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Does it matter if politicians ride?

Posted by on May 30th, 2014 at 3:08 pm

New bike racks at City Hall-3.jpg

Empty bike racks at Portland City Hall.
(Photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)

In a downtown brimming with bike commuters, there’s still one Portland workplace that currently posts a solid 0 percent bike commute rate: City Council chambers.

Portland’s five city commissioners aren’t opposed to bicycling by any stretch. But, since former Mayor Sam Adams left the council in 2012, none of the city’s leaders regularly spends time on a bike — specifically time that’s not at a special event (like Sunday Parkways, which is far from real-world conditions) or a parade or in some other type of controlled environment.

Does that matter? Does a lack of exposure to real urban cycling conditions make it harder for politicians to understand and care about bicycle issues?

DSC_0203-1

Commissioner Fritz is more
of a walker these days.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

“No,” says Commissioner Nick Fish, maybe the council member who uses his bicycle most (“for fun and exercise,” most recently last fall, he wrote in an email) and whose home near Northeast Portland’s Grant Park is probably in the bike-friendliest location of any commissioner’s. “Advocates have done a great job making the case for a multi-modal transportation system.”

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who lives in the far southwest corner of Portland, commuted three miles daily while attending college in Cambridge, England in the late 1970s. Today, she wrote in an email, she “hardly ever” rides.

Fritz, too, said that had no bearing on her belief in good biking — no more than her belief in access for people with disabilities depends on how often she uses a wheelchair.

“While I don’t personally enjoy riding a bike, my husband and my older son do,” Fritz wrote. “I appreciate cycling as a healthy transportation option for those who like to cycle, and as a mechanism to reduce pollution and congestion related to transportation. I don’t use a wheelchair, yet I am passionate about providing facilities for those who do. For myself, I am a pedestrian and transit-user as my preferred modes of alternative transportation.”

Sunday Parkways North Portland 2012-6

Charlie Hales, now mayor, rides in North Portland Sunday Parkways with his wife Nancy Hales during his 2012 campaign.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

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Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the city’s transportation bureau, said learning to ride a bike is “on my list, along with learning Italian.”

“I tried to learn to ride a bike when I was nine, and kept on falling off,” said Novick, now 51. Alone of the commissioners, he said the physical experience of biking would help him understand how to improve the city.

“It would be marginally useful, but I think I can appreciate the importance of bicycling,” said Novick, who lives near Multnomah Village in Southwest Portland.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who lives near the Springwater Corridor in Southeast Portland’s Eastmoreland neighborhood, also rides sometimes and, in his speech last month opening the Oregon Active Transportation Summit, used the word “us” to describe advocates for biking and walking.

“I do know he regularly does Sunday Parkways (together with first lady) and they LOVE them,” his chief of staff Gail Shibley wrote in an email. “We also took a bike tour of Milwaukie light rail corridor last year with specific focus on station area planning. Portland Tribune covered. I can report the mayor’s bike looked well used…!”

Rotterdam street scenes-20

Metro Councilor Sam Chase in Rotterdam, Netherlands, as
part of a 2013 study tour with Portland leaders. He’s made the
North Portland Greenway one of his top priorities in office.

Shibley and Hales spokesman Dana Hayes didn’t respond to questions about the last time Hales rode regularly. The office of Portland’s fifth commissioner, Dan Saltzman, didn’t respond to a series of queries. (Saltzman lives in Southwest Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood.)

While the current crop of commissioners might not be the bike commuting types, Portland certainly has a rich tradition of politicians who were.

From the city’s disgraced but freeway-busting former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, who in 1971 personally led a 1,200-bicycle ride sponsored by the Bike Lobby advocacy group, to Zoobombing former Mayor Bud Clark to Earl Blumenauer, the former Portland city commissioner who helped sow the seeds of its biking boom and is now one of the only members of Congress who doesn’t keep a car in Washington, bike users have shaped the city for decades. (Vera Katz, the three-term mayor who succeeded Clark and mentored Adams, probably deserves an honorable mention: the former New York City resident didn’t ride a bike but has never bothered to get a driver’s license, either.)

villaraigosa

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagairosa became a far louder bike advocate after breaking his elbow in a 2010 crash.
(Photo by Streetsblog LA.)

Nor is there much question that Portland’s surge in bike-friendliness has been echoed in cities across the country thanks in part to a generation of leaders who learned to ride during the 1970s bike boom. Antonio Villaraigosa (born 1953) remade bike policy in Los Angeles after breaking his elbow in an urban bike collision in 2010.

