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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.