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Editorial: In need of leadership, The Street Trust faces daunting road

Posted by on April 25th, 2017 at 3:07 pm

The Street Trust (formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) is going through a major transition. With 15 paid staff and an annual budget of $1.3 million, the organization is currently looking for a new executive director and a communications director, forming a new 501(c)(4) political organizing committee, and launching a new strategic plan to guide their work for the next five years.

These major initiatives come on the heels of a name-change and expansion of their mission last summer.

No matter how you slice it, this is a lot of change for an organization that continues to search for that magic mix of leadership, vision, political power and community support that will allow them to lead the ever-growing transportation reform movement in Portland and beyond.

And it comes at what The Street Trust describes as “a critical time for the region and Oregon.” Here’s a snip from the description of their executive director position that gives us an idea of where the organization sees itself now and in the future:

In recent years, we have seen the limits of focusing our work solely on bicycles. As a result, we made the decision in 2016 to expand our mission to include all modes of active transportation. Our mission expansion comes at a critical time for the region and Oregon. This region is in the midst of an intense growth period, and our transit, bike and pedestrian investments are not keeping pace with the needs. Seattle and Los Angeles have invested billions in local transit, for example, while Oregon continues to fall behind. We believe Oregon and the Portland Metro region needs to think bigger, if we’re going to remain competitive and ensure that every community has access to safe and high-quality bike, walking and transit facilities.

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As part of our strategy, we will launch a 501(c)(4) advocacy arm and Political Action Committee, to strengthen our hand as we seek to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for investments in safe streets.

The Executive Director will lead our efforts to build a broader coalition of non-profits, governments and the private sector to advance transportation investment needs. This will involve research, campaigns, regional leadership and representing the Street Trust in high profile opportunities.

As The Street Trust searches for two new director-level positions, they have also just launched an online survey to garner input for their five-year strategic plan. The survey will help the organization gain a better understanding of the people it serves, what types of projects are important to them, and what their top transportation priorities are.

Founded in 1990 as a small and scrappy activism group, The Street Trust has shifted in recent years to a more staid approach. Willing to cede street-level activism opportunities to all-volunteer groups like Better Block PDX and Bike Loud PDX, The Street Trust has focused primarily on three fronts: delivering programs like Safe Routes to School classes and Vision Zero advoacy; hosting and promoting the annual Bike More Challenge; and advocating for funding at the regional and state level.

The Street Trust’s former leader Rob Sadowsky acknowledged the group’s chosen tact in an in-depth story we published in 2014. “I could go scream at Steve Novick and I could go get 1,000 postcards or phone calls,” he said, “but that’s not going to help me the next time with [former City Commissioner of Transportation] Steve Novick. I’m not going to lock my neck to City Hall with a u-lock.”

This year the organization has spent considerable time in Salem as their Policy Director Gerik Kransky works to make sure that active transportation is a top priority in the funding package being put together by lawmakers.

The challenge facing The Street Trust — and its new directors once they’re hired — is to build the organization’s power and relevance in the eyes of elected officials and people who walk, bike and take transit. It’s hard to have the former without the latter.

A focus on program delivery and long-range funding goals is laudable and important; but those initiatives mostly happen behind-the-scenes. And they rarely make headlines. Provocative rallies, high-profile events (like locking oneself to city hall with a u-lock for example), and watchdogging politicians and bureaucrats to get better local projects and policies are the type of “wins” most people notice — and that help frame the narrative.

There’s value in having an advocacy group that’s seen as more conservative and part of the power establishment; but it’s also important to carry a pitchfork in the back-pocket of your suit. And not be afraid to use it.

The classic, in-your-face activism that defined The Street Trust’s beginnings in the ’90s and the more conservative diplomacy that defines them today don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Doing them both well however, is easier said than done.

If they can find the right leadership and manage that balance, and combine it with the formation of a new political action committee and a coalition-building approach to advocacy that isn’t centered solely on bicycling or inner-Portland, The Street Trust could usher in an exciting new era of success.

We’re waiting and hoping that they figure it out.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Champs
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Champs

Access versus criticism: the struggle is real. I think we know how the PBA gets around it.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

The one advantage the Street Trust has to become a more effective advocacy group is that it is Oregon has some of the smartest advocates, bureaucrats, and leaders who “get it”. The goal for the Street Trust should not be to reinvent the wheel but to figure out effective ways to harness and support this energy.

