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Criticisms leveled at the BTA: Their leader responds

Posted by on March 9th, 2012 at 4:07 pm

“We believe we can catch more flies with honey than we can with vinegar… I don’t think direct action will turn around city council or businesses.”
— Rob Sadowsky, BTA executive director

Back in January, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder took to a public forum and dropped a pretty hefty insult on the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). The comment left by Burkholder on a widely read urban planning blog was notable, not just because the level of candor was rare for an elected official (especially in always-nice Portland), but because Burkholder is one of the BTA’s founders.

Burkholder’s opinion came out in the form of a comment on the popular Sightline blog. The blog post was a top ten list of the best things European cities are doing to improve bicycling conditions.

Here are some snips from Burkholder’s comment (emphasis mine):

Sunday Parkways NE-32

Burkholder at Sunday Parkways.
(Photos © J. Maus)

“Its [sic] a wonder what will happen when you actually make cycling a priority rather than “accommodating” cyclists. In Portland, we have unfortunately stalled and the City, with the acquiescence of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, are pursuing a separate but unequal strategy of designating side streets as bike boulevards

… When I helped found and led the BTA in the 1990s, I thought it would take twenty years to get to Dutch cycling levels and preached patience. Well, twenty years have passed and we’re not even close. For example, if I want to ride from downtown to the Hawthorne district, I lose my lane and am encouraged to detour a half mile out of direction to a bike boulevard..

The simple act of turning four lane roads into three lanes with bike lanes would improve travel for everyone, even car traffic but is seen as an insufferable loss by the traffic engineers and the motorists. This is why Minneapolis took our “Best Cycling City” crown away. The Minne Mayor is committed to using the ROW better, not kowtowing to old paradigms.”

The BTA’s Executive Director Rob Sadowsky responded to the comment by pointing out a passage in their 20-year Strategic Plan that calls for half of all Portland arterial streets to have protected bikeways.

Ethan and Kellie

Ethan Jewett in 2006

Then yesterday, another veteran of Portland’s bike culture posted his thoughts about the current state of the BTA. Ethan Jewett, a marketing consultant and photographer who lives in North Portland, has been biking in Portland since the 1990s (and has been a BTA member all that time). After helping organize Portland’s “BikeSummer” event in 2002, Jewett was one of the founding members of Shift, a loose-knit grassroots organization that promotes “bike fun” and is known for Pedalpalooza, Breakfast on the Bridges, and more.

After a back-and-forth with a BTA staffer on Twitter that led to an email exchange, Jewett posted a lengthy reply on his Facebook page. Here’s the crux of Jewett’s concerns:

“I have serious concerns that the BTA has fallen into the rut of not doing the really hard things… we do need an organization that is willing to go to the mat for whatever constitutes the cycling moonshot. Watching other cities without our biking gravitas build amazing bike-centric projects while we paint bike lanes and put in staples is disheartening at best. We argue over bike amenities on the CRC instead of having bike projects that will once again radically alter the mode split (and thus health and quality of life) for Portlanders…

Oftentimes at non-profits, the obvious truth about performance and relevancy is the 800 lb gorilla in the room that nobody talks about… If warning bells are not going off that the BTA has become a fundraising machine cherry picking safe projects… I’ll at least ring the gong a few times before moving on.”

When asked how he feels about these comments, Sadowsky defended the BTA’s advocacy record.

BTA Alice Awards 2010-36

Sadowsky at 2010 Alice Awards.

Sadowsky says he takes his cues from the organization’s recently adopted Strategic Plan and his board of directors: “I feel really good about where the organization is going.”

Sadowsky says when he took over the BTA two years ago, he inherited a “floundering” organization — one that is “just starting to see the fruits” of major structural changes he has put into place.

As for the BTA’s advocacy style, Sadowsky admits they have a quieter approach. While he maintains they’ve, “embraced a mission that doesn’t criticize loudly,” they have also kept the “serious threat of litigation to maintain our rights” as a bargaining chip when working with City officials and other agencies. “I think that’s a stronger threat than bringing 400 people to a rally downtown.”

Summing up the BTA’s advocacy style, Sadowsky added, “We believe we can catch more flies with honey than we can with vinegar.”

Sadowsky says he and Burkholder have sat down and chatted about that Sightline comment (I have not been able to reach Burkholder for comment). “It was an interesting conversation,” Sadowsky said, “He wasn’t aware of the things we were doing… Clearly, we have to do a better job telling our story.”

In Sadowsky’s eyes, that story includes big wins like getting the 2030 Bike Plan adopted and making bike share happen; and heavy-lifting on major policy changes like improved funding for active transportation at ODOT, and turning the tides toward a more bike-friendly Washington County.

When it comes doing bold projects in Portland’s urban core, Sadowsky says the culprit is the lack of federal funding and political will at City Hall — not a lack of influence by the BTA. The method to making big projects happen, in Sadowsky’s opinion, is to build a broad network of partners (including business owners) and then deliver that support to City Hall. “I don’t think direct action will turn around city council or businesses.”

As proof positive of his approach, Sadowsky says to look no further than Chicago, where he worked prior to joining the BTA. That city has been building many miles of physically separated bikeways in their downtown area and Sadowsky says those projects are the fruits of labors he began six years ago. “It takes time, it takes money, it takes energy, it takes sophistication.”

