My opinion: How Portland lost its biking mojo — and how to get it back

My opinion: How Portland lost its biking mojo — and how to get it back

Bike traffic on N. Interstate

(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

This week has been somewhat cathartic for me.

The debate sparked by a petition to have Portland’s coveted Platinum bicycle-friendly city status stripped away has led to a very needed discussion.

For years here at BikePortland we’ve been trying to help people understand that Portland has lost its biking mojo. Don’t get me wrong, biking is OK here (especially compared to other U.S. cities); but OK is not good enough in a city with our potential. And to get where we want to go, I think we have to get real about where we are.

On that note, here’s a bit of history…

2008 was a Golden Year for bicycling in Portland. Or you could say it was platinum. From our first Sunday Parkways, our victory as the first big city to be named a Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community; to the election of bike-riding mayor Sam Adams, that year capped a great run for Portland that had lasted over a decade. We were on a serious roll.

But as the accolades and #1 rankings poured in, so did complacency. Portland had enjoyed a bike-positive reputation for so many years — we were such a beacon in the biking darkness that defined America — that we began to spend too much time talking about it. It’s hard to ride fast with one hand on the bars and one hand patting yourself on the back.

That complacency left us vulnerable.

Just weeks after new Mayor Sam Adams brought a circus to City Hall (literally) and the bike party was just about to begin in earnest, everything changed. Adams lied to a reporter about the nature of his relationship with Beau Breedlove and the ensuing scandal nearly swept him out of office.

The scandal and its aftermath felt like a punch in the gut to the large majority of Portlanders who voted for Adams. And perhaps more importantly, if he believed in your pet issue, it severely compromised the power he’d need to push for it.

Portland was ready for a biking boom, but its most important leader was suddenly out of the game.

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After the scandal I watched how the local media and my fellow Portlanders took every opportunity to go after cycling as a proxy for expressing their disdain for Adams (especially as it became clear he wouldn’t resign even after our local paper of record wanted him to).

The years that followed have seemed like one bike-related controversy and PR misstep after another: the Southeast Holgate bike lane fiasco (which was a non-troversy fueled more by scoring points against Adams than hating on bikes); the “sewer money for bikeways” mantra that accompanied the misplaced hysteria over our “$600 million bike plan”; the loss of our #1 Bicycling Magazine ranking (twice); the long and bruising process for the Williams Ave project; our failure to launch a bike share system, and so on.

With so much negative political baggage and controversy in the not too distant past, it should come as no surprise that the new crop of faces now in City Hall don’t want to have anything to do with cycling.

When Portland Mayor Charlie Hales gave his State of the City address just a few months ago he didn’t mention bicycling in any shape, way or form.

Parks & Recreation Commissioner Amanda Fritz has stood by as her bureau has (so far) missed a huge opportunity to usher in a new era of user equality in our parks and open spaces. Her handling of the mountain biking issue is indefensible and shows a troubling lack of respect for cycling and the people who love it.

Commissioner Steve Novick come into his role as leader of the transportation bureau with some momentum. But he has yet to introduce one interesting or inspiring proposal that could light a fire under the tens of thousands of Portlanders who get on a bike every day.

I think this apathy around bicycling — real or perceived — from our current political administration is at the heart of the frustration that has led nearly 600 people to sign to Will Vanlue’s petition. It’s not the only thing causing concern for Portland’s everyday riders, but to me it feels like the biggest thing.

The good news is I feel like Portland has moved past the tumult of the past few years. We’re ready to move on.

The big question is, who is Portland’s next Earl Blumenauer, Sam Adams, or Bud Clark? Portland needs a new champion (or three) for cycling. Someone to put a vision on the table and stop at nothing until its achieved. It doesn’t have to come from City Hall, but it has to come from somewhere.

I signed the petition, but I can also still say with confidence that if you love bicycles, there is no better place to live than Portland. From our vibrant local bike industry to our scrappy street activists, creative ride leaders and entrepreneurs, bike-inspired artisans, bike-friendly local businesses, and more — bicycling is woven into the fabric of this city.

If I were an investor, I’d put my money on bikes in Portland: The fundamentals are strong, it has a solid history of performance, it has a reliable (yet a bit outdated) distribution system, a healthy brand and excellent position in the market. All it needs is a few tweaks, an infusion of capital, maybe some new faces in upper management, and it will soon become a juggernaut.

— Stay tuned as Michael and I bring you a new series on how Portland can come roaring back to the front of the peloton. In addition to original stories and reporting, we’d love to publish guest articles, so please get in touch if you have a perspective to share!

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