It’s been nailed: the problems with biking in Portland

I haven’t written anything about advocacy in nearly a year, because I stopped having anything very useful to say, and also I nearly stopped riding my bike.

And then I saw that Liz had nailed it, and I felt the need to let everyone know: it has been nailed. She speaketh the truth, and she speaketh it clearly and without venom but with the palpable sense of frustration that I also felt.

I’ve started to see more and more people speaking from the place that I felt I was in a little over a year ago just before I quit advocacy, and if I were still riding my bike I’d want to get those people together so we could figure out what to do next. They’ll probably get together anyway, or already have — I hope so. Liz, Brian, Carl, and Will — if you’re reading this, please go have a beer together, and figure out what kind of advocacy arises from clear seeing of the truth.

My gimpy self will thank you, if I ever get back on the bike.

Identity crisis

Part of my not doing advocacy anymore was a desire to understand why I didn’t want to do it anymore, to understand how my relationship to riding had changed from a time when advocacy felt like an essential part of my choice to ride.

I had a sudden flash of insight this week while I was thinking about how I’m both not interested in becoming a regular automobile driver and not especially interested in riding my bike more right now, even for fun. I ride my bike a fair amount, not as much as I used to, or as much as a lot of people I know (and sometimes it is fun, and sometimes I do it because it’s fun), but I’ve always been pretty multimodal and recently I’ve been injured and then lazy, so I didn’t think of that as exactly being relevant.

As I thought about how I conduct my life, though, it occurred to me that what actually happened is that I’ve become an ordinary Portlander where bikes are concerned. Lots of my friends who don’t do any transportation advocacy ride their bikes around town; some commute on them and some don’t, but they use them to go to the store, the park, friends’ houses, etc. They enjoy Sunday Parkways and Pedalpalooza. Most of them differ from me in that they own cars and drive them occasionally, but our day to day choices aren’t so different. And my friends aren’t unique in that, of course. They’re also ordinary Portlanders that way.

It works because Portland’s a pretty good place to ride a bike. Not great, not awful. And it’s a pretty frustrating city to ride transit in if you’re not going on a single direct train/bus, so when people think about traveling “not by car”, they don’t think transit unless they think “one line”. It takes 40+ minutes to get ~3 miles from SE 39th and Hawthorne to NE 15th and Broadway on Trimet at 6pm. It takes ~25 on a bike and you can go on your own schedule. So, transit’s not always convenient, you think riding a bike is fine and maybe fun and definitely cheap, but you’re no road warrior — still, oftentimes you can feel comfortable riding where you need to go.

That’s where I am, right now.

Whither advocacy? Whither Portland’s bike progress?

There’s no guaranteed path from where I am to particularly caring about whether it ever gets better to ride a bike here. It’s okay right now for me, because I’m already riding. And if you’re like me, it’s okay for you, too. Maybe you’d like to ride a bit more, wish there was a better connection somewhere, or the commute was less hairy, but is it important enough for you to devote your very precious spare time to? For most people, the answer is just straight up no, or rarely — they care maybe at the level of the old Portland Afoot: 10 minutes a month, at most. Their choice to ride is mainly about what they’re doing right now because it makes sense or is enjoyable.

For maybe a few people, you could potentially interest them in advocacy. How? Bike fun can be a path to advocacy (per anomalily) because you want to have more fun on a bike, and it shows you possibilities. So can wanting to do simple utilitarian bicycling more safely, and so can many other things, like thinking about global warming or wishing your child could ride a bike to school. So we’ve answered whence the interest.

But whence the motivation? I’d argue that in order to interest someone in action, you have to provide them with actions they can take that will be effective in returning them the benefits that they want.

Currently, if someone asked me what they should do to begin being an effective advocate for improved bicycling conditions in Portland, the best I could possibly do is a few generic pieces of advice:

  1. Join the BTA and get on their mailing list and read the stuff they send you.
  2. Read and get familiar with city transportation resources like 823-SAFE .
  3. Stick with things that catch your personal interest.
  4. Start small and local, go big as you get more familiar with what’s going on already.

