Mayor Wheeler comes out as council’s biggest advocate for cycling

Wheeler on the Tilikum Bridge during Sunday Parkways in 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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.

“Separated and protected bike lanes, from my perspective, are the gold standard. We know that in cities, when they invest in those, ridership increases.”

– Ted Wheeler, Portland mayor
Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday. Wheeler is on lower right.

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, it just has to be a good value proposition.”

“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.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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John V
John V
10 months ago

Well, I don’t believe him. Actions speak louder than out of nowhere seeming words, so if he sticks to it, that will be cool. But he’s been mayor for a lot of years now, it makes no sense for this to pop up all of a sudden. It seems like legacy polishing – trying to make us remember him as a pro-cycling mayor.

But, again, if he actually makes anything of this and does something (as mentioned, he can’t do much directly), I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen nor that it that outweighs all the other stupid stuff he’s done (looking at you parking fee torpedoing). He gets no benefit of the doubt from me. 15 months is long enough to do something substantial, so if he means it, I expect something. Like you said, not running means maybe he’ll be bold. Who knows.

squareman
squareman
10 months ago
Reply to  John V

COTW

cc_rider
cc_rider
10 months ago
Reply to  John V

I agree that this is legacy polishing. It makes sense for him to pivot to caring about areas where he can take a popular easy stance without really generating any enemies. I expect will see Ted take up some advisory position with the State. Maybe he can join Chris Warner if he ever accomplished opening up the Office of Public Administration, which probably wont happen because Chris Warner is terrible at Public Administration. He needs to rehab his image outside of Portland if he wants to run when Kotek is done.

But, I’ll disagree with you on your second point. Even if he does accomplish goals toward cycling infrastructure, I’ll hold it against him. He is the mayor AND police commissioner. He should be spending every waking hour of his life working to fix JOHS and addressing corruption, violence, and far-right beliefs within the PPB. If he wants to focus on transporation, shuffle the Bureaus. He’s a lame duck mayor with a dead political brand, so he’s in a weirdly good position to actually get things done, because he has no political future to ruin.

Now, he’s also exremely incompetent and has no backbone, so realistically he isn’t going to achieve anything in the next 15 months, so I don’t think it really matters what he spends his time on, but transportation should be in no way his priority.

Arturo P
Arturo P
10 months ago

Sounds promising but I’m not holding my breath for PBL’s akin to a functioning progressive city like Vancouver , BC . Unfortunately Portland is in a bit of a free fall economically with businesses leaving along with high income individuals due to the high taxes and low quality of services being provided to taxpayers. Portlanders have opted to tax others heavily with poorly designed and executed taxes (PCEF, Homeless Tax, Preschool Tax, Metro Affordable Housing bond, etc) as well as a support a lot of wasteful and non essential city spending. Until the city can significantly cut much of its wasteful expenditures and these new taxes can be re-directed to essential services such as public safety and transportation I don’t foresee much improvement. Worth trying for PBL’s but the $$ has to come from somewhere.

BB
BB
10 months ago

I guess you need content to publish but at this point, Why does anyone take anything Ted says with more than a laugh.
He has not singlehandedly ruined the city but he gave it a college try.
He also gives good talks about police, housing, drugs, crime etc.
He does absolutely nothing about any of those problems.
Remember the July 1 tent camping ban?
He REALLY REALLY meant it that time. Is it now the end of September that is the REAL official deadline? He will get really mad this time I’m sure.
His stance on cycling is the same performative mess. He REALLY REALLY thinks cycling is important now after he has been in office 7 years?
Did we really need another Ted Talk?

Steve B
Steve B
10 months ago

A group of transportation advocates met with Mayor Wheeler at city hall about halfway through his first term. It was billed as a listening session. “A first of many” was what we were told. Wheeler took a defensive posture while listening to advocates, then proceeded to leave the meeting early. He had a staffer stay behind to take notes and attempt to placate our concerns. Well, we never met again and nothing ever came from the dozens of issues raised in the meeting.

Unfortunately Ted seems to stay interested in a particular issue only long enough to appear to be involved, then he bails. He has a long way to go to earn the respect and trust of transportation advocates, and I don’t think 15 months is enough time to make a difference. I would love to be wrong about this.

