Something has gone wrong in Portland

Something has gone wrong in Portland

(Photos by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

This is a long post. It’s about one person’s experience. And it’s the only thing we expect to publish today.

You have to feel at least a little bad for Todd Roll. All he wanted was to rent a few more bikes.

“WELCOME TO AMERICA’S BICYCLE CAPITAL,” his workers painted in six-foot letters on the wall outside his rental shop two years ago, channeling what seemed to be the voice of the city.

The bureaucratic tangle that led the huge, iconic sign to be painted over yesterday was complicated. But reason for its removal isn’t.

The reason the city lost Roll’s sign isn’t that it was too big, or that he had never bothered to get the city’s permission to create it (though he didn’t). The sign wasn’t lost because Roll’s claim was false — in fact, it’s probably still true — nor was it lost because the boast fostered public complacency about making the city better.

It was lost because Portland had already lost something much more precious — and much harder to replace.

———

I might never have discovered Portland if Lindsey hadn’t been such a good writer.

It was 2006 and I was working for the newspaper in Longview, an hour’s drive north. She was in Portland, coding for a software startup that sometimes made payroll and living in what she described as a far-flung neighborhood that I’ve since realized was Lents. We’d met at a party in Chicago, when we’d been dating other people. Now I wrote her an email, and she wrote back.

I started driving south once a week.

Lindsey was broke. So was her housemate, whose job was worse. But I noticed, at some point, that this wasn’t a major problem. They couldn’t afford cars, so they went to their boring jobs by bicycle. Lindsey was a singer; when her band had a gig on Alberta, she’d book a Flexcar to haul their amps and hope the tips were enough to cover the four-hour rental.

In fact, I realized, very few of Lindsey’s friends owned cars. Neither, it seemed, did any of the interesting, dirt-broke people I seemed to meet constantly when I was in Portland.

I think we were aware, at the time, that biking was more popular in Portland than in other places we’d lived. We probably giggled about the World Naked Bike Ride. But it wasn’t until I got to know the city better that I realized the strength of the pattern: unlike my broke friends in Longview or Ohio, broke people in Portland had realized they could get by fairly well without cars.

Bicycles themselves did nothing for me emotionally — and if you have to know, they don’t today, either. But I was hooked on Portland. As soon as I could, I moved to this place I’d discovered where even the broke people could afford to be interesting.

———

One night in 2007, after Lindsey got a better job and moved to inner Northeast, she told us a story from the Last Thursday street festival.

Someone had gotten in a fight with a person on a bike, she said. A bunch of the young people in the crowd, not even knowing what was going on, rushed to the side of the biker.

Laughing, Lindsey said she’d heard that one young man had raised a U-lock in the air and shouted, “WHY DO YOU HATE PORTLAND??”

In retrospect, the anecdote sounds sort of ugly, and half-true at most. But it felt true. That was what bikes seemed to mean to the city at the time, at least to us young arrivals. Being in love with Portland, which all my friends were, meant knowing the story of the city. And the story of Portland, for us, was bicycles.

It wasn’t until later, after I started writing about bicycles for a living, that I realized that none of this was a coincidence.

2007 was the year that Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams returned from a trip to France and announced that he was setting out to create the country’s first credit-card-based public bike sharing system. Two weeks later we were named the first U.S. city to host an international conference about car-free cities. Meanwhile, the Portland Bureau of Transportation was looking into a new sort of event that had become popular in Latin America, the ciclovia. By summer, the concept had a new name: “Sunday Parkways.”

I caught scraps of these stories and the dozens of others that followed. It was impossible not to; bikes were in the city’s bloodstream. Every third news story seemed to be about them. Eventually, I would marvel at how quickly each of that year’s many announcements had followed on the last, and how unusual it was to live in a city whose leaders had decided, without actually reallocating much money, to make better bicycle transportation one of their top priorities.

I also didn’t realize at the time that between 2002 and 2008, bicycle use in Portland had tripled.

But what no one in the country would have predicted was that three years later, Portland’s bicycling boom would be over.

———

I rolled into downtown just after 10 a.m. yesterday, camera in my saddle bag. Just in time.

Lota LaMontagne, the Pedal Bike Tours spokeswoman, had said the “Bicycle Capital” mural was scheduled to be painted over in late morning. I arrived as the shop’s handyman, Jose Martinez, was getting set up.