That being said, Sadowsky also acknowledges the need for a more aggressive advocacy group to emerge in Portland:

“The BTA isn’t threatened or afraid of any group approaching us from the more angry/rally model [of advocacy]… There’s room for different voices and styles but we can’t be beating each other up. We really need to be together.”

As for money, Sadowsky doesn’t shy away from admitting they frequently ask for donations. “We are trying to raise money because I want to do more stuff. We know where we need to grow to be able to deliver the things we’re working on.”

In my opinion, there are valid points being made by all parties in this story. Interestingly, one thing we all agree on is that Portland is in a funk when it comes to bicycling. Whether it comes from the BTA, frustrated citizens, a new group, or all of the above, we need to shift the politics and public narrative in this city in order to break through the bike-friendly ceiling we are pressing against. To do that, we need every part of the local bike ecosystem to be healthy. Obviously I have more thoughts on this, but I’ll share them later.

What do you think?

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  • spare_wheel March 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I agree completely with Rex Burkholder. I also strongly believe that making space for bike lanes on major arterials is far more important and radical than building a few hundred meters of cycle track here and there.

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    • matt picio March 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      It would help if Rex would speak facts rather than hyperbole. A half mile to a bike boulevard from Hawthorne? Try THREE BLOCKS. One-half mile is TEN BLOCKS. Exaggerating the current situation is a poor way to begin addressing the real issues, and encourages opponents to fixate on minutiae (which the discerning reader might note is exactly what I’ve done here). What I’d really like to know is, in the current funding climate, what exactly should PBOT and the BTA be doing which they aren’t already? This is not 2000 – it’s 2012. We do not have the discretionary cash or funding sources we had a decade ago, or two decades ago. It’s very easy for Rex Burkholder (or any other official) to point fingers at the BTA and PBOT *now*, when the money for new projects isn’t there, and say “what are you DOING about it?” They’re doing what they should be doing – building alliances and getting done what they can until the financial situation improves. In tough times, you build alliances – in good times, then you can seriously rock the boat.

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  • Zaphod March 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I support the BTA and their position. My belief is that, like much of politics and influence, that without being in the trenches, it’s hard to know the specific difficulties the BTA faces when advocating a specific position. I mean, yeah sure, I’d like to see more aggressive infrastructure changes that give me the flexibility that an automobile has in safe pleasant routes through town.

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  • Jim Labbe March 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    An insurgent bicycle advocacy group might be just what we need, particularly on certain issues. But it looks to me like the big challenges to funding and building better, smarter biking and walking infrastructure are not at City Hall but in the State Legislature. Moving the Legislature means building more of a state (or at least region wide constituency) for cycling that can apply political pressure across a broader geographic area. I have a sense this is part of what the BTA has been trying to do.

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  • Rol March 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    I think this is the “dead spot” resulting from the lack of clarity a few years upstream in the pipeline. We won’t see the effects of today’s BTA until a few years from now.

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  • Andrew Seger March 9, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks for doing this think piece. Hard criticism of a friendly organization like the BTA is sometimes needed. I agree with Rob Sodowsky that there’s room for another type of advocate bike organization. I’m just not sure where the BTA’s niche is. Clearly it isn’t keeping people informed about bike matters, bikeportland does a much better job of that. Off the top of my head the biggest thing from this new BTA regime is the silly bike helmet kerfuffle (plus this latest U of O attention grab).

    It just seems like all the pressure for better bike facilities comes from private citizens. Big game changing projects like the NoPo greenway and Sullivan’s Gulch both started with private citizens wanting something, didn’t it? Now maybe that’s not true, and the BTA deserves credit for pushing better main street bike facilities. If so now would be a good time to shout it from the rooftops. Lets face it if you have extra dollars to give to a bike advocate group why would you waste it on the BTA? Some sort of kickstarter campaign for traffic calming or simply donating to, for instance, BikePortland, seem like a much better use of your hard earned dollar.

    Not to mention it sometimes seems like the city of Portland uses the BTA’s approval as a proxy for cyclist approval. I’ve heard that from some of the planning people regarding the new streetcar extension. If the powers that be see the BTA as being a proxy for people riding bikes then it seems like we’d be much better off with no BTA at all.

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    • matt picio March 11, 2012 at 7:36 pm

      “It just seems like all the pressure for better bike facilities comes from private citizens.” – Seriously? I think it possible that Roger Geller, Linda Ginenthal, Greg Raisman, Jeff Smith and many others at PBOT might disagree. (but I don’t speak for them – my opinion only) There are a lot of staff folk at PBOT (and at ODOT, Metro, Oregon Parks & Red and other agencies) who put in a lot of hours, both officially and “off the clock” to argue for, plan, implement and maintain better bike facilities. And frequently they do all kinds of things behind the scenes to push them along. Remember, it’s hard to “push” for better facilities in the “rock the boat” sense when you’re dealing with your own employer, and when your big boss changes every time the mayor does.

      Sure, you might not agree with all the projects – some might seem useless, or a waste, or not enough (or not fast enough) – but the situations and conditions which bring about improvement are a lot more complex than many people realize. The public employees aren’t asking for recognition – but they damned well deserve it, and if we as a community don’t recognize them, eventually they will say “WTF have I been doing for 10/15/20 years, and why am I fighting for people who don’t give a rodent’s behind about the work I do?” – and when they do, good luck getting *any* new facilities without a lengthy and expensive court battle.

