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PBOT Director Leah Treat on pricing auto use, bike-only streets, and more

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

PBOT Director Leah Treat last summer.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

Nine months into her position as the Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Leah Treat appears to be finally ready to spread her wings. We’ve noted here at BikePortland that for someone in charge of one of America’s marquee transportation systems, and someone who came to town with such fanfare, Treat has been relatively quiet in laying out any sort of vision for what she wants Portland streets to look like.

But now, finally, we have reason to believe that might be changing.

Next Tuesday (4/22), Treat is slated to speak at the Sentinel Hotel as part of a partnership between the City of Club of Portland and the Oregon Active Transportation Summit. With the title of her talk being, Portland Transportation: Today & Tomorrow, this event will likely be the first major policy speech of her tenure.

Given all this, we figured it was a good time to sit down for an interview to learn more about what she’s been thinking and how her leadership might impact cycling and local street culture in general. Due to sickness (mine) and scheduling, we ended up chatting on the phone yesterday and we only had limited time. Even so, we covered some good ground and you can read our conversation below…

Have you been riding your bike into work?

Every day.

What’s your route?

“I think PBOT has been through enough visioning over the last several years that we don’t need to revisit that. We know what we value and what our business is.”

I ride from northeast, the Sabin neighborhood to downtown. I go north up to Going then across to Vancouver. I feel safer being in the large group of cyclists on Vancouver and I think drivers are used to seeing cyclists there. Then I go through the Rose Quarter and hit the Steel Bridge to the Esplanade. I’m trying to take the safest route possible. I used to go across [SW] Broadway [through downtown]. I rode Broadway because I really liked to get a hill climb in the morning to get energized for my day; but I got clipped twice and had several near misses on right hooks so I moved away from using Broadway. I would use the green bike lane on Broadway… And even with all that green paint I got clipped twice which scared me and so I decided to go to the Esplanade because it seems safer.

From a bike facility perspective, what’s the worst part of your daily route?

We need to work on the traffic signals at NE Holladay and Wheeler [at the Rose Quarter Transit Center] where the light rail station comes in. If you’re not the fastest cyclist in the world, you can get trapped in that. And the pedestrians there are really trying to get to the train and aren’t going to let a cyclist through. We’re looking at signal timing in that area.

Seems like you’ve gained some important insight into our bikeways from your daily rides, does it concern you that no one on our current City Council rides a bike on a regular basis?

[PBOT Communications Director Dylan Rivera, who was also on the phone call, interjected: “Those guys are so busy. They’re multi-modal. They work 14 and 16 hours days.”]

I was doing some meetings with First Stop Portland and Nancy Hales [wife of Mayor Charlie Hales] rides her bike everyday from Sellwood. I was really impressed by that. Martha Pelligrino and Nills Tillstrom [staff in the Office of Government Relations] ride every day. And [Mayor Hales’ Chief of Staff] Gail Shibley walks everyday. As for City Council members themselves? That’s a good question. I would love to take them out on a ride.

In an Oregonian interview in November, you said the stagnation is just a “marketing issue”. If that’s true, why do you think our bicycling numbers have leveled off?

[There was a relatively long pause before this answer.]

I’d answer that in a different way. If we want to get more people to ride, we have to provide safe facilities to do so. Focus on people who are the ‘interested but concerned’ group. They’re the group we need to be targeting and their biggest barriers are safety. So we need to be installing infrastructure that makes people feel safe.

We are doing some great things: We’re doing a cycle track on NE Multnomah, and SW Multnomah is currently under construction; buffered bike lanes on Williams; and when PMLR [TriMet’s new Tilikum Crossing transit/bike/walk only bridge] opens up it will add several miles of great new facilities for biking.

I think we’re doing the right things to grow our numbers; but I also believe we need to launch bike share.

In other cities it’s increasing the number of people who ride bikes. It’s also closing the gender gap, and we need to get more women out on the roads. The majority of our increase [in bicycle ridership] has been in the male population. Women need to feel safe. a lot of data shows that women are more likely to use a bike share bike than purchase one on their own for last-mile trips or errands around town or other things they would have relied on a car for because it’s not as expensive, women don’t know as much about maintenance, and so on.

Do you think women will feel safe riding in downtown Portland on a bike share bike?

I think so. I hope so. Those things [the bikes used for bike share] are tanks so it’s really hard to be a crazy cyclist zipping through town on a bike share bike. They’ll be on a pretty heavy piece of equipment. And downtown, it’s not protected infrastructure; but from my experiences, Portland has a really great street system downtown for bicycling. And cars, despite my experiences on Broadway, cars are very respectful of bikes. Cars are used to other modes being there.

Bike share has gone through some major delays and although it appears PBOT has a funding partner, can you tell us why no announcement has been made?

No. No I can’t talk about that. [laughs] I just can’t.

Speaking of riding downtown, what’s the latest on the $6 million project to improve bike access in the central city?

[Treat didn’t seem aware of the project and Rivera interjected to say it’s not on PBOT’s radar or “imminent” at the moment.]

