Wonk Night recap: Calls for a coalition and more cooperation

Posted by on July 24th, 2015 at 3:45 pm

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(Photo: Armando Luna)

Special thanks to Lancaster Engineering for hosting and to Omission Beer for donating drinks.

You know that point in a relationship when something starts feeling a bit off and you’re like, “Baby, we need to talk.” That’s how I’ve been feeling about the bike advocacy scene here in Portland. And that’s why I figured it was time to get some people together to hash a few things out.

We didn’t solve everything at Wonk Night last night and I’m sure people left with more questions than answers; but it was a great conversation and I think we’re all better off because of it.

The 45 or so people who showed up represented a mix of local advocacy groups and organizations. We had reps from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, BikeLoudPDX, Oregon Walks, the Northwest Trail Alliance, East Portland Action Plan, many neighborhood activists, Better Block PDX, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the City’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and others.

wonk-PJ-emily-jessica

Paul Jeffrey, Emily Guise, and Jessica Engelman.

I didn’t have a set agenda for the meeting. I just tried to set the table with a few ideas and then let the conversations go wherever people wanted to take them. From the outset one major issue kept coming up: For bicycling to grow in Portland, we need to build a much broader coalition.

We also talked about the direct-action activism BikeLoudPDX has been doing (one of their volunteers referred to them as “the Greenpeace of bicycle groups in Portland”), and how that compares to the more conservative, behind-the-scenes style of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Instead of focusing on specific projects or issues, I encouraged everyone to step back and look at the advocacy ecosystem as it’s functioning today and think of ways it might work better. We mostly all want the same things: a great city where everyone can enjoy safe streets without all the stress and fear.

So, if we all want the same thing and we have so many great advocates working on it, why is bicycling stagnating in Portland?

Brian Davis from Lancaster Engineering (he also wrote an editorial on Vision Zero in the Tribune a few weeks ago) said it’s because Portland lacks a champion of the bicycling cause. “Portland lacks a vocal leader for these issues that’s able to harness the energy in this room,” he said. Then he urged someone to “File your papers and run for city council!”

Here’s another theory (that I excitedly shared last night right as it popped into my head): For years now, transportation and livable streets activism in Portland has been dominated by bikes. (You’ll note that much of the recent Vision Zero media coverage frames the concept as coming from “the bike community” when it’s really not a mode-specific concept at all.) So when bikes fell out of political favor in 2009, it took the livable streets agenda down with it.

The phenomenon described above could be another good reason to diversify the voices around transportation activism — so that the agenda is more resilient to the vicissitudes of local politics and public perceptions.

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We also have a lot of cooks in the advocacy kitchen here in Portland. I tried to spur some conversation about the tension I and others have between the different styles of advocacy displayed by the BTA and by BikeLoudPDX and other independent activists.

Jessica Engelman with BikeLoudPDX said her group worked very hard to turn people out for their recent Day of Protests at City Hall, only to have about 100 people show up. “It’s hard enough to get the advocates to come out, how do we get those silent supporters to show up too?” she wondered.

Gerik Kransky with the BTA said he’s felt the attacks online that his organization isn’t doing what some people want them to do. But, “Instead of throwing rocks at the 800-pound gorilla,” he said, “Work with us. Call me. I want to find a way to work together.”

We all agreed that both types of advocacy are crucial to a healthy ecosystem; but there are still ways these different ends of the spectrum can be more productive. It’s a work in progress.

Another problem facing bike and traffic safety advocacy in Portland right now is that there are many voices we aren’t hearing from — or that we’re simply not listening to.

wonk-finneyand?

Kristi Finney.
(Can someone tell me the other person’s name?)

Kristi Finney, the woman whose son Dustin Finney died while biking on SE Division four years ago, said she wants to get more “everyday people” involved. “I want to make streets safer for people who don’t even realize that the streets are unsafe.”

As a social worker, Finney sees the impact of traffic violence on a regular basis. “You wouldn’t believe how many people I meet who say they were in a crash and their lives have fallen apart,” she said. After her son was killed, Finney said something changed in her brain for good and she wants to work with other people who’ve had that tragic enlightenment. She’s working with Oregon Walks and the BTA to create an advocacy group made up of survivors that will be called “Families for Safe Streets.”

And judging from the faces in the room last night, we also need to get more women and people of color involved with these conversations. (I’ve already started thinking about how to make that happen for our next event. Stay tuned!)

