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The Dalles at a tipping point says “bike freak” Mayor Stephen Lawrence

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Mayor of The Dalles, Stephen Lawrence.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePorltand)

The Dalles’ Mayor Stephen Lawrence described himself as a “Blumenauer bike freak” when I met him in City Hall on Monday. I’m used to elected officials boosting their cycling credentials when they talk with me; but in Mayor Lawrence’s case, so far he’s actually backing it up.

“I’m a Blumenauer bike freak. I saw how he did it, and it’s those same things I want to focus on to help this community grow into itself.”
— Stephen Lawrence, Mayor of The Dalles

Lawrence grew up in The Dalles, then left to establish his law career in Portland. He returned in 2007 to relax and write historical fiction; but he soon got annoyed by how the city was being run and the accidental politician found himself being sworn in as mayor in January 2013.

Last summer, he was driving around town and came upon a group of bike riders. So, like he often does, he pulled over in his Mini Cooper and started up a conversation. “They said there were about 100 of them in their group and they were just here to ride around and enjoy the roads,” Lawrence recalled. “And I’m thinking, O.K., so we’re a destination for cyclists and I didn’t even know it?”

Since then, Lawrence has been an outspoken advocate for cycling. He remembers being in Portland when our transportation department was led by now-Congressman Earl Blumenauer. “I saw how he did it,” Lawrence explained, referring to Blumenauer’s focus on bicycling and transit in the 1990s, “And it’s those same things I want to focus on to help this community grow into itself.”

There are two major bike events weighing on Mayor Lawrence’s mind these days: The arrival of the Cycle Oregon ride in September and the completion of ODOT’s Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which is expected to be completed by 2016. (“We’re going to be at the end of that thing,” he said about the HCRH project, “so we need to start planning for it.”)

Another thing forcing the mayor to think about making The Dalles’ streets more livable is the boom in cruise ship traffic to the dock at the end of Union Street in downtown. Last year they had 40 cruise ships stop there, this year they expect over 100. The increase is due in part to the strengthening economy, but it’s also due to the general popularity of The Gorge, which ship operator National Geographic describes as a chance to explore the area’s rich history, “lush landscapes” and locally sourced food and drink. It’s worth mentioning that the cruise ships offer guests free bike rentals to take with them during their stay. During the busy season, they’re expecting one cruise ship per week, each one of them with 250 passengers.

It’s one thing to bring tourists to The Dalles’ streets, but it’s another thing to make them feel comfortable on a bike once they get there. And let’s not forget local residents who can’t afford to drive and who rely on a bike to get around town.

Bonus points in my book for having a copy
of the 1993 Bike Master Plan at his fingertips.

That’s where The Dalles’ Bicycle Master Plan comes in. Unfortunately it was last published in 1993 and most of its recommendations (surprise) didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t think such an old planning document would be on the Mayor’s radar, so when I saw a copy of it in his folder with a bunch of hand-written notes next to it, I was pleasantly surprised.

After that chance meeting with a bunch of bike riders last summer, the mayor said he called a meeting and initiated an update to the plan. “We’re going to update it, and we’re going to implement it,” he told me, in a matter-of-fact tone that made it sound like a far easier task than it’s likely to be. So far he’s only had a few advisory meetings to gather input and the real work hasn’t begun.

Before getting into specific project details and plans, Mayor Lawrence wants to make sure the community feels invested in the bike plan process. At this point, the idea of embracing cycling is so new to everyone The Dalles that he feels they’ve got to answer some basic questions first: “What kind of bike town are we going to be? Are we just going to accomodate bikes, or are we going to do more than that?”

Citizen involvement is a hallmark of Mayor Lawrence. One of the reasons he ran for office, he says, is because he felt like his concerns over various issues weren’t being taken seriously by city councilors. “I’m trying to re-instate the citizen,” is how he explained his approach. (And one way he’s trying to do that is by printing his personal phone number and email address on his business card.) “The Internet has pulled people away, you need to get them involved.” Then, paraphrasing a quote someone once told him, he said, “Change occurs when someone discovers the next step. We’re asking citizens to help us discover the next step while the tipping point is happening right before our eyes and we’re trying to keep up.”

“Change occurs when someone discovers the next step. We’re asking citizens to help us discover the next step while the tipping point is happening right before our eyes and we’re trying to keep up.”

What will happen when citizens of The Dalles have a chance to weigh in about cycling? That’s an important, and still largely unknown question.

Mayor Lawrence has support for cycling among other civic leaders and there’s a nucleus of pro-bicycling advocates stepping up; but whether or not the broader community of The Dalles will become “bike freaks” like him — or even come to tolerate the changes cycling will bring — remains to be seen. And there are signs things might not be easy. Some people are already getting defensive about parking spaces downtown — an issue that will surely heat up when street space for bike racks and other projects is required. And the Mount Hood Cycling Classic used to hold a stage that went through downtown; but it hasn’t returned for the last three years after several business owners complained about how it hurt their bottom line.

“There’s a lot of resistance, it’s a fear of change… If people have to walk two blocks to park, they bitch and moan,” Lawrence said with his usual candor, “So it’s an education process.”

And like every town in Oregon, funding road projects is thorny and complicated issue. They have a massive maintenance backlog with over 60% of roads lower than “fair” condition. “That’s not good for cyclists either,” Lawrence said, so he’s working with transportation agencies to focus on fixing existing roads rather than building new ones.

While infrastructure problems loom large, Mayor Lawrence wanted me to know that, “The City isn’t here to just build infrastructure. We have to fight that perception. The City has to be a leader, advocate, optimist, cheerleader, organizer, coordinator… and use the bully pulpit.”

Will a bully pulpit be enough to make significant and lasting changes? Mayor Lawrence’s enthusiasm for bicycling has already advanced the conversation to an unprecedented level in The Dalles; but enthusiasm and conversations are the easy part. Turning energy and ideas into actions, projects, and a cultural change is a much heavier lift.

At least Lawrence knows how far they have yet to go. Toward the end of our conversation, he caught me off-guard again with an unexpected analogy. “We’re like a mediocre surfer at the tip of a huge have and everyone’s thinking, ‘Will he be able to manipulate that wave?'”

— This story is part of our special coverage of The Dalles. Read more here.

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