If someone asked “Will this make Portland a much better place to ride? Will I get convenient, direct routes to my destinations where I can ride comfortably away from auto traffic? Will I make it possible for my kids to feel comfortable riding alone outside the neighborhood? Will I get new trails for recreational riding or fast off-street commuting? Will I be able to ride in the bike lane or not, as I choose?” I wouldn’t be able to tell them yes because I honestly have no idea. That stuff doesn’t seem to be happening right now. If all they need is a small fix, I know we can do that. I’ve gotten potholes patched, lanes repainted, and signals retimed (thank you Peter!). I’ve taught people more about their bikes and helped them learn to navigate their neighborhood by bike. If all they want is some symbolic progress to point to, I think we can supply that, too: I might have helped get an unfunded plan we aren’t implementing passed (uh, great?), as well as a few maybe-useful laws in Salem (via the BTA’s efforts). The streetcar tracks suck a little less (not a lot less) thanks to AROW. And I know other people who helped me achieve some of these things and have similar achievements to count as their own.

These are all good things, but have I, have we, made a substantive difference? Can we actually move forward meaningfully by these inches? I don’t know. There are many people of good faith involved in the effort to do so, but what I see right now is not effective change: it’s progress at the speed of caterpillar, thanks to political deadlock, bureaucratic cowardice, and a complete failure of messaging. (Say what you will about PR and marketing people, they know how to stay on message about an issue, something neither PBOT nor the BTA seems to know.) If someone asked me whether they could accomplish something big by getting involved, I couldn’t really say yes, I know things you could do that would help to transform bicycling in Portland from Just OK to Actually, Great. Because I tried all the things you’re supposed to try, and it didn’t do much.

If you think I’m wrong, and there are things people who just want to invest some time and see results can do, that is awesome, please call the BTA, because I hear they want people who aren’t angry to apply some citizen pressure.

Myself, I’m just going to stay in the normal Portland zone for a while. Call me when we get serious about improving things again. I’ll be there.


What comes out of the spaces

Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Space. Quiet?

Yesterday I wrote the first sentence from this quote on a yellow sticky note and put it on my mirror, to express the relationship I’ve been trying to have with advocacy for a few months now. Since it’s been a few months, I can see the results that are promised. The trees have not withered and died; people are doing much the same thing that they’ve been doing, and doing it well, without me. I’m happy about that. (Mostly. I’m a little disappointed, as control freaks are wont to be when they discover that surprise, they were never in charge.)

But my internal dialogue has failed to quiet itself, and sometimes has failed to not burst out into external dialogue, mainly in the form of being angry about the 20s Bikeway project (about which more in the second half) and in occasionally retweeting insightful things other people say, or posting one of the oh only six different things I’ve written in the past few months in a Facebook comment. Yeah, I’ve written six blog posts about advocacy topics in the last two and a half months. I always said I was going to continue writing in my blog, and mostly I’ve stuck by my resolution not to call attention to that content. If that counts as being quiet, though, it’s a very loud kind of quiet.

Still, it’s a quiet without the noise of meetings, blog posts, weekly emails, and even social events where I would normally vent my steam and debate my ideas and take inputs from other advocates. The amount of space that’s afforded should perhaps not be underrated. I’ve managed to slow down enough to learn the valuable lesson that my participation is optional for the community, and to start to shape some idea of what I can actually contribute, at this point in my life. One thing I know is that I am no longer a cheerleader and an understander and an obliger for the current system. Those people do a great service of celebrating routine institutional accomplishments, encouraging the tentative, and taking the moderate position. I did that happily for six years, and increasingly resentfully for the last year or so, but I can’t even with it anymore.

The System.

If I am nothing else I am a tireless student of systems and asker of questions. And when a system is sufficiently stacked against you, one rational response (not the only one) is to attempt change on the system itself, instead of attempting change within it. Portland’s spent many years with a huge core of its transportation advocates within the system — applying pressure to it to get the outcomes they wanted, but fundamentally working within the existing power structures to make that happen. And it’s done a ton of good. When the power structure is heading the right way, leveraging it makes sense. Some people are still outside the system being radical, but they look pretty extreme when power seems to be headed the right way anyway.

