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 BikePortland.org 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).

Revolution?

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.

Stale bureaucracy

I occasionally say smart things on Twitter, and even more occasionally, one of them is worth saying in more than 140 characters. Yesterday I had the following conversation with @bjamin:

The project Ben was alluding to is the I-5/Broadway/Weidler interchange plan, which is part of the N/NE Quadrant project. Public attention to the project has increased recently because the Stakeholder Advisory Committee was charged this week with making a recommendation on the interchange plans, and there was an opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

The process has been going on for almost two years. I got involved just over a year ago, right after the first public charrette (which I wasn’t able to attend for personal reasons), when I and some other advocates met with some SAC members who were feeling less sure about the transportation details than they would have liked. I ended up sitting in on a special meeting with ODOT and PBOT project staff at one point, I’ve kept in touch with the SAC members about the progress, I went to several open houses and commented on the plans, and I had a lot of (frustrating) conversations with project staff. So I know a bit about how the whole process went down.

The way that I described it for Ben I think is apt (and Steve thought so too). The ideas that were presented to the SAC and the community were pre-filtered by the agencies involved, including ODOT, and by the way the scope of the project was written. They’re stale because all the interesting ideas were thrown out by the “process”.

At the transportation design charettes, any options that included removal of I-5 (something many community members think is possible within the next 30 years) were thrown out as out of scope. Options that involved removing the ramps were put down as infeasible because the majority of the traffic on the freeway is local, even though local traffic doesn’t need a freeway to get around, and eliminating close-together ramps is a very traditional way to improve weaving problems like those cited for this segment (the freeway interchange in the city I grew up in was redone this way while I was in high school and college). And the TDM/TSM option (managing congestion using technological and mode-shift techniques) was never seriously developed — whenever I saw it, it was just a line item, and when I asked ODOT staff what this would entail, they did the verbal equivalent of shrugging.

All this points to a process that was set up with so many constraints to meet that it could only get one result: that the freeway needs the additional lanes ODOT says it needs. Pressure from the community is the only thing that brought the process to a point where the worst (most expensive and people-hostile) options  were eliminated and it included any reasonable improvements for people walking and biking through the area at all. That’s still not much, just a tiny update over today’s conditions, with some loss of connectivity (plus the construction impacts). This for an area that is the meeting of three major bike routes, that’s within blocks of the city’s biggest transit center and major event centers, and which will soon have a streetcar! I’ve also heard, but haven’t confirmed, that PBOT as much as said that the bike/ped improvements were contingent on the freeway improvements, and they couldn’t be done separately. If they’re really improvements that we think are good and worthwhile, why can’t they be done separately? Does PBOT want 25% of Portlanders riding their bikes to work in 2030, or not? Do they want people leaving the Rose Garden at night to be safe walking to TriMet or not?

This N/NE Quadrant process, to me, has become a symbol of everything I’ve seen that’s wrong with “public process” — I would say “in Portland” but I don’t think it’s just Portland.

  • The public doesn’t get any input on deciding what projects “need” to be done, or what their scope will be (Portland Transport discussed this recently as well).
  • Only the project’s “stakeholders” (however that is defined for a given project, and it generally isn’t defined very inclusively) get ongoing input. The public has to delve into websites and publications to find out when design sessions or open houses are or how to contact staff.
  • Open houses are rarely held at convenient places and times; they’re usually held from 4:30 to 6:30 (letting out a lot of working people) and often in odd places (Lloyd Center Mall, the Rose Garden Arena).
  • There’s often a distinct lack of data and discussion of the project’s (temporary or permanent) impacts on non-motor vehicle traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard how many cars drive on the freeway, but I never heard project staff even discuss bikeway traffic counts, despite such counts being available for several intersections in the area, and despite requests for such data from citizens.
  • One stakeholder can sometimes hold up an entire project, but how that can come about is never clearly defined.
  • The options that are presented, if they include citizen ideas at all, are always pre-filtered by agency staff, who are the same people who chose the project scope in the first place, so they can put their preferred options front and center and get rid of any they don’t like.
  • Staff can even insist after the fact that SAC recommendations won’t work and have to be changed. So nothing is currently stopping PBOT and ODOT from taking the SAC recommendation for the I-5/Broadway-Weidler project and deleting even the small bike/ped improvements the community did succeed in adding, just like nothing seems to stop PBOT from continually insisting that Williams can’t handle traffic with only one travel lane (and refusing to hear any points made that a change in road configuration is likely to change traffic counts).