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      • are March 12, 2012 at 9:13 am

        i am all about thanking people for the work they do, but i am unable to think of a specific instance in which a public employee has decided to stop doing what they think is the right thing to do simply because some of the people who benefit from their work are insufficiently grateful

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        • matt picio March 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm

          I know three who in part quit their positions and left transportation planning because they felt their efforts were unrecognized personally and professionally. I’ve also heard remarks from others still in that field to the effect that it’s harder to fight for certain projects when all they get is criticism and pushback from the public and the “pro-” comments don’t come out until after the project has been shelved or cancelled. Just because you don’t have personal experience with these folks does not mean the problem doesn’t exist.

          Planners are human beings, they respond just like the rest of us to criticism, praise, and silence.

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          • are March 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm

            sorry to hear it. people need to believe in what they are doing and go ahead and do it, without much expectation of recognition or praise. if you leave transportation planning because the general public does not “get it,” where exactly do you go next?

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      • Andrew Seger March 12, 2012 at 7:59 pm

        Actually Roger Geller pushes back quite frequently against big expensive projects like Sullivan’s Gulch. Look there are talented people at city hall that know how to build great bike facilities. Now is the time to put those facilities in place on mai commercial streets. Look at the sheer amount of development on Williams. Not saying much of that is due solely to bikeability, but I think its fair to argue its had some positive impact on reviving the neighborhood. Look at how much is paid for the streetcar to generate that redevelopment. Maybe the BTA is out there banging the gong, pointing out how much better off the central eastside would be if they had spent that portion of money on a comprehensive world class network of bikeways. If the bta isn’t, then we need an organization who will. Like you pointed out the city bike staffers can’t openly oppose their bosses. That’s why we need an effective lobbying organization. I don’t feel the bta is filling that roll right now. Look at their efforts to bring bikeshare to the central city. Instead of getting a local tax to pay for it by the property owners who would benefit the money is coming from a pool of money explicitly set aside for equity reasons. Quite frankly the whole bta involvement around the project has been pretty distasteful and a prime example of why the BTA is seen as being too close to city hall and consequently ineffective.

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        • matt picio March 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm

          Great, if you feel that way – go out and do something concrete to help make it happen. Either talk to BTA staff, or talk to AROW, or another local group to fill that role. Volunteer. Or create a new advocacy organization. The only people who can create the change you’re advocating for are those who A: are saying what you are saying, and B: actually go out and do something to make it happen.

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson March 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I’m reminded of this bit from the video the Dutch government made about cycling.
    Particularly the part where people “collectively and loudly said enough is enough”.

    Wasn’t it in Copenhagen where hundreds of people gathered in front of city hall every friday to demand better bike infrastructure?

    I’d love to see another group rise up and make some noise. I wonder what a Bike Swarm Alice Awards fundraiser would look like?

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    • Barney March 9, 2012 at 8:52 pm

      “I’d love to see another group rise up and make some noise. I wonder what a Bike Swarm Alice Awards fundraiser would look like?”

      It may be that “Bike Swarm” is harming the advance of cycling issues in PDX by making political statements in the name of “cyclsits” rather than focusing on cycling specific issues. Thanks Bike Swarm for diverting the focus from “cycling issues” to “social justice”. Way to hijack the issue. Anarchists do whatever you want, just don’t do it in the name of cycling!!!

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  • Alexis March 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I have something of a mixed view of this. I personally have a rather mild advocacy style, and I do work with the BTA both as a direct volunteer and in teamwork between BTA and AROW, and I am also a member (though lapsed currently — I intend to get current by volunteering this spring). I think the BTA does a lot of valuable work and it appears to be increasing the pace and substance of that work.

    But I’m not sure I agree with some of the responses Rob made. There have been a few times when AROW (which has more of the angry, or at least radical, style) has run into some tension where Rob has encouraged people (the community in general and people associated with AROW in particular) to simmer down and be more polite — i.e., be more like the BTA. So it’s not clear to me that it’s accurate to say that the BTA is not worried about people taking the more radical approach. I understand from these interactions that they are in fact worried about people “damaging the cause” with a more radical style. Which is a legitimate concern, but can be taken too far.

    Also, as good as a bike plan is, it is just meant to be a guide to action. The city isn’t going to build out the 2030 plan at existing levels of spending, and they are cutting spending, not increasing it. So leaning on “we passed the bike plan” as an accomplishment is not all that impressive as long as it’s just a paper plan. I really share the frustrations expressed by Burkholder and Jewett: we will never get to world-class bike city status if we don’t build world-class projects. I have seen a lot of examples of projects that just don’t hit a high bike standard come through (small projects and large ones) and I haven’t seen the BTA be as vocal in saying “Hey, this is just not good enough to get us on the trajectory we need to be on” as I’d like to see them be. I hope to see more of it in the future — and to be part of that through the new Project Advisory Council.

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  • Andrew K March 9, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Like some of the posters above I have mixed feelings about this and about the BTA. On one hand I have experienced first hand some of the great work BTA does and on the other I think they try and act “too nice” sometimes.

    It’s really a fine line. On one hand you don’t want to come across as lunatics completely unwilling to compromise but you also have to be forceful enough so that policy makers don’t just ignore you.

    I’m not really sure I have an answer to the problem but I do agree the city needs a new spark to get us out of our rut. It’s incredibly easy to use the excuse, “oh but our budgets are stretched so thin!” and to let that be the reason not to implement any new bike infrastructure.