And that brings us back to the importance of building a coalition.

Several people brought up the New York City model, where they have Transportation Alternatives, a powerful advocacy group whose mission is to, “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and to promote bicycling, walking, public transit.”

wonk-Gerik-Alex

Gerik Kransky, and Alex Reed.

Unless the BTA decides to undergo a major transformation (which they don’t seem interested in), Portland doesn’t have a group like that. And, given how busy everyone is already, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to start one.

Rather, the idea that proved popular was to form a lean, umbrella coalition. In some ways, the BTA has already been doing this on an informal basis. Here’s what their Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky said about the topic last night:

“Our most successful strategy has been to engage with lots of other organizations. When you bring that approach to campaigns it dissolves political rancor. If you show up talking bikes only, you’re not meeting the needs of city hall. City hall isn’t getting a victory by meeting only bike needs.”

Ryan Hashagen with Better Block PDX wholeheartedly agreed with Kransky. He said the only way his group got PBOT to sign off on the Better Naito project — which has created a lane for biking and walking only on Naito Parkway — was because they talked about it as something that would “improve the public space for people to walk and enjoy Waterfront Park.” There’s a reason you don’t see the word “cycle track” or “bikeway” in that sentence.

But we should also not fear the b-word. Brian Davis shared his opinion that, while coalition-building is important, “It’s also important to realize that bikes aren’t a topic to be avoided. The bike is a silver bullet solution,” he said, “It solves so many things and does so essentially for free that we should milk bikes for all they’re worth.”

An idea suggested by Tony Jordan last night was to use the model of Jobs with Justice or Basic Rights Oregon. The groups aligned under those umbrella organizations cross-support each other. They have an email network and, as long as an action, rally, or issue, aligns with their stated objectives, all the groups will turn out to support each other. “If you go to one group’s rally,” Jordan said, “they’ll come to yours.”

Or, put another way by Kransky, “If we can help other people, they will help us.”

And Steph Routh, former Executive Director of Oregon Walks, told us if a coalition is what we want, we’ll need to look farther upstream and “be willing to have uncomfortable conversations.”

If, for instance we want to push for safer streets in an area that happens to have a high population of people experiencing homelessness, she said, “we need to realize we’re talking about funding for affordable housing, direct services, and care for returning veterans, and so on.”

So, it seems to me this coalition would have a stated goal to promote great streets and it should be an umbrella group that can be nimble and flexible in order to absorb many partners, while having an impact without too much overhead. Sounds pretty simple right? Nope.

It won’t be quick or easy to build a strong and lasting coalition; but it might be the only way to push through The Great Stagnation.

Please share your thoughts. If you attended the event or not, I’d love to hear from you.

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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LillianJonathan REric LeifsdadBvrtn-LloydCtrCommuterAdams Carroll (News Intern) Recent comment authors
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tedder
Guest

Loved hearing from Brian Davis, and you (Jonathan) did a great job with having a loose agenda and leading the discussion.

A count of 45 is about what I saw (I counted to 25 and estimated the rest). Less than 20% (who appeared to identify as) female but more than 10%.

The idea that groups should work together, and that we need a somewhat formal coalition, seemed to be consensus. The best term I came up with for supporting related causes was “a group of cyclists who are interested in other left-leaning causes”.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

45 people is a lot (as in, a formidable protest.) Anybody from sw?

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

I was there Eric. From close to Washington Square.

Ted Buehler
Guest

Roger Averbeck and Seth were also there from SW.

Ted Buehler

Ted Buehler
Guest

& Damien from Lewis and Clark.

(Roger is, I think, chair of the SW neighborhood coalition’s land use and transportation committee. & Seth probably identifies as a lone wolf, and a BikeLoud participant).

Ted Buehler

PaulaF
Guest
PaulaF

Thanks for the summary! Yes, many other “causes” have had to go through how to get multiple groups working together. Maybe we can learn from some of them, like Western States, etc.

I know that some of these transportation issues do cross other issue areas. I know that APANO has played a supportive role in some of the transportation issues – they are working hard on the Jade District development which encompasses transportation, affordability, and ethnic diversity.

Are there any existing organizations we can leverage to help facilitate coalition building?

