Safe streets as Portland’s unique selling proposition?

In the world of sales and marketing, there’s a thing known as a unique selling proposition, or USP. Put simply, it’s the one thing that differentiates your product or brand from competitors.

What if Portland’s leaders once again acted as through our city’s USP was a safe, efficient, earth-friendly transportation system? I say “once again”, because in many ways that’s what set us apart from other American cities starting in the 1970s. That’s when activists came together to turn a massive highway, Harbor Drive, into Waterfront Park. Then Portlanders defeated the Mt. Hood Freeway in the 1980s (and built light rail instead), laid down innovative bike lanes in the 1990s, then went on to become the coolest cycling city in the world from 2000 to 2015.

Now that some of the shine as come off our transportation reputation and everyone’s looking for a way to “revitalize” Portland, one bike advocate thinks we should consider finishing what we started in the 90s.

Local nonprofit BikeLoud PDX encourages members to testify each week at the open public comment period prior to City Council meetings. These three-minute slots are open to everyone and they’re an excellent opportunity to speak directly to Mayor Ted Wheeler and the four other commissioners and get your ideas on the record.

One person who volunteered for this last Wednesday was Melissa Kostelecky (you might have met her and/or her family at Bike Happy Hour). I thought Melissa’s testimony was very effective, so I made a video of it and have shared the transcript below.

The “toothbrushing enthusiast” line at the beginning is brilliant!

Below is her testimony (scroll down to watch it in video form with captions):

“Commissioners, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Melissa Kostelecky, and I’d like to start off by noting that I don’t identify as a cyclist in the cultural sense of the word, any more than I would consider myself a toothbrushing enthusiast, simply because it’s something I do a couple times a day as a need. 

I’m passionate about biking because it’s potential for mitigating carbon emissions, but it just so happens to also be a more affordable form of transportation. One with vast health benefits, and let’s face it, much more enjoyable than sitting in traffic and searching for parking. I initially wanted to speak to you today about recent removals of bike lanes, both proposed and implemented, but I’m sure you’ve heard an earful already, so I’m going to pivot away from safety concerns and instead point out what we stand to gain by hardening and significantly expanding our bike network.

Last week, you heard a presentation from Travel Portland about how to bring tourists back and the need to reverse our tarnished reputation as an unsafe city. Mayor Wheeler noted that cities with good tourism have some unique aspect cruise ships in Seattle, sports venues in Las Vegas. I’d like to challenge the City Council to define our unique selling point and at the same time, improve safety by expanding on a mission we started roughly 20 years ago, but never really completed.

To make Portland the city where people move on foot, bike, and public transit and interact on the street. As [Travel Portland Chief Strategy Officer] Megan Conway noted, people want to come here and experience Portland like the locals do. The problem is that too many of the locals are now hidden away in metal and glass, hurrying by at 40 miles an hour.

We’ve suffered a vicious cycle lately. As the pandemic pushed people indoors and emptied out the streets, crime and unsafe driving filled the void, further disincentivizing people from experiencing the city outside their own cars. A few recent studies indicate that biking has a wider impact on cities as tourism destinations by transforming places and slowing down urban routes, i.e., influencing the dynamics of cities as lived space — and I’m happy to provide those studies on request. Other cities are racing ahead of us on building out their bike networks. And we’ve already lost our place as America’s bike and transit city. Turning this around would help Portland attract conventions aimed at companies and industries looking to tout their green efforts by making our city synonymous with sustainability.

You may wonder what that looks like. Portland continues to improve its, its bike facilities. And for that, I’m grateful, but the roads still feel unsafe and the data backs me up. This problem gets in our way of standing out as a unique American city worth visiting. So I encourage you to think bigger.

Recently, a team of planners, including a former BPS employee, drafted a plan for an urban trail network. I highly encourage you to take a look for yourselves; but to sum it up, the network entails a system of fully protected bike lanes that would link our outer trails and greenways with key downtown and neighborhood destinations within the city.

This safer, more attractive infrastructure would get Portlanders out in the open air, interacting with one another, looking out for one another, and create a safe, welcoming space for visitors to interact with locals. Thank you again for your time.”

I think Melissa did a great job finding a new argument for cycling and framing it in a way that connects with elected leaders. Watch the full video with captions below:

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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David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago

I live in Greensboro NC, one of our country’s most car-friendly cities with a 93% car mode share and a bike mode share of 0.2%, yet our city keeps touting itself as a “bike friendly community” to incoming businesses and tourists ever since it got a Bronze designation by the League of American Bicyclists in 2007. (Any city with any sort of bicycle master plan, no matter how wishful, gets such a designation.)

If your elected officials repeat a wishful mantra like “Portland is a safe bicycling city” often enough, they will come to believe it – the Oregonian will quote it without cynicism, it will be quoted in Bicycling magazine along with your Platinum bike designation – and everyone will believe it.

Except those who have to actually bicycle in Portland.

Which is why it’s so dangerous for anyone to make such a suggestion to City Council – be careful, they might just do it – without actually fixing anything.

Fred
Fred
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Certainly The Street Trust – and Bike Loud – will hold them accountable.

dw
dw
5 months ago

I’m so disappointed that she trotted out the stupid “Urban trails” nonsense. What a truly dumb idea. It would be phenomenally expensive, requiring the complete rebuilding of miles of neighborhood streets. The resulting infrastructure wouldn’t be that useful either, as you’d still have to deviate a half mile off of the greenway to get anywhere worth going. Also, driveway conflicts every 20 feet for each single-family home lining the street.

