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Four things I learned by working for the world’s best bike blog

Posted by on August 2nd, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Wonk Night on 82nd Ave-9.jpg

Not included in this listicle: always listen to Jim Howell.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Three years ago, when Jonathan and I were drafting the blog posts in which we’d talk about my joining BikePortland, he offered one of his many lessons that have stuck with me.

Don’t write about BikePortland as if it’s a thing I control, he said. Write about it like it’s a community.

My boss for the last three years isn’t always right. (Just ask him.) But that was one of the many times when he is.

I’ve been writing about local government for 16 years now, depending on how you count college. I’ve written for daily, weekly, twice-weekly and monthly newspapers; for topical blogs and nonprofit websites; for a mom-and-pop email newsletter and one time for the Guardian. I’ve never wanted to be anything but a reporter and I still don’t. (Frankly, I’m scared of ever finding out how terrible I would be at a job I don’t love.)

Before I go, I want to share a few of the lessons that being part of the BikePortland community has taught me.

But I’m almost certain I’ll never love journalism more than I’ve loved these three years at BikePortland. Being part of this miraculous journalistic community — and a miracle is exactly what it is — has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

And that’s why I’m leaving, more or less. BikePortland has been my nominally half-time job for three years, but despite my best efforts and despite the saintly respect for my needs as an employee and a person that Jonathan and his wife Juli have always provided, I can’t say no to BikePortland time. I’m typing this at 10:28 p.m. last Tuesday and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing right now. It’s my 1,402nd post for the site.

That equilibrium can’t continue once I’ve got a baby, and in a few weeks, my wife Mo and I will. (Yep, we’re stoked.) Both of us are going down to 60 percent time for a while, and for me that means walking away from BikePortland … because I can’t imagine ever successfully keeping BikePortland work within such neat boundaries. I will, however, get to more or less continue the Real Estate Beat — 10 percent of my professional time will be blogging for Portland for Everyone, a new local campaign that supports advocates for abundant, diverse and affordable housing.

Anyway, enough about me. Though it’s likely that my writing will keep popping up here sometimes, Friday was my last regular day at BikePortland. Before I go, I want to share a few of the lessons that being part of the BikePortland community has taught me.

1) People are hungry for a sense of direction and meaning in their local civic life

Protest on SE Powell-21.jpg

Cleveland High School sophomore Alyssa Hadley at a 2015 protest of Powell Boulevard’s dangerous design.

It is extremely common to hear people claim that local journalism is doomed in part because people don’t care that much about it.

That’s baloney.

Finding the money is difficult — Jonathan can tell you, though by any reasonable standard he’s been a wizard at making it work against difficult odds. But finding an audience for news that matters is entirely possible. People feel their locations deeply. People are already telling themselves stories that help them make sense of the places they live; they are grasping for meaning in what are, for most people, a bewildering and unpredictable series of events.

If there’s a problem in the local information market, it’s that there is actually a dangerously large shortage of people attempting to fill the public’s hunger for local news. When no one is providing people with accurate or helpful stories about their city, they wind up grabbing onto false or counterproductive ones, such as “the solution to congestion is more lanes of auto traffic” or “people of different culture X are the cause of my problems.”

BikePortland is fantastic because it’s organized around a story: “better biking can and will make Portland a better city for everyone.” That’s its sense of direction. Not everyone thinks this is the right direction to move, but having that story around is like a breeze on a hot day. You feel good about it just because it’s there.

2) Journalism is at its best when it opens people’s eyes to opportunities they didn’t see before

Better Block demonstration project on 3rd Ave-6

If I had to pick one accomplishment at BikePortland that I’m most proud of, it’d be the catalytic role we played in the emergence of Better Block PDX and the transformation of 3rd Avenue.

One day in July 2014, Jonathan and I were in the office kicking around story ideas and we decided to roll together three tidbits into an update about what might be BikePortland’s most enduring obsession: the potential for a downtown protected bike lane network.