Agencies have an existing culture and worldview and a vested interest in things going their way, so even when there are a lot of people with good intent (and I don’t doubt there are, here as much as anywhere, as I’ve met and spoken to many of them), that isn’t enough to get the agency to look beyond its own standard methods, its own little house in government, and the immediate future. Memorably, one of the open houses I attended for this project included a note that the median MUP that they wanted to install (which did make it into the final plans, but without any marked width) should be 12′ wide for two-way traffic. This on one of the major city bikeways? 20′ would barely be wide enough (that’s the total width of the Hawthorne Bridge paths). When I look at designs produced by staff and consultants, they almost always show that the person who designed them doesn’t regularly travel the street (at all, or by specific modes) because they are missing important details like that. At the last N Williams open house, I heard another citizen ask why they had added parking to a particular block of Williams, because it’s currently no-parking at PPB’s request. “Really?” said the consultant behind the table. “I’ll look into that.” In general, details that are critical to determining whether a design is any good are often missing until too late in the process to make meaningful changes.

More than a change to any individual project, or any one part of the process, we need a change from a culture of regimented process, stale bureaucracy, and imposed expertise to evolution, creativity, and collaboration. This requires change from both our government and us as citizens. Governmental agencies need to stop fearing and constraining citizen input and start talking with us openly what we want and need, while at the same time getting out of their silos and looking at the long view. We have to be more interested in the continued development of our neighborhood and our city over time, and more willing to see beyond our own self-interest. Right now, 74% of Americans want to see no new development in their neighborhoods. But without development, neighborhoods stagnate and decline. No future development means “I’ve got mine and I’m not worried about anyone else getting theirs.” That’s not the attitude of a community I want to live in. Let’s make Portland, and Oregon, better than that.

Why I opted-out of Opt In

As a citizen advocate, I spend a lot of time telling my local governments and government agencies what I think. I’m familiar with the various stages and forms of public involvement processes — sitting on committees, going to project meetings, asking questions, raising concerns, writing comments, addressing decisionmakers. So originally I was a big fan of Metro’s Opt In concept — hey, Metro is asking for our opinion! They’re sending us emails with quick surveys, making it easier than hunting down comment forms on each project webpage (if the project even has one), or searching for the right physical address or phone number to contact. I joined Opt-In with such rosy thoughts at first, but I lost them relatively quickly as I saw that the demographics of the survey were clearly out of whack with the region (involving the most involved, like me, further, rather than engaging new populations) and the surveys were often poorly designed. The final straw for me was the recent poll on regional transportation priorities, which BikePortland covered, especially the fact that the survey writers defended the survey setup:

Jim Middaugh, communications director for Metro, defends the survey. “We’re attempting to provoke a bit and help decision makers get a sense of where different segments of the population are on these things.” On Twitter, he responded directly to criticisms by saying that the “Forced choice” the survey presents is a “technique to get at underlying values.” And he added that, “Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.”

“We’re trying to see how people are leaning… If you put a grey zone in there, it’s not as informative.”

I’ve been through enough public involvement processes to have seen that some of them are shams, sometimes even when the people involved are well-intentioned. And forced-choice, or its cousin “limiting project scope”, is the most common type of sham. It disallows certain types of input from the start, and the result can be used to suggest things that are not reflective of people’s real opinions. That’s exactly what Metro seems to be up to with Opt-In. They choose the topics, they design the surveys with the possible questions, and in many cases, they are, apparently deliberately, pushing people away from common ground and reasonable middle views. They’re push-polling, not gathering public input.

