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Mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone: The BikePortland interview

We sat down with Sarah Iannarone to discuss her candidacy in Portland’s May 17 mayoral primary.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

No candidate for mayor is thinking bigger than Sarah Iannarone.

“The rest of the world is watching what we do right now and following our lead, whether we like it or not. Which means you model behavior even if sometimes it’s challenging. Which means, one, that we’re going to stop subsidizing the automobile.”
— Sarah Iannarone

That’s not just because of her policy proposals, like making part of downtown Portland car-free within 10 years or doing an experimental road diet on SE 82nd Avenue. It’s that Iannarone sees Portland as a city of global importance: a city that must be on its “best behavior” (as she puts it) because it has a special responsibility as an example to the world.

Though her opponents Ted Wheeler and Jules Bailey have been more frequently described as seeing City Hall as a step to other jobs, Iannarone is at least as ambitious as they are. In our March 16 interview, she casually mentioned a scenario where she were Oregon’s governor (breaking the narrative of the “urban-rural divide” would be among her goals, she said) and made clear at several points that she sees good governance in Portland as a way to effect change worldwide.

Iannarone’s wide lens fits her day job: she’s the No. 2 at First Stop Portland, which shows off Portland’s highlights to visitors from around the world. Her boss in that job: Nancy Hales, the sitting mayor’s wife and one of her largest donors in this campaign.

That link has led some to see Iannarone as a stand-in for departing Mayor Charlie Hales. Others, looking at her lack of prior political office, suspect she might be a policy lightweight.

But Iannarone, who has spent years as a volunteer on various city committees, is not light on policy. If anything, she has the opposite problem: Her detailed ideas about Portland’s future sometimes come tumbling faster than she can modulate them. In our talk, she sometimes veered midsentence from subject to subject, or from sky-high concept to block-level specifics.

Those connections can sometimes be hard to follow, in part because she has a conversational tic of beginning policy proposals with a variation on the phrase “what does it mean if…” but failing to actually answer her own question. On the other hand, for someone whose campaign aims to expand the scope of the possible, maybe that’s appropriate.

It’s also worth noting here that Iannarone was endorsed last week by Bike Walk Vote PAC, an independent political committee.

Here were our big takeaways from a one-hour conversation with Iannarone:

• More than any leading candidate, Iannarone’s transportation policy is built on the belief that mass transit, biking and walking are good for the economy. She describes the notion of any tradeoff between business growth and sustainable transportation as a misperception.

• Like all the leading candidates, she supports the city’s proposed 10-cent gas tax. Unlike others, she thinks it should be extended another four years after its first four are up, to buy more time for a shift to a vehicle-miles-traveled tax at the state level.

• If she had her druthers, no more than half of the gas tax would go to pavement maintenance (the actual ratio is about 56 “maintenance,” 44 “safety”). Like all the leading canddiates, she feels bike infrastructure is underfunded in the plan.

• Iannarone, who lives near 80th and Foster, personally participated in a demonstration for a new crosswalk there. She said she is terrified that her daughter will be hurt by someone driving carelessly on Foster.

• Like Bailey, she frequently bikes to work. Unlike any leading candidate, she has lived for years in Portland as a working mother without owning a car.

• Like all the leading candidates, her top priority for bike infrastructure is East Portland. She feels relatively low-cost solutions like jersey barriers along bike lanes would greatly improve transportation there. For closer-in neighborhoods, she favors the sort of bike infrastructure changes that require a “can of paint and political will.”

• Iannarone feels that despite the citywide affordability crisis, central Portland does not have a worse affordability problem if you look at housing costs in combination with its lower transportation costs. “If I walk two minutes to work and then I have eight modes of transit, including car-share, Lyft and Uber within a minute of my smartphone, of course my transportation costs are going to be minimal.”

• She is very clear about opposing any net public subsidies for driving or parking. But she seems open to publicly financing parking garages if the city expects them to be self-supporting, and she also describes the Orange Line’s Tacoma Street Station park and ride, where transit riders park free, as a model, though she wishes it could have been bigger.

• On development issues, she supports internal home divisions and multiple ADUs in R5 zones but prefers to focus much more development on centers and corridors. For example, she said she could imagine Montavilla getting 20-story apartment buildings like the Lloyd District within 10 years.

Want to dig into Iannarone’s thoughts yourself? Listen to a recording of our conversation below (the audio improves after the first minute) or read the lightly edited transcript below.


Iannarone at her campaign launch in January.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

What made you want to run? What do you see as the big story you’re trying to tell and the themes of your your race?

I don’t want Portland to be passe. We saw that article by Carrie Bye in the Willamette Week a couple months ago: “I’m leaving Portland, here’s why.” I don’t want those kind of stories. I just had a conversation about “Is Portland losing its soul?” No. That’s not inevitable. Let’s do what Portland does. Which is when we see something that we don’t like, we figure out how what to do.

We need in the mayor’s seat someone with a big vision for Portland — that we haven’t seen actually in a good long while. Which means what? For the person who’s who slogging through day to day life of congestion and housing affordability crises, overcrowded classrooms, food deserts, whatever it is that you’re up against in your daily life in Portland — without being able to maintain necessarily that 30,000 view — we need leadership. Someone in the Mayor’s seat in particular who can say: Yeah, these are growing pains.

