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
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.
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.