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Portland’s new era of transportation activism

Posted by on November 3rd, 2017 at 3:35 pm

SE Division Takeover-9.jpg

Bike Loud PDX organized a rally on SE Division Street in 2016.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

People who use a busy section of Willamette Boulevard in North Portland will be safer by the end of this month (if all goes according to plan). It’s an improvement we waited seven years for and it happened in just a few days, all thanks to smart and quick action by handful of volunteers who care deeply about the safety of our streets.

The astounding speed of the progress we just witnessed on Willamette is just the latest in a string of successes that can be tied directly to the actions of Portland’s considerable army of unpaid transportation reform activists.

The lineage of this DIY activism is a proud tradition in Portland and goes back far beyond my time on this beat; but it seems to be gaining steam of late due to a variety of factors — all of which were present on the Willamette Blvd effort.

Friends of Willamette Blvd effectively leveraged insider knowledge of both transportation and local politics, then mixed it with savvy use of the internet and social media to create a wave of support for their idea. Then they made sure that wave splashed directly on City Commissioner Dan Saltzman (he’s in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation). With the right tone and timing, this Friends group got exactly what they asked for.

Off the top of my head I can think of several other similar groups that have sprung up in the relatively recent past: We Are All Traffic, Active Right of Way, PDX Transformation, Bike Loud PDX, Better Block PDX, Portland Bus Lane Project, No More Freeways, and I know there are others I’m leaving out. Add to all these a myriad of neighborhood associations and slightly more formal, but still volunteer groups — and the nascent traffic safety group forming in north Portland as I type this (yes!) — and you begin to see a formidable flank in the battle for safe streets. They’re like the Army’s Active Guard Reserve, ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice.

These reserve troops are more capable and more important in Portland today than they’ve ever been for three main reasons.

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The first one is the most obvious: The organizing and publishing power of social media has fundamentally changed the game for citizen activists in the past five years or so. It’s hard to imagine now, but when BikePortland started in 2005 Facebook was only a college thing (their News Feed didn’t even launch until 2006). Back then there was no central and highly-visibile place where Portlanders could publish thoughts about everyday bicycling issues. As individual and group social networks have strengthened exponentially in recent years, so too has people’s skill in using them. Mature social networks used by sophisticated users = impact. This new, new era of publishing (people used to think this blog was high-tech!) gives people an amazingly powerful outlet for activism. Combine these individual and group networks with the amplifying force of a well-established blog, and you can reach and influence a lot of people in a short amount of time.

The second reason citizen activism is thriving in Portland is related to the first one: the democratization of information. City and political staffers often lament that “everyone thinks they’re an expert.” Well, hate to break it to you, but these days, everyone sort of is an expert. Or at least, people are a lot smarter than many bureacrats, politicians, and media people give them credit for. Portland’s transportation reformers have a trove of data, reporting, studies, and other information right at their fingertips. And they’re not afraid to use it — and then share it with friends.

One of the founding principles of BikePortland is that smart citizens cannot be messed with by those in power. Armed with knowledge about the policies, people, and projects that shape this city, citizen activists can hit the ground running and make an impact quickly.

The last reason we’re seeing more of — and more impact from — these citizen groups, is because Portlanders are increasingly aware that no one else will do this work for them.

Portland has already gone from bad to good, transportation-wise. We were one of the first in the U.S. to do that and we’ve been patting ourselves on the back about it for decades. But the new era demands we go from good to great. And that has proven much more difficult. PBOT’s planning and project timelines are agonizingly long and people want to speed things up a bit — whether that means working within the system or going outside of it. The other factor is that the professional advocacy groups, like The Street Trust, have shown little interest in working on many of the smaller, local issues and projects that need attention. The lack of local engagement from The Street Trust is what inspired Bike Loud PDX, the group whose impressive work led to a major shift in how PBOT implements neighborhood greenways (among other things). The Street Trust has opted instead to focus on regional and statewide funding, lobbying and legislation, and their programmatic work like Safe Routes to School. That’s important stuff for sure, but they’ve left a ton of work on the table.

We’re all lucky there are so many smart and engaged Portlanders willing to pick that work up and move it forward.