The post that came out of that conversation happened to be read by two forces of nature: Ryan Hashagen, a young pedicab entrepreneur who had spent years with the patience of Jane Addams, laying the political groundwork for a campaign by retailers to support bike lanes in Old Town, and Boris Kaganovich, a young engineer who looks at car-dominated streets with the impatience of Elon Musk. Working with many essential allies, these two insanely energetic people forced the ambitious, experimental plaza in front of Voodoo Doughnut into existence — and opened the city’s eyes to a new way of making lasting change on its streets.

Better Block took it from there, holding meetings in Greg Raisman’s living room and finding more inspiring leaders like Gwen Shaw.

But the magic moment couldn’t have happened without BikePortland. Our role wasn’t to win an argument or lead a movement, though the site has done those things too over the years (like the time the BikePortland community saved the 2030 Bike Plan — that was cool too). All we had to do was tell people something they didn’t know. That felt great.

3) There is, and should be, no such thing as unanimity

Active Transportation Debate at PSU-18

They all agree, and they also all disagree.

One of the most important things to understand about BikePortland is that its readership and its comment-thread community are not the same. But BikePortland’s comment-thread community, for all its foibles, is awesome.

Have you noticed how, in the last few years, the comment sections on almost every other website have slunk away into Facebook, vanishing from shared public view and staying reassuringly out of the sight of the journalists whose work is being picked apart, corrected and expanded upon? Not on BikePortland; never on BikePortland.

Most people familiar with BikePortland fall into one of three layers of knowledge of its comment community, but the first two are wrong.

Most people familiar with BikePortland fall into one of three layers of knowledge of its comment community. And though I understand and sympathize with all three of these perspectives, the first two are mostly wrong.

The first layer, common among people who read the site occasionally, believes that BikePortland commenters are an undifferentiated horde of yes men who ride through the city muttering the word “bike” to themselves over and over. (I mean, that sketch was onto something, but still.) Mostly these people don’t read the comments, they’re just shocked and frightened to see the number 144 next to a headline like this one and assume that nobody could possibly have anything meaningful to say about such mundane issues except “yeah!”

The second layer of knowledge of BikePortland comments believes that the community is incurably negative and hates everything. OK, there’s some truth to this, sometimes hilariously so. But that’s a generalization about its culture. The better way to evaluate online discussions is to consider their best moments — because they often couldn’t occur anywhere else.

Spend enough time reading BikePortland comments and you’ll achieve the third layer of knowledge of what they are. And that is the best-informed, cleverest and (yes) most fundamentally optimistic source of divergent and valid bike-infrastructure opinions on the Internet.

Soren, it has been thrilling to watch you step out from behind spare_wheel and throw your irascible heart and brain into organized activism. Davemess, Hello Kitty and Mamacita, thanks for so reliably getting under my skin and forcing me to fight back. (Another great tip I got once from Jonathan: “Only argue with a comment if you think it made a pretty good point.”) Anne Hawley and rachel b and others anonymous and otherwise, thank you so much for slashing merrily through the Y-chromosome rainforest week after week and regularly adding the most interesting twists to the discussion. Gender imbalance is one of BikePortland’s biggest problems and you show us what we’re missing by not doing better at it.

All of you: I am in awe of your collective intelligence. Thank you so much for forcing me to become better, smarter and more honest.

4) Portland is going to achieve its biking destiny because of its impossibly deep well of civic energy

lombard open house

At a Lombard Street open house, 2013.

Portland has problems. Because so many of its creative people have been priced into day jobs or out of town, it doesn’t throw off cultural sparks like the city I fell for in 2006. It remains locked in institutional and structural racism, a fault I came to understand better thanks to BikePortland. And it’s maddeningly hard to reach difficult decisions in a culture that too often reads argument as disrespect and dissent as betrayal.

But thanks largely to BikePortland, I still love our city with everything I’ve got, and I’m still convinced that our love for it is paying off.

