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.

Twitter and context collapse

Returning to a theme I’ve explored previously, I recently encountered two pieces about Twitter and context:

Justine Sacco is good at her job, and how I came to peace with her
Forced context collapse or the right to hide in plain sight

The two pieces explore different aspects of the theme, but both of them are partially about what I’ve previously called notability (see more thoughts on this in part II). Notability makes the likelihood of context collapse — things you do or say in one social context (where you might have many meaning cues) percolating out to others (where you often don’t) — much higher.

Twitter makes content produced by millions of different people both publicly-available (if not publicly-owned) and accessible (there’s that notion of accessibility again). Reporters then pick and choose from that content to create stories. Sometimes they create scandal sensations like Biddle did with Sacco. He was able to do that because he didn’t have any context for what she wrote, and without context, it could be read as being horrible. Almost all of us, from time to time, say things that can be read this way (as the author of the article later found out, when he did it). Sometimes we say them in the safety of a context that doesn’t collapse easily.

Sometimes we forget, and we say them in a medium where context collapses are easy. As Tressie’s piece points out, whether journalists have a legal or moral right to take advantage of this — either to do quality reporting, as I’m sure many of them do, or to create scandals or quick-and-easy thinkpieces or funny articles/listicles (ala Buzzfeed) is a somewhat complex question. One of the things that Tressie’s piece seems to be asking, to me, is whether journalists have the moral right to make someone notable, either at all, or because of something they did or said on Twitter. Do we have the right to hide in plain sight? We have difficulty having good conversations about this because of the slipperiness of the language around it, the issue I tried to address when writing my posts, and an issue that Tressie also raises in her tripartite division of the question: legal authority, moral authority, and economic responsibility.

Notability is an interesting part of that area of inquiry, because journalists often make people notable (although of course a lot of the time they merely write about people who are already notable). But usually in the past, you had some idea that you were about to become notable, because they wrote a story about you or about an issue you were highly involved in, interviewed you or at least asked you to review it…all those things journalists usually do when they do stories about or heavily involving people. Even so, sudden notability in the era of the Internet can have effects people don’t anticipate. But what if you have no idea you’re about to become notable? I wouldn’t be too surprised if my Twitter feed contains things I wouldn’t really want broadcast to the world, in spite of the fact that technically speaking I did broadcast them to the world. The context of people who read my Twitter feed is small (425 accounts right now, according to my widget) and it’s biased toward people I personally know, and who therefore have some idea of what I’m like, and what kinds of things I’m likely to say and think. People who can guess whether I’m being ironic.

To quote Tressie:

I sign up for Twitter assuming the ability to hide in plain sight when my amplification power is roughly equal to a few million other non-descript [sic] content producers. Media amplification changes that assumption and can do so without my express permission.

When I’m unnotable, my content being both publicly-available and easily accessible doesn’t matter. If I suddenly become notable, it does. If I make myself notable or embark on an activity likely to make me notable, that’s one thing — I have the chance to consider the possibility of context collapse before I experience it. If someone else does it for me, using their power they strip me of the chance to consider that it might not be possible anymore for me to hide in plain sight (a description I like for what it means to be unnotable). And not only journalists do this but other private citizens (Gamergate harassment being one of the hugely scary examples of this recently).

What happened here, I think, is that we all (by which I mean, anyone who publishes their thoughts on the Internet such that they’re publicly available) became published authors, at the same time as it became far easier to spread published information (and the two changes are obviously closely intertwined). Any published author has always been at risk of this type of stripping of context since their words can be taken out of their original work and quoted and spread. When becoming an author was a process, becoming notable was a known possible (and maybe often desired) quality of it. Now that it’s not much of a process, most of us just aren’t thinking of the possible consequences when we undertake it.

Even more stickily, it’s frequently legal to republish something published, under the doctrine of fair use, although it depends on what use you’re putting it to exactly. More practically, it’s very difficult to get people to stop doing that once they start, if the content generates a strong social reaction. If someone takes a tweet of mine and publishes it in a related news story, how likely am I to get it taken out? Not freaking very. This story chronicles one photographer’s attempt to get Buzzfeed to compensate him for use of a copyrighted photo. It was a lot of effort, and that’s a case where it’s much clearer that the site needs to get permission (because it’s a full reproduction of a copyrighted piece of content for commercial gain, and because licensing terms on Flickr are more clearly spelled out than they are for tweets).