On the other hand, it’s also obvious that leaders can embrace biking without doing it themselves. No U.S. city has more rapidly transformed its biking policy than New York, a city run for 12 years by a billionaire who, maybe deliberately, seems to never have been photographed on a bicycle. Michael Bloomberg’s bike-loving former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn has credited her boss’s embrace of biking to a “data-driven” approach that recognized the economic benefits of biking — not unlike the intellectual attitude Novick, Fish and other Portland council members describe.

And ultimately, Portland’s current commissioners aren’t the only politicians in town. At a February debate three months before her commanding victory in the race to become Multnomah County chair, Deborah Kafoury mentioned that she’d recently begun bike commuting.

Clearly, politicians must preside over many issues that they have no direct, personal connection to. But since almost every one of them intimately understands the driving experience and can therefore relate to auto-oriented issues on a personal level, it makes us wonder how a lack of that connection impacts their understanding of bicycling.

What do you think?

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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Josh G
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Josh G

NYC isn’t run by Bloomberg anymore. Wording implies that he Sadik-Kahn are still in office.
Some great pictures of Bud Clark riding his bike on the Oregonians flickr page: goo.gl/0cOFhI

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

A bike-riding politician is a nice to have, but not a need to have.

It is unrealistic to expect our city council and mayor to personally do and be everything that the various citizens of our city do and are. Why would we not then clamor for council people to also be blind, Mensa, vegan, homeless, Hindu, disabled, motorcycling, impoverished, tree-loving, Republican, veteran, dishwashing, gun-owning, gun-loathing, and a thousand other things?

Judge elected officials by their actions, not by their labels.

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

with the bike theft problem I’m not surprised to see empty racks at that location, but I’m surprised that none of them ever bike to work…

most people’s jobs take them on a tour of the things that they affect, so I would expect that if they’re making bicycle policy decision that they would get out there on a bike in the area that those decisions impact…

Peejay
Guest
Peejay

Direct first person experience is a HUGE driver of how a person sees the world. Lack of it explains so many of the prejudices we endure. You can talk about the supremacy of data, but the data you wish to collect is what backs up your own experience. It’s a bias of initial assumptions.

Kari Chisholm
Guest

And don’t forget Senator Jeff Merkley, an amateur competitive triathlete. http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/08/sen_jeff_merkley_joins_congres.html

(Full disclosure: My firm built Merkley’s campaign website. I speak only for myself.)

John R
Guest
John R

It matters. It matters in the sense that our elected council does not reflect Portland. This is true for cycling, gender, race, and income. Do all people on the council need “first hand” experience to make the right decisions? No. But a diverse council would result in better decisions that more reflect the hopes, needs and reality of those who live here.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

Sam Adams had a promising bike plan, but he was also a sleazy liar. Jefferson Smith got the Bike Walk Vote endorsement, only to find out he’s a madman behind the wheel, with more personal issues than Sarah Palin’s entire family combined.

how do cyclists get political allies who don’t kill their careers via awful behavior?

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

The article forgot to mention…Mayor Potter’s ride with critical mass (first for a Portland mayor in office).

And as for bike commuting by council members…perhaps better would be their use of a bike in the downtown between meetings or for luncheons. Visible AND effective…since most of them live far away and work long hours. Commute trips can be some of the hardest to modally reform.

Psyfalcon
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Psyfalcon

A data driven approach only works if you follow the data and stop listening to failing businesses whining about parking.

Psyfalcon
Guest
Psyfalcon

Worse is where they live.

3 In SW: Do they all commute in on Barbur by car?
Eastmoreland, and Grant Park.

None east of 39th or so. We’re not even talking East Portland, just anything north or east of close in, or even downtown. We have a lot of people making decisions for the very urban part of town who live in very suburban type areas.

The Barber
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The Barber

All of them… up and down Barbur once…

…once is all it takes.

jim
Guest
jim

If you were a politician in Portland, would you leave your bike out where the public can get to it or would you take it inside. I can just imagine what they would do to some of their bikes.

Brad
Guest

I am from Seattle and have become friendly with Council member Mike O’Brien who bikes to City Hall every day from the Fremont neighborhood. He leaves his bike out where you can see it, and in fact had one of his election signs tied onto his rack during the last election. No one messed with it.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Are we not going to get any coverage of Thursday’s council meeting on here?

