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Commissioner Novick: Economic argument will beat the ‘bike backlash’

Posted by on September 17th, 2013 at 11:30 am

“One of my goals in this job is to drive home just how expensive cars are… and just how much of a boon bikes are.”
— Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick

At an event held last night in OHSU’s Kohler Pavillion to mark the end of the first phase of the Green Lane Project, City Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick said the way to respond to the “bike backlash” in Portland is to appeal to people’s pocketbooks.

Novick, speaking in front of a packed room of national and local bike advocacy leaders and city staffers, said that new PBOT Director Leah Treat has likely been “shocked” to realize anti-bike sentiments exist in Portland. He then went on to share his preferred method of countering the backlash.

“In order to keep our momentum going,” Novick said, “We’re going to have to explain the benefits of bicycling and just how valuable these investments are.” A key component to Novick’s argument for bicycling is something he hasn’t wavered from since he was still a City Council candidate: how bicycling positively impacts public health and health care costs.

Here are more of Novick’s comments:

Commissioner Steve Novick at Green Lane Project event

Novick speaking at the Green Lane Project
event last night.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

“We have to talk more about people’s pocketbooks. One thing we need to talk more about is how much we’re saving on health care because people are riding bikes. And that’s something we’re all saving — not just the bicyclists — because most of us have insurance which means we’re a big insurance pool, which means that when anybody is healthier, we all save money. In fact, one of my suggestions to the BTA is they do a day when everybody wears a t-shirt that says on the back, ‘I’m reducing your health care premiums’ — because that’s a fact. That’s one message I think we really need to build on.

Another message is that if you’re one of those people who rides a bike, you’re saving a lot of money in your own pocketbook. That’s obvious to some, but to most people they assume what they spend on their cars is fixed. They don’t really think it actually can be reduced… If i drive my car less, I don’t have to buy a car as often, I don’t have to buy as much gas, I don’t have to spend as much on repairs. I wish is we still had home-economics and personal finance taught in schools where we can let people know: Well, you can spend 20 percent of your income on transportation, or you could be like I was when I lived in D.C. and spent 3 percent. It can be a choice. We’ve got to deliver that message ourselves again and again.

When I first got this job overseeing the transportation bureau, I did an event on pavement needs. I called our bureau of revenue and asked them how much Portland businesses, government, and people spend each year on car repair: $244 million a year. On gas? $600 million a year. When you look at that, the fact that we should be spending $85 million a year on street maintenance doesn’t seem so bad.

So that’s one of my goals in this job is to drive home just how expensive cars are, in terms of direct payments and just how much of a boon bikes are both in terms of direct transportation costs avoided and health care costs.”

Even though he’s yet to pull the trigger on a major, bicycle-related initiative, Novick seems to have the arguments well in-hand. And he’s also got the inspiration. Through a trip funded by the Green Lane Project earlier this year, Novick traveled to Copenhagen for a bicycle infrastructure and policy study tour. Speaking about that trip last night, he said it was, “Really, really inspiring.” Novick, who doesn’t ride a bike and was pulled around the streets in a pedicab, said he realized that despite what he’d heard about urban life in Copenhagen — where about 40% of residents go bike bike each day — “It wasn’t some toy city. It was a real city, where people do real things, and it all seemed entirely possible.”

“We’re not just going to let one loud voice stop a project that’s going to benefit thousands of people.”
— Scott Kubly, City of Chicago Deputy DOT Commissioner

One reason bigger things for bikes haven’t been possible in Portland in the past few years goes back to that “backlash” Novick referred to last night. Unfortunately we’ve had more than our fair share of bike-related controversies. Another speaker last night, Deputy Chicago DOT Commissioner Scott Kubly, had some words of advice for how Portland might push through the backlash and get more projects on the ground.

Chicago has made immense strides in building protected bikeways throughout their city in recent years, and Kubly said as a result some people have questioned the quality of their public process. They’re moving so fast, the thinking goes, how can they possibly be going through an adequate public process?