Ted is welcome to blame the current form of government for his inaction of biking, walking and transit but the truth is there is nothing stopping him from leading on transportation if that’s what he believes in. He does not have to defer to Mapps, he can put forward his own proposals.

BrighterSomeday
BrighterSomeday
10 months ago

He’s buttering up the BAC so they don’t see it coming when he creates the first tolled bike lane as part of his economic recovery initiative

clay
clay
10 months ago

Did he mention anything about reducing space allocated for cars, or is he living in the “alternate physics” world where there’s space for everything if you throw enough committees at it?

dw
dw
10 months ago
Reply to  clay

Yes this seems to be the big gap for many progressives who “totally support bikes and public transit”. They don’t realize that means taking away a relatively minuscule amount of driving space for the associated improvements to those modes.

Zack
Zack
10 months ago

JFC, bar is so low I almost tripped over it. So a bunch of folks filled city hall over traffic violence and suddenly Ted is a bike guy? I don’t think we’ll get far with “I think we need to…” “we need to figure out how” WHO IS THE “WE” HERE, TED? YOU’RE THE MAYOR FFS! WHO IS WE? WE’RE THE ONES DYING OUT HERE, NOT YOU.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
10 months ago

Cycling in PDX needs all the advocates it can get because the new ACS 2022 mode share stats show that only 3.2% of Portlanders commuted to work by bicycle (within the margin of error of last year’s 2021 print).

https://data.census.gov/table?q=S0801&g=160XX00US4159000&tid=ACSST1Y2022.S0801

Interestingly, work from home (WFH) dropped by 18% but almost none of the people who started commuting again used a bicycle (6%). 33% of the people who stopped working from home used public transportation and 32% used a motorvehicle. These data suggests that the sharp drop in cycling mode share is persisting even as more people start working away from home again.

EEE
EEE
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

Many of the orgs desperately trying to bring people back to the office will subsidize motor vehicle use in some way, like paying for parking or public transportation. At the same time, the roads are still not yet that pre-pandemic daily cloister-flock that would make driving painfully longer and more irritating, and the ongoing crime and mental health problems can make opting for a lockable moving cage over more open modes a fairly easy decision for many. All carrot in the wrong direction and no stick to the right one. So this disparity is not surprising.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
10 months ago
Reply to  EEE

The data do not support your interpretation at all. 68% of the people who returned to work away from home used non-car/suv modes. Unfortunately, it’s cycling that seems to be uniquely depressed when people return to work. The good news is that transit seems to be the top preference of those returning to work away form home. This preference for transit is a huge change from pre-pandemic trends.

Will
Will
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

Yeah, I’d love to see more folks biking, but I consider 2/3s opting not to drive to be an improvement all the same.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
10 months ago
Reply to  Will

The two thirds opting not to drive is very cool and unexpected but for purely selfish reasons I would very much like to see more people cycling (safety or perception of safety in numbers).

EEE
EEE
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

I said motor vehicle use and the various incentives encompassed public transit, so I don’t think you really understand my interpretation when you single out cars.
 
Anyways, even if the currently favorable trend ratio for public transit continues to hold for returning employees (i.e., 33% of the remaining wfh goes non-wfh until we reach pre-pandemic 9% wfh, and that 33% chooses public transit) the public transit share would only reach 12.9%, which is about the same share pre-pandemic (13.4%), where it looks like it has stagnated for years. That’s not much of a change if the trend holds.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
10 months ago
Reply to  EEE

That’s not much of a change if the trend holds.

~25% of those who returned to work away from home shifted their mode share to walking . If this trend continues, walking mode share will soon be above pre-pandemic averages.

Moreover, these changes in mode share also represent some percentage of people switching from one mode to another so, hopefully, the relative increase in walking and transit will continue even after work from home stabilizes.

Watts
Watts
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

We’ll see how walking fares when it is dark and rainy. If the trend survives a winter, I will be more inclined to see it as a potentially enduring change.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
10 months ago
Reply to  Watts

The recent release was for all of 2022 so it already survived a winter.

Watts
Watts
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

So we have numbers for two subsequent years?