“People would say, ‘A lot of this got under way 30, 40 years ago. What’s next?’ And I didn’t have a clear answer. I didn’t see anyone on the horizon with that answer either.”
— Sarah Iannarone

It’s like adolescence: just because you grow from a teenager to an adult, it don’t doesn’t mean you’re not you. It’s just a process that you go through. So what are we going to look like on the other side of these growing pains? I think we need a vision for that. You know, what’s our next iteration of Portland going to be? You can’t just be discouraged and bogged down in the problems that we currently face. Otherwise you know, solving some of those problems is going to be nearly insurmountable without a north star to guide us. Because I don’t care what qualities of leadership you “bring to the task” — if you don’t know the direction you’re heading, how do you rally the people of Portland behind you and head in that direction? The way we did 40 years ago when our enemy at the door was the automobile, and we were convinced that what we needed to do was constrain sprawl.

From my day job at Portland State University I host leaders from around the world to come to study sustainability policy best practices. These are people who are experts either in developing policy for their own cities or implementing policy or coming up with technology or other solutions to make that urban transformation happen in their own cities. And they look and they say, “Well you’ve done a really good job here, Portland, and made a really nice place, but from the story that you’re telling, a lot of this got under way, you know, 30, 40 years ago. So what’s next?”

And when they would ask me that question, I didn’t have a clear answer. I didn’t see anyone on the horizon with that answer either. And I have some good ideas about what I think is next for Portland. So that’s why I’m running for mayor.

So what are those ideas? What are, like, three or four characteristics of the Portland 30 years from now we don’t have today?

It’s equitable, number one. We need to understand that climate change is the pressing issue of our generation and that that is foremost a human rights issue. Right? Because whether or not humans are here, the planet is going to continue to go on. And if as a species we want to survive and thrive, we need to make sure that we’re all in it together. So being an inclusive city, an equitable city, a city where it’s not about growth at all costs but growth so that we can capture the benefits and continue to invest in our communities, our goals.

So what it does it look like in 30 years? We’re fossil free. We’re a post-carbon city, and we’re not struggling to keep up. We laid the foundation so that we are leaders, economically out front when it comes to clean tech, green tech, infrastructure, the kind of smart technologies we need to be carbon free.

At a debate on March 1st.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Equitable: What does it mean to be a place where the prosperity is equitably distributed and we’re not hollowing out our middle class and having income and prosperity concentrated in the top one percent while we’re growing and growing poverty and misery for people who are already least able to deal day to day because of this or that lack of resources and lack of abundance in their daily life.

And one of the things I’m talking about pretty actively is what we do about racism here. You and I mentioned briefly Trump on the way in the door. It’s on everyone’s minds right now. The fervor among Americans right now, it’s almost without hope for some solution. And the racism and the biases are amplified in that atmosphere. And I think, once upon a time what Portland did was aspire to be an environmentally friendly place when other places weren’t looking at that yet. They didn’t understand that protecting the natural environment could be good for the economy, could be good for the people. We came up with that triumvirate of people and places and prosperity pretty early on and embraced it.

But what does that mean for us? If we are racist, we’re not even able to begin to address how we’re going to equitably distribute power and prosperity. Because there are people here who have no voice and no role in how these decisions are made that affect their lives every day. And I would like to see us become an actively anti-racist place. So that the same way we let Minneapolis get ahead of us in bike lanes, right? Great! Let everyone else get ahead of us in dismantling racism actively, through public policy, the same way that we actively use public policy to reinforce and establish racism.

I’m not sure I understood the the parallel. We were ahead on sustainability; we were behind on sustainability. You’re saying we are behind on racism?

What I’m saying is that once we were a green leader. I’m saying that let’s not necessarily have to be a leader in that. Because we need all the cities to be doing that. I don’t think the leadership part is what we should be focused when it comes to sustainability any more. Do we need to have more green buildings than other cities? Why? Let’s let all the cities have green buildings. Let’s continue to innovate and share ideas. I mean, it’s a global network and a global conversation about how cities are going to be “sustainable.” What I’m saying is. Portland can get out in front of them by understanding there’s social work to be done right now. And when we’re a leader in that, we can we maintain our model status. Because now the rest of the world’s going, “Wait a second. So first, you guys figured out how to build environmentally friendly places. And now you’ve got socially sustainable places as well? Now there’s really something going on.”

Because that local resiliency, that local prosperity, is what’s going to protect us from an increasingly unstable global financial market in the same way that our climate resiliency is going to protect us from increasingly unstable climate change. Right? So they go hand in hand. And that’s something we need to be intentional about and talk about strategically, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the only thing to do. I’ve not heard a single candidate running for mayor talk about it in those terms.

Talk about what in which terms?

The equity, in terms of the basis of our future prosperity. You can’t have one without the other, and that’s what I’m saying climate change and and human rights are inextricable.

Great. How does transportation fit into all that?

My goodness. It’s so central to everything we’re trying to accomplish.

You know as an alternate transportation advocate, cycling advocate, the role that getting us out of single-occupancy vehicles is going to play, just to begin with. It’s going to play not only in our public health, our mental health, our environmental health, but by helping us meet our greenhouse gas emission goals and livability, safety, psychology.

We need to be thinking about what is a car-free, or at least a post-internal-combustion single occupancy automobile future. We realize it’s not sustainable, it’s not working. It kills people. When I think about Vision Zero, when I think about more people dying on Portland’s streets — as mayor my number one task is going to be public safety, right? We don’t want people dying in our streets by any means. That makes the relationship to the automobile central.

What are our alternatives? Okay Portland. You want to be a climate-forward city? You want to be a socially sustainable and just society? Now what do you do about transportation? And how we answer those questions is going to secure our future.

So what are some specific steps we can take?

