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‘My bike is my car”: An interview with Portland City Commissioner-elect Mingus Mapps

(Photos: Mingus for Portland)

Mingus Mapps is ready to take his seat on city council.

The 52-year-old southeast Portland resident will be part of the most racially diverse council slate in our city’s history. His first elected office comes after decades of experience in academia, nonprofits, and city government.

I spoke to Mapps via a Zoom video call last week. Our conversation below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What type of bicycle rider are you and how to you typically move around the city?
Cars kind of don’t work for me, partly because I’m a single dad and I have two kids I just never liked the feeling of driving with two little kids in the back. There’s a lot of risk with cars and there’s also a racial component to driving, which is frankly awkward. And if I can avoid it I generally do. I’m lucky in that I live in inner southeast which means I can take my bicycle or public transportation to most places I need to be. And frankly, up until we really got involved in the campaign, I was not into cars at all. The campaign kind of forced me inside a single use automobile which was interesting because I hadn’t really been in the car for decades. So that gave me a different perspective on the city. I’m also a bus guy. I just grew up taking the bus and then it became a habit. Like, why would you drive downtown when you could take a bus or walk or ride?

Mingus and his two sons.

In terms of the kind of bicyclist I am, I’m a commuter bicyclist. When things get normal again I’ll ride my bike back to my office at City Hall. I’m not someone who does a 30-mile ride around the city — well sometimes we’ll do that recreationally with the kids — but for the most part, my bike is my car, and I buy crappy bikes that I don’t care if they get stolen.

Do your boys ride bikes with you too?
Oh, absolutely. We have 10 and 11-year-old boys. We go out for bike rides on the weekends. We’ll maybe go along the waterfront or over the bridges, especially now with Covid where you’re trapped inside having any sort of excuse to kind of get out of the house and exercise is huge. Bikes are wonderful, really indispensable. I’m an advocate for the bike community that’s for sure.

Is there anything you want to share about biking while Black in Portland?
I’ve had good experiences. You know there are not a lot of people of color who are on their bikes, and there is sort of a Portland bike scene which is not particularly diverse. And I would love to challenge the bike community to figure out how to be more inclusive and I think our office can be part of that. It’s different today than it was even 10 years ago where there were not a lot of efforts at all to get people of color involved with the bike community. Now I see organized events, you know, like Black women rides, and that sort of stuff. I’m excited for that. I think it’s really important.

“The bike people and the public transportation people are gonna be what the 21st century is about. The question is, how long do we take to get from here to there. And, and how does that impact the people who are here today?”

You said during the campaign that if Portland had a different form of government — with a city manager instead of five co-equal commissioners — we could implement the Bike Master Plan faster. Can you explain why?
I think if you take a look at any complex project that you try to implement in Portland, it’s always hindered by our siloed form of government, getting different bureaus to work together and to collaborate, even sometimes just getting managers from different bureaus in the same room at the same time can be really difficult. I think any complex problem in the real world requires collaboration between different programs and different bureaus, and in the context of Portland, often different governments. Our current form of government is designed specifically designed to hinder that kind of collaboration, so I think it’s just time to move forward. I think that’ll help with the Bike Plan too.

One reason biking is not growing in Portland is that it’s no longer a major priority in City Hall. Do you agree with that? And will you personally help shepherd the issue back to the forefront?
I’m with you on this. I think cycling is part of the solution. We’re moving towards a different future and a different kind of city. And one of the important things is that our city needs to be resilient. We can have an earthquake, we can have a pandemic, public transportation can get shut down; so having a way for people to move around without burning gas is incredibly important. Cycling is also just really great for individual health. I’ve been on my bicycle a lot less over the past 18 months and I can literally feel it in my body and in my soul. So I think you have a healthier, happier city when you have more people cycling.

[Former Portland Mayor] Sam [Adams] and I talked several times and he’s really proud of his bike legacy, which has kind of fallen off the map, so he’s been kind of poking and prodding me on that. I hope to work with you and the other folks in the bike community to figure out how we move forward with a balanced transportation plan. Another thing I hear is business owners saying, ‘I need a parking spot in front of my place,’ and I hear from people who have physical disabilities who say they want to use public transportation or bikes so you can’t take these things away.


I think everyone in City Hall, and a vast majority of Portlanders for that matter, would agree with you that cycling is great. But “balance” is the key here. There comes a time where you need to strongly encourage cycling and strongly discourage driving. Do you think we have that balance right at the moment?
Probably not. I need to learn a lot more about the technical pieces of this — like how do you actually measure and estimate what the impact of doing one versus the other is. But I know that the infrastructure in Portland is going to change and I know that when we change it I don’t want to just replace what we have with a bigger, fatter version. I think when we come back from Covid we’re going to have a different kind of city. I don’t know if we’re going to go back to the world where people go and work in big office towers downtown. Portland will become more localized and people will be set in their own neighborhoods, and I think that’s great because we all want these walkable integrated neighborhoods.