Scott Kubly of Chicago DOT.

Kubly said one reason they are moving forward so quickly is because they aren’t letting a vocal, anti-bike minority dominate the process. “You need to power through that ‘no’,” he told the crowd (which included top PBOT brass like Director Leah Treat, Active Transportation Division Manager Dan Bower, City Bike Coordinator Roger Geller, City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield, and others). Kubly said they take public feedback seriously, but in the end the city is working for what he feels is the “silent majority” who want the safety, livability, and other benefits that come with bicycling. As for the haters, Kubly said, “We’re going to listen to you, we’re going to hear you, but we’re not just going to let one loud voice stop a project that’s going to benefit thousands of people.”

Kubly said Chicago DOT has even been sued for placement of bike share rental stations. And one adjacent business owner has repeatedly smashed the monitor of the kiosk. Kubly is undeterred. “I’m a stubborn guy,” he said, “We’re just going to keep it there until he runs out of hammers. We’re not going to run out of glass.”

Maybe if Portland’s leaders show some of the confidence and resolve of Kubly, and mix in more of Novick’s reasonable arguments, we’ll finally get our groove back.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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spare_wheel
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spare_wheel

“said that new PBOT Director Leah Treat has likely been “shocked” to realize anti-bike sentiments exist in Portland”

One of the reasons that there is less backlash in Chicago is that only 61% of the public drives to work. Cycling is less controversial when you have a public transport mode share of 27%.

Eastsider
Guest
Eastsider

We are very fortunate to have a leader in city like Novick that really understands active transportation and how it can transform
a city. I wouldn’t mind seeing him as mayor (or beyond) someday. Let’s just hope his voice is louder than the pro-suburbia mindset and indifference towards bikes from the likes of Amanda Fritz.

Nick Falbo
Guest
Nick Falbo

I’ve been thinking about the bike backlash dynamics for a while and I wonder if our reliance on painted bike lanes are partly to blame.

Most people (the Interested but Concerned) look at a painted bike lane and say to themselves “there is no way I’m going to ride on that.” Because that painted lane is clearly not for them, it must be a perk for someone else.

If instead, we build well-designed cycle track facilities that most people could actually see themselves using, I don’t know think they’d view the new bikeways with as much frustration.

A J Zelada
Guest

There is due diligence too. I heard Shadik-Khan from NYC talk about how contentious people were in Prospect Park, Brooklyn in their vocal presentation in the media being negative about installing bike lanes in front of their million + dollar brownstones. But she did -in depth -one by one- interviews-survey with each resident along the street and found 60+ percent in favor. And that is what convinced Bloomberg to follow thru despite the loud anti bike lane vocalize. Find the facts. z

RJ
Guest
RJ

One huge obstacle to getting things done in Portland has been the constant hand-wringing over potential traffic diversion from a road diet or a repurposed travel lane. You hear this at every level, from neighborhood associations to frontline city planning staff to elected officials. It is a huge deal on every corridor plan (see Williams, Foster, and Barbur today, or Sandy when it was studied ten years ago). The city even has policies about the allowable amount/percentage of traffic that can be diverted from a higher classified street to a lower classified street.

Yet if you ask staff in cities like San Francisco or Chicago, “How do you deal with traffic diversion issues on projects like this?”, they kind of stare at you blankly. In those cities, every street has traffic on it. There’s no such thing as traffic diversion; it’s just accepted that cars go wherever the shortest travel time is, and it’s a dynamic system that depends on multiple routes and system redundancy. They see the standard street functional classification system (arterials, collector, etc.) as something of a traffic engineering relic that’s not particularly useful — and maybe even harmful — in vibrant urban settings.

Not saying the experiences of larger metro areas are necessarily applicable here, but the contrast in approach to “diversion” is definitely interesting.