When the system stops heading the right way, as Portland’s has, the first response is questions and confusions and rumblings of frustration. I’m good at questions. “Why isn’t this happening?” “Why does this keep going sideways at the last minute?” I’ve been asking myself these questions, and though I wasn’t the first, I think maybe I have some answers now too.

You hear a lot about the city resting on its laurels. I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s not very interesting as a reason. If it were the reason, the problem would be easy to solve: demonstrate that the laurels acquired are insufficient to meet the ostensible goal (let’s pretend here that the city government accepts its goal of 25% bike modeshare by 2030) and move on. Clearly that isn’t happening, so let’s stop wasting time pretending this is the reason. This is a smokescreen for the real reason, which is political.

At present Portland city government in the transportation and planning areas (I’m not an expert on other areas), at both the political and policy levels, seems to me to be captured (in the sense of regulatory capture) by business associations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Also, to a lesser extent, by the ire (real or projected) of residents with enough time to spend to vent their ire at politicians and show up at midday meetings to voice their opinions. Process is structured to privilege these stakeholders’ opinions above others (let’s say, people trying to get somewhere via their mode of choice), and process is also structured to be conveniently amorphous enough that if these stakeholders’ needs are threatened, the city can easily ignore whatever else might have been planned and do whatever those people want. If anyone in Portland’s city government wants to deny this, please feel free to try. I think it will be hilarious to listen to, at a minimum, and might reveal some interesting contours of the problem.

Add to that another oft-cited problem that I think is a real contributor: the current lack of low-hanging fruit. Portland is an okay place to ride a bike. It’s not a great one. I think that’s clear to anyone who’s actually spent any time riding a bike here. There’s some really nice stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some downright crappy stuff (or absence of stuff). Getting from bad to okay wasn’t all that easy, and in the past there were actual people in city government who made hard decisions and did a lot of policy evangelism and political maneuvering to make some of that happen. But a lot of what was done was the easier stuff. And a lot of the harder stuff never got done. Talk to anyone about parking removal and eventually you scratch the story of Knott. One of the most lightly-traveled, lightly-parked collectors in the system, home to almost no businesses, yet parking removal was still a complete failure because of resident ire. I don’t even know what year this happened in, but it was pre-1996, since it’s mentioned in the ’96 master plan. So, the stuff to which there wasn’t much opposition got done, the stuff to which there was some opposition either had its advocates in city government, or never got done at all.

That hasn’t changed so much, but the balance of what’s available to do has shifted decisively to things that are hard, while the balance of what people in city government are willing to do has curled up into a ball of frightened roly-poly and gone to sleep. That includes intra-government negotiations (for example, negotiating with PF&R) as well as in citizen/government negotiations. Yet there are more people riding bikes, more bike parking, more bike tourism, and more competition for the title of “Least Sucky American Bicycle City” from other cities than ever. There’s been a material shift in the popular discourse about what constitutes acceptable bicycling conditions. Riders want more, advocates want more, and the city is giving less. This is a recipe for stalemate/stagnation (where we have been and are) followed by serious clashes of interests (where we’re rapidly getting to), not for the previous semi-agreeable coexistence of working in similar directions at different magnitudes.

The final factor in this situation is us (advocates): we seem to think that more of the same strategy will lead to different results (the definition of insanity). We seem to have forgotten that many of the people who’ve been working within the system recently once were cranks and radicals. The BTA, criticized these days for being too moderate, got its start suing the city for failing to live up to its commitments. When you’re willing to be a crank and a radical when you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get what you want. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not a huge surprise that privileged stakeholders with lots of free time and lots of $$$ are outranking you on the priority list.

What has worked in the recent past will continue to limp along. Things continue to happen — the 50s Bikeway and the Williams plans were both passed, and both are decent, if not ideal. (Not passed without a lot of pain in the latter case, providing a great example of the way the stakeholder process normally privileges some over others.) And the non-controversial processes continue to hum along, which is great, and which I don’t want to dis in any way. I love me some SmartTrips and I love greenways; they’re good things and more of them is good.