Well, we were laughing as we saw the Trib on the way in and I had heard you want to talk about Foster Road, out in my neighborhood. Let’s go down to a real example. Out on Foster Road where my neighbors — they got approval in, what, 2012, from city council? There’s been pushback actually right where down the block where I walk my dog every morning to get my coffee. The European furniture store owner a few weeks ago hung a very bright fluorescent sign to say “Call the mayor, this is horrible, this is horrible, the congestion is going to kill us, it’s gonna eat us alive.”

And then you saw this going viral as businesses along the street and then it comes up, well, so I sent a Facebook message: What’s going on? Why are they so upset? The public process, I mean, we’ve got the buy-in and all this is ready to rock and roll? What’s happening?

Oh, PDC has been talking to so and so, blah blah blah. The liaison for this and I’m thinking, Ugh. This is exactly what we need to not be having, these conversations. A woman posted something on my Facebook wall the other day about “how can you talk about getting automobiles off, don’t you realize about my commute times and impact on business?” And I thought, we need to be talking about the data. We have clear evidence that suggests having more pedestrian traffic, having more bicycle traffic on the streets, can be far far better.

Most of the people in my neighborhood are still very very auto centric. How is this going to grow that neighborhood? How is that going to positively impact our business environment? And I don’t see a healthy conversation about that. Even now when we should be so masterful at this. We’ve done so many projects like this around the city. How can we have this going to break down right now? To me that’s unconscionable.

What is the city failing to do?

Well, first of all obviously this person doesn’t feel if they were involved in the process, right, or they would have a clear understanding of the pros and cons from the get go. So somewhere along the way this person feels like perhaps they were left out process.

Isn’t that going to be the case with every process, though? There are always going to be people who didn’t go to the meeting, right? He’s got a business to run.

What does civic engagement in the 21st century look like? Does everyone have to show up at a meeting? I think that outreach about that needs to be about “Here are the pros and cons and here are the limits in the possibilities.” This person has off-street loading access. He’s worried about freight and he actually has many freight options that are not gonna be largely affected by the transportation plan. The disconnect is this person isn’t understanding. This means that we’re not getting information to her or him that they need to be able to make a rational decision about what’s going to be best for their business.

“These shared goals are the same. We want Foster Road to prosper. We want those businesses to prosper. No one doesn’t want that.”
— Sarah Iannarone

And if they do still have valid concerns and how are we addressing them, you know, I hear the same things about the Goat Blocks and the density that’s going in there when you’ve got some pretty freight-heavy purveyors adjacent to that. And what’s that what is the balance of trucks and commerce relative to the pedestrian, bicycle, gonna look like? We need to paint a clearer picture for the residents of Portland. We shouldn’t be creating us versus them scenarios. We should be creating win-win-wins. These shared goals are the same. Right? We want Foster Road to prosper. We want those businesses to prosper. No one doesn’t want that. So maybe one of the things we do: we put the freight information up at the top if we know that’s going to be the biggest place of pushback. The same way as when they’re trying to unclog Los Angeles’s streets with the MoveLA project.

When it comes to traffic and transportation investments, though, people worry about gentrification. So you put the anti displacement measures at the top. The Foster streetscape plan isn’t about the project. It’s about the people and the businesses and the place. And we miss that connection sometimes. Especially the wonks who work downtown ard are worried about the red waves and the signal timing and all that. Because we do want to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the system, but we need to always bear in mind that these are projects that foremost for communities. So they must serve communities.

So are you saying you come to the Foster Road business association and say “We are here to make this district more prosperous. That’s our goal.” And they say, “OK, great. What’s your plan for doing that?” And then you have to say, “Oh, we’re going to take this street to a turn lane and two lanes and a bike lane on each side.” And they’re like, “What is the connection there?”

Well that we obviously didn’t make the connection in advance that increased pedestrian activity is better for business that more motorists. We did the exact same thing when we had pushback on the Transit Mall from downtown business. Still to this day I don’t understand why we have an automotive lane on that transit mall. It’s completely ineffective. In many ways it’s unsafe, because the cyclists have no way to go. And skateboarders, they have to go four walks out of their way to get anywhere. You and I both know that you get off the Hawthorne Bridge and it’s to nowhere. Right?

So yeah, we have to stop in some ways and and say wait a minute let’s not make these decisions based on what the way things have always been done, but what are our shared goals? That Foster Area business association, they have a great organization. They come to the table first. You don’t go to them after the citizen activist or the transportation activist has already put their ideas in. They already have buy-in.

The furniture store guy has a point, you know? He’s an eastern European immigrant. [Iannarone later emailed to correct herself on this: the current generation of the Schleifer family were actually born in the United States.] Probably largely disconnected from American political process. He’s probably largely disconnected from the civic engagement here in Portland. Maybe without that leisure time to attend the neighborhood association. How are we gonna make that system work for him? For most?

How indeed?

In some ways it’s about meeting them where they’re at. As someone who watched that process go for a very long time, I volunteered for that because I’m interested in transportation projects. And how do we bring the people to the table very early on?

It’s going to be the same question as East Portland right you can’t have PBOT going into East Portland and saying, “people, okay, so here are some of my technicians and here are some of my experts and let’s do this.” You have to go there and listen first. You go and gather the Foster area businesses together, you say “Hey we’ve heard some rumblings that your street’s unsafe.” You know, I remember it was Sam — I was out protesting at 80th and Foster Road because people were getting killed in the same pathway that my daughter walks back and forth to her friend’s house.

This was during the Adams administration, you’re saying?

