Three local media outlets — KPAM radio, KOIN TV, and the Portland Tribune newspaper — hosted a mayoral debate today. Among the questions asked by KOIN’s Mike Gianola was, “Will building more bikeways be a priority for you?”
Amazingly, for the city most often referred to as the best bicycling city in America, not one of the leading candidates for mayor grabbed the question by the horns and answered with a strong, “Yes!”. If you weren’t convinced yet that bicycling is a liability when it comes to swaying undecideds (who all the candidates are trying to sway right now) this exchange should seal the deal.
Instead of confidently answering that Portland needs to do more to build our lagging bike network and make bicycling a larger priority because it makes sense and we’ve already made huge strides for relative peanuts in investment — each candidate stuck to their now familiar responses they’ve pulled out whenever a bike-related question comes up.
“The real issue is, once again, the need to get back to basic maintenance.”
— Charlie Hales
Eileen Brady answered first. She called the fact that most people who ride bikes also have cars as “almost a dirty little secret” and then launched into a vein similar to what she shared in her interview with me last month about how “We need to build a balanced system.” When pressed by to actually answer the question, Brady invoked the Bike Plan for 2030 and said she’d focus on bike boulevards (which are already being highly prioritized by the City). “Much of it [the bike master plan] is very expensive,” she said, “the part that isn’t, the high value in this deal, is the bicycle boulevards… We can spend very few dollars and do several things with bike lanes.”
Jefferson Smith took the question next. He said, “I think the battle between bikes and cars is an interesting distraction, but not a very helpful, problem-solving thing to consider.” After admitting he doesn’t ride bikes as often as he’d like, he said it’s important to keep bikeway spending in perspective. “I don’t think bikes are our problem. The entire bike network in Portland is about $60 million, slightly more than one-third of what has been spent just lobbying and consulting on the Columbia River Crossing project.” He then went into his explanation that we should strive to build a transportation system that is “senior-friendly” and that works for “8-80 year olds.”
Charlie Hales managed to avoid directly answering the question too. He twisted it back to his campaign mantra of focusing more on maintenance. “The real issue is, once again, the need to get back to basic maintenance.” He said the City is currently “going backward” when it comes to keeping streets paved. Once we’ve sufficiently resurfaced all the streets “with the money we have,” went Hales’ response, then, “Yes, move on to continue building out choices for people for how they move around the city… but job one is basic maintenance.”
That last line by Hales is the closest either of the candidate got to actually answering the question. I think he was referring to bikeways when he said, “Yes… continue building out choices for people for how they move around the city.” But then again, I can’t be sure.
What this exchange confirms for me is that each candidate feels showing strong support for bicycling at this stage in the race is a political liability. That’s the dirty little secret in this town.
I happened to be listening to the debate at my computer when that question came up, so I switched on a recorder and caught the audio. You can listen to it below.[audio:KOIN_debate.mp3|titles=KOIN/KPAM mayoral debate]
With ballots coming in the mail for some folks this weekend, it’s time to start deciding. I have a million thoughts about this race (as many of you who have asked me privately are aware) and I would love to know where more of you stand.