In terms of getting people to be more involved, even for these rallies, I wonder if some burned out because of the Occupy events? How do we get them to see that advocacy can be as much fun as, say, Pedalpalooza kick-off, or even the Thursday Night Rides? What is the trigger that gets people to say, “I’m in!” versus “I’d rather go see a movie . . . or”?

Steph Routh
Guest
Steph Routh

Great thoughts (as always!), Paula. I think there are a few hard questions transportation advocates need to ask when considering trying to build or join a broader coalition: Are we truly willing to invest more in these relationships than the furtherance of our short-term goals? Are we willing to reimagine our priorities in the context of a broader coalition? Are we willing to show up in a purely supportive way for issues we have not previously defined as our own, and keep showing up? Are we willing to use our privileges to build others’ power? I admit I have not seen as much of this as I would hope, but hope springs eternal. 🙂

PaulaF
Guest
PaulaF

Thanks, Steph. We also need to understand history, right? I have been looking at some old pics from the 50s/60s and I have to say I am surprised at the volume of cars, even back then. Some of the safety issues we experience have been going on a very long time.

This picture shows a group of mothers acting as a safety wall for their children to cross the street – even though there is a traffic signal comment image)

We have some work to do to undo so much culture that has for so long been all about vehicle status and its faster/better PR. I keep thinking it is going to take not just adults but families, much like the “Stop the Kindermood” movement to say enough is enough.

9watts
Guest
9watts

And back then (pre-Ralph Nader) those cars killed their occupants with abandon if they made a mistake: spikey steering wheels and no seatbelts and all the rest… instead of cushioning them in a sea of airbags as they do today.

Steve B
Guest
Steve B

Wisely stated, thanks Steph!

Lizbon
Guest
Lizbon

I’ve informally floated the idea of creating a Shift-style calendar for people involved in various advocacy efforts to post ongoing projects and events so that people can at a glance see what’s going on, and choose ways to get involved. Yeah, BikeLoud has a calendar but it’s just for BikeLoud events. Plenty of individuals and neighborhood-based groups are working on projects that nobody hears about, and this would be a way to easily see them all and support where time/energy allows.

Lillian
Guest
Lillian

That’s what the avenues to advocacy project is building!

Beeblebrox
Guest
Beeblebrox

An umbrella group would be a good first step, but it’s hard to keep those from falling apart over time since it’s not a real organization with its own staff. As difficult as it would be, I would like to see an umbrella group transform over time into a funded non-profit like Transportation Alternatives in New York or Transportation Choices Coalition in Seattle. Or, alternatively, BTA, Oregon Walks, and maybe even OPAL could consider merging together.

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

I’d like to see this umbrella form as long as it keeps the spirit of that meeting. Social Justice. Relationships. Cooperation. Not attacking each other. Groups will focus first on the needs of the community, then on safety of the streets for all modes.

All People All Streets would be a good name.

For outsiders here are the groups I recall being there
PBOT staff
ODOT staff
BikePortland.org J. Maus
BTAOregon.org
bikeloudPDX.org
betterblockpdx.org
Someone from safe routes to schools
Several chairs of neighborhood associations

For the first time in a long time I feel the BTA has the right big vision goggles on. I would like Rob and Gerick from the BTA to put in writing what was previewed at this meeting. It was about social justice and not just about the details of a bike lane.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

It definitely needs to be multi-generational beginning with Safe Bikes to Schools. Without constant, every year and season, instructions to kids, whole generations are skipped for introduction of bikes for families.

longgone
Guest
longgone

Is it far fetched to include the NWTA within this conceptualized group of advocates? While seeming peripheral, their shared needs within the city dovetail on a couple of levels.

Scott Kocher
Guest

It should be called Families for Safe Streets. It should be its own organization with its own clout. It should partner with OW, BTA, AAA, and other modal orgs that care about safety, but it should be the voice for everyone.

Amy Subach
Guest
Amy Subach

I think we need a hierarchy of things to advocate for, as opposed to being oppositional. We can agree that safe transportation (to work, school, groceries etc) for all is more of a fundamental right than safe recreation for all. It’s not that one is valuable and one is not, it is that one is more important.

If we agree that people have the right to safely travel to work, school, around the neighborhood, we should focus on advocating for that first and foremost, and we should start in areas that have the greatest need. We should focus on the cheapest and most equitable fixes.