Yeah. And we got the the blinking lights installed there after that, about $70,000. You have to be responsive to the needs of the people. It’s not the projects first. It’s about the community first. And if you understood Foster Road and the people were operating out there, like Buck from Stove Palace and Nick Storie who had the Bob White Theater for a while, and people like me who run businesses out there, even the Portland Mercado, right? Who are your customers? What are their needs? What is your vision? What is your plan? And then the transportation becomes a tool. And while we’re doing that, that’s when the experts come and lend the expertise. I’ve always thought that streetcar would be fantastic. I will probably get pushback for this because not everyone loves Streetcar, but as a development tool I think Streetcar on Foster would make good strong connections with the Lents Town Center which has struggled and which is very connected to that Green Line. Would help increase capacity for existing transit investments and grow business.

So there are ways where you can get you can think about things incrementally. Piloting things. Pick an intersection or two. Start small. I understand there are trade offs with regard to efficiency. But I think there are ways especially when you start thinking about some of the bigger arterials — so there are orphan state highways in the ways that we’re gonna have to deal with them in the future — incremental is going to be I think, pilot projects are probably going to be one of the approaches we have to increasingly adopt to get some of the major transformative changes we need to make in the future.

What’s an example of one of those major transformative changes that could use a pilot project to sort of communicate or research its effects?

Well. I think about 82nd Avenue a lot. Because my neighborhood abuts it. But also it’s so symbolic, right? It’s the symbolic divider between East Portland and the rest of Portland. And if there were a mayor right now, I want to hear them saying a few things right about our post-carbon future, equity, sustainability, but also bridging the divide. And how we grow in East Portland, grow sustainably there without a lot of displacement, is going to be, I think is key to our future. Because how that works is going to be a model for the rest of the world and how you retrofit your suburbs in the post-auto future. Think about that: because that form largely resembles a lot more of the rest of America than our beautiful 200-foot grid in the city center. That’s a luxury that most places don’t have. So one, so it’s a way for us to be an innovatorive leader. Two, you’ve got some great resources on 82nd Avenue. You’ve got PCC at 82nd and Division. You’ve got a wonderful coalition in APANO and the Jade District and the Fubonn shopping center there. You’ve got a nice hotbed of activity. You think a little bit closer but my area where the folks at the Eastport Plaza have done great work over probably 20 years. There are neighborhood businesses in that Eastport Plaza, even though it has a strip mall aesthetic, you know, and even though there’s a Walmart there. It’s not this “us versus them” where you have these tiny bespoke boutiques versus the big box stores. There’s a real mix.

So what so what does it look like for PBOT to actually go there and say, “We have some resources. And one of our goals is a city is to boulevard some of our major arterials to bring them down to more human scale, to make them safer for pedestrians.” Again, not creating this transportation option dichotomy, but saying foremost we’re thinking about safe, walkable, vibrant, economically thriving communities and neighborhoods.

“You start doing a little bit of road diet, some gradual streetscape, maybe some bicycle lanes or separated bikeways, right?”
— Sarah Iannarone on 82nd Avenue

So how do we pilot perhaps just a small stretch of 82nd between Division and Holgate, maybe? You’ve got PCC and the Jade District at one end, you’ve got Eastport Plaza at the other. You start doing a little bit of road diet, some gradual streetscape, maybe some bicycle lanes or separated bikeways, right? Not heavy, not huge projects, but slowly and incrementally, helping folks realize their own vision for what might be there. Don’t go in with a preconceived notion of what needs to be there. And then also knowing that we’ve got a lot of interest in Powell, right? And so then you start to think about how can this be a catalyst for what the goals we’re trying to achieve with Powell, the bus rapid transit that we’re thinking about out there that’s hitting an awful lot of community pushback especially with regard to the changes that they’re seeing potentially happening in their communities. Gentrification. Displacement. Loss of frequent bus service. Stations being located much further apart, so people with limited mobility have to walk further to get to their stops. All of these concerns for communities. And so then thinking about, okay so how can we use the crossing of Powell there? How can we spread out so that we’re starting to even just scale down a little bit from the automobile there so these aren’t such shocking and traumatic transformations.

I’m not sure I understand what you’re proposing when you say “scale down.” What do you mean, “stretch out”?

Well, the street level amenities. So the pedestrian safety, the bicycle safety, some of the low-hanging fruit that you can get through bollards and street extensions and bioswales. Even if it barely affects the automobile traffic, psychologically we’re starting to pull people out of the six-lane environments into — you’re pulling back space from the automobile and reclaiming it for the humans.

You’re saying you could use something like bollards and paint to change the angle of turning.

Yeah, just simple engineering street design. But what you’re doing then is through that, you go based on the values of the people who were in those areas and say what are your foremost goals? Is it safety? Well then we’ll make sure that what we’re doing is increasing safety. Is it about efficiency? Well, fewer curb cuts would be safer and more efficient, so let’s get people turning at the light. Just little things like that, we’re based in the community goals. As opposed to saying “well, our transportation laws are we need to get this many people out of cars this fast, and that’s gonna take y’all sacrificing.” It’s not about sacrificing, it’s about winning. Especially in these places where you’re having to bridge value sets. It’s a lot harder. I mean, I make a huge sacrifice living at say 63rd and Foster. Commuting an hour a day by bicycle or transit. As opposed to having an automobile. Because actually I can go much much quicker in a car until I hit about 20th street maybe is where the congestion actually starts. Why would people, unless ideologically they embrace that — what’s their tradeoff? Why get out of the automobile?

Just money.