Dwayne Dibbly
Guest
Dwayne Dibbly

I am starting to like this Novick guy. He seems to get it.

nuovorecord
Guest
nuovorecord

Novick has impressed me since I first became aware of him. Glad he’s on the City Council. Hopefully, he can re-ignite the idea of a transportation system charge. I think a small contribution by each household, dedicated towards bike and pedestrian improvements, can go a long way towards building the type of system that gets the “interested but concerned” out of their cars and on a bike.

Cold Worker
Guest
Cold Worker

Portland needs to power through ‘no’ far more often. Williams Ave., I’m lookin’ at you….

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I think one of the obstacles to greater mode share is a lot of people see cyclists around town and think “I can’t see myself that all the time. No matter what, there are always a lot of trips I’ll want to do by car. No way am I giving up my car.”

And I think a lot of people either haven’t done the math on how much driving really costs them, or don’t believe they can save much money unless they get rid of their car completely, which for many is simply not an option.

So I think Novick’s on the right path to cracking this all-or-nothing mentality by pointing out that less of the cost of car ownership is fixed than most people realize. In fact, when when you figure in not just fuel, but maintenance, depreciation and accelerated upgrades, most people are probably paying more in per-mile costs than in fixed per-month costs. Even with an older economy car, the per-mile cost is still going to be at least 25 to 35 cents per mile. That adds up fast.

Personally, I’ve tried to radically reduce my own driving the last few months, and have mostly been using the car only to cart around the whole family (not all of whom are as gung-ho as I am). If it’s just me (either local errands or commuting to Beaverton) or me and my kid (within about a 4 mile radius, which is almost all such trips), I’ve been going by bike.

And I’m saving a ton of money. Yes I could save additional money by ditching the car. But even with the car, the savings from simply driving it less, and leaving it parked more, are HUUUUGE.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Oops, meant to say that people think “I can’t see myself doing that all the time. No matter what, there are always a lot of trips I’ll want to do by car. No way am I giving up my car.”

Oregon Mamacita
Guest
Oregon Mamacita

“Kubly said they take public feedback seriously, but in the end the city is working for what he feels is the “silent majority” who want the safety, livability, and other benefits that come with bicycling.”

Allow me to translate: they don’t really listen to the public. They are postulating a silent majority, but they have no proof. There are some anti-democratic undertones in this debate, and some subtle demonization of the opposition. From God’s mouth to Kubly’s ear, so no need for
neighbors to have a voice.

As for Mr. Novick’s remarks- he has become a bike evangelist who sees
bikes as solving obesity, pollution etc. Since when is he in charge of our overall lifestyles? The City of Portland needs to focus on basics, and not pretend to single-handedly solve all the worlds problems by trying to influence our lifestyles.

Bikes are nice but they won’t save the world.

BTW, when I read this blog I sometimes think of an old SNL skit about a dating service called “Lowered Expectations.” When you decide to go carless you can seriously cramp your earning capacity.

Kubly & Novick think that their fellow Americans are dumb. I don’t respect that position- I think they guy driving a pick-up truck may be smarter than you think.

Jeff
Guest

Oregon Mamacita
Bikes are nice but they won’t save the world.

Um… they will certainly help. Your car is hurting the world. Getting rid of it is an unmitigated good.

Stuart M.
Guest
Stuart M.

Hey, Oregon Mamacita, interesting link there between having a car and a high income, how much of that increased income goes toward car payments, maintenance, fuel and insurance? I guess you consider bicyclists losers. Well, maybe they are. They are losing weight/health problems and they are reducing their car costs. Gee, if you read the article, you’d understand all the benefits bicyclists give YOU. Things like less car trafiic to contend with, less wear and tear on the roads, lower health insurance rates for everyone, leaving those high income jobs to winners like you. You should say thank you next time you see a bicyclist.

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

I dunno. I applaud the guy in his efforts, but in order for me to get excited about anything that virtually anyone says in this city anymore, I have to kinda blur my eyes and make the one in 2013 anamorphosize itself in to a zero. Happy to be proven wrong.

gutterbunnybikes
Guest
gutterbunnybikes

I agree that there should be more focus on the monetary benefits of cycling. I’ve often though this part of the equation should be more of a focus.