    However, I personally would say that is every reason TO implement new bike infrastructure. You are never going to get more bang for the buck and more long term benefit than you do by encouraging people to ride bikes.

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  • Kevin Wagoner March 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Just got an email this week noting that I it time to renew my BTA Membership. Amen…will do.

    Yikes this sucks, “20-year Strategic Plan that calls for half of all Portland arterial streets to have protected bikeways.” Really, 50% in 20 years….damn that bites..I’ll be nearing 60 then. We are moving incredibly slow.

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  • Stripes March 9, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    I completely and utterly agree with Rex here. It’s ridiculous – Portland can do so much better with its bike infrastructure, it’s not even funny.

    If City officials and bike transportation advocates only put as much energy in 2012 into building traffic diverters, striping cycle tracks, and installing speedbumps as they do into holding endless self-congratulatory w**k-fests about Portland’s supposedly wonderful bike infrastructure, I wouldn’t be complaining. In the interim, cities like Minneapolis, Davis, Berkeley, and Flagstaff, are taking over and leaving Portland in the dust. And let’s not even get started on how Vancouver BC leaves Portland looking like Hickville, Ky.

    Our city’s bike boulevards are so incredibly poorly constructed for cyclists, it scares me. Without diverters every ten blocks as standard, and with all the stop signs flipped, they serve as little more than two extra lanes of auto-capacity for whichever unfortunate arterial street they happen to be stuck next to. They are full of speeding, impatient commute car drivers who are all trying to beat the lights on the main roads. Just go hang out on SE Ankeny, SE Salmon, SE Clinton, SE 41st, NW Marshall, NW Raleigh and see for yourself… I could go on (and on, and on, and on….).

    What depresses me most, is that the City has an entire “Options” division full of dedicated, hard-working employees, whose job it is to convince people from “age 6 to 60” to get out and ride bikes. But without serious, serious efforts at REAL, European style traffic calming/ separated bike facilities on our streets, they are just putting people’s lives at risk. There is no way in hell I would allow my six year old to ride on any of the city’s bike boulevards until they were comprehensively traffic calmed to European standards, and that is just such a shame.

    Portland has something that most cities are beginning to realize they would kill for… an intact grid network. This grid enables us to potentially have a world-class cycling city. It makes my heart bleed to see this potential being so tragically squandered.

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    • Alan 1.0 March 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Portland has something that most cities are beginning to realize they would kill for… an intact grid network. This grid enables us to potentially have a world-class cycling city. It makes my heart bleed to see this potential being so tragically squandered.

      “The Grid” is a very powerful design decision for a city. It gives a univalent and egalitarian underpinning to public space. Don’t confuse that power with an ease of overlaying hierarchically dominant linear features, though. The Grid overrules directional vectors and imposes frequent punctuation on flow and velocity, in the majority of cases. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Groningen, Berlin, Madrid and Paris all have largely non-grid plans, and the major boulevards, canals and city urbs provide the structure for the nice, long, flowing bike routes in them. (Along with many other factors, of course.)

      Agreed with much else you say, Stripes.

      It seems to me that political will is the most scarce resource in becoming truly bike-friendly in most US cities including Portland, and that such scarcity is understandable when (a) the measurable constituency amounts to ~13%, meaning that 87% are still served by other resources and (b) there is vocal opposition to biking which often goes unanswered in the popular discourse. I would like to hear BTA’s voice loudly and clearly contesting all of the misleading propaganda thrown against biking.

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      • Stripes March 10, 2012 at 1:26 pm

        My main point regarding Portland’s intact city street grid network, is that it facilitates an easy, cheap, quick planning process.

        Having quiet, neighborhood streets that parallel busy major arterials enables bike infrastructure to be very cheaply & very quickly installed, without having to go through the whole, ridiculous, time-consuming process of endless public meetings about re-allocation of tight arterial street roadway space, travel lanes, parking lanes, sidewalk width, etc. If you don’t believe me, let me just say the words – Holgate bikelane striping fiasco. Or even better, N Williams bikelane current fiasco disaster.

        If we’d been pushing instead for a bike boulevard on Rodney Street, the quiet street one block east of Williams that runs from Broadway all the way to the Columbia Slough, the project would have been completed already, with no pushback at all. Ten diverters, a handful of speedbumps. There. DONE.

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        • are March 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm

          a greenway up rodney will be a good thing when it is eventually built, but it will do nothing at all to help the thousands of bike commuters who are using williams now. having sat in on pretty much every meeting of the SAC since the beginning, i will continue to disagree strongly with the sentiment often expressed on these boards that the process is somehow broken. if you do not want a repeat of the pushback on holgate, you need to learn to engage the public early and often. there was very minimal pushback on the 50s bikeway, and there is a reason.

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    • 007 March 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      If Options quit spending money on plastic promotional trinkets from China, that are suitable for the landfill, there would be more money for substantive work.

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  • are March 9, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    another group rise up and make some noise

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  • are March 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    BTA has its place, but direct action also has its place. since the demise of critical mass in portland, the “bike community” has become complacent, allowing the large, well-funded, clean cut organization to be the only voice in the room.

    when we see BTA showing up for ribbon cuttings on the burnside/couch couplet, as they did last year, and endorsing the green box at couch and grand
    then we know it is time for ordinary folks to step forward

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  • Gerik March 9, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    I really appreciate this conversation.

    Below are some of the results that the BTA has been able to achieve with Rob Sadowsky’s style of leadership, part of my response to Ethan’s original email. I include it here, again, because the facebook page Jonathan provided does not contain background links.