If you want a taste of my faith in this city, do what I did for one post and spend an hour reading comment cards from the 20s Bikeway open houses.

If you want a taste of how I feel, do what I did for one post and spend an hour reading comment cards from the 20s Bikeway open houses. Then tell me whether any other city could produce them. The breadth of vision and depth of knowledge by ordinary Janes and Joes, all showing up to a church basement to write on postcards with tiny pencils about a few blocks of bike lane — it’s crazy that this exists anywhere and I’m proud of Jonathan and BikePortland for being, I think, the most important ingredient in building it. But it’s just as crazy that Jonathan has been able to build this insane little business just by informing and inspiring that vision and knowledge. If he could have done that in any other city, I’ve never lived in it.

I’ll close by saying a little about Jonathan, since maybe for once it won’t come off as kissing up. Portland, he’s a treasure. Yes, more than some of us, he can be an asshole. Like every single one of us, he can be blind to his personal privileges. Exactly as I do, he tends to let thing A slide too far because it’s hard and he’s excited about thing B. Here’s a tip for all of you: don’t steer clear of arguing with the guy or calling him out. He needs it and he can take it.

But although BikePortland is relatively tiny in revenue (tinier than its reputation and importance are worth, I am certain) my boss for the last three years is one of the most successful local-news entrepreneurs in the country. (Yeah, it’s a tough business.) And he’s also one of the best. I’ve never had a boss who’s good at such a wide array of different things, or more openly conscious of his limitations. I’ve only had a few who care so deeply about their work, and only one other (Cal FitzSimmons, if you want to know) who enjoys it so much.

And maybe most remarkable for somebody with such deep opinions and such a love of sharing them, Jonathan has a mind that’s just as deeply open. The sort that has maybe been pried open by years of having good arguments.

I’m going to guess that it was this community, as much as anything, that has made Jonathan the impressive dude he is today. I can only guess that this community has changed many of our lives in smaller, similar ways. Let’s keep changing many more.

Want to say goodbye to Michael as a regular team member and talk about what’s next? We’re gathering for drinks and pizza at Rev Nat’s Hard Cider tasting room (1813 NE 2nd Ave, east of Williams, north of Broadway) this Friday (8/5) at 5:00 pm. Come by and join us. SORRY! We can’t make this happen this week. Stay tuned for details of a get together soon.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – mike.andersen@gmail.com

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

55 Comments
  • Evan Manvel August 2, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for the amazing reporting, Michael. You’re a true Portland treasure.

    Your humility and articulate, insightful writing, often raising critical issues many people thinking about bikes haven’t been thinking about, has been invaluable to the public discussion.

    We’re lucky you’re having a kid. Congrats!

    But we’ll miss your fabulous work at BikePortland.

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  • Aaron Brown August 2, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Portland a a better town because you’ve been writing about it. Thanks, Michael.

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  • Joseph Wachunas August 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Michael – it has been an absolute pleasure reading your writing over the years. Your “real estate beat” is something I look forward to, read top to bottom and then spout out facts that I learned afterwards to family and friends ( my wife has a saying “let me guess, you read that on bikeportland”).
    Will miss your journalism greatly but also greatly respect the need to reduce work levels to be with kids.
    Best of luck and many thanks

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  • maccoinnich August 2, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Sad to hear that you’re leaving (though for very good reasons). BikePortland was a great site before you wrote for it, and it will be a great site afterwards, but your contributions to it will be missed.

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  • RH August 2, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Michael, thank you for your passion and the articles you have written!! Do you think you will stay in the Portland area…or has it changed too much the past 5 years?

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  • rick August 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Michael, thanks for your dedication !

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  • Todd Boulanger August 2, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Michael…I will miss your wonk and research skillset that you brought to BP (and the other blogs) these last few years. You raised the bar!
    Good luck with your next phase.