But if we don’t make some serious changes, things we want to happen will keep not happening even though we keep participating in processes that are disguised as ways to make them happen. I quit the 20s Bikeway Committee because I could see this coming, and I couldn’t stand the frustration of sitting there watching it. That felt like a personal failure, but maybe it was only a failure inasmuch as it was insufficient: I should have encouraged the BTA to quit the process as well, the way that they once quit the CRC process (which was a similar procedural sham biased to produce only one outcome, and which was only eventually killed by repeated, persistent, loud, direct opposition, plus its own incompetence).


We may not need to have a literal revolution (except of our wheels), but we definitely need a substantive change in one or more of City Council, PBOT leadership, or city process — ideally all three, including multiple changes in city process — to change what’s happening. Unfortunately I don’t think the recent change in bureau heading (Novick/Treat) has actually made any difference, though I had initially hoped it would. The 20s Bikeway project convinced me that there’s no hope from that quarter. A city that thinks it’s a bike city and can’t get a direct bikeway placed on a route that’s explicitly designated as a through route (emergency response) and is the connection to the only freeway crossing nearby because of a tiny number of businesses that are somewhere between totally confused about the issues and totally irate about the notion of losing a tiny number of parking spaces in a plan specially designed to appease them in the first place is a city that is frankly schizophrenic on this point, because what it’s actually doing has an inverse relationship to what it claims to be doing and to what its goals say it’s supposed to be doing.

To do that, we first have to change our own approach, because we aren’t going to get those kinds of changes made with magic fairy dust. Those are changes to disempower the powerful, and you don’t get those easily. So personally, I’m done being nice, because being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in an adversarial political system when the people in power don’t want to do what you want them to do. And I’m done pretending that I think that the current process isn’t total bullshit, because it is total bullshit, and I want it to change and I’m going to be loud about how it’s crap and needs changing. If we can’t get the political muscle to get it to change, well, then, we’ll keep losing fights, but I’d like to go down fighting on the battlefield where the battle is actually taking place, not laying down my arms at a safe surrender point 10 miles off. Note to PBOT: I’d like to see you adopt the same philosophy, plzkthx.

I’ll be back when I’m ready. It might be soon.

Road $$ is not cycling $$

There’s a problem with transportation funding framing. The problem is exemplified by the notion that we have enough money to build and maintain roads, but not enough money to build out bike facilities.

Frankly this doesn’t make any sense, and no one should be allowed to say it ever again without being strictly challenged on their assumptions. Building and maintaining any kind of bicycle facility is so much cheaper than building an auto-oriented facility for equivalent capacity. Furthermore, bicycle facilities require less maintenance because they suffer less wear and tear from heavy vehicles. So building a bicycle facility that will be consistently used is a great investment in the present and a great one for the future, because it is cheap and long-lasting.

If this doesn’t make any sense, why are people allowed to say it? Some of it is due to funding obligation. Transportation agencies can’t remove previously committed money from certain pots without repercussions. But I think this isn’t the real reason. The real reason is that money for bike facilities is seen as an add-on to money for roads, with the occasional exception being standalone trails, which are often funded differently. Makes sense, right? I mean, most bike facilities are currently just special parts of roads, so they pretty much are add-ons to roads. They’re not a separate system. There’s rarely much that’s separate about them!

It’s interesting to think about how this may have been affected by cycling advocacy history. In the 1970s when the Dutch were building real bike facilities, we were building pretty bad bike paths kind of off to the sides of roads, which caused all kinds of problems. The advocates of the time decided that this was terrible, and that furthermore bike paths could never be convenient or safe because these paths weren’t, and the real solution was to ride on the road. That’s the basic landscape we’ve been working with ever since. Even as bike lanes and now “separated” cycletracks have come into vogue, the basic model we have is that bikes ride on the road and act like every other vehicle, and that space where bikes ride is taken from the rest of the road and funded from the same pot as any other road money, for the most part. There are some special small pots that can be used as well, but mostly it’s just the same money as everything else. Oregon’s famous Bike Bill (which is pretty widely seen as awesome, and is, for what it was) is actually just a requirement that’s very explicitly on top of this model that says that a certain amount of this pot has to be used for bike things and that bike things are supposed to be a routine part of making and remaking roads.