    Also, I think it is important to note that there IS room for everyone in this arena. From the professional advocate to the direct activist to the blogger, we all have important voices.

    I think we should find ways to work together more effectively. The tone of the conversation at bikeportland can be vitriolic towards the BTA at times. My personal strategy is to keep my head down and work harder.

    People who are upset with us for not being more like them should look in the mirror first. I think more people should follow Alexis’ example.

    Let’s all do our part, we are pretty damn effective and can be more so the more we work together.


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  • Heidi March 10, 2012 at 6:52 am

    As a BTA member and a public health advocate who sometimes work with BTA staff on policy and advocacy issues, I appreciate Rob’s honey over vinegar approach.

    I agree that there is room for more aggressive advocacy efforts, and another group may feel better suited to those. At the same time, we must grow the number of folks willing to fight for safe and convenient bike infrastructure and programs. To do so, we must build relationships with the communities that have not traditionally been part of the bike advocacy conversation (or, worse, have felt marginalized by it).

    BTA alone cannot create the culture shift that makes bikes a less polarizing issue, but their work to build relationships in Washington County and around recent Portland planning efforts is a step in in the right direction.

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  • Lois March 10, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Something to try to remember: we are on the same team. I consider our “team” anyone who rides a bike, be it once a year or every day…be it on bikepaths, single track, neighborhoods or busy streets. The big picture is that we may feel like our team is huge and everyone around us is on the team, but in reality our team is only a fraction of the total population. We need to try to not publicly criticize each other and try to help each other work to achieve the team’s goals. And that goal is to get more people on bicycles.

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  • PlanBike (Jody Brooks) March 10, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Given the global economy’s recent near-death experience, many organizations (both commercial and non-profit) have discounted their performance over the last few years. The BTA might be able to do the same. The high cost of infrastructure projects means “no bucks no Buck Rogers”.

    Nevertheless, Mr. Sadowsky’s plan “,,,to build a broad network of partners (including business owners)…” is essential. Minorities (of which cyclists are one) have to find compelling ways to engage the majority’s interest and this is one: introducing those currently attached to motorist-derived revenue to see the value of cyclist-derived revenue.

    A more shrill approach can achieve results but they tend to be small, hastily-conceived, appeasements by legislators rather than long-lasting solutions.

    Regardless, these challenges are a reminder of one of cycling’s great strengths: the ability to do it whether all the infrastructure/support is there or not. Simply riding and engaging non-riders positively is a small but still compelling way to demonstrate demand and build support.

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  • Outsider March 10, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I have two comments as an outsider:

    1) It doesn’t seem that cyclists are on the same page about what they want there. There does not seem to be a concerted push for European style protected bike lanes. In fact, there often seems to be resistance from cyclists themselves to that type of design. If the cyclist movement is at war with itself, it surely won’t be effective at pushing an agenda. I attribute this to a lack of education, and someone needs to organize and overcome this hurdle, and BTA seems like the logical choice to step up.

    2) BTA seems absent from many of the discussion about actual projects. Take N Williams for example. An effective advocacy organization would be pushing for the highest-quality bike facility, a protected bike lane. If they thought the design needed to be tweaked, then they would push for changes. However, BTA doesn’t seem to even have an opinion on the matter, leaving the lay cyclists who show up at meeting to argue among themselves about what type of project should be there. I will not be surprised if the result is is a regular or buffered lane.

    It’s great to advocate for 50% of arterials to have protected lanes, but when opportunities arise to actually build those lanes, BTA needs to be going crazy to make sure that each and every one of those projects contributes to their goal. To do so, BTA needs to educate cyclists, build consensus around high-quality bike facilities, get people to those meetings, and speak up in the media. BTA and the city seem to be fairly effective at getting projects moving, but that is only half the battle.

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    • are March 10, 2012 at 11:08 am

      BTA has a representative on the williams SAC, and she has been quite effective, near as i can tell. for example, i think she had a hand in framing the group’s ten priorities, which you might note do not include automobile throughput or onstreet parking. the SAC is a process in which BTA is taking an appropriate role. if the process yields an unfortunate result, one imagines that BTA will say what they think needs to be said. also, the final proposal should be run by BAC, on which BTA also has a seat.

      my understanding is that BTA is building the kind of “get people to the meetings” effort you are mentioning. if you want to get involved, you might want to talk with carl larson.

      as far as cyclists being on the same page, sorry, but as a vehicular cyclist i cannot be a cheerleader for facilities that push cyclists to the side. i do show up for the williams SAC meetings. i do not voice objections to the cycletrack and the buffered bike lane. instead, i try to remind the participants that their focus should be creating a walkable street, with fewer cars and lower speeds.

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      • Outsider March 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm

        You make a very reasoned point about BTA’s initiatives, and it’s good to know that they have a person on the SAC. I also agree that walkability is key, and many projects I’ve seen in Portland somewhat neglect this aspect.

        I’m sorry, though, but I cannot get behind vehicular cycling, and I think the vehicular cycling movement, by opposing bike facilities, especially physically protected lanes, has done more in this country to hinder cycling progress than any other group. I know you say you don’t outwardly oppose buffered lanes and cycle tracks, but there are many other folks that do. When this happens, current riders, who are ok with the status quo, argue to keep it the way it is, at the expense of those not able or willing to bike in those types of conditions. This is a recipe for no growth in bike usage. It is the role of the bike advocacy group to break this gridlock by providing an overarching vision for the future, arguing strongly for that vision, and getting most cyclist on board. I guess I haven’t heard that strong a voice for such a vision, and you clearly don’t seem to be on board.