PBOT Director Leah Treat riding the Historic
Columbia River Highway in August 2013.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

We’re focusing right now on the 20s network. We have a very small staff that’s dedicated to this work. They only have so much bandwidth and we’re putting that into those projects — the 50s [bikeway] and the 20s.

The 20s especially is probably one of the most controversial projects we’ve proposed in the last several years. It’s highly controversial. This whole nine mile stretch has a 3/4 mile hang-up on it. I’m confident we’ll get a solution and it’ll be a really great bikeway; but the argument over parking is driving the conversation on that 3/4 mile of bikeway and hanging up the project. What I’m hoping we’ll end up doing is focusing on the other 8 and 1/4 miles and get that installed while we work with the business community where parking is such a precious commodity.

Can you clarify what exactly the “hang-up” is on that 3/4 of a mile?

People are terrified that their businesses are going to shutter if they lose on-street parking. I don’t agree with them but I understand their fear of change and their wanting to protect that space. It could very likely be that those spaces are being used by their employees. We don’t know who’s using that parking and why they’re defending it so adamantly. The reaction is also coming from the two big developments nearby that have no or low auto parking. One of them has 400 units and the neighborhood is freaking out that they might not be able to park in front of their house so they’re bringing that angst to the 20s Bikeway conversation. So I’ve been trying to focus the conversation on values and what we want our neighborhoods to look like. That type of development is what we want. Those 400 new units coming in are bringing 400 new customers to those businesses. if they’re an economically viable business they’ll profit even more from all those people near their shops and restaurants and they’ll want to shop there because maybe they don’t have car [to take them further away]. I don’t know where we’ll end up.

“I want to start talking about dedicating entire roadways to bikes and peds because it would solve lot of issues in the central eastside.”

I’ve walked away from that conversation knowing how important parking is in that neighborhood and if we don’t make compromises we should be metering that zone. It’s [the parking is] obviously that valuable that we need to put a price on it. It’s highly valuable public space that we’re likely undervaluing.

Overall, I want to overhaul parking citywide, but we need to have a plan. If there’s not a scarcity of parking it doesn’t make sense to price it. It’s very hard to make the business case to price parking where there’s no scarcity. But where demand exceeds supply, we should have policy in place to allow us to properly value that right-of-way — residential parking permits, valet parking zones, congestion pricing, commercial loading zone permits, and so on. I think in order for us to have a credible conversation about parking we need to have plan developed and policies in place and our [pricing] algorithms figured out. We need to study that and we don’t have anybody on staff that has that capacity right now. In the next year we will be producing that capacity.

I’ve been here 9 months and I’m still constantly surprised by the lack of priced parking and how much free parking storage we give away.

Another project you’re working on is a two-year action plan. What’s the latest on that effort?

We awarded the contract to [planning firm] Nelson/Nygaard a few weeks ago. We want to take a look at, what are actionable items from management down to staff. I think PBOT has been through enough visioning over the last several years that we don’t need to revisit that. We know what we value and what our business is… Over the next two years, what are the time-specific deliverables we’re going to commit to and be very public and transparent about it? And there will be stretch goals and we might not make all of them. But that’s part of running a business, you re-evaluate and re-steer if you don’t meet your goals.

It’s about trying to deliver more transparency — people are dying to get it. They’re asking us: What are you doing? How are you spending our money? Part of the final product will be a dashboard on our website where you can interact with our data and look at our progress.

You’ve been here nine months now. Are there certain bike projects you’re dreaming about?

I’m sure someone has thought of this before, but I am really interested in dedicating specific roads to bicycles. You may have heard that I’m one of the Daniel Rose Fellows for the City of Portland. Our study area is the central eastside. One of the things I’d like to do and one of the outcomes of our plan for the central eastside is to dedicate a road to bicyclists and pedestrians and dedication another road to freight. That’s one of the biggest issues over there — how all the modes interact. I want to start talking about dedicating entire roadways to bikes and peds because it would solve lot of issues in the central eastside. I don’t know if it could be replicated elsewhere in the city; but that could be the pilot study area. Freight and business would be happy and users would be happy. We’ll see what I can get away with.

You’ve got a big City Club speech coming up on Tuesday. Sort of your first major public speech. What can we expect to hear?

I’m going to talk about bike share. I’m a huge advocate of it. And I want to talk about Vision Zero and safety issues. There will be a little bit about talking to advocates about how to be effective within in a government structure. I will also deal with the issue of, how do we move forward when our conversation has devolved to fighting over eight-feet of lane width?

Any bike events you’re particularly looking forward to this spring and summer?

Sunday Parkways. My favorite thing in the world is Sunday Parkways. Other than that, we get out as a family on the weekends. We bike pretty much everywhere. We just got my second son off of training wheels [her boys are ages seven and nine]. And the twins [five years old], they haven’t grown up in Portland and had opportunity to ride in these great protected networks before so they’re still on training wheels. I see all my neighbors with three-year-olds off training wheels! We just got the twins out of the cargo bikes.

Where do you ride on weekends?

We explore the parks and just hang out, and eat packed lunches. Taking four kids to a restaurant at those ages is a death wish. I’d much rather have them riding around and being active.

— Hear more from Treat at her speech on Tuesday (4/22). You can reserve a seat until this Friday.