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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?


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.)

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?

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  • Josh G May 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    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:

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  • John Liu
    John Liu May 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    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.

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    • paikiala May 30, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      Actions speak louder than words. Isn’t that part of the problem many on this blog complain about.

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    • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 7:43 am

      “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?”

      This and Amanda Fritz’s invocation of wheelchairs is disingenuous and off base.

      Guns, dish washing, blindness, and wheel chairs are not solutions to the crises we face in transportation. Biking arguably is. It is also a reasonable mode choice for all of them. As relatively able-bodied individuals with reasonable commute distances in a city known rightly or wrongly for biking, which they are all only too eager to take credit for, celebrate when it is convenient, they are all positioned to not drive everywhere. Fritz admits her husband and older son ride and that she used to. Did/do any of them use wheelchairs? Of course not.

      But answering the question in this manner I think speaks volumes. treating bikes as an affliction, a crutch, something a minority must use to get around and which we should accommodate as a matter of law and principle misunderstands the bicycle: what it is; what it could be.

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    • davemess May 31, 2014 at 8:30 am

      True, but it would be nice if they all had SOME inkling of what it is like to ride a bike on the streets of this city (beyond photo ops and Sunday Parkways). Almost everyone has that experience in a car and as a pedestrian, but a minority have it as a cyclist. This is why I think honestly the best “punishments” for motorists involved in bike/car crashes is to just ride a bike for a few weeks. I think then they would have a little more perspective as to why cyclists are doing the things they do, instead of just “they’re in my way, why are they always riding on this street or taking up too much of the lane?”

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      • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 8:41 am

        “the best “punishments” for motorists involved in bike/car crashes is to just ride a bike for a few weeks.”

        I hear you, but…. we should avoid any such thing like the plague. We will come to regret any administrative/legal association of bicycling with punishment.

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        • davemess May 31, 2014 at 10:51 pm

          Yeah, I have that thought too, but how else do you get them out there to experience it?

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          • 9watts June 1, 2014 at 9:21 am

            Some things can’t be forced. Enjoyment of biking is one of them.

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            • davemess June 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

              Do you have a good way to get more people to at least experience what it’s like to be on a bike (and thus more understanding to cyclists)? I might not enjoy driving but I at least have first hand experience of what it is like.

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              • 9watts June 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

                invite them to ride. tell them how much fun it is. send them cheerful stories from bikeportland?

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              • 9watts June 2, 2014 at 9:57 pm

                How about this?

                “But a new program in Sweden is taking a different approach, based on the theory that one reason many people don’t ride is that haven’t really tried it. In Gothenburg–a city with bike commuter rates on par with Portland–the government is giving some people the chance to try a bike for six months in exchange for the promise that they will ditch their cars at least three times a week.”


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      • Pete May 31, 2014 at 7:40 pm

        I’ve advocated that “punishment” for some of the retired planners that laid out bike lanes back in the ’70’s around here that politicians to this day are taking ‘credit’ for (but not riding in).

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  • Spiffy May 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    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…

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  • Peejay May 30, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    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.

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  • Kari Chisholm May 30, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    And don’t forget Senator Jeff Merkley, an amateur competitive triathlete.

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

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  • John R May 30, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    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.

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    • davemess May 31, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Yep, look at the residential locations of our council. Well over 2/3rds of the city isn’t represented! All the more reason to go to a more regional representative city council.

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  • Todd Hudson May 30, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    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?

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    • Todd Hudson June 2, 2014 at 8:33 am

      Good god no. No way I want to commute to that part of downtown. Also, too many skeletons.

      It’sd be nice to not have mediocre/sleazy mayors and not-a-head case candidates.

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  • Todd Boulanger May 30, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    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.

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    • davemess May 31, 2014 at 8:38 am

      downtown biking between meetings and events? If only we could invent some kind of short use bike borrowing system where you don’t have to worry about locking the bike up and can only use it for 30 minutes………..

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  • Psyfalcon May 30, 2014 at 9:49 pm

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

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  • Psyfalcon May 30, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    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.

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  • The Barber May 30, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    All of them… up and down Barbur once…

    …once is all it takes.

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    • Tom Hardy June 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      Or even better, Terwilliger! Either direction would do them in.
      Speaking of riding I did a little 35 today from Washington square Barbur, Broadway, Williams, Ainsworth, Willammette, St Helens 19th, Ho-chi-minh, Terwilliger, Barbor, Multnomah and back home. No problem. For some reason most of the motorists were either courtious or clueless. Would like to escort or have one or more of the councilmen or women, ride with me or trail me on their bike or in Novik’s case a trike. I will wear my Mobius cam and even carry a GoPro if someone has one to loan.