Right? So we need to make it affordable, we need to make it attractive. And that’s not us giving them what we think they want. It’s about what do you need here. When I hear the BRT conversation, the transportation wonk and the city planner in me goes, “Of course you want BRT! Don’t you realize the development potential in the blah blah blah and the blah blah blah that you’re going to experience from this?” But the committee member in me says “Well, your concerns are real and we can’t focus on BRT at all costs.” So maybe even reverse the process of the bus rapid transit. What would happen if we actually said “We value this so much, we’re going to start out at Mount Hood [Community College] and come back to 82nd? We’re gonna do it slowly. And we’re gonna do it your way. Places where the cost may be a little lower for us.

So you mention a bunch of changes to 82nd and Powell, all of which would have to happen over ODOT’s dead body, or with a bunch of money that the city doesn’t have to spend on the street. So where do we get the money for that?

Well, one we need to have some serious conversations with ODOT about those orphan highways and how we’re gonna wrestle them back as streets in our city. I know living on a street that has the scale of something like Foster Road: those are our city streets, not highways. Especially as we grow. What’s that conversation ODOT going to look like? It’s going to look the same way as the furniture store on Foster Road. What’s in it for you? What can we do for you, and how are we going to pay for it? That’s why I think we need to think about the systems development charges and some of the other things that we can do to spur development, that’s way where our real estate finance as a city, it can come into play. And again it’s because piloting: we can do a lot more, we can we can do a lot in a little area right with local dollars, in ways that we couldn’t do whole swaths. But then once we’ve got buy-in, and I think you have a little bit more saying, well, you were able to improve safety outcomes here, we have money for safety improvements.”

Which budgets are these?

ODOT’s. With money that they’re already spending on certain things we can then legitimize the fact that we will have these outcomes, it’s just going to be a little bit different. And to be honest with you I’m not sure what those negotiations are going to be like for how we get those dollars. Part of it is going to be working with the state and how the VMT — is it an excise fee? I’m not sure what they call it.

Something like that, yeah. Whatever replaces the gas tax.

Yeah. That needs to be going to urban areas. I know it’s a hard thing in the urban-rural divide but the intensity and use of urban areas — it’s so high.

You’re saying the revenue needs to go to urban areas?

Yeah. We need to have an increase in the revenue in urban areas because the intensity of use on our city streets. And I do not like perpetuating the urban rural divide. It’s actually something I think that if I were going to be governor of Oregon or something, it’s something I would have to work really really hard at. We have to think about that distribution of resources. But also starting to think about how do we get users to pay? Some people talk about licensing bicycles and things like that. I’m like, are you kidding? Other cities are paying people to cycle because cycling is so much less taxing on our infrastructure and so it’s less taxing on our environment, I can’t even get behind that it all. But what does it mean to incentivize behavior we want and disincentivize behavior we don’t? Tolling. We don’t talk about tolling here, it’s very unpopular. As someone who grew up on the East Coast, just like sales tax, it’s hard to imagine life without tolling. I feel like I’m kind of a free rider because we don’t collect user fees.

“I am not anti-automobile. I want people to be able to use whatever option they need. But we don’t need to necessarily be clogging up the streets with single occupancy vehicles.”
— Sarah Iannarone

So what’s the road from here to tolling? Where would that happen?

Let’s ask everyone to guess: it’s between Vancouver and Portland on I-5. How we figure out what we’re gonna do across that river is going to be a game changer. And you know maybe make one great way would be to toll the automobiles and make really very affordable transit. Those cars coming from Washington — don’t need them downtown, we don’t want them downtown. And I am not anti-automobile. I don’t want to be positioned as that. I want people to be able to use whatever option they need. But we don’t need to necessarily be clogging up the streets with single occupancy vehicles. We need to be moving freight. Commuters especially have many other options in and out of the city center.

You support the gas tax. If the gas tax fails, what is your best alternative to it and what’s what’s the next step in the short run to keep the pavement from falling apart? If the gas tax succeeds, what is the next step after expires after four years?

I think we’ll have to go for another four years. I’m optimistic that it’s going to pass — we’re into such dire straits now, that the opportunity costs of not maintaining what we have now, it’s gonna be just horrendously more expensive in the future. I think people polled get that for the large part.

I think eight years — in that time I’m hoping that something like vehicle miles traveled tax will be more feasible technologically. There’s been some libertarian concerns expressed with regard to privacy but I think we can overcome that. If we get this Smart Cities grant from the feds, which would be a nice innovation seed, we can probably start to look at some of that.

I assume you’d envision that at the state level, a VMT fee? And you’re saying a long term plan is switch to a VMT and get the state to give more money to the cities?

Yep. Because we’d have data. So we’d be able to know where the VMC was going right and you can spend your dollars accordingly. I mean that’s one of the beautiful things about data-driven decision making — things like that so that we’re not be making all these decisions so politically, us versus them, haves versus nots, but that we’re in it together. We can get our share.

One of the eternal questions of the transportation world is how much you spend on making bad areas decent and how much do you spend on making good areas better. You talked about the pressure of listening to communities — there’s been a huge process in East Portland to get the’s Portland action plan and mobility plan passed. We’ve had that conversation; we have a big list of stuff. We just haven’t spent the money to do it. Same thing in the central city: there’s a ton of pressure to improve things for biking and transit into the places where people are doing it the most. You can’t do both. You’d like to do both. How do you choose with one dollar where to go?

Well, when I think about one dollar I like to solve two problems. If we do make investment in the city center, I think the question we ask ourselves is this. Where our markets are hot — employment markets, real estate markets — we’re always going to have better return on that single dollar. If we opt to go to a place with higher ROI, how are we capturing the value in that and making sure it’s invested in the place where the market fears to tread?