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  • Josh G August 2, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Here is the linked article on “the time the BikePortland community saved the 2030 Bike Plan” without having to login to the library site:
    http://www.cicle.org/blogger-rallies-the-biking-faithful-and-city-hall-blinks/
    Michael, miss you already, glad you aren’t jumping PDX ship.

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  • TonyJ August 2, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Michael,

    Thanks for all the great stories you’ve told around here! Over the last year or so your reporting on parking issues has been extremely important in raising awareness, assisting in recruiting, and pushing the ball forward. Without your help, we’d have new minimum parking requirements in NW!

    Congratulations on the baby! I’m glad you’ll be helping P4E and keeping up the Real Estate beat (that’s where the parking articles are, right?).

    Thanks again!

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  • Roger Averbeck August 2, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Michael,

    Thanks for your excellence and passion in writing! Best of luck and enjoy the new addition to your family!

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  • Lance P August 2, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I hope to continue seeing you around town and hope to one day say hello to mini-Michael!

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  • B. Carfree August 2, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I know I’ll miss those hard-edged, dare I say barbed, posts from Michael. Best of luck with sleep deprivation, it’s worth it. Thank you for all the tremendously awesome work.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 2, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    I have so many feelings about this and they’re all jumbled up and not ready to share in a coherent way. (And besides, I just got a lot busier and haven’t had time to write everything down!)

    And Michael and I have already shared our goodbye conversation so I don’t have to do that here.

    Let me just say that working with Michael was a luxury and I was grateful for every minute of it.

    We made a very good team and I’m sad that we won’t be working as closely together anymore.

    And I’m glad everyone is showing respect for his decision to focus on his family. That’s what I failed to do for so many years when I was caught up in this work (it’s not really “work” to me… this is my life and I embrace that). In fact, I was only finally able to step back a little bit because I trusted Michael 100% to run things.

    OK. I’m stopping here for now.

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. August 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    BikePortland is losing an excellent reporter. I wish you best of luck on your future endeavors! Congrats on the baby, too!

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Oh… And I just want to highlight that we’re NOT meeting Friday for drinks. We need to reschedule. Stay tuned for details.

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  • RH August 2, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Where’s your link to the baby gift registry or diaper fund! 🙂 I’m sure quite a few readers would like to contribute as a way of saying ‘thanks’

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    • Ted Timmons (Contributor) August 2, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      Agree.

      Also: so long and thanks for all the fish.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) August 2, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      That’s very nice of you to say, RH, but we been savin — we’ll be fine. Plus my sister gave us like a bazillion diapers, I’m sure we’re covered, right? Right?

      Instead you should become a BikePortlander if you aren’t already, and help keep that sweet sweet bike information flowing!

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      • Eric Leifsdad August 2, 2016 at 9:58 pm

        A bazillion might last the first couple weeks.

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley August 2, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you, Michael. I’ve learned so much from your writing about the larger, real-estate-related issues surrounding bike riding in Portland, and I look forward to reading more of your great writing and research on Portland For Everyone (you’ll be tweeting alerts to new posts, right?).

    Proud to be part of the Y-Chromosome Rainforest Slashers, and flattered at the mention.

    All the best in your new assignment. I’ll miss your voice around here.

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  • Neil C
    Neil C August 2, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for your dedication over the years Michael. I wish you and your family the best!

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  • devograd August 2, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Congratulations on the baby–so exciting! I’m glad we’ll still get to hear from you every so often on BP.

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  • Lillian Karabaic August 2, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Michael, I’ve loved working with you (and then Jonathan) on the podcast and your Real Estate Beat reporting is pretty much the reference material I end up sending folks when locked in debates about density.

    You’ve done great work here and I look forward to reading more of it!

    Looking forward to you and Mo creating + biking around a tiny human!

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) August 3, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      It’s been a joy to work with you too, Lily. See you soon.