If terms of specifically, do I have a plan in my back pocket right now or a secret formula that balances the interest of people that are really invested in their vehicle or their car versus people who really want this bike future? I’ll tell you who’s gonna win long term: The bike people and the public transportation people are gonna be what the 21st century is about. The question is, how long do we take to get from here to there. And, and how does that impact the people who are here today?

The city has an opportunity to put bike lanes on Hawthorne Boulevard. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
I want to talk to the people who work or live on Hawthorne and get a better sense of what they want to do. I live close enough that I spend a lot of time there. I’ve heard the discussions and seen the posters, and I think it’s an exciting vision, but I think this is a classic example where we need to have a community meeting where we get together with the bike people and people who own storefronts and really have this conversation. And I don’t know how it actually impacts your pizza store if suddenly you don’t have … [he paused here, as if to catch himself before saying something he might regret]… if the infrastructure around you changes. But I want to make it work.

Do you support a shift of of traffic law enforcement away from the Portland Police Bureau to an alternative model? And if so, what should that model be?
I’ve heard Commissioner Eudaly talk about trying to take traffic enforcement away from the police and put it into PBOT. Unfortunately, in the context of campaigns sometimes you can’t ask, ‘How is this actually going to work? What’s the vision here?’ I don’t know exactly what she was talking about. It’s an interesting idea. I don’t know for instance, how you approach pulling over drunk drivers.

You’ve mentioned your concerns with DUI before. For me, this issue is also about trust. As in, can the public trust armed PPB officers in these situations? If you were able to hire more police officers to enforce DUI, would you trust PPB officers to enforce it in a fair and just way?
I do think we have some work to do there. I think this is one of the things that Commissioner Hardesty has been pointing out. Just look at the stats of who is pulled over and there are stark racial disparities. Your probability of being pulled over as a Black man is way higher than if you’re a white guy. And literally, this is not just a statistical thing, this is something that if you’re a Black person you actually feel. I am your next city councilor and I avoid driving cars because when I get behind the wheel of a car, I have fewer civil rights than everyone else. And that’s the only time I give up my civil rights is when I get into a vehicle and I’m behind the wheel. I think those concerns are real and they point to the need for real police reform. I think Commissioner Hardesty is right about this, and if it’s a product of systemic racism, we need to fix it.

Do I think that we can reform the police department and uproot systemic racism? I think so. I’ve been in lots and lots of meetings over the past 10 years and it’s very rare that I hear anyone say, ‘You know, I want to approach policing and public safety from a racist point of view.’ I think everyone gets that that’s a problem and they want to move forward, especially I think our new generation of people in the public safety community, we all get this.

And over the past seven months we’ve had this remarkable moment now where I think white Portlanders are starting to see the ways in which systemic racism shapes the lives of their neighbors and warps life in our city. So I do think that we can make reforms to the police department. I don’t think it is fundamentally broken, I think it’s a fundamentally difficult problem — just like balancing the interest of bikes and cars is a fundamentally difficult problem.


Zoom zoom.

Would you have supported Commissioner Hardesty’s $18 million police budget cut proposal?
Number one, there were a bunch of questions I had. I had some questions about the process. Even up until the day before the vote there were questions about the exact impact these cuts would have, you know, would this require staff cuts? And then if you go back four days ago the police department [sic] was saying if we do this, it’s going to require us to stop doing traffic enforcement. Pieces of it just felt kind of muddy and unclear. And I think that’s kind of what council said — not necessarily that anyone opposed a specific cut, but rather the process kind of felt uncomfortable. There were pieces that I fully endorsed, like cutting funding for munitions I think makes a ton of sense.

I think the real problem here was that the set of proposals and cuts that was put before council didn’t go through the budget analyst office. We didn’t calculate the impact these specific cuts would have on real public service, and that’s a problem. I think one of the things that is unique and sad about this moment in Portland, is that we’re actually not as good at public policy as we should be. We don’t always think through the consequences of the decisions that we make. We can be kind of knee-jerky about it.

So just to be clear, you would have voted “no” on the budget proposal?
Probably, yes. It’s a hypothetical and it’s always a trap to get sucked into a hypothetical. But you know, I heard some questions raised the other day, which struck me as being very reasonable and important. But I also want to make clear that it’s obvious that the future of the Portland Police Department [sic] means it’s going to be smaller. It’s going to be reformed to where our approach to race and policing is going to be really different. And I think a lot of things that are currently being done in the police department are not going to be done by the police department anymore. I am quite serious about getting cops out of the business of policing mental illness and poverty. And once we do that that’s going to decrease their footprint.