If you look at it this way, it’s not a surprise that there’s a problem with framing around bike facilities, and not just for funding. Anything that “bikes” get is something that other vehicles that are not allowed in bike lanes don’t get, whether it’s money or space. So of course there’s no money for bikes, right? Because there’s hardly any money these days, and it’s supposed to be road money, vehicle money. And the majority of the population still drives, because we haven’t built very many good bike facilities, so they think that the money should be used for them, and not for bikes.

I’m not dissing “road funding” here. Roads carry the freight that brings me goods and the buses I ride and the neighborhood streets that I ride on. The point I want to make is that there’s a mistake in the framing. Proper bike facilities following major travel routes, the kind that are truly 8 to 80, are not just add-ons to roads, and the funding they require is not just an add-on, an extra, to road funding. Cycling is a different way to travel around, and outside of neighborhood streets and other extremely low-traffic or extremely low-speed areas, it requires separate facilities in order to be a safe way to travel. And there will never, ever be a majority of people riding until it’s a safe, consistent, easy way to travel. You can’t get there from where you are, framing-wise. Those facilities need their own funding stream and their own space and their own engineering system. They can’t be contingent on “road funding” because they aren’t roads. They’re places to ride bikes to get around. They need to go everywhere that roads do (so, like sidewalks, it makes a lot of sense for them to coexist in the same corridor as roads), and maybe places that roads don’t, or don’t in the same way (so they need to be separately considered as well).

Tell the truth: there is enough money for bike facilities. You just don’t want to use it for them, because you think that roads are more important.

How not to be a jerk: pay attention to signal timing

When I had a sprained ankle, I got passed a lot on the bike. And I noticed, even more than I had noticed before, that after people passed me, I frequently caught up to them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have passed me, but it does mean that when they passed me dangerously, or when they passed me and then obstructed my start out of the intersection where I caught up to them, I really noticed how little that pass gained them, and how it sometimes inconvenienced me as well. That’s being a jerk — and not only that, it’s being a jerk to no purpose.

How do you avoid that? Well, first of all, don’t be a jerk to begin with. Whether you’re driving or riding, pass safely, leaving plenty of room, and only on the left. If you’re riding, only pass when traveling; don’t shoal at intersections. But second of all, pay attention to signal timing. Traffic signals work in systems (I think everyone knows at least that much) so if you pay attention and experiment, you can figure out when a signal is likely to turn green or red. On one-way streets in Portland, the lights usually operate in a “green wave” at a certain speed, and frequently, thanks to the awesome Peter Koonce, that speed is approximately average bike speed, or is compatible with it. Even if it’s not a full green wave, you can usually figure out which lights you’re likely to end up stopping at. I’ve spent a lot of time commuting up and down Broadway, Vancouver/Williams, and the Hawthorne/Ladd/Clinton corridor, and all of those corridors have key signals (the longer red signals at major cross streets) which you tend to depart from at certain times that make for relatively predictable timing of the rest of the experience.

Newsflash: usually, after you passed me on those corridors, somewhere on NE Broadway, along Hawthorne, in Ladd’s, or on the slope between Russell and Fremont, I caught up to you at Seven Corners, or one of the ends of the Broadway Bridge, or at Fremont or Shaver or Russell or Broadway. Whether you saw me or not, I was right behind you. Occasionally, someone’s really fast or really lucky, but most people? It makes absolutely no difference whether you blast up from the Broadway Bridge toward Williams or just go along comfortably — you’ll end up waiting at Vancouver/Winning for that long light to finish before you can move on to Broadway or Williams. Rushing through the light at Emmanuel? Don’t bother — Russell doesn’t go green that fast, and after it does, you’ll still have to wait at Vancouver and Broadway.

Some of this is bike-specific. Seeing yellow at Victoria on Broadway? Don’t rush — you won’t get the bike signal at Williams until after the LBI for Victoria anyway. That doesn’t apply for cars, for whom the timing is different, but the takeaway is the same: cool it and wait your turn; we’ll still all make it through. And next time you’re stymied, pay attention to the signal timing.

Low-stress route choice

I decided to quit public advocacy for a while (time TBD), but one of the things I decided is that I’m going to keep writing stuff here if I feel like it, just focusing on my personal experiences and not trying to get attention for them. I can’t turn off my advocacy brain so I might as well write stuff down and see if any of it turns out to be useful.