I did some rough numbers for another sites comments section recently using the AAA average car cost per year (I know it not perfect,but gotta start somewhere) and figured the choice to drive for the next forty years are going to cost you about one million dollars. if you were to take that money for a car (minus the bike maintenance costs) and get a 4% return (30 year AAA rated bonds anyone???).

Considering the average income of people in Portland is around 50 k a year means that they’ll gross 2 million in 40 years at their job, it’s a giant ball of cash. If you managed to get 7% yearly interest you’d roughly double your 40 year gross income.

Of course this depends on the person keeping a steady 50k income for 40 years (most likely not gunna happen), and cost of car ownership staying the same as well.

Biking should be considered a green activity – as in cash. Perhaps we should frame the issue around the idea of it being “a one million dollar decision”. Because even if it wasn’t quite there yet, it will be soon. I’m sure a few people would listen with this kind of money on the line.

Chris Anderson
Guest

The problem with biking being marketed as responsible and economic is that that’s not a very good way to sell something. If it was you’d see more car / clothes / whatever ads about what a rational choice they are. Instead the ads are about how sexy you’ll look drinking beer in the back of a convertible in some setting where it’s the only car around. We’ll know everyday biking is really mainstream when it is being marketed as sexy and selfish.

PC
Guest
PC

“In fact, one of my suggestions to the BTA is they do a day when everybody wears a t-shirt that says on the back, ‘I’m reducing your health care premiums’.”

Oh man, can we please not do that? I think this is well-intentioned and I get where Novick’s coming from. And I’ve worn some pro-cycling T-shirts in my day, some until they were so ratty they essentially dissolved in the wind like dandelions. (RIP, Microcosm’s “Put The Fun Between Your Legs” shirt). But I don’t think an activist T-shirt or bumper sticker has ever changed or even swayed a mind, and I think we’ve got to be especially sensitive to seeming paternalistic/enlightened. Because whether it’s bunk or not — and let the record show I consider it to be pretty damn bunk most of the time — the reality is that that’s a perception that’s out there, and one that we have to battle with. We go to bike war with the rhetorical army we have, not the rhetorical army we wish we had.

“The problem with biking being marketed as responsible and economic is that that’s not a very good way to sell something. If it was you’d see more car / clothes / whatever ads about what a rational choice they are. Instead the ads are about how sexy you’ll look drinking beer in the back of a convertible in some setting where it’s the only car around. We’ll know everyday biking is really mainstream when it is being marketed as sexy and selfish.”

Yeah, this. I think we can market bicycling as responsible and economically viable within a policy framework, certainly. But for cycling to catch on it’s got to win, or at least be a part of, a cultural argument as well. And a big part of that is going to be, yes, silly fucking marketing of bicycling, as objectionable as I may personally find it. I may think it’s a stupid ad, but take, for instance, Rapha’s “No Ordinary Night, No Ordinary Light” ad with the sexy Australian (looks to be) 20-year-old riding around in a swimsuit waxing rhapsodical about her bike. Like I said, I think it’s a bit dumb, but part of the progress we have to make advancing and normalizing bicycles will probably include marketing cycling with sexy ladies and fellas.

Joe Adamski
Guest
Joe Adamski

One fact seldom mentioned is a dollar not spent on gasoline is more likely a dollar spent locally.
One big concern I have is the equity piece..that the inner city gets the investments while the poorest who have been relocated to the outer fringes by gentrification now are forced to shoulder a larger piece of the economic burden due to limited transportation and fewer access opportunities

was carless
Guest
was carless

Would still love to see some new “complete” bike infrastructure.

What about those Copenhagen “cycle highways” that connect the suburbs all the way to the city center on well-marked cycle routes?

Biking in the Portland area can be a real chore, and sometimes requires a GPS + map and a Ph.D in geography to navigate successfully.

robin
Guest
robin

Another example of how not to let single voices direct the conversation:

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/09/how-dc-set-3-bad-bike-lane-precedents-single-decision/6948/