Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 9th, 2020 at 11:42 am
Outgoing City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly addressed the Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) last night in a wide-ranging address that touched on the death of her father, expressed regret for not pushing cycling further, offered advice for cycling advocates, and much more. Eudaly, who took over as transportation commissioner in August 2018, lost her re-election bid last month.
During her time at the helm of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Eudaly was a polarizing figure in cycling circles (and beyond) and her remarks last night likely won’t do anything to change that. As PBOT commissioner she spoke forcefully about the negative impacts of cars and drivers in our city, fought against an unpopular freeway expansion project, stood up for Vision Zero, and pushed a progressive transportation agenda that included the “Rose Lane” bus priority program. But Portlanders seem to be split on whether she did enough to move the needle on transportation reform. Road fatalities are at a record level, cycling and transit use are down, and our road user culture is as toxic and scary as it’s ever been.
On the cycling front, Eudaly’s record is complicated. While she tried to focus on the issue, Eudaly and her staff failed to make cycling a priority and ultimately ran out of time. In Eudaly’s view, many of the issues she did find time to focus on — like housing reform, transit service, and tenant protections — had a positive impact on cycling.
“I do wish we had been able to dedicate more time and effort to bicycle advocacy and building out our infrastructure.”
— Commissioner Eudaly
Her address to the BAC last night was an attempt to cement her legacy with a crowd of Portland’s most influential and engaged group of cycling activists.
Eudaly read mostly from prepared remarks written by her Policy Director Jamey Duhamel (a regular BAC attendee). But in Eudaly’s typical, non-politician style she also riffed off-the-cuff and allowed herself to show emotion and vulnerability rare for an elected official — even tearing up at one point as she spoke about her father who died in a crash. Eudaly spoke about challenges she faced and offered advice — as well as pointed criticism — to bike advocates.
One of the biggest takeaways from Eudaly’s remarks was that bike advocates need to see their work as being part of a “bigger picture which includes but isn’t limited to bikes.” “When I talk about bikes, I also talk about affordable housing, and our local economy and where jobs are located, and who feels safe using our system and who doesn’t… When cycling advocates become too focused on their immediate issues, decision makers are put in a position to choose one mode over another, which never works out well,” she said.
“… I felt like I wasn’t making anyone happy, but not having strong support from the [bike] advocacy community made it even harder for me to justify the work we were trying to achieve.”
Another theme from Eudaly was how she didn’t feel enough support from bike advocates. She painted a picture that some Portlanders felt she was “waging a war on cars” but that many bicycle advocates didn’t feel like she was doing enough. “It really feels like a no-win situation,” she shared. “I definitely could have used more support from the advocacy community because I felt like I wasn’t making anyone happy, but not having strong support from the advocacy community made it even harder for me to justify the work we were trying to achieve.” (This comment reminded me of similar criticisms of bike advocates made by former Mayor and PBOT Commissioner Sam Adams in 2010 when he was taking heat for his work on the 2030 Bike Plan.)
As I reported in a review of Eudaly’s transportation record last week, race and racial equity played a major role in her tenure. Last night Eudaly praised the antiracism work by PBOT and urged the BAC to follow their example. “My request to this group is that you also do the deep and uncomfortable work of self-reflection and change,” Eudaly said. “Look around at your advocacy groups both here and in other areas of your life and question out loud to each other why more people of color are not at the table with you.” “This may mean that you will hear painful truths about yourselves or your work. And it will require change. But I guarantee you that the more representation you have in your own advocacy, the better your solutions will be and the more likely city leadership will recognize and move those solutions forward.”
This was an important point to hammer home. The BAC has lacked representation from Black Portlanders and other people of color for many years. Despite this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the historical struggle around race that has been present in Portland’s bike planning and advocacy community for many years, the BAC has not addressed the issue. There are currently no Black members of the group and discussions about race and cycling have not made it onto their agenda.
Eudaly’s comment about race was also tied to a real-life example: PBOT and Eudaly’s office were set to bring several cycling initiatives to City Council in late October, but delayed the plans due to fears that it would look too performative without also showing tangible progress on racial equity issues.
As a politician and an activist-at-heart who understands transportation, Eudaly knows cycling is a potent issue in Portland. She expressed regret for not doing more to push it forward and pointed to internal capacity issues and “unprecedented obstacles” for getting in the way. “I don’t want to walk away with many regrets,” she said. “But I do wish we had been able to dedicate more time and effort to bicycle advocacy and building out our infrastructure.”
Throughout her remarks Eudaly seemed exhausted. She took many deep sighs and her guard was clearly down. There was an informal and wistful air to her presence, as if the finality of her final month in office was starting to hit home. Legendary for her candor and slowly shifting out of elected official mode, Eudaly even used profanity a few times. “I came in, you know, ready to get shit done,” she said at one point. And she also said, “Some people are going to drive like assholes no matter what is going on.”
Eudaly’s guard was almost non-existent when when she spoke on the topic of traffic safety. She shared more about the death her father than I’d ever heard from her before*: “He killed two other people. He was probably speeding. He had been drinking. It was raining, and he was rounding a curve on Southwest Farmington road that the locals called ‘dead man’s curve’. So it was kind of the perfect storm of poor engineering, bad weather, and bad choices.” (*Note: Eudaly has been accused of purposely misrepresenting this story.)
Saying she was “pretty disgusted” by how many Portlanders are “driving a two-ton weapon irresponsibly on our streets” given that we’ve had 51 fatalities so far this year, Eudaly said she wanted more equitable enforcement. She expressed frustration that her preferred solution of automated speed cameras took so long to hit the streets. “I’ve been waiting for about a year and a half, for the cameras I approved funding for… And people have died because of it. And that’s…. (she became choked up at this point and had tears in her eyes when she found her voice)… hard to accept.”
“I’ve been waiting for about a year and a half, for the cameras I approved funding for… And people have died because of it. And that’s… hard to accept.”
In the end Eudaly said she simply didn’t spend enough time on cycling because she was new to the issue, was overwhelmed by the “extraordinary amount of work” of being a commissioner, had too little discretionary time, and felt a mandate from voters to focus on renter protections and other housing issues instead. “Sometimes it feels like advocates can have some unrealistic expectations about what one person can do, and what one person can do in a relatively short period of time,” is how she put it.
As for her personal future and the future of Portland City Council, Eudaly had some parting shots for those as well. She said her “fingers are crossed” for who gets picked as next PBOT Commissioner. Whoever it is, Eudaly feels Portland’s recent election moved council to the center. “I’m not gonna lie and say I’m super hopeful that we’re going to see the kind of level and rate of progressive change that we have seen, but that just means that advocacy is that much more important,” she said.
“I do think the majority of Portlanders have progressive values,” Eudaly continued. “Where things fall apart is our inability to agree on how to advance those values… We will perish in the chasm between concern and our willingness to change. And I think that is probably going to be the focus of whatever work I end up doing moving forward.”
Correction, 3:48 pm on 12/9: I originally wrote that Eudaly was, “not an experienced or regular bicycle rider”. I was referring to recent years and the fact that she didn’t ride on a daily/frequent basis while in office. However, that’s not a fair assessment of her in general, as she has ridden a bicycle for many years. I regret the error. – Jonathan
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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