So, what’s the next project we should do? What streets need our attention? Who wants to work together? Let’s go.

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

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Better Block PDXEric LeifsdadpeejayTravisJillian Detweiler Recent comment authors
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Chris Smith
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Chris Smith

Let’s give credit where it’s due. A lot of these very effective activists had their skills sharpened in the City-funded Traffic and Transportation Class! (And I’m a graduate too!)

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

I would suggest waiting to pat yourselves on the back after it’s been implemented, and not before. PBOT has much experience in delaying funded projects.

rachel b
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rachel b

“City and political staffers often lament that “everyone thinks they’re an expert.””

If this is indeed true, then I want to point out that you’re forced to become a citizen expert if you’re to survive in Portland now–and it’s not something I’m happy about. I’ve said before (and I say it again) that I think Portland’s new motto should be “Portland: You’re On Your Own.”

Bike stolen? You’re on your own. Car stolen? Don’t call us. House or car broken into? Ditto. Someone camped on your lawn, shooting heroin? Sorry–you’ll have to handle it yourself. Short of murder, it seems, you’re on your own. And I’m not blaming our frustrated, hogtied and overloaded police force. Our city is pursuing a policy of non-intervention in so-called “petty” crime. And that includes traffic enforcement. It’s all the rage.

I would dearly love to have not felt forced to become such a damned expert on everything (including how to constantly monitor and nail everything down that I own) in this city. I’m out of it now (gladly, and because of this whirling poo of a dysfunctional city), but the problem remains.

Thanks for the story, Jonathan. While I’m immensely grateful to and impressed by the cyclist/ped advocacy community, the fact that they have to exist makes me upset and angry. Start paying attention to your citizens, leaders of Portland! And stop making us work so #$%ing hard for things you should be taking care of in the first place.

Justin
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Justin

I appreciate this blog’s mission of transportation advocacy, but I think there’s more that can be done for improving our system, like encouraging density thereby reducing traffic and improving the attractiveness of active transportation for people who don’t want to cycle miles a day, improving access to affordable housing at the same time so people can actually live near their jobs and help homeless people get into housing. Did you know the number one reason bikes are stolen is to feed addictions and the number one reason young people on the street use drugs is to stay awake to avoid sexual assault? If we help homeless young people get into housing we might be able to reduce bicycle theft. I know it seems a little less related to the mission of your blog and the community than building bike lanes and improving infrastructure, but I don’t think it is. There are bigger ways to look at these problems that will take a lot more work and a lot more organization, but I believe they can make a big difference.

johnr
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johnr

Great to see. Might also be attributed to the long, slow death of the BTA as an activist group. In the early days they did just this.

Jillian Detweiler
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Jonathan, thank you for acknowledging that the work of securing funding for walking, biking and transit is important stuff. The Street Trust is proud of that work. As a result of our efforts, the State of Oregon will fund local street improvements –sidewalks, signalized crossings, bike lanes–through the Safe Routes to School program. State money for local streets is a huge change for communities around the state. Yes, it is less immediately gratifying. It took years of organizing to accomplish this goal. We are grateful to our members who support this work.

Todd, thanks for the invitation to update readers on The Street Trust.

The Street Trust accomplishes its mission through three program areas: education, encouragement and advocacy. I won’t detail all of the activities we undertake, but here are some highlights:

Education. We are in Portland schools teaching bike and pedestrian safety. Typically we work with 5th grade classes and in every class we encounter kids who don’t know how to ride bike–and we teach them. We have a fleet of bikes we deliver to one community in the state each year. This year the fleet moved from Prineville to Seaside, where we taught local educators bike safety so that they can teach it to their kids and have bike programs all year long.

Encouragement. We run the Bike More Challenge. Last year 12,445 people participated. We have a large Women’s Bike network and we have an Access to Cycling program that connects with culturally specific organizations to sponsor bike rides. We must not only fight for bike lanes, we must get people to use them.

Advocacy. Without The Street Trust there would be a large void in advocacy at the state and regional level. Beyond our recent legislative victory, we are at the table in a number of important conversations that could have significant long term benefits for walking, biking and transit. For example, we will advise ODOT’s congestion pricing study and have engaged legal partners to challenge the assumption that the funds from tolls must go into ODOT roads as opposed to alternatives like walking, biking and transit.