So you make a bunch of money off selling the post office site and —

I actually don’t think we should sell the post office site. I think we should lease it. And I think we should actually capture the value of that land lease first. What does it look like to capture value in one part of the city that’s thriving and attracting investment, capture that intentionally, so you have top outcomes in places —

So you use that to connect blocks in Gateway.

Gateway, Lents. Again, around our education centers and job centers. To talk about Gateway and Lents just a little bit, because I do have some interesting ideas having served on the PDC strategic development plan. One thing that’s not particularly popular — it wasn’t particularly popular around that table — is the fact that I don’t think that every single place in Portland needs to be a compact walkable neighborhood. I’ve talked about having them from “edge to edge.” I think there are certain places for focusing on as transit-connected job centers, innovation centers, employment centers. Some of that’s almost campus-like if you build it at a district scale. With some of that, we can let the bar go a little lower just because we solve our last mile probably through cycling or car sharing or things like that.

I guess what I’m talking about is changing the mindset a little bit from not having to be compact. The people of Lents probably aren’t going to love that.

But you’re saying it’s more important for it to be a job center than for it to be walkable.

I think there are places in it that can be walkable but I think adjacent to the transit investments we’ve made already on the Green Line in Lents — think about the ballfield site over in Lents, off the town center. That’s a huge opportunity for a campus site. There’s a lot of things that could be happening.

I don’t get bogged down in the details. What it is is thinking creatively, outside the box, about Portland’s future and how that relates to where do we have the existing transportation infrastructure? How can we intensify that, and what is the low hanging fruit around that? I don’t think every single thing needs to be necessarily the most glamorous project, too. Jersey barricades go a long way in keeping a cyclist safe from an automobile, right? There’s an awful lot of places, especially in East Portland, where a nice wide lane separated from that fast moving traffic, a Jersey barricades between a motorist or a truck and a bicycle would go a very very long way for very very few dollars and be a hugely symbolic action on the part of the city to say, “we value your life, it’s safe to bike between your home and your school and your office.

That gets back to the the question about central versus outskirts. I mean, jersey barriers are cheap compared to some things, but they’re very expensive compared to paint. When you’re making the decision of whether to increase the number of people biking in the central city versus increase the tolerance for even thinking about biking on 167th, how do you think about that?

“Where are people dying? That’s what you ask yourself. And then you say “How do we stop that?” And that’s where you start to look at investments.”
— Sarah Iannarone

Where are people dying? That’s what you ask yourself. And then you say “How do we stop that?” And that’s where you start to look at those investments. Because if it’s just the can of paint and political will, then put that where the people aren’t dying. Where people are dying, you put the Jersey barricade. Because what we need to think about, if we’re going to truly envision Vision Zero, it’s about not having people dying on our streets. And that equity there is that some people don’t have a safe life. I know again when I send my daughter out across Foster Road, it doesn’t matter if she’s in the crosswalk. Those motorists don’t necessarily see her and she has to see them. And she’s on her phone, she’s Snapchatting. It terrifies me. When it’s symbolic and it’s about respect, that’s where I think you can you go with things that are smaller.

How can we do some really clever things in East Portland if we do get the bus rapid transit, what can those stations look like? My understanding is that probably out there we don’t need a dedicated right of way for the bus but that closer to the city center we should, and ny understanding that in the plans right now there’s no plans for dedicated right of way. And I wonder, what is the point of BRT without a dedicated right of way? So my thoughts would be, if you start we don’t need a dedicated right of way, it buys us a little time too, to get Portlanders to buy into BRT where we’re really going to need it.

One more PDC question. There’s talk about how do you fund the PDC after the URAs expire. One of the things talked about are parking garages in Old Town and the Central East Side as future revenue opportunities. What’s your take on whether there should be public support for those garages?

Well, as a city we should not be subsidizing the automobile, ever, as a matter of public policy. So if automobiles aren’t paying for themselves, and automobile centric activities aren’t paying for themselves, we don’t put public dollars in. I think there’s things you can do with dynamic parking, tiered fee structures.

There’s more demand at 7 p.m., so we raise the price at 7 p.m.

Yeah, sure. The technology’s coming. In some instances it’s already there. And we can we can capture a lot of that value. When it comes to the parking structure, you know I don’t want I don’t want to drill down into the details of that particular project and agreement. That convention center hotel took a lot longer than it should have because of some political realities and I’m not sure what the role that parking garage played in that tradeoff, you know. But my administration would be about intentionally not subsidizing the automobile as a matter of public policy.

We’re seen as a platinum standard when it comes to transportation around the world. I understand this uniquely among my opponents: that the rest of the world is watching what we do right now and following our lead, whether we like it or not. Which means you’re on your best behavior and you model behavior even if sometimes it’s a little bit challenging. Which means, one, actively one stating the intention that we’re going to stop subsidizing the automobile. Because it doesn’t meet any of our goals. It doesn’t meet our equity goals, it doesn’t meet our economic goals, it doesn’t mean our environmental goals.

Here’s what we are going to do. Do we build parking structures as a city? Maybe sometimes. I think in some places where we’re trying to meet our affordable housing goals, allowing developers to not have to provide parking, getting rid of those parking minimums, maybe we do need a district parking area. But that could be an economic generator. It doesn’t have to have a net cost.

But doesn’t that end up subsidizing automobiles?

