600 transportation wonks come together for ‘CityNerd’ night

The scene outside Aladdin Theater Tuesday night. (Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Note: Audio from this event is now a BikePortland Podcast episode and can be listened to in a player at the end of this post.

How do you go from an engineering consultant to a celebrity that can pack a theater with 600 people on a weeknight in Portland in just a few short years? Upload consistently excellent videos about city planning to YouTube.

That’s the path Ray Delahanty took to become what the host of last night’s event, Lilian Karabaic, called a “YouTube celebrity for deadpan urbanist humor.”

Delahanty was chosen as the special guest speaker for the Portland State University Transportation Research and Education Center’s Ann Niles Active Transportation Lecture. Niles, who died in 2011, was a Reed College graduate who moved to Portland with her husband Phil Niles (who was in the crowd last night) after a career in academia. In Portland, Ann Niles became a dedicated transportation and urban planning volunteer and advocate who worked in support of projects like the streetcar, MAX light rail, bike lanes, sidewalks and more.

Niles would have likely been annoyed if she showed up to the theater last night on her bike, only to find almost no bike parking. The lack of spots meant folks had to walk several blocks to find a place secure enough to store their bikes during the show. Once everyone got inside, all was right with the world as they were treated to a fun, casual and free-flowing conversation between Karabaic and Delahanty.

Karabaic is host of OPB’s Weekend Edition and a journalist focused on finance and transit. Delahanty is a PSU grad and former Portland resident who’s worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation and had a 15 year career as a planner and project manager for consulting firms and private agencies. He started his YouTube career in 2021 and now has about 225,000 subscribers and puts out one video per week with titles such as, “10 Suburbs That Are Becoming More City Like,” “10 Cities That Destroy Their Downtowns With Parking,” and “Why Americans Live So Far Away From Everything.”

On stage, Karabaic’s bright pink outfit and huge turquoise bike earrings, contrasted with Delahanty’s subdued grey pants and blazer. Their presence mimicked their fashion choices as Karabaic’s ebullience balanced out Delahanty’s calm and reserved delivery — the same one that makes his videos so easy to watch, digest, and like.

While Delahanty offered excessively diplomatic answers to some of the night’s juiciest questions (like how to bring more women and people of color into the planning field or which project was his favorite to work on), there were some fun exchanges and his fans learned a lot more about the man behind the mic.

Asked an audience question about how he balanced ethical issues of working on projects (like freeway expansions) he knew were harmful to land use and transportation goals, Delahanty replied:

“You have to be able to earn a paycheck, so you might have to sometimes work on projects that you don’t have the highest opinion of. But as you advance in your career, look for opportunities to gravitate towards the projects that are inspiring to you — not just in terms of the way you want the world to look, but the things that get you excited to get up in the morning and to go to go to work every day. It’s hard to do that if you’re working on projects that you genuinely think are harming society.”

To which Karabaic followed-up with, “You have to have people that care about moving those goals forward, even if they are working on a massive highway expansion, because you need to have those voices in the room. And also, you’ve got to feed yourself, and you can’t eat ethics for breakfast.”

And while Delahanty said he loves being his own boss (a huge change from working in the public sector), he made it clear that he still is beholden to a lot of daily feedback. Last night Karabaic asked if there was any viewer comment he’s received that became lodged in his head long after he first read it.

Delahanty shared that a commenter on a video about Miami wrote, “What you’ll notice, as you travel around Miami, is it’s walkable urbanism for the rich and abject car dependency for everyone else.” “And that was harsh,” Delahanty acknowledges, “But Miami is almost like the most extreme version of that. And so that really still sticks in my head.”

Asked to name his favorite arterial and favorite new bridge in Portland, Delahanty answered with Sandy Blvd (he used to live in Hollywood neighborhood) and the Flanders Bridge between northwest and the Pearl District.

“It’s such a short distance and you don’t feel like you’re leaving the street environment. You feel like you’re still in an urban setting and it’s so short that you don’t reach a point where you’re like, ‘Oh God, I’m over freeway!'” he said about the Flanders Bridge.

The crowd was eager to cheer for anything wonky. A mention from an audience member that they’d like to, “See I-5 filled in altogether at the Rose Quarter,” got one of the largest cheers of the night. So too did Delahanty’s admission that he builds spreadsheets to help with many major life decisions — like which city to move to and which neighborhoods to live in.

But the loudest cheer of the night came when Delahanty announced the current video he’s working on. After he hinted that it was about Portland, Karabaic asked for a three-word hint.

“Historic streetcar system,” Delahanty replied, and the crowd responded as if the Timbers just scored a match-winning goal.

Delahanty and CityNerd’s popularity gives veteran and aspiring urbanists hope — especially those of us who live in Portland. It’s nice to know we can still pack a large theater to hear about someone who makes a living ranking transit systems on the internet. Beyond that, there might be something else at work here: Most of CityNerd’s viewers are from Portland and Seattle, which made Karabaic wonder out loud if Delahanty’s work has tapped into many peoples’ strong urge to find solutions to the persistent problems our cities face.

Whatever nerve he’s struck, last night leaves no doubt of Delahanty’s influence.

CityNerd superfan Blaise Lewis.

As I packed up to leave the venue, a man named Blaise Lewis approached. “Do you know Ray?” he asked. He then gave me a copy of a short comic book he made called, “All Board: The Condensed History of Portland’s Light Rail.” Lewis wanted me to give it to Delahanty because, he said, “He was my inspiration, he’s the reason I went back to school for planning.”

Asked what he thought about the event, Lewis said, “I never thought I’d see him in person, so it’s kind of like meeting your hero I guess.”

— Meet Delahanty at Bike Happy Hour later today. He’ll show up to the Gorges Beer Co patio at 4:30 and can’t stay too long so get there right at the time if you want to say “hi”.

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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Surly Ogre
Joe Bicycles
1 month ago

so much fun last night and today at Bike Happy Hour !
Ray D is super cool ! yay CityNerd ! yay Bikes !!

David LaPorte
David LaPorte
1 month ago

The bike parking situation at the Aladdin was wild! Like 10-12 bikes per staple and 4 per street sign.

dw
dw
1 month ago
Reply to  David LaPorte

While waiting in line, I kept thinking about how much space would be needed if all those people had arrived in cars.

Julian Dunn
Julian Dunn
1 month ago

“Excessively diplomatic” I think covered most of Delahanty’s responses. I wished he’d had a stronger point of view for the questions asked, or been more forthcoming about the projects he had worked on.

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1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Dunn

That was my feeling, as well. I wonder if he was a little nervous in front of the big crowd.

Tegan
Tegan
1 month ago

What!! I love CityNerd! I literally live around the corner and would have LOVED to go to this but how was I supposed to know that “Places for People” on the marquee was him??

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Home
1 month ago
Reply to  Tegan

You had to reserve a seat in advance with PSU. The theater was totally booked. Even if the marquee had said City nerd in all caps, you still wouldn’t have been able to get in.