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        • are March 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm

          yes, it is true that forester and his crew actively oppose facilities that would impose the slightest inconvenience on motorists. yes, they have lost their way. nonetheless, anyone who intends to ride a bike on the road should learn vehicular techniques. there is a reason you don’t hear me on these boards talking about the number of times i have been hit or doored, and that is that it has not happened.

          but the problem with adopting a flat policy that a vehicular arrangement is never appropriate, and we must somehow provide a separated facility for grandma and the kids, is that it often results in inappropriate treatments that actually make the situation less safe. i am not going to bother with .html tags, so i will simply repeat, “less safe.”

          the lane striping on couch approaching grand is a typical example. the lights are timed to somewhat less than 20 mph on a two-lane downhill. sharrows would be the appropriate treatment. [note, forester does not believe in sharrows, either.] instead, the facilities crowd has forced cyclists to the right, inside a right hook. and then when people get right hooked, they put in a green box. and then when people still get right hooked, they put in a colorful electric sign.

          similarly the striped lane down the lovejoy ramp off the broadway bridge. similarly the striped lane inside two (count them) right turn lanes from broadway onto interstate five.

          meanwhile, the vehicular cyclist simply asserts the travel lane, puts up with the occasional commentary from motorists, and arrives safely.

          there are some situations that simply cannot be made safe for grandma and the kids, unless we completely rethink how motorists are permitted to use the common space. forester obviously is not going there, but oddly enough, neither are the facilities people. what PBoT is doing, and BTA endorses, is a halfway measure, and it gives people a false sense of security.

          paint will not protect you. only alertness and some considerable vehicular know-how will protect you.

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    • spare_wheel March 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      ” There does not seem to be a concerted push for European style protected bike lanes. In fact, there often seems to be resistance from cyclists themselves to that type of design.”

      cycletrack or bust, eh? there are multiple paths to high mode share. for example, many bike paths in european urban areas are contiguous with the road, have clear sight lines, and are not obscured by a wall of parked cars.

      i also think that your comment about williams is interesting in that it ALREADY has a bike lane. Couch, Sandy, Barbur, South Burnside, 82nd, Hawthorne, Division, Powell, Chavez, and MLK also need bike lanes!

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  • dirt_merchant March 10, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I’m happy Rex is giving them a hard time. The BTA has been invisible to me for years, and I’m like others who have their fingers crossed hoping that something is getting done behind closed doors.

    PS: I thought the recent critism of the U of O football players was very odd, and accomplished nothing positive.

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  • Patty March 10, 2012 at 11:00 am

    It’s the economy. That’s the ceiling. (Doh.) Why pretend we can make major flashy project happen when PBOT is doing insane budget-cutting and we have multitudes of idiots making transportation policy at the federal level? I agree in principal with the BTA approach, I think they’re doing good work, but I agree they need to do a better job of communication and engaging their members.

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    • spare_wheel March 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      repainting a lane is not a major project.

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  • Hart Noecker March 10, 2012 at 11:22 am

    “I don’t think direct action will turn around city council or businesses.”

    This says it all. BTA is more concerned about public polling on whether they should show helmets in their adds or not than with actually being a bold leader in advocating a better cycling future for our city. Save your donations, buy a set of brighter lights, and take the lane.

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    • spare_wheel March 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      “buy a set of brighter lights, and take the lane”


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  • Brian Willson March 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Burkholder’s critique is very instructive. I happen to agree with his thrust. Continued use of cars is one of the major causes of carbon emissions of mass destruction, and their speed really does create social, psychological, and economic problems for the human condition. Our addiction to the car makes most of us unable or unwilling to see just how destructive a car culture is. I believe there might be an application here for Occupy the streets, or certain streets, an extension of the swarm concept. Eliminating a lane of car traffic to facilitate bicycle lanes would be a most fantastic policy shift, a true break through all over the city.

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  • 007 March 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Just a note that if bike boulevards were located close to busy arterials, the cars would likely begin using them as some do now because they are stop-sign-free. I use the NE Klickitat/Siskiyou boulevard every day and love it.
    I don’t find that bike lanes between parking and a lane of cars on a busy street provide a fun or necessarily fast ride as you have to keep your eyes open for car doors, left-hooks, right hooks… However, give us a whole lane, now that would be different.

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  • Tigue March 10, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I think the BTA has done a marvelous job. I prefer the professional approach they have taken. “We believe we can catch more flies with honey than we can with vinegar…”.

    It appears to me that Sadowsky and crew have also improved the BTA’s fiscal situation from last year.

    (However I too was confused by the U of O football comments from the BTA. I wasn’t sure what was gained by that)

    All in all my hat is off to them.

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  • 3-speeder March 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    When I moved away from Portland 3 years ago, the BTA seemed to be straddling a line between being a bike org for Portland vs. being a bike org for Oregon.

    I do not feel any organization can do well at both.

    From following BP for the past 3 years, I certainly sense that the BTA continues to work to be a bike org for Oregon. But the comments highlighted in this post display an expectation that they should (either exclusively or in addition) be a bike org for Portland.

    Since the BTA seems to be a statewide organization, maybe the expectations on the level of influence the BTA has in Portland are unrealistic. And maybe the BTA schizophrenically maintains some level of such expectations about itself.