Because we’re not going to pay for it as a city. We’ll make sure that we allow them, and that districts can have them if they need or want them, but there should be some basic environmental standards, maybe there’s active use on the ground floor. Because we have to understand: people are not going to give up their cars. We’re going to have to transition toward electric vehicles, which I am very much in favor of. But even those, where do people put them? That’s why I’m saying that for our affordability goals, having district parking that’s on the edges of places is not a bad idea. Look at the popularity of park-and-ride at the Orange Line. That was full in like a week and Eastmoreland was already complaining people were parking on the streets that had been empty before, because everyone has like three car garages in that neighborhood. I think it actually looks quite lively there right now — as someone who doesn’t live in Eastmoreland I have the luxury of not saying that. But structures like that I think are great. They have transportation goals. But we didn’t have enough money for that to do what we knew the demand would be. Well, how do we get those dollars in advance when those are our goals to get people to use transit? It’s just about being intentional about what you’re fighting for.

You’ve said several times that you want to envision a car-free central city, but I don’t have a clear idea of what you see as the steps to get to that.

This goes back to me talking about what does it mean for Portland to be a model. We look at what does it mean for Oslo to be car-free in the city center, and this notion of car-free cities? I think that we need to start symbolically with a small part of our city center. And you would probably build it around the places where the existing infrastructure is tightest. The Transit Mall. And it wouldn’t be huge. I mean, you think about the French Quarter in New Orleans, it’s about 16 by 16 blocks. And it’s almost a car-free zone just because of the pedestrian activity. What would it look like for us to have a portion of the city that was just not an auto center. I don’t think it’s going to happen by 2018. But about 10 years? I think we can work towards something like that, get that well underway. Get the business community to buy in. How would that feed into tourism? How would that feed into our green marketing globally? I don’t know how we can keep calling ourselves a green leader when it’s taking me 45 minutes to get from the bus stop at 4th and Madison to the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge.

What does it mean for us to just unclog our downtown visually, symbolically, but also functionally? I think it would be very very effective and it would put us back on top again as one of those cities that’s willing to try new things even when it seems like business as usual.

There’s some little spots around the city that I think we can begin to pilot some car-free zones.

OK. Let’s talk about housing affordability for a bit. It’s a huge issue. The aspect we focus on specifically at BikePortland is proximity. The parts of Portland that are farthest out of reach for most people are the ones that are the most bikeable, walkable, transit-friendly. Are there steps that we can take, or do you think we should be taking any steps, to make it possible for more people who are not as rich to live in those areas?

Well I think what you do is you make sure that housing transportation costs are included in the same metric when you’re looking at affordability. I mean that’s something other cities have known for a long time. Every household experiences it. Like, I can live and pay 70 percent of my income to housing if I have zero transportation cost. And plus the time, you have to add the time variable. If I walk two minutes to work and then I have eight modes of transit, including car-share, Lyft and Uber within a minute of my smartphone, of course my transportation costs are going to be minimal.

What we need to be doing is making sure that that’s combined into a single variable. It’s also about connectivity. I think what happens when the further you get out in our network — which is, you know, hub and spoke — we haven’t really realized our goals for multi-centricity yet, because the Green Line we went with the best available option, that ODOT right of way there, so it’s not super connected.

On the highway.

Right. So we haven’t realized a lot of development potential there there are a lot of forgone opportunities there. Which meant that that hasn’t created a kind of vibrancy around the stations that we need. It’s about intensifying the investments we do do — the density we do do — the projects around the existing transportation infrastructure to use that we can keep flooding the outer neighborhoods with as frequent bus service as possible. You know, buses really are the capillaries in the system that are going to get people closer to their homes, their jobs and their school. So we really need to make sure that we’re focusing density in the areas — I know a lot of people are talking about density in the transit corridors in town centers. A lot of people are talking about, oh we need to have density everywhere in town. And I think density all around the city is very important, but focusing on the centers and corridors is going to be key. Because then we can keep the transit efficient, affordable. Because it’s the frequency of service that’s key.

So you’re saying the route to affordability isn’t necessarily to make it cheaper to live in the current, dense walkable areas. It’s to create more dense, walkable transit-friendly areas by running transit lines in places where we can create nodes? Is that it?

“In the current dense areas it’s already affordable and accessible, because the reason that they’re currently dense is because they have good transit.”
— Sarah Iannarone on housing affordability

In the current dense areas it’s already affordable and accessible, because the reason that they’re currently dense is because they have good transit. So when you’re thinking about what’s next Portland and what’s going to get us through these growing pains, we need to increase supply, right? And some of the arguments that we just, you know, open up the field and increase supply like across the board. And what I’m saying is and what the planning bureau is looking at as well and what I just worked on for over a year in the mixed use zones is that where you look at the density in the zoning in the corridors and transit centers. That we do what intensify in those areas. What does it mean to have a buffer around that, so extending out into neighborhoods a little bit, where you’re stepping down the density into the neighborhoods, it’s not just that wind tunnel effect on say Mississippi or Division but you’re actually growing this way. Which is going to be a little bit of a transition for some of those neighborhoods. But thinking about what that does is help us meet our densely goals. While we’re able to provide the transit because you’re still concentrated. The more diffuse we are, the harder it’s going to be to have those concentrated. I mean, we do need to have density all around, but concentrated density needs to be the way to do it.

How many stories does that mean at the peak?

Well it depends on what area you’re in. I mean I think they’re doing a lovely job with high density in the Lloyd District.

But that wouldn’t fit in Montavilla very well.

Well, that depends on what the future of Montavilla looks like. Ask someone what the Lloyd District looked like 20 years ago: a sprawling one-story thing. Now look at the Lloyd Center.