Why should Portlanders trust you on police reform after you accepted a $15,000 donation from the Portland Police Association (the union that represents PPB workers)?
Let’s back up and put this in context. During the campaign you meet with lots of different groups, including unions. I don’t think we turned down a single meeting over the course of the campaign. I’m a labor guy and I think that’s important in terms of of respecting the rights of working people. The police union invited me and Eudaly in to their endorsement panel. We basically had the same talk that you and I have had except we talked about public safety issues more. And then at the end of they said, ‘We endorse you’. I think what really gets missed here is that I participated in public financing for this race, which means I couldn’t take any cash donations from unions or businesses or PACs [political action committees] — I could only take in-kind donations. So the police did an in-kind donation for printing and delivering some mailers. Does that influence me? Actually no, not at all. I think that the endorsement is a sign that I’m a constructive guy who’s been doing public safety stuff for a long time, that I’m someone who will invite everybody to the table — including the police department. That is a value that I will bring to everything I do in City Hall. And I think that it will result in better policy.


If you were put in charge of the transportation bureau, would you continue Commissioner Eudaly’s Rose Lane Project?
In political campaigns you run against an opponent, but I’m not here to erase Eudaly’s legacy. I think she did a lot of great things and I think there are some things that she could have done better on. The Rose Lane thing is something that’s generally been positive. I’m kind of a process guy and a public public participation kind of guy so I think we could have done better there. I do not have a list of things that my opponent did that I’m going to erase just because my opponent did them. In fact, quite the opposite: I want to write the next chapter. This is not about the past.

People living along paths like the Springwater is a big issue. Many people are afraid to use these paths and the conditions are often unsafe for campers too. I know you’ve worked closely with homeless Portlanders before when you were the leader of Historic Parkrose. What would you do about this path problem?
Camping on the bike trail is not good for anybody. As a city we need to come up with real alternatives for homeless folks. We also need to emphasize cleaning up the camps. Then we need to do outreach. I want to see us be much more aggressive about doing outreach to the houseless community and letting them know what services are out there and trying to connect them with those services. We have to take livability issues seriously. I know what it’s like to show up at work in the morning and the first thing you do is to pick up the needles outside the front door of your office or your home or the dog park.

“This is one of those pivot points where the world is going to be really different and if there’s a window of opportunity that has opened up, we need to take advantage of it.”

Did you support the Metro transportation funding measure? Any thoughts on why it didn’t pass?
Well obviously a lot of money was spent to to kill it. And the politics behind it felt a little bit weird. I think that kind of raised questions in a lot of people’s minds. And I think it was received differently on the east side of the river, versus the west side of the river. I supported it. What I was really excited about were the road improvements on the east side. One of my deep concerns is the lack of equity in terms of infrastructure surrounding the city and I thought this was a great opportunity to fix some roads in outer east.


“This is kind of like the depression. This is kind of like World War II. This is one of those pivot points where the world is going to be really different and if there’s a window of opportunity that has opened up, we need to take advantage of it.”

Without the Metro measure, do you think we need to have more urgency around congestion pricing?
I do. What are our options here? We don’t want to expand the highway and projects like building a train line take a lot of time and are also really expensive. I am deeply intrigued by congestion pricing. I think it’s one of the first options we’ve got to look at. And frankly, it seems like our best first option… I think congestion pricing is kind of the obvious next step.

Do you think it’s time for a faster pace of change when it comes to making progress on these challenging issues?
Yes, speed is important. But also getting the policies right is also important. I think sometimes what you see coming out of City Hall is you get knee-jerk reactions to whatever is in the headlines or trending on Twitter. And then suddenly we’re spending enormous amount of money because this is what people are talking about today. In some ways that can be a disservice to people if you haven’t thought things through, because they aren’t going to work. And so even though you appear to be a champion for the cause you were trying to lead, in practice you’re doing a disservice to those folks. This isn’t a call for incrementalism, but this is a call for process. This is a call for community engagement.

You talk about being a “bridge builder” and not wanting to have winners and losers. Do you think it’s possible to make substantive changes and have everyone happy and the end of the process?
I have no expectation that everyone will be happy at the end of the process, but I hope everyone got a fair hearing, that we did evidence-based decision making and we respected where Portlanders are at. One of the realities here is that Portland is a diverse community. This is one of the things we celebrate. It’s not necessarily a weakness, but it is one of the reasons we have vigorous discussions.

This is a remarkable time in our nation’s history and the world’s history. I think Covid has changed everything, I think climate change is changing everything, I think growing inequality is changing everything, I think impatience with racism is changing everything. In six months I hope that we are going to exit this Covid crisis, but we’re not going back to that world we had before. It’s just not an option. We can’t step back, so change is coming. The question is, how do we manage that change and how do we use this sort of moment of turmoil to get to the community and the city that we want to have? This is kind of like the depression. This is kind of like World War II. This is one of those pivot points where the world is going to be really different and if there’s a window of opportunity that has opened up, we need to take advantage of it. If we don’t take advantage of it you know it’s not like change won’t happen. It’ll just mean we don’t control the change that happens.

I very much want to empower all Portlanders to control the change that is about to happen to us.

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