    Here in Wisconsin, the equivalent organization (the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin) has its focus on statewide issues. I do not get the feeling that the BFW is _the_ go-to org whenever something bikey needs a major boost in Madison or Milwaukee (although they are one influential voice). (I don’t live near either of these big cities, so maybe another Cheesehead can correct me if my stated impression of the BFW is incorrect.)

    A statewide org probably does best working on legislative issues, statewide community outreach, and being a resource when local bicycle groups need help/advice with a local issue. But the heavy lifting on local issues needs to be taken up by a local organization.

    So I’m not sure that the opinions expressed in Jonathan’s post are inconsistent, but rather the problem IMO is that there needs to be an effective Portland-centric bicycle advocacy group to push the envelope on bicycle infrastructure in Portland.

    Is AROW that group? From 2000 miles away, I have no idea. But I am pretty certain that a clear understanding of the BTA’s scope – Oregon vs. Portland – is necessary for evaluating whether they should be the ones pushing that Portland envelope or not.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson March 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    When it comes to bikes in Portland, we have a popular explosion on our hands of the best kind that neither politicians nor advocates can control or manage.
    I ran into an old friend with whom I worked on the Tillamook Bikeway (Portland has no Bike Boulevards) in the 90’s; we laughed about how we used to know all the winter riders by first name!
    Critical mass happens every morning at every stoplight as you approach the bridges and every night as you head north on Williams or Interstate.
    Keep riding all year round, get more folks to ride, take the lane, start a another bike businesses, get a project going in your neighborhood or at your place of work, keep NOT buying oil from the middle east and spend your hard earned dollars on beer, coffee and other locally sourced fuel for the body and soul.
    Don’t wait for the BTA or PBOT to catch up. Let’s hope they don’t. Viva la Revolucion!

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  • Joe Rowe March 10, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    The BTA does change after people make polite concerns. They met with me and many others on this. Things are better.

    Problems that remain:

    a) Rex Burkholder is a driving force behind the CRC freeway. The CRC is a bribe to spend $5 billion for adding 6 lanes and 6 interchanges in Washington state so that Light Rail can go in. Read the news from Pulitzer winning Nigel Jaquis. Link below.

    b) The BTA still misleads members about how the BTA can’t do things related to elections. The BTA can hold a forum with all candidates. They can publish a transcript on their blog and send the link to members. They’ve refused to do that with City Council, and those seats are more important that the mayor’s race. The city council will be a whole new set of people and we have no idea how the bike plan will be supported or killed. The Bike PAC is also silent on this. It’s smells like insider deals.



    I watched Rex Burkholder introduce a metro resolution using an obscure 1996 law to shut down public comment on the CRC. That law states that light rail projects can make highway “improvements” . The speech from Rex mentioned “highway improvements” about 25 times that I counted. With more cement that most dams on this plantet, this new CRC is a highway expansion. If you think it is a highway improvement, ask Rex the next time you see him. We should make T-Shirts with Rex that says “highway improvements” and name the CRC the Rex memorial freeway.

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  • BURR March 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I agree with Rex on this one

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  • Brian Willson March 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    It is very interesting to learn that Burkholder is a driving force behind the CRC which, of course, means more and more emphasis and money spent on facilitating private auto traffic. I guess it is just too much to ask our nation, our political leaders, and our citizenry, to embark upon an emergency Manhattan-style project to eliminate our dependence upon a carbon economy. After all, our survival absolutely requires radical downsizing of all carbon use, which in effect, means challenging industrial civilization itself, which we KNOW is on a direct collision course with life itself. Are we consciously, or consciously, committing suicide/ecocide? Our addiction to oil/burning fossil fuels is inevitably killing us as a species, and that of many others, unless we choose to go into deep recovery toward radical eco-consciousness. A national 12-Step program, perhaps?

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  • John R. March 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    First, Jonathan, thank you for this balanced piece. We should both celebrate the good work that has been done and consider how to be more effective.

    To Rob’s defense of the BTA: agreed that you inherited an organization in turmoil and that change takes time. As to your assertion that lawsuits are a tool you keep in your back pocket (paraphrasing): might be time to use one. The fact that the things I have heard most about the BTA are helmet laws and U of O football players driving is a pr problem and potentially and advocacy problem. It does not undo the great work you are doing, esp. in WA County but it does point out a disconnect.

    There is not a difference between “professionalism” and “advocacy.” The BTA in the early 90’s was plenty professional- it was not about people in the streets. I do think that one difference is that the BTA today is a very different organization- one very much focused on services (e.g. safe streets to school). This is a very different mission and (follow the money) sources of funding. Perhaps it is time for a very Portland focused advocacy group.

    As Rex said so long ago, Portland has great bike infrastructure already. The problem is that it’s filled with cars. The fact that Mia Birk and others think I should be content with riding a bike boulevard (note: love them, great for newbies and a gentle ride) instead of riding on Hawthorne when I live there and need to access businesses there is a sign of how we have lowered the bar. This isn’t about “vehicular cyclists” vs. I’m not sure what the other supposed group is called- it’s about being able to safely ride and access all points in our fine city. Bike Blvds are part of that. So are routes on all of our streets. Bikes belong.

