Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is getting the hang of this biking thing. And I think he likes it.
For the fourth time in as many weeks, the mayor met constituents for coffee and conversation before setting of on his Trek hybrid for City Hall. This time the starting location was Posies Cafe in the north Portland neighborhood of Kenton.
By now the routine has become familiar. He arrives a half-hour early, orders a cup of coffee, takes out his notebook and chats with whoever shows up. It’s a wonderfully simple idea that the mayor seems to genuinely enjoy.
When I showed up this morning at around 7:50 he was seated in the center of a few tables with about 7-8 people around him (a few of the mayor’s staff and Commissioner Steve Novick’s transportation policy guy Timur Ender were also there). The conversation was far from chit-chatty; it was actually quite serious given that it was before 8:00 am on a Monday. I think people are starting to realize what a wonderful opportunity it is to sit across a table from the most powerful person in Portland and ask him anything you want.
And it’s worth noting that these conversations are not all about bikes. In fact, bikes never even came up at the cafe this morning. The people around the table — all of whom were engaged activists and very on-point with their facts and issues — wanted to talk about homelessness (“We want no sweeps and more space”), housing affordability (“Rents are out of control, my friends are being pushed out”), the role of developers (“Everything that Eli Spevak [of Orange Splot Development] has asked for we should do right away”), police conduct around the arrest last month of Don’t Shoot PDX leader Teressa Raiford (“There were plenty of white people blocking traffic, her charges should be dropped”), and so on.
Hales listened, took notes, and responded to people’s questions and concerns with confidence and candor. When it was time to roll (it was 8:15 am and he had a 9:00 am meeting downtown to get to you), we walked out to the bike parking corral out front. I was hoping we’d go south on Greeley and Interstate to connect to the Broadway Bridge. Both of those streets have major safety issues that need to be addressed and having the mayor experience them first-hand would be extremely helpful.
Unfortunately however, one of Hales’ staffers felt Greeley would be too unsafe. “That’s the whole point!” I tried to object. And Hales too, to his credit, lightly supported the notion of riding on Greeley (“I want to see what’s broken,” I believe is what he said); but he kindly deferred to his staffer.
The route we ended up doing took us south on Denver, then east on Rosa Parks to Vancouver. We rode south on Vancouver and connected to the Broadway Bridge via Flint and Broadway. Once downtown, we took the lane prior to Burnside to get onto SW 5th (transit mall) which goes directly to City Hall.
Here’s how it looked from the mayor’s perspective…
As the only non-staff person on most of the ride, I took the opportunity to chat with the mayor about a number of things. Any themes emerging from these past few weeks seeing the streets from a bike seat? I asked. “The little gaps and gripes people have,” he said. (Keep in mind everyone, that he’s trying to bike safely while I’m asking him questions so he’s understandably pre-occupied.)
I also asked if he noticed anything different about the people he sees on Sunday Parkways compared to the ones he’s been seeing on these bike commutes. “More families and kids,” he responded. “Why?” I followed-up. “They don’t feel safe,” he said. “They wanted protected places to ride.”
Mayor Hales then shared a common excuse we often hear from politicians and city staffers about why we can’t easily build protected bikeways downtown: They say our old city has streets are too narrow and blocks that are too short. My response was that perhaps it’s time to consider reducing the redundant access to roads we have when we’re driving. I put in my plug for making Director Park into a world-class plaza by prohibiting auto access on two sides (9th and Park). I couldn’t tell if he supported that idea or not, but he did mention an upcoming renovation of the Guild Theater, so perhaps that’s an opportunity to re-think auto access at that location.
The mayor then mentioned how pleased he’s been with the approach taken by Better Block PDX to demonstrate how we could design more protected spaces for riding and walking. If he liked those events, I asked, and they’re considered a success, why haven’t we gone back and implemented them for real? He said the new bike lane coming to SW 3rd is an example of making something permanent (that project is supposed to be striped sometime this week). I asked why we can’t implement the “Better Naito” project and was happy to hear him say, “That’s the next thing on our list.”
While I was disappointed he didn’t experience the hair-raising speeds people drive next to the bike lane on Greeley, the dicey merge onto the I-5 on-ramp, or the Larrabee squeeze on North Interstate, the mayor did subject himself to the construction zone conditions currently plaguing the Broadway Bridge. Scaffolding for a major re-painting project has narrowed the bridge path to only four feet or so and we’ve gotten a lot of complaints from riders who think it’s less safe than it should be. Hales managed it without incident and thanked the work crew flaggers as we went by.
As we rolled down Broadway into Portland I tried to impressed upon the mayor that Broadway could — and should! — be our city’s marquee bikeway. It bisects the central city and already handles some of the highest volumes of bicycle ridership anywhere. I mentioned how when former Mayor Sam Adams built our first protected bikeway up near Portland State University way back in 2008, the hope and intention was that it would be extended to Burnside, then to the Broadway Bridge, and ultimately into northeast neighborhoods (a project outlined in the BTA’s Blueprint plan).
I can’t resist peppering the mayor with my own ideas and hopes for the future; and I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to do it while we’re both biking through the city on our way to work.
I feel like this is a different Charlie Hales than we had those first two years. Actually, it’s the same Charlie, just in a different political context. Regardless, he’s no longer afraid to put bicycling front and center when it makes sense to do so. And that’s a huge deal — not just for cycling — but for the future of our city.
I sincerely hope he keeps this up.