Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler spent about an hour Tuesday night at the monthly meeting of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. For someone who’s political brand is almost never associated with cycling (or transportation more broadly, for that matter), he came off as by far the most bike-centric person on the current Portland city council.
Can he be a useful ally to bike advocates in his final 15 months in office? Comments he made Tuesday night make that seem like a very good possibility.
In Portland’s form of government, where a specific member of council is assigned to the transportation bureau, it might seem odd for the Mayor — who does not have it in his portfolio — to pop into the BAC meeting. Why was he there? Because he was making good on a promise after being invited to attend back in May by a former chair of the committee, David Stein.
Stein was at last night’s meeting and was one of several people to ask Mayor Wheeler questions. What we heard during the conversation was someone who clearly understands the value and necessity of making bicycling better in Portland, and someone whose perspective has been shaped by first hand experience. Taken altogether, he’s the strongest cycling spokesperson on council by a long shot.
“I support separated bike lanes. And I know they work. There’s no question in my mind,” Wheeler said at one point, in comments spurred by recent testimony from bike advocates at city council pushing for more protected bike lanes. And then Wheeler continued, sharing a story of a bike ride he took to the coast:
“I’ll give you an example: I ride my bike on Highway 30 and I’ve ridden it all the way to the coast and then south and it’s nothing short of terrifying. You can’t see behind you because you don’t know when somebody’s going to reach for their cell phone or do something else as they’re speeding past you at 65 miles an hour… So, separated and protected bike lanes, from my perspective, are the gold standard. We know that in cities, when they invest in those, ridership increases.”
Then Wheeler shared about a ride he did using the bike share system in Vancouver, British Columbia last month. He rode on Vancouver’s carfree, waterfront path around False Creek and Granville Island. “It was very easy, very convenient, and very safe. I was just so impressed with the separated bike lanes and plenty of secure parking areas. What was most notable about it was how heavily used it was by people from all walks of life.”
“If we are serious about getting people out of their automobiles and onto bicycles,” he continued, sounding more like a bike advocate than an elected official. “It has to be worthwhile for people… You’re not going to be able to browbeat people, so it just has to be a good value proposition.”
On the note of enticing people onto bikes, Wheeler said he also experienced a carfree zone near a beach and popular park in Vancouver where there was a free bike valet and food carts. “So it’s not just a means of transportation, it’s actually an economic development tool, and it’s also a community engagement and gathering tool, and I was really impressed with that. I’d like us to do more of that.”
“So can I get your promise that you’ll propose something like that to the council?” one of the BAC members asked.
“I will defer to the commissioner who’s in charge of PBOT [Portland Bureau of Transportation] and if he proposes it I’ll work with him on it,” Wheeler replied, apologizing for Portland’s current form of government (which will change for good next year so transportation will be the purview of the entire council, not just one commissioner).
While Wheeler can’t spearhead cycling initiatives, he can bring attention to it in other ways (remember former Mayor Tom Potter rode his bike in Critical Mass) and the mayor has broad influence on the city budget. And with PBOT’s budget problems being very high-profile this year, there’s no doubt Wheeler can be a helpful ally to PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps. In the coming weeks, Mapps will lay out his ideas for how to stabilize PBOT’s finances as they stare down harrowing cuts to their (already slashed) discretionary budget. One big part of the negotiations will be PBOT asking for a larger piece of the city’s General Fund — a highly competitive pot of money which currently accounts for less than 2% of PBOT’s entire budget, an absurdly low amount given the importance of providing mobility services to the entire city.
It appears Wheeler might already have Mapps’ back when that request comes. At Tuesday night’s BAC meeting, Wheeler said, “We need to figure out what the new funding mechanism is for PBOT… We’re working on a couple of strategies right now that I hope to highlight during this upcoming budget process on at least a temporary boost to PBOT so they can continue the work they do now.”
And then came the hint that Wheeler might support Mapps’ General Fund ask: “I think we need to take a good hard look at the resources we already have in our city budget, and in some of our partnership budgets, and ask, ‘Is there more we can be doing collaboratively to keep PBOT making the kinds of investments that they’re making?'”
Bike advocates had a lot to feel good about after the BAC meeting. But while it’s clear Wheeler supports their needs and issues, he also made it clear cycling will not be one of his top priorities in his final 15 months in office.
“There are 150 issues that people would like me to address on any given day and I’m going to be focused on homelessness, public safety, and the economic recovery of our city,” Wheeler said, “The good news is I have four other extremely qualified commissioners who can work with me to help lead in these other areas.”
Now it’s up to advocates to do everything they can to lobby Wheeler while he’s still around. The fact that he won’t run for re-election makes it more likely he’ll stick his neck out for cycling.