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  • jim May 30, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    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.

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    • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 7:34 am

      with all due respect. The issue isn’t whether Saltzman’s stashing his bike in his office (he isn’t).

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      • jim June 1, 2014 at 2:33 am

        If I was walking my dog past the council members bikes, i might pause for a minute right there.

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  • Brad May 31, 2014 at 1:41 am

    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.

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  • davemess May 31, 2014 at 8:41 am

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

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  • Glenn May 31, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    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.

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  • Pete May 31, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    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)… 😉

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  • Jacob June 1, 2014 at 3:27 am

    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.

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  • john p. June 1, 2014 at 8:06 am

    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.

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    • 9watts June 1, 2014 at 8:24 am

      john p.,

      there are a lot of ways to slice this. Commuting is certainly one way, but Michael was noting that:
      “none of the city’s leaders regularly spends time on a bike”

      Some of us who bike everywhere, don’t have a car, also don’t have a commute. I’m not suggesting that the share of Portlanders who falls into Michael’s broader category is vastly greater than the 6.1% of bike commuters, but it is a larger share.

      But I’d also point out that the disconnect is real. Biking in this town is a very visible, symbolic, readily exploited, mode choice & policy category. Remember the Charlie Rides a Bike stickers? And Novick’s recent discovery of bicycling as something to champion, in words if not deeds? What I took Michael’s to be suggesting was that it is noteworthy that actions and words seem to be out of phase, at least somewhat.

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    • davemess June 1, 2014 at 10:04 am

      I notice you didn’t address the other three points.

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    • John R. June 1, 2014 at 11:24 am

      Way to slam a blog and readers instead of actually making a point.

      “none of the city’s leaders regularly spends time on a bike.”

      What part of 0% don’t you understand? This is from a city that has set a goal of 25% trips by bike in 16 years. One might hope that leaders who set such goals would be personally working to live them out and understand the barriers to reaching the goals the city sets.

      As for the gender, race, and income the statistics are even less “representative.”

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      • 9watts June 1, 2014 at 12:57 pm

        “One might hope that leaders who set such goals would be personally working to live them out and understand the barriers to reaching the goals the city sets.”

        And/or that they would have a better answer ready than Fritz’s wheelchair pitch. Fritz’s bit helps us to understand just how far we have to go, not in terms of infrastructure but conceptually–recognizing that there is life beyond the automobile. She obviously hasn’t spent even a minute thinking about the city’s bike mode share goals. Her wheelchair analogy doesn’t allow this: by 2030 we want 25% of Portlanders to be getting around in wheelchairs.

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        • JRB June 3, 2014 at 8:31 am

          I don’t know where she stands on other issues, but Fritz is incredibly annoying and hypocritical when it comes to cycling. First there was her infamous comment that the city should stop funding bike infrastructure until the “cycling community” starting policing the scofflaws in its ranks. Second was her push for the PPB to ticket cyclists riding on the sidewalks downtown. Annoying, yes. Worth the expenditure of scare resources in comparison to other risks faced by people moving around this city? Hardly.

          Lastly, when she was in the fight of her political life against Mary Nolan, she had the audacity to show up at the rally and memorial for Kathryn Rickson and place flowers on Kathryn’s ghost bike. That she would attempt to exploit Kathryn’s death for political gain after actively advocating for measures that would make cycling less safe shows an appalling lack of integrity, even for a politician.

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  • Jim Lee June 1, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    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.

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  • J_R June 1, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    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.

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  • Oregon Mamacita June 2, 2014 at 8:40 am

    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.

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    • 9watts June 2, 2014 at 9:11 am

      “Everyone on the council could ride a bike to work if they wanted to ride. Instead they drive.”

      I too find this disheartening but I can’t say I’m surprised. Politicians, typically, follow trends, are extremely timid, blow with the winds and the polls. This is another reason we are in this mess to begin with.

      Our 25% mode share is an aspirational goal, but I expect we’ll reach it despite tepid leaders, mediocre priorities, and so-so infrastructure.

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    • davemess June 2, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Yes, and it might be a glaring reason why we don’t come close to meeting that goal.

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      • Oregon Mamacita June 2, 2014 at 1:08 pm

        Dave, is it possible that there are just not enough people who enjoy commuting by bike? Maybe there is a ceiling based on preference.

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  • Ted Buehler June 2, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    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

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  • Velodrone June 3, 2014 at 7:29 am

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

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    • Alan 1.0 June 4, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      I always thought that in Montreal the proof is in the poutine.

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  • Andy K June 4, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    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.

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