    Finally, to Joe Rowe: I disagree with Rex on the CRC, but I’m not sure it’s fair to hang that around his neck. I’m surprised at how many of my friends are supporting Eileen Brady, with a similar CRC position, when they opposed Rex for Metro on that very basis. At the very least, let’s be balanced when we look at electeds and recognize that they both do things we agree and disagree with and it’s not a black and white issue. As someone who used to fear for his life riding on Broadway in the early 90’s I’m thankful for Rex’s (and many others) efforts and think the cup is more than half full.

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  • BURR March 12, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Matt – You are correct in that SE Salmon and SE Harrison are only about 1/16 to 1/8 mile from SE Hawthorne respectively; nonetheless, Rex is completely correct regarding SE Hawthorne.

    If, instead of the current four substandard 9.5′ lanes that busses don’t even fit into, the street was redesigned to include one travel lane in each direction, a center left turn lane and two bike lanes, traffic would flow much better and cyclists would have a dedicated space.

    Left turns could occur at major intersections (which is now prohibited) instead of the current situation which diverts left turning traffic onto residential streets.

    There might be some additional bike-bus conflicts, but those will be reduced as TriMet continues to reduce bus service.

    In the meantime, cyclists on SE Salmon have to climb a much higher and steeper hill than on SE Hawthorne, and access to commercial destinations on Hawthorne Boulevard for cyclists continues to be problematic.

    Meanwhile, the alternative, sharrows for cyclists in the right lane, as promised by PBOT in the final Hawthorne Blvd. Transportation Plan, have never been installed, and my current belief is that PBOT never intended to install them, even as they were promising to do so in the plan.

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  • spare_wheel March 12, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    “and my current belief is that PBOT never intended to install them, even as they were promising to do so in the plan”

    I think that Mia Birk of Alta planning has an enormous influence on the thought processes of her ex-colleagues (and often future new hires) at PBOT.

    Mia Birk:

    “Are cyclists clueless or just plain rude?”

    “There is no reason whatsoever to ride a bike on César Chávez or just about any major road (on Portland’s east side, anyway) that lacks bike lanes.”

    “Suggestion No. 1: Let’s all of us who ride become familiar with the bikeways and use them as much as possible.”

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  • Travis March 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    The BTA is not going to create a cultural shift any more so than Critical Mass buzzing around DOWNTOWN STREETS.

    Are we fighting for rights or infrastructure?

    Either way: It is often as equally hard and miserable to get around Portland in a car or a bike and unless you live in a choice area, TriMet isn’t stellar either.

    Going 7 miles to St. Johns from NE takes nearly 25 mins car or bike. It makes our small city seem large. And let’s not even consider biking or driving over the West Hills.

    The truth is, and this comes from growing up in Florida, Portland is more suited for bikes than cars. Building all the bike blvds in the world doesn’t change a thing. Getting more folks on bikes solves the car problem and nearly erases the need for building bike infrastructure. Reconsidering public transportation gets cars off the road. And I mean reconsidering.

    We’re still considering too much of everything from not necessarily a cars perspective, but from the perspective of the middle of the last century.

    We’re still Americans and the BTA is not going to single handily change that.

    Just spilling thoughts.

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  • john March 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Actually, it’s pretty easy to get around Portland by car, and by bike compared to almost any comparable sized city I’ve lived in or travelled to.

    I challenge the whole notion that we can become like the Dutch. Amsterdam is twice as dense at Portland in the city limits alone. The city is flat. The government is able to levy very expensive fees on inner city driving and a very high fuel tax. The whole city infrastructure, residential, and commercial patterns are fundamentally different than Portland.

    BTA has done a great job but there are limits. To suggest that a bike advocacy organization could transform centuries-long practices of government and society is naive.

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  • Dan Kaufman March 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Has Rex changed his pro-CRC position? And where does BTA stand these days? Just askin’.

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  • cyclehappy March 12, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Portland in a funk is an understatement. We are stalled out. This city has great aspirations that never seem to make it to fruition. It’s becoming an embarrassment. People I know who live in other states used to admire our innovation. That is no longer the case. Rather now they remark how we never finish what we start and we’ve lost our collective spine. Sigh.

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  • Aaronf March 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

    400 people rally for accommodation = Vinegar

    Serious threat of litigation = Honey

    Good to know how you feel, Rob!

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  • Mike March 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Too bad the BTA is a bike advocacy group and not a fly catcher.

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  • pdxpaul March 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I thnik the best advocacy is getting out there and riding. Being visible, assertive and courteous while I exercise my right to use the ROW is the only way I know. I don’t join organizations. I just do.

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  • the "other" steph March 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    As a BTA member, cyclista, and walking advocate, I tend to see greater value in honey over vinegar or, as I read in a recent article, “visionary organizing:” http://bit.ly/zt6Sdw

    We need more people organizing around more creative solutions. There are a lot of different cycling transportation needs that are not being met (and don’t get me started on walking needs!). Can one organization represent all of those needs effectively to everyone’s satisfaction? That’s one tall order! I believe the BTA has done a marvelous job in building alliances in some new key areas. Susan’s work in Washington County is a great example of building awareness and recruiting advocates in neighborhoods and jurisdictions. Is more needed? Heck yes, and it’s going to take patience and dedication and incredible will. It’s going to take a coalition, IMHO.

    We need to be farther than we are, and that’s a healthy frustration. We also need to involve people who have not been at the table and (here’s the hard part) be willing to reset the table. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. More difficult conversations are ahead of us. Let’s each of us find our role in visionary organizing and rock it.

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