Do I wish that we could do all this and initiate and track more local opportunities to improve biking? Sure. And I will work to increase our capacity to do that. Should The Street Trust do it all? No. It’s healthy to have short term, project-based, localized advocacy efforts. It would be very sad if The Street Trust felt threatened by them or wanted to be at the center of them. We were pleased Kiel Johnson contacted us about Willamette Boulevard and we shared the opportunity to sign his petition to our email list of 44,000. We contacted the PBOT director and commissioner to voice our support. I think it helped, in no small part because of the credibility that comes from consistent pressure over a long period of time.

We stand ready to lend support to local efforts that increase the safety and convenience of walking, biking and transit. Please let me know if The Street Trust can help your local concern. We must be allies, not competitors.

How is The Street Trust moving forward?

While Portland’s local advocacy is thriving, The Street Trust Board of Directors identified a part of the movement that is less robust–electing candidates who understand walking, biking and transit and will lead on our issues. The Street Trust’s most likely area of expansion is to create a companion organization that can legally participate in efforts like Walk Bike Vote PAC and expand that activity to critical races that impact transportation investments in the region. This will have the long term benefit of increasing our ability to hold elected leaders accountable for achieving safer and more convenient walking, biking and transit. We will also be poised to play an active role in any regional transportation funding measure that moves forward to be sure it is focused on walking, biking and transit.

The Board also identified the need for a deliberate effort to increase the diversity of our Board and participation in our work. Our leadership and programs need to reflect the diverse population who want safer and more convenient walking, biking and transit. It’s a must-do that can’t be accomplished by petition. It will also help us put more substance behind the walking and transit aspects of our mission and achieve the “power of three” that is behind the Street Trust mission expansion where bikes do better in alliance with walking and transit.

If you read this far, thank you! Perhaps you share the long view and persistence to transform our transportation choices. -Jillian Detweiler, Executive Director, The Street Trust

HJ
Guest
HJ

What street needs attention? Cornell Rd! We have a painful shortage of routes over the west hills, both for drivers and cyclists. Cornell is one of the most heavily used by both. Yet it has a painful lack of infrastructure. The thing that gets me about it being it could so easily be improved. There are a bunch of gravel lots up and down the east side of the hill, yet those lots are where the paved section is usually narrowest, leaving cyclists firmly in the traffic lane. Why not just toss a foot or two of paved shoulder in those? Would have a huge impact for drivers and riders alike without a huge investment.
I can understand where a full bike lane would have its challenges to try and build, but why not go for the low hanging fruit that could easily improve things? Especially on a high traffic, high speed road?

Travis
Guest

What struck me in the mist of conversation on St. Johns’ local bike FB group: Some of the most important advocacy we can do is building the community. And specifically our local communities where we can be immediately available, visual, and receptive for all of our neighbors.

The St. Johns community has a legacy of advocacy and deep roots. But we need to grow wider, connect with more people from more diverse backgrounds, exposures, and bike desires. So few neighborhoods in Portland have the bike possibilities of St. Johns — I sincerely believe this from a place of what we have now and what more we have to gain.

Only just considering what this looks like. It feels right: Building a local inviting community that finds and meets people where they are at. If folks ride once a year at Sunday Parkways, they’re in; they’re part of the community and we need to let them know: bikes are a thing for everybody anytime that’s right for them.

Better Block PDX
Guest
Better Block PDX

So timely!

Join us next week to hear what Better Block PDX is up to this year and how you can help.

Starting next Wednesday (and then every second Wednesday of the month after that), we will be bringing back our monthly meetings.

This year, we tried something a little different and reached out to the community (that’s YOU!) for project ideas for our partnership with Portland State University.

Students involved in our PSU-Better Block PDX Project Pathway have begun work and we’re excited to share with everyone the projects they have selected.

This year, we’re really going to need everyone’s help to make these projects happen. If you’re interested in getting involved, please plan on attended this months meeting or the next one!

Come January, two projects will continue on to the engineering students – these will need community support and effort to see them implemented!

https://www.facebook.com/events/2070175329877152/