We don’t have an existing legal right, that I know of, to hide in plain sight unless we consent to fame. I’m not even sure it’s possible to create one, let alone desirable, because the problem here isn’t really legal, it’s social. But considering the possible consequences, maybe we should at least be talking about it.

Gratitude inaccessibility

I’m having a problem with the inaccessibility of gratitude, currently. It’s a bit ironic and also funny, because gratitude is one of the few happiness/mindfulness practices you could say I’m “good at”, meaning that I practice it a lot and don’t normally find it difficult (see last year’s entry on this topic). I have so much to be grateful for, on any given day, and I’m as capable of listing those things this weekend as I am any day (just for a short list: loving family, fantastic friends, great job, sweet kitty, warm and comfy house, sunshine in California for Thanksgiving — a blessing for me if not for the state drought situation), but they don’t give me the warm feeling that I’m looking for, the little rush of comfort and joy, the sense of stability and hope.

Both the national situation and my own personal discomforts militate against the sensation of gratitude and joy right now. So many of our systems are broken, and I know so little about what to do about it. In an earlier time in my life maybe I would have imagined that I had some solution to the difficult problems of our national politics and social ills (foremost at the moment, racism). I think when I was younger, I in fact didn’t understand that some of these problems (racism, sexism) were still problems; like a lot of privileged people, I didn’t come face to face with them early, and thus didn’t come to understand that until after I was out in the working world and able to perceive them in their subtler, systemtic forms, and to listen to those for whom they were daily realities. Now I see the problems, but am not sure what to do about them. Admitting ignorance is the first step, perhaps, but admitting despair doesn’t feel like a step forward.

And in spite of my personal blessings I’ve been feeling lost lately. Maybe “identity crisis” is the right word to use; I don’t know for sure. It seems to fit; I had an idea in mind of myself, and I’ve noticed that I don’t match that idea anymore. The last two years have been physically rough on me; I’m not a fit and active person anymore. I don’t ride my bike much, I don’t do yoga, I don’t run, I can’t walk very far without pain. I’m not sure whether or how I’ll be able to go back to that. I hope that I will, but on days I can barely stagger around the house, that hope seems vain. And I don’t have a good sense of what my next step is in life, either. Someone told me, after hearing how I was feeling, “You need a project. You don’t have kids, or aging parents. So you need a project.” It’s good advice (except for the part where she subsequently suggested starting a business; I’m at least clear that that’s not my thing, though she couldn’t have known), but what project can I do when I barely have the resources to function on a day to day basis?

I’ve been reading a lot lately, which helps in that it keeps my mind off myself and on more interesting things, and comforts me that I’m not entirely changed, since I’ve always loved to read. Bless the Multnomah County Library for its huge selection and generous hold system, which not only reserves currently unavailable books, but brings available books to my local library for easy pickup. If I can’t access gratitude for very much right now, I can at least (at last) feel lucky for that.

OKCupid: as clueless as Facebook, but not as evil.

Much has been made recently of this post on the OKCupid blog. In this post, OKCupid “confesses” to experimenting on users in order to verify that their algorithm works, in such a tone as to suggest that this is an obvious thing that everyone does and what of it?

In the process, Rudder (the post’s author) fails to grasp the distinction between what Facebook did that garnered so much opprobium and what OKCupid did (which I and I think most people would join him in considering fairly routine).

What kind of experiment?

OKCupid’s experiment is manifestly related to the purpose of the site from its users’ point of view. They were trying to verify that their algorithm for matching users worked better than a placebo. This is actually both fairly decent experimental design and fairly decent behavior. The match algorithm is the purpose of OKC’s existence as far as its users are concerned — they’re there because the algorithm should be offering them better than random chance of hooking up with someone they’ll actually be compatible with. If it doesn’t work, OKC isn’t doing its job. Ergo, testing the algorithm is important, and beneficial to users. Plus, they tested it against telling people that they are a good match, which is fairly perceptive — they rightly deduced that such information would be likely to have a substantial placebo effect, and decided to check whether they could do better than just saying people are a good match and determine that they actually are.