I remember walking into the BTA door one day after college and asking, “how can I help?” The Street Trust needs to find ways to engage these energized people, not just unpaid internships. I would love to see the Street Trust provide organizational support in a similar way that Umbrella does but with more money and staff. Would also love to see bikeportland and the Street Trust team up at some point. Understanding the ever changing way that we use media with the internet is crucial. We need an organization that isn’t afraid to make mistakes and tries creative things and an organizational leader who inspires our politicians to take risks.

The need for great streets has never been greater.

9watts
Guest
9watts

“will allow it lead the ever-growing transportation reform movement”

Not sure about the ‘lead’ part. On issues I track, they seem quite consistently to follow.

9watts
Guest
9watts

“There’s value in having an advocacy group that’s seen as more conservative and part of the power establishment”

I’d like to hear others’ views on this.
My sense is that if the MO is (and it seems for quite some time to have been) to compromise, cozy up to the cheeses, and in so doing to lose sight of the original goal, then the value seems, well, negative.

SE Rider
Guest
SE Rider

“Seattle and Los Angeles have invested billions in local transit, for example, while Oregon continues to fall behind.”

So what about the $1.5B spent on the Orange Line? I certainly agree that transit could/should be better in Portland, but this seems a little hyperbolic to me.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I think there is value in having a more middle-of-the-road advocacy group, but only if you have a more out-there (“extreme” as some might put it) group really pushing the issues and helping the other group look mainstream. Think Nature Conservancy vs. Earth First!, for example: BTA and BikeLoudPDX could play that good-cop/bad-cop game with politicians.

But that strategy is undermined if the more-mainstream group capitulates to the opposition, as the BTA has done on CRC (which is baaaaaaack!) and again on the latest freeway debate. You still have to have a backbone.

rick
Guest
rick

Where is their support for the mountain biking plan or Portland’s community-initiated trails program ?

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

The Street Trust working for the broader objective of community active transportation infrastructure, is I think, a major advance from the limited objective of simply, better conditions for biking, which it had confined its efforts to in past. Far more people that travel by ways in addition to motor vehicle travel, can relate to and likely be willing to support this broader objective.

Towards getting things done, it’s far more constructive for a group to be working with people that can align themselves with the group and its objectives, as friends, rather than having to try counter attacks by people that feel compelled to oppose the groups’ objectives. Adversarial relationships aren’t that great, so if the Street Trust recognizes the value in building more of a friendly relationship, I’m glad to hear this.

Brian
Guest
Brian

9watts
Not at all.

Thanks for the reply. Makes sense. Even though I am hopeful for more trails for recreational purposes for my family and I, I am also hopeful for trails that I can use for commuting up and over Washington Park. Honestly, I would bike commute even more if my commute involved less time on the road.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Here is Adam H’s chance to get involved!

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

That would be awesome if Bike Loud PDX staff got paid!

daisy
Guest
daisy

This is going to sound so pedantic.

The “The” in “The Street Trust” has been driving me crazy, especially because they included it in their logo. it makes me think they didn’t work with a professional agency for their new name and branding.

For example, BTA was called “the Bicycle Transportation Alliance” but “the” wasn’t part of their formal name.

This will undoubtedly also annoy their new communications person (unless that person convinces them the drop the “The.” Good luck!). It’ll lead to lots of confusion about their name (as you can see in some of the comments on this post).

Having a good communication strategy is important. That name weirdness makes me wonder what else they’re trying to wing.

David
Guest
David

There is one thing no one has really mentioned either in the article or comments from what I can tell: no one seems to recall the last time TST/BTA got an actual win for bike/ped/transit infrastructure? Odds are you can’t.

People will give an organization latitude if they think it is relevant and accomplishing things that have broad impacts. That turns into apathy or frustration if the results never arrive. I agree that having an organization focused on the larger things matters but they have to deliver. Securing just under $20 million for Safe Routes to Schools at both the regional and state level is certainly something (assuming HB 3230 passes), but the next step of securing meaningful funding for the infrastructure component is absolutely vital to the long term success of the program and they have not demonstrated the ability to do this.