I was riding home today from 20th and Burnside. When I used to ride from there I would just take 20th, because I live off 15th just north of Broadway, and 20th is fast and direct. But I got tired of people being assholes on 20th. It’s stressful and my goal right now is to ride my bike and try to enjoy it. So I started diverting. First I diverted from 20th between Burnside and Irving: now I take 22nd to Glisan/Sandy, then cross there either in the western crosswalk or at the light (depends how much traffic is on Glisan — if there’s a fair amount it’s easier to glide up the sidewalk and press the button). At first I took 22nd to Irving and then turned left, following that route back north (Irving is the natural choice of where to get off 21st when coming south). Now I’ve added additional diversion and take 22nd north. I can take it all the way to Pacific and then turn left and then right to come right out on the bridge, where the bike lane is. This not only bypasses the segment from Irving to Pacific that has no bike lane and then the awkward curve in the bike lane, it prevents having to divert to 20th and then end up back on 21st. (The specific path through here isn’t that important, but 22nd also avoids the dairy trucks better.)

No options until you get to Multnomah. You can turn left there, but it’s a difficult merge and there’s a lot of waiting traffic so generally I had been going up 21st to Hancock or Tillamook, which is the obvious thing to do. Today I realized that I could actually merge with traffic and then turn left at Clackamas (roughly where parking usually starts). Then it’s an easy jet up 16th. Very relaxing comparatively.

My behavior is interesting to me because it relates to a post I wrote previously called What if your design rider is wrong? As I mentioned, I used to ride on 20th; riding on the direct and fast route is definitely my preference absent other factors. But now here I am, constructing a mildly circuitous route (it really only adds a block to the distance, but it’s much more complex) so that I can relax and enjoy riding my bike. But does that mean that I prefer to ride on side streets? I don’t think it does. It means that I prefer not to be stressed (wow, there’s a surprising preference for you). I’m not a design rider, but neither is anyone else, really. We all just have a certain weight we place on various values in the transportation world, and mine have shifted substantially toward avoiding stress.

Reasons for that in another post, maybe.

The emotional challenges of advocacy.

I was having a hard time last summer and fall with getting back to riding my bike more, and with doing advocacy and encouragement work for bicycling. I didn’t — don’t — feel safe riding anymore, and I felt frustrated about the barriers to bicycling, so I didn’t feel comfortable encouraging people, and I didn’t feel that advocacy work was providing much return for the effort I was putting in. Everything seems stuck to me, like nothing is changing. Cycling is still dangerous and stressful in too many places. There’s a lack of vision within many parts of the city transportation staff; there’s stiff political opposition to policies and projects that advance bicycling and urbanism.

I am still in the midst of dealing with those feelings, but slowly, different experiences have inspired the return of the slow burn of conviction I’ve had for years: that the transportation menu for our future cannot mostly contain cars and the wide roads, highways, and freeways that we desire for such powerful beasts. And that because I believe that so strongly, I must, in the end, find the inner resources to go on working for it.

The first was this simple line, posted by a member of an online community I belong to, about something else entirely:

Nobody feels like they are doing a good job in advocating. Nobody.

That was the moment when I stopped feeling guilty for feeling that I was doing a terrible job, guilty for thinking that my job was hard. Advocacy is actually difficult. By its nature, you are almost always working against the status quo and for the underdog. You almost never get everything you want, and you have to work very hard to get what you do get.

Second: last week we watched Lincoln at a friend’s house. It’s an inspiring movie for any number of reasons, but for me, at this moment in my life, it’s best summed up with:

The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.

The process of moving the law forward is a messy one (laws and sausages are things you don’t want to see made). Even if we achieve great things, they may have been achieved in not-so-nice ways. I love and hate the process of moving from the crystalline clarity of the idea to the real details of how to achieve it in the current political climate. My mind is an engineering mind, and it likes that which is Correct and Effective. Politics is usually neither. But my heart believes in community input; it believes in consensus; it believes in the wisdom of crowds: that ideas are made better by more people examining them, that achieving something that people don’t buy into isn’t forward progress, that winning hearts and minds is as important as meeting budget needs and drawing lanes of the correct widths.

