East Portland and cycling’s “downtown culture”

East Portland and cycling’s “downtown culture”

SE 136th Press Conference-7

Oregon State Rep. Shemia Fagan.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think out Loud radio show hosted a conversation about “the future of bicycling” yesterday. The show was set up to discuss the recent release of reports by the City Club of Portland and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Leaders from both groups were in studio and the host also welcomed Oregon State Representative Shemia Fagan onto the show via telephone. Rep. Fagan — whose district stretches east from SE 122nd Ave through Clackamas County all the way to Highway 26 — was asked how she felt upon hearing about all the talk of bicycle funding and projects.

I think Fagan’s answers deserve a wider audience so I’ve shared the entire exchange below (you can also listen to the whole show here):

Think out Loud Host David Miller:

“When you hear people like Craig [Beebe, from City Club] and Rob [Sadowsky, from the BTA] talking about increasing bicycle-friendly infrastructure as a way to have pedestrians and cars and bikers all play well together, what goes through your mind?”

Rep. Fagan:

“There’s a lot of push-back in east Portland to the bicycle lanes because its not about the actual bicycle lanes as much as its about pushing back on a culture from downtown that they feel is being pushed on them out in east Portland.”
— Shemia Fagan, Oregon State Rep.

“A mix of things: First off, the vast majority of time bicycle projects and pedestrian projects are one in the same. If it’s safe for bicyclists it’s probably going to be safe for pedestrians. So, in one way I’m encouraged to hear about more [bike] projects. The only caution that I’m worried about is that a lot of these projects seem to start downtown and trickle out and bicycling is different in outer SE Portland. People are not for the most part bicycling all the way downtown to work. I did it back before I had a child, it took me about an hour and a half each way to get to work. Now that I have a son I’m not going to take what could be a one hour commute and turn it into a three hour commute every day. And so I think the concern is that the focus would be on building a culture downtown — and I understand that cyclists want to encourage a certain culture in Portland: A green, alternative transportation culture, you know naked bike ride, it’s kind-of a funky cool culture. But the fact is it’s not cool, and it’s not O.K., that a little girl [Morgan Cook] died because she didn’t have a safe place to cross the street in front of her house and that happened in Portland just a few months ago.”

David Miller:

“What do you hear from your constituents when you talk about their infrastructure needs or desires?”

Rep. Fagan:

“Sidewalks, sidewalks, sidewalks. I mean, I understand that there are certainly times where bicycle lanes and sidewalks can be in conjunction; but there’s a lot of these old streets out in east Portland that unless you’re going to make a project a lot more expensive and actually expand the size of the road, you either have room for a bike lane or sidewalks. And I think there’s a lot of push-back in east Portland to the bicycle lanes because its not about the actual bicycle lanes as much as its about pushing back on a culture from downtown that they feel is being pushed on them out in east Portland.

I mean, I don’t oppose any bicycle lanes in east Portland, but the fact is in east Portland the primary users of bicycle lanes are not kind of the urban person biking to work as an alternative means of transportation, it’s kids biking to school and in east Portland. Where we don’t have sidewalks you’ll often see people in motorized wheelchairs actually using bicycle lanes because they don’t have a sidewalk. So it’s either a bicycle lane, the middle of the street, or a gravel shoulder with giant muddy holes. So, I think that my constituents don’t oppose bicycle lanes. In fact when I’ve gone in to elementary schools a couple of times I’ve asked kids about proposed legislation, every time I’ve gone in kids have said, ‘Hey I want to be able to bike to school safely.’ So I don’t think there’s as much conflict between bicycle lanes and sidewalks as if it’s an either/or, I think folks in east Portland are reacting to a sense of a culture being pushed on them but the actual infrastructure is going to benefit people in east Portland because it’s going to be used primarily by children bicycling to school and to the park and to folks who are actually vulnerable going and waiting at the bus stop.

So I think it can be a positive thing as long as there’s a recognition that some of the infrastructure that works in downtown Portland is not the primary needs in east Portland.

What I’d like to see, as opposed to that money being spent starting in downtown Portland and filtering out, I’d like to see us start around schools. To the extent we can fund those first and foremost, and anything in addition above-and-beyond that certainly build in the infrastructure that the communities want; but I think safe routes to schools should be our top priority.”

I’m sharing this exchange because it’s rare to hear a politician who represents east Portland speak so candidly about bicycling. It’s important to hear Fagan’s perspective because it shows how bicycling is perceived outside the bubble. Her mention of work commutes, the naked ride, and a “certain culture” being “pushed” on east Portland residents really stood out to me.

Studies and surveys show that the majority of bicycle trips are not for work — but are rather for social reasons, running errands, or recreational in nature (a recent Metro survey put the split at 35% and 54% respectively). Despite that, I often hear bike-skeptical arguments based on the fact that person X or Y simply can’t bike to work and therefore improved bicycle access shouldn’t be a major priority. This tells me there’s too much focus from the city and from advocates on commuting and not enough about how bicycling is simply an extremely practical, fun and efficient way to get around.

And Fagan’s mention of culture was very timely given the recent (and ongoing) debate over whether or not celebratory bike events like the Naked Ride and Pedalpalooza actually turn off more people then they inspire. Her remarks also confirmed my hunches of past bike controversies where the focus of the public and media narrative is the big, bad bike lanes — but in reality the push-back is more about larger cultural differences.

What do you think?

— Listen and learn more about yesterday’s Think Out Loud show here.

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