(The actual outcome of this experiment sort of surprised me — they’re not as much better than placebo as I expected. Humans are easy to influence.)

Facebook’s experiment that got them in trouble wasn’t clearly related to the purpose of the site. You can make some arguments that it’s indirectly related, but doing an experiment (a badly designed one at that) to determine whether emotional contagion is a thing does not clearly relate to the stated purpose of Facebook. It’s not clear that Facebook has a single purpose, but let’s take “connecting with people we care about” as a vague one for its users. If Facebook wants to change the proportions of things in my News Feed to see if I spend more time on the site or share more things or comment more (I’m sure it does do all of those things), that would be kind of like what OKCupid did. Instead they deliberately changed the proportions of things in the News Feed with the goal of finding out whether it made people feel / behave more negatively. That’s not beneficial to anyone, really. It’s just experimenting for experiment’s sake, and even if they hadn’t published it in a journal I’d think it was an asshole move, as well as being bad experimental design (sentiment analysis of short texts is known to be unreliable). But it wouldn’t have been scientifically unethical.

Experiment vs Science

“Experiment” is so often used in a scientific context that I think it’s easy to forget that we all do experiments all the time — we take actions and we have hypotheses about the outcome and we compare what the outcome was with what we expected it to be. (I do it for a living, for goodness’ sake — what is troubleshooting but a set of experiments designed, ideally, to eventually fix a problem?) But doing an experiment and then trying to make it part of the body of scientific knowledge frequently requires all kinds of additional hoops to jump through — proper experimental design, valid statistical analysis, and, importantly, informed consent if you’re going to do it on human subjects.

When I originally posted about this (ironically, on Facebook itself) informed consent is the issue that I focused on, and it’s clear that Christian Rudder isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand it. There’s a good analysis of the issue at which clearly discusses what informed consent is (and why Facebook’s TOS doesn’t meet it) as well the limits on the requirement for informed consent. It’s really quite a limited requirement; although it’s a research best practice, it’s only required for anyone at or collaborating with universities, using federal research money, and publishing in certain journals. So you can even contribute to scientific knowledge without doing it, as long as your collaborators, funders, and publishers don’t mind.

Facebook and the journal that published their research did not follow this guideline even though it’s required by the journal’s policy and their collaborators’ institutional policy. What they did is therefore unethical, as well as an asshole move. As I put it in my original post:

In an attenuated sense, informed consent is an extra bar you have to clear to be considered to have done real science that you can publish in a reputable journal — it’s a kind of trade deal…if you don’t collaborate with universities or use federal funding, you don’t have to clear the bar, and can still publish if the journal doesn’t require you to meet those standards either, but at that point you lose a lot of the brand recognition you get from publishing with academics in a well-known journal.

The history of informed consent is too long to recap here (I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, if you’re in the market for a book about it), but it’s a very important safeguard in keeping researchers from harming subjects’ without the subjects’ knowledge, or extracting benefits that only go to the researcher(s) and that the subjects don’t in turn benefit from. The purpose it serves is in making the body of scientific knowledge and the practice of science something that people can trust, particularly in the area of medical research, but also in the area of social science research. Also it keeps people from being harmed or from failing to benefit when they haven’t OK’d it (e.g. from being given a placebo but told that there is 100% chance they are getting real medicine), which I hope we all agree is a good thing.

Facebook wanted to get all the benefits of science without any of the drawbacks, that’s what made (scientists at least, or people trained in that mode) so specifically pissed off about what they did. OKCupid didn’t do that — they didn’t even publish their research until they felt like making a point with it. And I hear Rudder’s writing a book, so he doesn’t need to worry about peer review and federal funding. (Unless the book gets bad reviews, in which case he might wish he had gotten some peer review first.)

Unfortunately, his cluelessness about these two important distinctions tells me that only circumstance and luck keeps them from being equally awful. Maybe we do need to have a bigger conversation about whether social experiments on unwitting site users are ever okay, if only to improve people’s understanding of the issues involved.

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.

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.


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.