Mary Vasquez
Mary Vasquez
10 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

Got to make the city safe, clean and welcoming to cyclists if you want people to ride bikes to work. Traffic violence news in Portland makes the headlines nearly everyday. Not the best way to entice people to getting out of their cars. Time to vote differently. The stream of activists that have run PBOT (Eudaly, Hardesty) have not put us in a good position to increase our bike share.

https://www.opb.org/article/2023/08/07/portland-traffic-deaths-multnomah-county/

dw
dw
10 months ago

Ted (2) Wheeler

Sio
Sio
10 months ago
Reply to  dw

Probably the hardest thing for me to imagine is him on a bike. Then he said he rode dirty thirty to the coast. Got me wondering if he rode RTB this year.

Matt
Matt
10 months ago

If a mayor mired in the 7th year of a tedious tenure, who’s political brand is almost never associated with cycling, spouts some agreeable points regarding the importance of cycling and bike infrastructure and thereby becomes the council’s biggest advocate for cycling while deferring on any tangible action, then Portland currently has a more woefully inept and shamefully silent city council on the scourge of vehicular violence and the importance of non-automotive transportation than previously imagined,

Who needs concerted and immediate action prompted by the council – or even just an announced plan from any of them regarding reducing road violence or increasing bike mode share – when they can just as easily congregate at a Sunday Parkways for a sun-kissed photo op?

carrythebanner
10 months ago

He’s already had the better part of a decade to do something. Unless and until I see action or budget, it’s all hot air.

Matt S
Matt S
10 months ago

Glad this disaster of a mayor isn’t running again.

Chris I
Chris I
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt S

It can always get worse.

Watts
Watts
10 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

It almost did.

Jermaine P
Jermaine P
10 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Yep, Inarone. Comment of the week Watts!

Richard
Richard
10 months ago

7

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
10 months ago

Ok great but where have you been all these years?

Todd/Boulanger
10 months ago

Mayor Wheeler, I hope he proves us all “wrong” on our reaction to his strong support of cycling with PBLs in this article based on 7 years as mayor.

As a 20+ year professional planner in mobility and infrastructure, I have seen progressive design / safety pilot projects go from stalled by a ‘departmental gatekeeper’ to being implemented just by a single community leader (mayor or transportation director, etc.) going on vacation…leaving their car-head ‘local A to B’ blinders on to have an experience that challenged their perceptions on a ‘shelved’ proposal. So fingers crossed…the pledge of support has been accepted.

Steven Smith
Steven Smith
10 months ago

Mapps runs PBOT. He’s spoken of his concern for his kids safety when they ride bikes. He rides bikes. As politician in charge of PBOT, he at least seems to understand the importance of good infrastructure. Will definitely welcome Wheeler as an active ally, too. The more Council members doing good for bicycling the better.

Sam
Sam
10 months ago

About protected and separated bike lanes: Let’s go all the way! Since our mayor and so many others constantly claim it’s WAY too dangerous to ride without that separation, let’s make it illegal. No bicycling on quiet residential streets unless they have concrete barriers. No riding on Sauvie Island or other rural roads. No riding anywhere your bike tires touch any pavement desecrated by contact with auto tires.

Or maybe instead, we can stop pretending that an ordinary bike ride on an ordinary street is deadly. We can remember that people ride tens of thousands of miles between even tiny injuries, and millions of miles between fatalities. Maybe we can stop scaring people away from riding bikes.

ShadowsFolly
ShadowsFolly
10 months ago
Reply to  Sam

Maybe not ordinary streets, but 39th, 82nd, 122nd, Division, Sandy, etc. aren’t ordinary. Cars zooming by at 40+ mph, drivers not paying attention that there might be a bicycle near the curb, right turns without looking behind them, etc. etc. etc.
This City wants me to get out of my car then make it safe with a separated bike lane on such streets, especially since they have the room for a protected lane.
I’m all for having any street that has 4 or more lanes now have one lane in each direction be dedicated to bicycles. And yes, concrete barriers or similar.
Am I the only one that won’t ride my bike on those streets until that happens? Maybe. But sure seems like others want protected lanes at least on main streets for commuting and going across town.