceived as a safe way to go, we’re going to have more citywide support.
Let’s talk about Sunday Parkways. Has that event had an impact on garnering more support for cycling outside of downtown?
Sunday Parkways have done more to get people all over town — Linda [Ginenthal, Program Manager for Transportation Options] and her team and my team deserve all the credit — to get more people to see the possibilities. It’s allowed us to have discussions with folks along the 50s Bikeway. In part because, thanks to the Sunday Parkways, people actually show up and say, ‘I really would like to go from point A to point B on the east-side. I did that on Sunday Parkways and it was really good!’
Can we expect to see Sunday Parkways continue to get funding at its current level?
Of course. Absolutely. Unless the council reverses me. I’d like to do more, but I’m afraid I’d have an insurrection at PBOT [in their recent One Year Progress Report, PBOT said they are unable to do more Sunday Parkways due to staffing limitations] … I love Sunday Parkways, and we put money into it because it’s earned it. What it does for neighborhoods along the way, what it does for businesses along the way. We now have Hawthorne asking to have Sunday Parkways on their street. When we started, it was like, “No! You’ll kill our business!”
What’s the best thing the average Portlander can do to help move bicycling forward in this city?
Get involved with their neighborhood association and neighborhood business association. Get involved. If they don’t have a transportation committee. Fine. If you don’t have the energy to organize one, then at least be there to talk about it. Arm yourself with the facts and just be there to bear witness to the conversations and speak up for the facts, that bicycling is a fantastic investment for any neighborhood.
In terms of moving forward with the Bike Plan for 2030, What’s one big concern you have in terms of implementing it?
The concern is that we are still only doing Safe Routes to Schools with elementary schools and we kind of lose people in high school. So, at the time that they’re actually most physically able to do biking, there’s no real program around teenage bicycle education.
What are you most excited about?
I want see a bike system that will be a combination of cycle-tracks, bike lanes and greenways all the way to the Gresham city line. That’s what I’m most excited about. Then it’s no longer talking about bikes and it only meaning downtown Portland. I’ll be talking bikes and it will mean the whole city.
Are you going to run for Mayor?
We’ll see. It’s the greatest job I think a person can have. I’ll be making a decision. But again, I want to focus on the work.