Glenn
Guest
Glenn

In the People’s Republic of Portlandia? Where politicians bloviate frequently about climate change and greenwash initiatives? Yes, it would be nice if any of them walked their talk. They can’t be all things for all people, but they could put their money, and their pedals, where their mouths are.

Pete
Guest
Pete

Whether they become “cyclists” or whether they’re willing to pick up (rent/borrow/dust off) a bike sometime and go for a ride – especially one in a contested area – are two different things. I think if you were to organize something, maybe even work with Todd to outfit some of the councilors or staff, and take them on a guided bike tour may mean just as much (open their eyes) as if they were to ‘live the lifestyle.’ We’re working on just that down here in silly valley, as we’re asking for funding to change some of the legacy bike lanes that should really be right-turn-only auto lanes with a merged bike lane to the left of them.

Might I add, it seems from your count that San Jose has more bike-riding council members than Portland… (nudge, nudge)… 😉

Jacob
Guest
Jacob

For biking, it’s important that some of the decision makers experience, 1st hand, what the problems are with biking. The more decision makers that see the problems, and the more often they see them, the sooner they will be addressed. It pretty much goes for any issue, and since Portland is loudly proclaimed to be bike friendly, it is reasonable to assume that at least one elected official would find it easy and convenient to get around by bike.

The lack of bicycling council member is a real indicator of how bike friendly the city really is. In cities in the Netherlands, Council members, mayors, even the royalty regularly ride bikes to get to work and to events. Its just that convenient and easy. None of the Council members find it to be easy and convenient enough in Portland to ride a bicycle for Transportation, so there is clearly much work to be done.

john p.
Guest
john p.

It matters. It matters in the sense that our elected council does not reflect Portland. This is true for cycling, gender, race, and income.

Probably not meant tongue in cheek so it shows the lack of reality sometimes on this blog.

Statistics indicate that 6.1% of Portland commutes by bicycle, so the Council does reflect Portland quite perfectly on those grounds.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

If substantially more than 1,111 Portlandiaers had voted for me in 2008 there would be a fixie-riding mayor who lives east of 52nd.

Many problems would be on their way to being solved, as neighbor Brian Willson and I were discussing while cycling a couple of days ago.

J_R
Guest
J_R

I think it does matter if our leaders have experience on a bike.

Certainly, it would be nice if they rode regularly. That’s not a requirement, but some first hand experience would be really beneficial.

I think they need to “feel” what it’s like to have a 5-foot lane rather than a 6-foot lane or to experience the difference between riding next to cars driving 45 mph instead of 30. They need to see what happens when drivers don’t use their turn signals or speed up to make that right turn instead of slowing and waiting for the cyclist. They need to feel what a close call is (though hopefully it’s not all that close.)

They need to experience that most motorists really try to be careful and accommodating around bikes, but that there are a minority who “just don’t get it” and a very small portion who actually seek to make our lives h-ll by doing intentional things to show that, in their opinion, bicyclists don’t have any rights or belong on the road. It’s one thing to hear that as testimony or even have a trusted friend tell you about it. It’s another thing to actually experience it.

When I served as a member of a citizens’ bicycle advisory committee (not in Portland) we had a rule that we had to be “on site” when we made a recommendation about a facility. That meant walking the shoulder or sidewalk before recommending the striping of a bike lane. It meant standing on the bridge when we debated whether to recommend running a ramp up to the sidewalk or marking a lane on the street.

A freight company gave us all rides in an 18-wheeler so we could see a drivers perspective on following a curve and what it takes to turn a right-hand corner.

So, I think our councilors do need to put some time in on a bike. If they’re not up for it by themselves put them with some tour guides or put them on the back of a tandem. If they’ve adopted the policy of having 25 percent of trips by bike in 20 years or whatever, they need to see and feel what the obstacles are.

Oregon Mamacita
Guest
Oregon Mamacita

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but doesn’t the zero percent bike mode share
for the City Council and Mayor suggest that the goal of 25% mode share may be unrealistic? Everyone on the council could ride a bike to work if they wanted to ride. Instead they drive.

Ted Buehler
Guest

Daily commuters? That would be great.

But really, I’d settle for commuting to City Hall once a quarter by bike. Especially those that would use Barbur. Think they’d be up for the challenge?

Ted Buehler

Velodrone
Guest

Having an activist, cycling, political class is essential to forwarding the bike agenda. The proof is in the pudding here in Montreal.

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

Jonathan Maus’s next ride-a-long is going to be with a politician. He’s just going to mount a GoPro to his helmet and draft behind Steve Novick’s SUV.