Why did we think Hassalo on Eighth was a good idea? It’s an Eco District. It’s got a low carbon footprint. The design is gorgeous. It fits with our goals of livability, walkability. I think there’s something like something like 800 units that that are going to be a pretty affordable rate by market standards that close to the city center, the Pearl District and other amenities. It’s meeting an awful lot of our goals. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, that may be the same reality for Montavilla and some people out there might love that. But what that wasn’t doing was degrading something that was already there. It’s seen largely as an improvement.

When I moved here 20 years ago, 39th Street, which is now Cesar Chavez, felt like the suburbs. I took a job as an apartment manager out there to save enough money to buy my first home. Our friends were like, you’re moving where? 39th and Gladstone? ANd now I think as I pass 39th and Gladstone on my bicycle and still have like two miles, three miles to go, I think “Wow, how times have changed.” But what does that mean for thinking about 92nd and Foster? Some beautiful density there would be great. Especially if we can can connect up so that that Green Line becomes a viable option. It takes a long time to get anywhere even remotely close to the city center on the Green Line.

So just to clarify on infill stuff, you talk about “density everywhere”: are you talking about the sort of missing middle garden apartments stuff, or are you talking about a more general upzone of R5?

Oh, no no no no. I think you do the bigger projects in the corridors.

So you’re saying you keep R5 more or less the way it is.

Yes. [Iannarone later emailed to clarify: “I do not think we put 5 story buildings in R5 zones, no. But when it comes to infill, I support the work of the Residential Infill Project and their proposal to increase the “missing middle” in R5 zones, especially if we insist that density happens in buffer zones closest to transit corridors.”]

My idea for my idea for the neighborhoods is a little different something folks have talked about a little bit. And. And do please tread carefully on the Lents and Gateway discussions too because those are just outside the box thinking too, those aren’t necessarily plans. And this is just thinking outside the box again. But I went and spent the night at Hazelnut Grove — I’m going to call it an intentional community; some people are calling it a homeless encampment — in the Overlook neighborhood. What surprised me the most about that was people finding their own pathways out of homelessness and building tiny houses was the aspiration. And what you would see was someone who was sleeping on the sidewalk outside Nordstrom one day somehow being invited to join this community. Zero-carbon-footprint tiny homes for $1500 using reclaimed building materials. Things like that we need to be making space for even in neighborhoods. So what does it look like to have multiple ADUs behind homes. What does it look like to take multiple existing big structures and cut them into multiple dwellings and maybe even change to use at the ground level if it’s an older Victorian that’s gonna get torn down or sold for $800,000 and made completely unaffordable. Can we cut that into smaller units and somehow maintain the affordability? Things like that. So it’s not just the cottage apartments, though I do think it’s important to have that base level. It’s about creative solutions.

The gas tax calls for about $3 million for neighborhood greenways, about $4 million protected bike lanes in the four years. [Note: I got this wrong. It’s actually $2.4 million for greenways, $3.2 million for protected lanes.] How do you feel that is in terms of the scale of investment needed for major bike infrastructure citywide? Do you want more or less or is that about right?

So seven total? For four years?


It’s way too low.

So will you aim for a larger gas tax in the next round?

I think we need to balance the maintenance versus some of the safety infrastructure investments. I think about the trade off between street maintenance and other things. I’d like to see that move closer to 50/50 and I’m guessing it’s not 50/50.

It’s 44 or so.


Recreation. Is there anything that you see as a way forward on off-road like mountain biking, singletrack?

Well I think the enthusiasts know best. I have to say I’m a utility cyclist. After I commute by bicycle, I don’t tend to ride as much like some of the hard core people do. I run around and walk for fun. But I know that environmental conservation and mountain bikers have come head to head a lot. Especially in Forest Park. I think there’s probably ways of thinking that maybe they don’t have to be in some of our more pristine environmental areas would probably be the tradeoff. And maybe that’s a great places where you have more sprawling areas to think about. What would it mean to have wonderful biking trails and things like that in East Portland, especially since you can’t ride your bike there.

So you said it might make sense not to put people in the most pristine areas. Where you send people instead?

I think you look at the underutilized spaces and those kind of hidden bonus spaces.

Any specific examples?

I don’t really have any specific examples.

OK. What is a belief that you have about policy that you’re most afraid is wrong?

At my core? That that focusing on social sustainability will indeed make us prosper. It’s we I know that ethically, theoretically, sociologically it’s what we need to be doing. Can we truly impact the market? Can we truly shape our destiny by focusing on what we know is good? Can we do well by doing good — you know the B Corps, the social sustainability, the equity? Will it be enough? We have to go there. We have no choice.

What was your first bike?

Oh my goodness. My first bike was a 10-speed Schwinn with those super super — well, no, that was my first new bike, because I grew up a little bit poor. So my first first bike that I learned to ride bike on was a red banana seat with a big, what do you call, moustache handlebars and streamers. I love riding my bike. Being in a campaign, I don’t have much time to ride. But I’m one of those people who’s a joy bike rider. Pure joy. I sing and smile. Look how happy I am, I’m just talking about my first bike! I can remember like climbing the hill and you get to go down it, wchooo.

I’m sure there’ll be lots of Pedalpalooza rides looking forward to a mayoral candidate.

Well, Bud still does one!

That’s right, yeah.

But maybe I will, if I’m a mayoral candidate — my favorite bike hills or something like that.

This is the third and final long interview transcript we’ll run before the May 17 primary, but our election coverage continues. At the suggestion of readers, we’ve also done a one-hour interview with candidate David Schor. Look for the audio and summary of that conversation next week. And stay tuned for further coverage.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Correction 4/2: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this post had Iannarone referring to “Bob” as the owner of the Stove Palace. It’s Buck.