Why do activists always want to roll out some shiny new scheme? It’s the urbanist version of “just one more lane bro”. No need to build prohibitively expensive, useless bike sidewalks that will soon fall into rot and disrepair. Fix and improve what we’ve already got! Greenways with adequate traffic diversion. smooth pavement, and good crossings of major streets are already great to ride on. Most of our bike lanes are fine as long as they’re kept clean. For the cost of the Urban Fails concept, the city could install dozens of diverters, re-surface neighborhood streets, curb-protect existing bike lanes, re-build dangerous intersections, and get new signs and fresh paint. Oh and also they could use the mone to calm some of the dangerous East Portland stroads that are constantly claiming lives.

What’s the point in bending over backwards to appeal to some yuppies from Boise visiting for the weekend who will never ever ever ever get out their car, while the shit the locals already use bikes on is falling apart? Why can’t anyone from BikeLoud be normal? Is there any advocacy organization that doesn’t constantly push dumb ideas? Like, where are the adults who want fiscally responsible, rational, and realistic solutions?

SD
SD
5 months ago

A city with the progressive escape velocity to break free from the grotesque, self-inflicted wounds of most U.S. cities has been the long-standing promise of Portland. City council needs to be reminded of this, and that transportation is at the heart of this proposition.

Melissa’s statement is perfect.

Zack Rules
Zack Rules
5 months ago

My wife and I visited Portland twice because of its bike friendly reputation. It was fun to get around without a car. We stayed downtown the second time instead of with relatives in rural Hillsboro too. Portland has also attracted NACTO and NABSA conferences in large part because of its bike friendliness and safe streets.

360Skeptic
360Skeptic
5 months ago
Reply to  Zack Rules

That is, its pre-pandemic (and even then only relative) bike friendliness and safe streets.

JeffS
JeffS
5 months ago

“Portland, where advocates have assured that every cyclist dies in a bike lane”

Little harsh, but it gets at the heart of Portland’s. “Feelz over Function”problem. Where believing you are doing good things is good enough.

Notice how the center of the discussion is tourism? How the city is viewed by Outsiders. And if you can fool the tourists into believing it. It must be true right? And those tourists will likely never cross a bridge, so we won’t need to worry about the majority of the city.

Fred
Fred
5 months ago
Reply to  JeffS

What do mean by “every cyclist dies in a bike lane”? Are you referring to right hooks? Do you have any data that right hooks are worse in Portland than elsewhere? (maybe JM does and could comment)

maxD
maxD
5 months ago

I appreciate this so much! The downtown business association, who has a DIRECT line to Mapps, is laser-focused on tourism and supporting the hotels. The problem is, these people are pretty clueless about urban design and transportation. They are all about marketing buzz. They have forgotten, or never really understood, that what made Portland appealing for tourists is that was committed to being a great place to live. IN the 90’s and early 2000’s, Portland was committed to public spaces from sidewalks to parks to forests that were safe, clean and accessible. Portland focused on developing bike and transit and promoting biking and walking. Portland allowed then promoted food carts. This approach was successful, and people started visiting and moving here. We developed a tourism industry and developers started building lots of hotels. The hotels used bikes and food carts as marketing material. Now the hotels are seen as an important part of the city’s economy, and they are trying to dictate what needs to happen to support tourism. I think that is backwards. Portland needs to focus on getting back to being a livable place for Portlanders. Clean, safe streets/sidewalks/transit. A well-connected bike network. A diverse network of parks and openspaces. Beautiful street trees and a vibrant, healthy river front (with access!). Make Portland work for Portlanders, and people will come visit. Stop listening to The Downtown Business Association who is convinced they know what Portland needs, which can be summed up as easy to drive to to and easy to park a car, with no unsightly homeless people.

Fred
Fred
5 months ago
Reply to  maxD

But – as many commenters have noted here over the past several years – people will not support any commitment to public spaces if the spaces are effectively commandeered by the homeless population.

Yes, people are shallow and petty, but until that problem is solved, most people will stay away from downtown.

I went to Sherwood recently. Wow! – that place is booming. The investment that once went to downtown Portland is going there. No amount of Ted Wheeler begging businesses to order their workers downtown is going to fix the fundamental problems downtown is facing.

Quint
Quint
5 months ago

This is a great approach, to tie this to tourism. Pretty much anyone who has traveled to a major city knows that it’s always nicer when you go somewhere and don’t need to rent a car, since dealing with navigation and parking and traffic in an unfamiliar place is challenging, and you don’t want to spend half your trip in traffic or dealing with just trying to get around in a car. When people travel to cities, they want to walk and take transit, and maybe rent a bike to pedal around, and they have a much better experience. So yes, this focus on tourism could be a good way to raise up these issues with people in power who might not care about non-driving modes in their personal lives, but who do want us to be a thriving city that people want to visit.

Kyle Banerjee
4 months ago

Building plans around impacting people who might come rather than those who live there is weird and logically challenged. That’s before we get to the assumption that these tourists are chomping at the bit to travel across the country on a flying blowtorch to experience ecologically friendly transportation (which curiously doesn’t need to get anywhere fast).

The people who live here generate the lion’s share of the impact, and tourists go very different places than locals, so I’m not really following the trickle down argument.

Transportation is a means to an end, and for the small percentage of people that simply getting from point A to point B is the end in itself, urban areas are the worst possible destinations you can choose.

Even if this magical network could be built (and people were willing to go outside in less than perfect weather), no amount of infrastructure can change the fact that peoples’ paths cross frequently in densely populated areas. An best case scenario would rate poorly compared to everyday experiences that can be had all over.