While I wandered around the parking lot below the mural, testing camera angles, I watched the passers-by – delivery workers, tourists, day laborers. Almost all of them looked up at the mural as they walked by.

They don’t know it’s about to go away, I realized. People look at it this way every day. For two years, everyone who walks past this sign has been looking up at it and, just for a moment, thinking about it.

Two hours later, the sign was illegible. As I snapped a few final photos, I watched the passers-by again.

No one was looking up any more. There was nothing to see.

One passer-by noticed me and pointed at the mostly-covered sign.

“What did it say?” he asked.

———

Like many cities, Portland started taking bike transportation seriously in the early 1970s. But it didn’t see a major payoff until the late 1990s, after a Bicycle Transportation Alliance lawsuit prompted Transportation Commissioner Earl Blumenauer to hire Mia Birk and her sidekick Roger Geller to stripe bike lanes along many of the city’s major streets.

The decade-long tidal wave of bikes that followed made Portland famous. Thousands of Portlanders, I’m sure, know the story of this tidal wave by heart.

But now, in 2014, it’s time to add another chapter to Portland’s bike history: the moment our bike wave crested. The day that Portland started to fall out of love with its story.

In retrospect, the date is obvious: Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010.

Percent of Portlanders commuting by bicycle.
(Source: Census)

That afternoon, Mayor Adams did something he enjoyed very much: he said yes to a big idea. With his backing, Portland had prepared the most progressive bike plan in the country, an unfunded concept for how to spend $600 million — about 1/3 the cost of the Orange MAX Line that’s now in construction through Southeast Portland, or 1/5 the cost of the scrapped Columbia River Crossing highway-rail project — on a citywide grid of separated bike lanes and neighborhood greenways.

In all its future transportation projects, the plan declared, the city would prioritize walking above biking, biking above mass transit and all three above driving. The result: by 2030, biking would be more popular than driving for trips of three miles or less. Portland’s victory over auto-dependence would be complete.

Though these ideas would be strange and alien in City Hall today, council members at the time saw a political winner. So they started tripping over themselves to fund it. And then everything fell apart.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman proposed one funding plan. Adams, who couldn’t stand Saltzman, proposed another. Bizarrely, the two began feuding over whose bike funding plan was best. In the absence of a unified city effort to explain the obscure policy issues involved, the conflict spilled into pixels, print and finally television, with a mostly false but highly compelling narrative capturing the public imagination: Portland was raising sewer fees in order to pay for bike lanes.

Adams, struggling to debunk the myth, expected political cover from bike advocates. He felt it never came.

It was, insiders now say, a private turning point for Adams. Portland didn’t realize it yet, but bicycling had lost its yes man. And though there were many factors involved over the years, the city had, in a fundamental way, lost the story it once told itself about bicycles.

———

One of the interesting Portlanders I met, around the time all this happened, was Carl.

A smallish, roundish thirtysomething who drinks milk with dinner and probably uses his architectural history degree less frequently than he takes in a game of bike polo, Carl is in many ways the moral center of Portland’s bike community.

You’ve heard of the World Naked Bike Ride? Of course you have. I’ll tell you a secret: the ride happens without a police permit. Every year, the Portland Police Bureau donates its officers’ time for traffic control during the massive, world-famous event.

The theory is that the ride will happen with or without city permission. But if police wanted, they could shut the event down until someone put up tens of thousands of dollars for a permit. And if that happened, the ride’s entry donation would become a larger mandatory fee. And if that happened, far fewer people would show up. And if that happened, millions of people would never know that Portland is a place where the extraordinary happens – a city where people of every shape can love their bodies and celebrate them together in motion, by moonlight, on one night every year.

Carl is the guy on the WNBR’s tiny team of volunteer organizers who has maintained the ride’s 12-year truce with the cops.

Carl’s day job is with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, but his influence on Portland is far larger.

When it snows, Carl is the guy who heads home early and stands on his street corner offering hot toddys to bike commuters on the way home. When dozens of young people decide to show up in an abandoned industrial warehouse and ride in circles with ropes and sticks while trying to knock each other off of their bike trailers, Carl is the guy who always makes sure to attend just in case the authorities show up, to convince the police that everything will be fine.

Somehow, Carl is also the guy who can successfully convince them that it will.