Finally, today I was reminded, in the person of Gabby Giffords, that there are a large number of people who share my devotion to the slow but determined method of achieving progress. Whatever issue they hold dear, they will go on pushing it forward:

Our fight is a lot more like my rehab. Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined. We’ll pay attention to the details; look for opportunities for progress, even when the pace is slow. Some progress may seem small, and we might wonder if the impact is enough, when the need is so urgent.

But every day we will recruit a few more allies, talk to a few more elected officials, convince a few more voters. Some days the steps will come easily; we’ll feel the wind at our backs. Other times our knees will buckle. We’ll tire of the burden. I know this feeling. But we’ll persist.

We can get tough and win elections. We’ll support our allies. And those who stood in the way will face a powerful advocacy community standing between them and re-election….

We will seize on consensus where it exists, on solutions big or small. We will fight for every inch, because that means saving lives. I’ve seen grit overcome paralysis. My resolution today is that Congress achieve the same. How? Step by step…

A politician to admire, and to emulate. (She likes bikes, too.)

Finally, riding home last night (it was chilly, and raining lightly) I saw the beauty of the quiet night and the slight fog, felt the strength of self-sufficiency, of resisting the cold and rain. These increasingly rare (for me) moments of joy and freedom are inevitably connected with all the ones that have gone before, and remind me of what I love, have always loved, about riding. Bicycling shouldn’t have to be a black diamond endeavor, and you don’t have to resist the rain and cold to be legit (there’s far too much mythology about toughness as it is) but as long as those barriers exist, I might as well make that work for me, make it part of my strength, not part of my fear, or part of the hassle. Because that feeling of freedom is worth it. It’s what I want everyone to have.


Why I never want to hear “Sorry, I didn’t see you” again

Here’s what people usually say when they almost kill you in traffic:

“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

Here’s why I never want to hear it  again:

1) I assume you didn’t see me, because I assume it wasn’t your goal to run into, hurt, or kill me. Most people don’t set out into traffic with the goal of running into someone else and hurting or killing them. But it happens all the time anyway. 35,000 people a year die on American roads, or about 100 a day. So your intention is both assumed to be good and also not really adequate as far as not killing me goes.

2) It’s your responsibility to see me. If you didn’t see me, you either didn’t look where you needed to look, weren’t paying attention to the right things when you did look there (attention blindness, which everyone has to some extent and most drivers are especially afflicted with where bikes are concerned), couldn’t see because of conditions and therefore shouldn’t have been driving at all, or should have been going more slowly, or you made a maneuver when you couldn’t look where you needed to look.

3) Frequently, what you did was illegal even if you had looked and the way was clear. In some cases where you just almost ran over me, failure to yield or a similar failure is the only violation. But far more often, you changed lanes or turned illegally or failed to stop at all or did some other completely illegal thing. In that case, I don’t really think NOT SEEING ME is your problem. Your problem is that you were driving illegally and unsafely and I just happened to be in your way at the time.

Here’s what I want to hear instead:

“I’m sorry, I was being careless and I came close to causing a crash that could have hurt or killed you. I will be more careful in the future.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking / I wasn’t paying attention. I know I should pay careful attention when driving, and I apologize for scaring you like that.”

“I’m sorry, I was focused on getting where I needed to be and did something foolish and risky. I’ll try to avoid that in the future.”

Granted, I’d rather hear “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” than any number of other things, like “You were in my way”, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “Get off the road”. You might say this is a first-world problem, or a Platinum Bike City problem, or even a Portland Problem. But it’s not just that. Understanding that good intentions are not enough is a critical step in the progress toward Vision Zero and designing for safe traffic flow. The fact that you could kill someone without meaning to, just because you forgot to look, or couldn’t see well, or suffered from over-focused attention, means that the street lets you create unsafe conditions just because you’re a fallible human being. As the Onion says, it’s pretty incredible that Americans are entrusted with driving cars.

I’d really like everyone using the streets to travel in a vehicle get past the notion that “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” is an adequate answer to scaring and almost hurting or killing someone. That goes for people biking and walking too. Because if you had actually hurt or killed them, that wouldn’t really be a good reason, would it? Let’s design our streets to be safe even when they’re being used by tired, stressed, inattentive, fallible humans. And let’s try to be the best falliable humans we can be, and admit our fault when we aren’t.

Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

PBOT needs to be solution-oriented

In Saturday morning’s Oregonian neighborhoods section, there’s an article about the safety and traffic conditions on NW Cornell. It contains the line:

The society would like to see a stop sign or a crosswalk signal, but Costello isn’t optimistic. “I had a PBOT engineer tell me that realistically, it’s not going to happen until someone dies.”

On Twitter Friday, in a conversation about the latest right-hook accident at NE Broadway and Wheeler, BikePortland said:

The vast majority of major bike safety-related initiative in this town in the last 7 yrs have happened only after ppl were hurt/killed.

While PBOT has made many ongoing improvements to the transportation system over the years, it seems plausible that this is true for specific changes to intersections considered dangerous by their users and the surrounding community. Bike boxes and the N Greeley/Interstate closure followed on serious right-hook crashes; the closure of Wheeler is only on the table after many serious crashes and tons and tons of advocacy work. It also seems clear that this trend or fact is recognized even within PBOT, based on the report in the Oregonian article.

This is simply unacceptable as an attitude, especially when at the same time Mayor Adams, who is responsible for PBOT, is claiming that “safety is the #1 priority”. Safety should be the #1 priority, but it isn’t. This needs to change. The cost of transportation safety improvements does not decrease with time, and the cost to the community increases hugely, both financially and emotionally, as a result of injuries and deaths that occur within the transportation system. Once a documented safety problem exists, it is wrong morally and misguided both financially and for the health of the community to take the attitude that a fix can be delayed until major injuries or death occur.

The fundamental orientation that underlies this attitude, and that I believe needs to change, is the “problem orientation”. This is an attitude that focuses on the problem. The problem in PBOT’s case, as it is in many cases, is a combination of inertia and lack of money. There is no money for new signals, so we just won’t install them right now. We think that painting crosswalks without adding other features doesn’t make people safer, so we just won’t paint them, since we don’t have the money for the other features. “We can’t do the obvious thing/the thing people are asking for, so we won’t do anything.”

Problem orientation is difficult to challenge because the problems are genuine. PBOT has serious budget challenges that they need to address. Research does show that the simplest solutions, the ones that people often want, are not always effective, or they have negative side effects. But having a real problem doesn’t preclude moving past it to consider solutions. It means you have to be more creative, and let go of your attachment to the problem as insurmountable.

I’ve been involved in other projects where the problem orientation was a significant barrier to reaching solutions. In 2001-2002, I was involved with a group in college that was suffering under a bad-fit leader. The problematic incidents slowly mounted, but because of the difficulty involved with making a change, there was a lot of gossiping, taking sides, quiet non-compliance. I unfortunately became one of the gossipers, someone who talked a lot about how bad the situation was but did little to figure out a real solution. Eventually, enough happened that the header left. Later I came to feel terrible about how I behaved in that situation. I got so focused on the problem that I didn’t contribute constructively to a solution. So I know how easy it can be to get stuck there.

In 2008, I had a chance to do better. Caltrain was doing everything they could to avoid talking about bikes on board, even though there was a huge interest from the community in more capacity to bring bikes on the train. When confronted, they had a long list of reasons why this wasn’t possible, none of which seemed insurmountable to the community. Instead of giving up, several groups (each in their own way) took the listed barriers to change and worked on creating innovative solution possibilities (some of which which worked around them entirely by relying on the community) and asked them to truly research whether certain things were really impossible, rather than just insisting. In the end, they increased capacity by 25% overall and significantly improved information and capacity consistency.

So I know how easy it is to get stuck in a problem orientation, but I also know that it feels terrible, and that the result of looking for a solution will be far better, probably better than you could ever imagine when you were stuck inside the problem.

Decisionmakers at PBOT: please believe that safety is worth the effort of getting past the problems and barriers. I know there are already staff at PBOT who believe this, but for something to be the #1 priority, everyone needs to believe it, especially the people in charge. It is worth it to me, it is worth it to the community, and it is worth it to you. Do the creative thinking, make the hard changes, and make Portland a truly safe and enjoyable place to travel for everyone, for every mode, everywhere.