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  • Kimberlee August 2, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you, Michael. As a commercial real estate lawyer, I have very much enjoyed reading your articles for a perspective that is often missing from the other news outlets I read to keep current on real estate issues. Good luck to you and congratulations!

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  • zholz August 2, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Thank you Michael! Your articles have helped shape the discourse around so many important issues locally. I end up using many of the clearly articulated points you make in those articles during debates I have with friends and family about urban bicycling, density, parking, affordability, etc. As others have said, you raised the bar.

    Congrats on your next step, and I hope to keep seeing your writing around.

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  • Breesa August 2, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, Michael! I’ve learned so much from your articles over the years. Thanks for putting in the time. I’m sad to see you go.

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  • Ben Schonberger (@SchonbergerBen) August 2, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Thank you, Michael, for your fine reporting and writing on real estate and transportation issues. You are a peach.

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  • Souljoel August 2, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    BikePortland is indeed about the community it serves. Michael, your service and dedication to this end has further underscored the intricate complexities of Portland’s community ‘story’. With Real Estate Beat, your big picture understanding and clear insight got into the nuts and bolts of housing policy’s trickle down effect–how city livability as a whole is effected through how we build (and tear down).

    We’ve all been blessed with your and Jonathan’s excellent capacity to work so well together, and the exceptional journalism and advocacy BikePortland provides. BP has further solidified itself as a “miraculous journalistic community”, and will continue as such.

    Your contributions will be lasting, as this community continues to inform and inspire.

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  • soren August 2, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Soren, it has been thrilling to watch you step out from behind spare_wheel and throw your irascible heart and brain into organized activism.

    Michael, There is no question that part of my motivation to step out was due to your posts and the debate they provoked. In fact, I often refer to your RE Beat and PfB posts often when I’m advocating for livable streets and/or affordable houses. I’m very glad that RE beat will continue because land-use policy reform is essential to creating more active and sustainable communities.

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  • briandavispdx August 2, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Michael,

    I’ll miss reading your work in BikePortland and seeing you around the ol’ Title and Trust building, but I wish you all the best with fatherhood and future endeavors.

    I feel that your tenure here at BikePortland was absolutely pivotal for helping Portland regain some real, tangible mojo after having stagnated as a cycling city for so many years. “Something has gone wrong in Portland” was one of the more powerful pieces I’ve read here or anywhere, so beautifully capturing the frustrations that many of us were feeling at the time. It served as a wake up call for idealists and activists, and inspired many, many Portlanders to start their own conversations about what a better city might be like. Some would go on to found BikeLoud, others would join and grow Better Block, and still others (albeit only a few crazy folks!) would redouble their efforts around parking reform confident that at least one (and probably only one) journalist would see how critical that was to our other goals. Now here we are, moving forward again, still much too slowly, but unmistakably moving forward.

    Thanks to both you and Jonathan for producing such smart and valuable content over the last few years, and I look forward to continuing to reading both of your great work.

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  • mh August 2, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    I hope this is as little a loss to the community as the disappearance of Portland Afoot was – regenerated and grown at BikePortland. Glad I’m already involved in P4E, and I hope to see a lot from you there.

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  • Boris Kaganovich August 2, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Michael, Better Block PDX would never have succeeded the way it did without your insightful writing! Here here to one amazing journalist…who we hope to one day see visit us in Toronto (hint, hint).

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  • Andrew August 2, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you. Thank you for making me see the enormity of the PDX cycling community — and PDX in general — from a different perspective with every story. As much as I feel loss, I also feel excitement for your path ahead.

    Peace, Brother Michael.

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  • KYouell August 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Like mh, I loved Portland Afoot and was so sad when it stopped, but look what you moved on to do! I’m taking that lesson to heart and will expect the good you generate to ramp up to a new level again.

    I’m also hoping we’ll see you over on the PDX Cargo Bike Gang Facebook group chatting about ways/places to haul the little one around. We’d be happy to set up an event to meet up and ride when you’re ready. Congratulations on it all!