And even more extraordinarily, Carl is right. The event’s volunteer referees intercept the worst of the weapons. A few ribs get cracked, but volunteer medics tend to them and nobody sues anybody. Everyone has a wonderful time.

If you’ve ever heard that Portland is a city where people have fun on bicycles, you’ve probably been touched by Carl’s work.

———

The last time I spoke with Carl, last month, was at a late-night meeting.

Carl was sitting on a committee tasked with improving bike access to the commercial district on East 28th Avenue. The project manager had just announced, after months of debate, that he was pulling the plug on a proposal to add a bike lane to the area, because the city had decided that preserving on-street parking spaces on the street was more important to the future of Portland than a comfortable on-street bikeway.

It was the latest in a long string of high-profile decisions by the city to prioritize the continued speed or storage of cars. I asked Carl what he thought.

I’d never seen Carl more exhausted. The bags beneath his eyes had deepened into dark loops. As he talked, in despair, about the city’s failure to create a single all-ages bikeway through any significant commercial district, I noticed something I’d never seen before: Carl was losing control of his tongue. His S’s were slurring into Th’s.

Despite my better judgment, Carl’s wavering voice and temporary speech impediment shook me up. For a moment, I didn’t see the brave and driven man I know. I saw someone he might have been: a shy boy with thick glasses, slipping down the hallway to see the speech therapist.

I don’t know what it was in Carl’s life that cracked him open that night. But for a moment, I saw who Carl might have been if he had never found his calling – if he’d never gotten excited about the things bicycling can do for the people of a city. I saw Carl if he ever lost his inspiration to be extraordinary.

I saw the city that Portland has, as far as I can tell, become.

———

The advantage of a city that believes in its ability to be extraordinary — a city that knows its own story — isn’t that all things become possible. It’s that cities create people who do extraordinary things.

Only in a city that knows its own story would a guy with an architectural history degree discover his genius for explaining bike fun to the forces of order.

Only in a city that knows its own story would a handful of visitors from Vancouver BC, one summer in 2002, decide to hang posters around town saying that there would be a naked bicycle ride that evening and that anyone was welcome to join.

Only in a city that knows its own story would four friends with a clever idea to start importing box bikes from the Netherlands launch a business to sell them, for the first time, in America.

Only in a city that knows its own story would a 31-year-old bicycle coordinator co-found the first American planning and engineering firm dedicated entirely to biking and walking.

Only in a city that knows its own story would a young dad decide to quit his marketing job and start reporting local bike news full-time on a blog.

Only in a city that knows its own story would a shop owner decide to spend thousands of dollars to make a huge, audacious and essentially noncommercial declaration on the wall of his building without asking for permission.

Individuals only take odd, useful risks like these when they believe their city has their back.

If you took a big risk, tomorrow, to improve this city, would the people of Portland be behind you?

Could you inspire them to be?

———

Sometimes, when you lose something, you can get it back.

A few weeks after I started dating my fiancee, Mo, someone stole her bicycle.

She’d decided to stop driving her 1989 Honda Civic when its engine started cutting out unexpectedly at stoplights. So, to get to her clinical rotation at the hospital, she’d hauled her bicycle out of storage. One day Mo decided to pack a cable lock rather than the 15-pound chain she’d brought with her from Brooklyn. Bad choice. The bike was gone by midafternoon.

It could have been the end of her bike-commute career, if the guy she was dating hadn’t been into bicycles. The next Saturday, we walked together to the Community Cycling Center and picked out a new bicycle.

Last Wednesday, over dinner, Mo told me about a conversation she’d had at a CPR recertification course. She and another participant had been preparing to head home on their bicycles when the 60ish instructor shook her head.

“I worry about you,” she told the younger women.

It’s not actually so bad, the other participant said.

If we had better bike infrastructure, Mo told her, you wouldn’t have to worry about us so much. What if more of the bike lanes were physically separated from traffic, for example?

“Wouldn’t you feel safer?” Mo asked.

The instructor thought about it.

I guess that’d be different, she said.

Mo never got her old bicycle back. Her new one is better. And Portland won’t ever get back the story about bicycling that it lost a few years ago.

The next story we tell ourselves will have to be a different one. A new one. I don’t know what it’ll be.

All I know is that our slate has been wiped clean.

But whatever our next story is, it’ll grow out of moments like this one: three Portlanders, talking with each other about what a better city might be like.

– Michael Andersen, michael@bikeportland.org

Comments are closed.