For anyone within Portland, TST is not going to seem relevant until they are able to do more than educate the populace and the $10 million for state-wide SRTS infrastructure improvements over two years in HB 3230 will hardly move the needle. I’m tired of reading the obligatory article every few months about the 2030 Bike Plan on pace to be implemented in a couple centuries rather than decades. Moving policy and funding from a leadership position matters and from what is visible right now TST is not able to move that needle much.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

I’m not the most regular of Bike Portland, I tend to check in every week or two and see what’s been happening. In my 6 years of reading BP, I’m always surprised that staff from the Street Trust aren’t on record on a majority of stories. I can barely recall ever seeing Rob Sadowsky on record in BP. BP, to me, is a major resource for the thousands of Portlanders who are wonk-curious. If the Street Trust is unwilling to push its narrative in such a readily available forum, how do they expect the public to fall in behind them. I’ll additionally add, the one year I did become a Street Trust member, I was shocked at the lack of general organization communication from them. If you can’t tell your members what you’re hoping to accomplish, how can you expect them to stick with you?

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I’m not necessarily against ultimately compromising to throw the road lobby some of what they want in exchange for what we want. I’m not quite as militant as I may have come across above: timing is everything. I can support and agree with BLPDX’s more militant stances while also ultimately supporting the Street Trust in promoting some sort of compromise, but not yet. It’s too early for them to be giving away the farm.

Anyone with even the slightest negotiation skills knows that your initial position should be more than you’re willing to settle for. Somewhere in there you should have a bunch of stuff that would be nice to have (or, if you’re really good at this, don’t even care about) but would be willing to give up during negotiations – things like zero freeway expansion – so you have room to keep the things that are really important. It’s the BTA’s failure to even go in with a strong position that leads me to accuse them of lacking backbone.

Our nation’s new chief executive is nothing if not a skilled negotiator. His style is trickling down, and to achieve anything in politics in this era we’d better at least try to lock down the basic skills of negotiation.

Toren Orzeck
Guest

Hey, I know I may be a broken record on this or just OCD, but it’s hard for me to read anything or approach this organization now that it has named itself THE STREET TRUST. The organization is about human powered transit (whether that be via bike or on foot) that, for the moment, must interact with heavier motorized machines on shared paths. Is it really all about the Streets? Not very forward looking.

I just feel like they did not take advantage of the hometown talent that could have helped name and branded them with something that more accurately reflects what they’re about. The Street Trust sounds stagnant, their new logo is static. Is THE STREET TRUST a financial institution? Sorry, but it sounds and looks dull. There is nothing aspirational about The Street Trust. It sound like a relative to Street Roots (sorry, Street Roots). The Bicycle Transportation Alliance t least told you what it did and conveyed some aspiration

Combine this with the disarray they seem to be in and it just compounds the problem.
They need one good thing and that could be their identity.

This is a classic case where they need to rebrand, yeah it’s a bit of a goof to change it so quickly but holy cow, if you broke your arm as kid and it was set poorly, you would not wait to have your arm grow into some sort of mis-shaped Jai Lai racket, you’d get it fixed asap.

Also, this is not a corporation making a product but a group of active, well meaning people that are trying to make active transit safer for all of us. They are our peers and comrades in arms. They have a super tough needle to thread given the competing interests within this rapidly growing city.

Many of you may think the name doesn’t matter but it does. It’s kind of like why you’re parents made you wear braces or why cleft pallets are fixed. it may be seem superficial to have straighter teeth or not have a bifurcated lip but we are visual creatures and we want people to hear us, not be distracted by our crazy teeth or different upper lip. A good identity is like welcoming smile, it draws you in and you want to take part.

Its not too late.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…Is it really all about the Streets?…” toren orzeck

Streets are important. That is, the quality of their usability, functionality and livability to the neighborhoods they pass through and surround, is important. There’s a great tendency for some people to abuse their right to use streets; they use them for hotroddin’, or just plain going too fast for the setting, and using them for cut-throughs for ‘short-cuts’, or to try avoid thoroughfare congestion.