The other thing that I believe is an important tool for us all is using the existing channels available to modify our streets. Neighbors have the ability in Portland to join together and narrow their streets (using planters or logs or even diagonal parking) to 18 ft, which triggers a 15 mph speed limit. We are working on changing the street next to our house to a narrower street using planters and “playground logs” and are simply waiting on feedback and approval from PBOT. Our neighbors are excited because we have so many young kids in the neighborhood who walk to school and the grocery store on our street, and we get a lot of cut through traffic from Killingsworth and Alberta.

The project is really cool but has taken up a considerable amount of our time going back and forth with PBOT (well over a year). The Neighborhood Association is completely on board, the neighbors are on board, but we need to encourage PBOT to streamline their approval process for citizen initiated street improvements.

The desire for safer, slower streets is out there. We just need to tap into it!

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

I’m with Brian on the b-word. These other groups should be too, but it seems like whenever I talk to someone who doesn’t bike that their understanding of the issues and even geographic scale is out of whack. So many other problems vanish when mobility can be solved at such low cost instead of being premised on ownership of heavy machines and access to cheap gasoline. There should be a strong bike champion at city hall and the city is truly suffering for lack of progress here. Maybe candidates wearing rain capes will swoop into the next election and save us?

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

Correct Eric on the b-word. It will require a lot of stealth to come in under the radar to take over the neighborhood associations without making a lot of noise to alarm the fat cats that their bubble of fast as they want cars and cheap fuel will end. keep in mind that the fuel tax is about the same level as it was when fuel in the greater Portland area was in the 30-33 cent per gallon range. The national highway system was built using the 10-11 cent per gallon tax. On that scale we should have a fuel tax on the order of about $1.25 to $2.25 per gallon. That would take care of the road improvements and maintenance that have been paid from income taxes for the last 30 years. The income taxes are paid by all of us except the council crest citizens that don’t pay taxes like the rest of us.

Doug Klotz
Guest
Doug Klotz

There is increasing awareness of bike issues in the city, and I think many neighborhood leaders read BikePortland to understand what these issues are. Heck, even GoogleNews links to BP articles at times.

Bvrtn-LloydCtrCommuter
Guest
Bvrtn-LloydCtrCommuter

As an ordinary commuter (no affiliation with the groups noted above or neighborhood associations), I have to say that I’d be more easily pulled into this bike advocacy sphere were it not for what I say as overwhelming and over-zealous anti-car, anti-driving participants who appear to want to:
–take my car away or otherwise so severely restrict my driving that I’d effectively be prohibited from driving;
–take away on-the-street parking;
–demand that I downsize my home or as a land developer, insist that I build smaller dwellings; and
hiss or shout me and other down when the “advocates” sense disagreement with the broader social community vision.

Examples of the above just from this thread:
“take over the neighborhood associations without making a lot of noise to alarm the fat cats that their bubble of fast as they want cars and cheap fuel”

“mobility can be solved at such low cost instead of being premised on ownership of heavy machines and access to cheap gasoline”

“We have some work to do to undo so much culture that has for so long been all about vehicle status”

Reading the may other threads here, I see more and more radical ideas to deprive residents of their vehicles, their choice in lifestyle, and home selections.

Incrementalism is the preferred approach for me, but when we see Occupy-like folks out there it’s off-putting and not inviting at all.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

For me, being unable to plan a 2 mile trip by bike without riding in front of speeding traffic (not even “next to” for lack of bike lanes or even sidewalks) is just ridiculous. But fine, I’ll drive the car on those errands and be part of the congestion and parking problem because that feels safer.

Being asked to pay one’s fair share to make it safe to drive and park a vehicle on the street seems reasonable, especially if that allows everyone to choose to pay or pedal. Diverters to keep cut-through traffic off of neighborhood streets or enforcement of traffic laws is hardly “taking my car away”, just making it easier to decide to leave it at home.

I really don’t understand where the “war on cars” bikelash comes from. Maybe nobody remembers riding a bike as a kid? (You know, before it was cool.) Or maybe just blaming their dissatisfaction with the commute on the road users who are having the most fun? http://www.streetfilms.org/talking-about-bikelash-in-your-city/

Jonathan R
Guest
Jonathan R

The connection between a talk fest called Wonk Night and providing a better environment for bicycles is not to me immediately clear. Perhaps I am not the only one (though I am not in Portland, is this a regionalism?).