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) August 2, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Probability of my taking you up on that at some point and also of our finally having an in-person conversation of longer than a few seconds = very high

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  • Alan 1.0 August 2, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    Congrats on the kiddo! Thanks for the excellent reporting you’ve posted, I will miss seeing it here, but I surely look forward to reading your words wherever they are published.

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  • kittens August 2, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Bike Portland has reaffirmed my faith in Portland many times over the years. Reporting like yours was a big part of why I don’t feel like I am alone when I ride, part of something bigger.

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  • Leah Treat August 2, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Heartfelt congratulations on the upcoming wee one. If you love your child the way you love our community, splendor will follow.

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  • Scott Kocher August 2, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    If I don’t do my job someone else will. Not sure anyone else can and will do yours. In a world with 7 billion people that’s pretty unusual. Thanks and good luck with The Baby.

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  • ChadwickF August 2, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Oh, man. The band’s breaking up? Ah, well. Best of luck to you, sir, and thanks for all the good writing on this site.

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  • Doug Klotz August 3, 2016 at 12:36 am

    Thank you Michael for all those stories you’ve done, especially all the Real Estate stories that tie the world of land use and transportation together (plus those stories of how neighborhood associations can influence both of those, for better or worse). Having dealt with the press from the Oregonian to neighborhood papers, you’re the best reporter I’ve ever met. We need more of your work, when you have time away from the more important things you have in store!

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    • 9watts August 9, 2016 at 6:51 am

      I’m very sorry to read this news. Bikeportland was hands down my favorite source of news and inspiration before you came on board; it hadn’t occurred to me that it could get so much better, but your joining the team was impossible to miss. I feel that the recognition and stature bikeportland has received and acquired in the past few years are a reflection as much of your work as Jonathan’s, and I’m going to miss all of it. Thanks for all your hard work and passion. Best of luck with your upcoming adventures!

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  • Patrick Mok August 3, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Hi Michael, it was great working on the BUCPDX with you!

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  • Steve B. August 3, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Michael, I truly appreciate your thoughtful approach you have taken to the issues in your stories here. I love that you always have your skeptic hat on. I dig the way you meaningfully question the hypotheses of advocates and activists alike. Godspeed, my friend.

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  • Conrad August 3, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Great meeting you last month, Michael. Thanks for helping make BUCPDX a success! Congrats to you and your wife on the baby.

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  • Zach Vanderkooy August 3, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Michael – Thanks for all the stellar reporting on my hometown! It’s helped me stay connected and informed in a way that I really, really appreciate.

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  • Oliver Smith August 3, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Sorry to hear this but glad you’ll keep up the Real Estate beat. I’ve learned a lot from your critical writing on housing, equity, and privilege — and how these issues are bound up with biking.

    Love the points in this article too – I suspect you’ve helped many people “hungry for a sense of direction and meaning in their local civic life” start to find it.

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  • q August 3, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    “There is, and should be, no such thing as unanimity”???

    I disagree, even if I’m the only one!

    Seriously, Michael, I’m going to miss all your thoughtful writing.

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    • q August 3, 2016 at 5:53 pm

      Actually, I think we can all agree there should be no such thing as unanimity.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson August 3, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Wow! Congrats to you and Mo on the coming new member of the family.
    But don’t say away long or stay quiet ever! Portland needs your voice, your insight, your integrity, your passion, your humor and your smarts. I have sure had the pleasure of all that going back half a dozen years at least.
    Michael, you and Jonathan, have been a great team at BP. We have seen you both get better at what you do from all you have learned from each other.

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  • John Lascurettes August 3, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Best of luck, Michael, on the upcoming changes and congratulations. Thank you for all the valuable contributions you’ve made to BP and the community at large over the years.

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  • Todd Boulanger August 8, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    I had the nice shock of the day when I found Michael door belling on my porch in downtown Vancouver this weekend for I-732.

    http://yeson732.org

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