The distressing effects on neighborhoods, through misuse of streets can get so bad that residents barely dare cross the street for fear of getting knocked down or killed. The roar of far too many vehicles just passing through, having no business in the neighborhood. This puts neighborhoods in the position of being hosting too much traffic not being produced by themselves.

Without a lot of stress arising from motor vehicle use being a major condition, people from the neighborhood, and guests from outside the neighborhood, ought to be able to ride a bike down neighborhood streets. On some neighborhood streets, use of the street for travel, probably is low and cautious enough that a kid could cross the street, or play on it with friends, without the parents fearing the kids are going to get run over.

It seems to me, what I’ve been able to gather about the revised direction of The Street Trust, that this advocacy group still very much considers improving conditions on the streets for biking to be a top priority, but has also come to realize that there is a much bigger group, consisting of neighbors that like to walk, bike, occasionally play out on the street in their neighborhood, who may be interested in representation with the help of a group like the Trust, that has interest in that sort of thing.

Use of the word ‘trust’, isn’t limited just to financial institutions. With this group, I think what use of the word essentially has a philosophical meaning, which is that The Street Trust seems to be committing itself to look out for, protect and improve conditions on streets for everyone using them, and working to not allow streets to be subordinated almost entirely, or entirely to the movement of motor vehicles.

A rather well known group that uses ‘trust’ in its name, is The Trust for Public Lands. It’s not a financial institution. It’s different from what TST does, in that it actually uses donation money and buys land to be established as parks. Essentially too though, it is looking out for quality in important public resources.

Toren Orzeck
Guest

wsbob
“…Is it really all about the Streets?…” toren orzeck
Streets are important. That is, the quality of their usability, functionality and livability to the neighborhoods they pass through and surround, is important. There’s a great tendency for some people to abuse their right to use streets; they use them for hotroddin’, or just plain going too fast for the setting, and using them for cut-throughs for ‘short-cuts’, or to try avoid thoroughfare congestion.
The distressing effects on neighborhoods, through misuse of streets can get so bad that residents barely dare cross the street for fear of getting knocked down or killed. The roar of far too many vehicles just passing through, having no business in the neighborhood. This puts neighborhoods in the position of being hosting too much traffic not being produced by themselves.
Without a lot of stress arising from motor vehicle use being a major condition, people from the neighborhood, and guests from outside the neighborhood, ought to be able to ride a bike down neighborhood streets. On some neighborhood streets, use of the street for travel, probably is low and cautious enough that a kid could cross the street, or play on it with friends, without the parents fearing the kids are going to get run over.
It seems to me, what I’ve been able to gather about the revised direction of The Street Trust, that this advocacy group still very much considers improving conditions on the streets for biking to be a top priority, but has also come to realize that there is a much bigger group, consisting of neighbors that like to walk, bike, occasionally play out on the street in their neighborhood, who may be interested in representation with the help of a group like the Trust, that has interest in that sort of thing.
Use of the word ‘trust’, isn’t limited just to financial institutions. With this group, I think what use of the word essentially has a philosophical meaning, which is that The Street Trust seems to be committing itself to look out for, protect and improve conditions on streets for everyone using them, and working to not allow streets to be subordinated almost entirely, or entirely to the movement of motor vehicles.
A rather well known group that uses ‘trust’ in its name, is The Trust for Public Lands. It’s not a financial institution. It’s different from what TST does, in that it actually uses donation money and buys land to be established as parks. Essentially too though, it is looking out for quality in important public resources.

wsbob and all,
Believe me, I certainly know the various definitions of the word “trust” and I was just being a little hyperbolic. I also know that the Streets are where most of the action is. I’m not complaining that the name is not somewhat technically accurate in what the mission is. I’m arguing it’s just a poor sounding name (to me) that does little to convey that it’s about making the streets safe for multiple modes of human powered transit.

This human powered transit whether it be by bike, chair, feet or board is the more compelling part of the equation. Names like Active Transit Alliance, ATA ( yeah, I know there are many cities that use this) or Human Powered Transit Alliance HPTA are just, in my opinion, better. And, I’m sure we can do better than The Street Trust.

Names, like all designs, are also contextual and The Street Trust as I mentioned is too close to Street Roots.

Like I said , I just want this group to be firing on all cylinders, I mean pedaling sans the lactic acid or just putting their best foot forward as they do their work.