I opted not to complete the recent TriMet budget survey for the same reason. Same deal: at first, I was excited. Online budget survey — new and shiny! Engages people who wouldn’t otherwise! Maybe, but it’s clearly designed to get the answers they want. They start out by claiming poverty and the best of intentions, and follow that with union-bashing (and I say this as someone who is frustrated with the union negotiation situation right now; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the union’s position, but it’s not exactly classy of TriMet to present it the way they do). Only then do they proceed to the survey options. Raising parking revenue is given one option of a “nominal” fee at crowded lots, for $100,000. No market-rate parking, not even a non-nominal parking charge. But they have no hesitation suggesting that we raise fares by $0.25 or more and/or force anyone transferring to buy a $4.20 day pass, discouraging trip-chaining and multimodal travel. Let’s definitely impact low-income and multi-modal inner-city users, not the suburban users who drive in to the big MAX lots! Let’s definitely not talk about increasing the taxes that bring in the majority of Trimet’s budget! Sorry, I’m not going to buy into that at any level, not even to legitimize the idea by participating.

For anyone who’s willing to stick around, hit “no/neither/disagree”, and write your comments in, I salute you. But I’m opting out of these particular shams.

PSU/PBOT Traffic and Transportation Class: Reflection

What I come back to most whenever the subject of my class last fall comes up is how amazing it is that I was able to learn so much information and meet so many significant figures in the Portland transportation scene in just ten short weeks (Oct 1 – Dec 3).

Getting into the class was a bit of a rollercoaster — I learned about the class from BikePortland while I was in the Bay Area over Labor Day weekend, but by the time I got back and organized to apply for the scholarship from the city, the scholarship spaces were exhausted and I was put on the waiting list. Disappointed, I consoled myself by thinking, “No need to rush into things. I’m new here; I’m sure others need the learning more than I do.” But Gavin encouraged me not to give up, and later I learned that it’s not uncommon for a few people to drop out before the class starts. Sure enough, the week before the class started, Scott Cohen, the class liaison, contacted me and asked if I wanted a space that had opened up. Yes, of course!

The class lecture series included Portland’s senior planner, Steve Dotterer; the director of PBOT, Sue Kiehl; officials from Metro and Trimet; Roger Geller, city Bicycle Coordinator; April Bertelson, Pedestrian Coordinator; Marni Glick of Transportation Options (who I also knew from my Sunday Parkways volunteering); Rob Burchfield, city Traffic Engineer; Patrick Sweeney, who headed up the Streetcar System Plan effort; and lectures from our coordinator, Rick Gustafson, a former ED of Trimet and longtime transportation official and consultant in Portland; as well as a special presentation by Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. (The presentations, except for Gordon Price’s, are all available on the class website.)

My favorite presentations were Gordon Price, Steve Dotterer, Patrick Sweeney, Roger Geller, and Marni Glick — possibly in that order — for, respectively, a deep and broad look at urban design and transportation, the historical perspective on Portland, a beautiful presentation with impressive evidence of project management and community outreach, bikey awesomeness, and sheer enthusiasm for the job.

Doing a project also turned out to be a really important part of the class. Hearing that it would involve giving a presentation and was optional, I almost backed out. I hate public speaking, and I wasn’t sure I had time for a project. But Rick encouraged us to participate because it would give us a practical grounding in what most of us really wanted to do with our class knowledge — getting transportation projects done in Portland.

I decided to do my project on the interaction between bikes and rails. It’s an issue of personal interest to me, because I live near the streetcar tracks (and the NW Industrial area which has a lot of disused/rarely used tracks) and riding near them makes me nervous. It’s also a well-known issue in Portland and is in the theme of my main area of interest in bike advocacy, bike/transit interactions.

My project ended up being selected for the second session, which would include an outside panel and any members of the public who wanted to attend. I was excited, but also nervous. It was fortunate timing in that the week of the first presentations was very busy for me, and the respite that I got allowed me to put together a much better presentation.

The process of doing the project was somewhat guided by our homework assignments. I started out by doing a lot of web research, and later moved on to documenting particular issues and investigating each proposed solution further, as well as taking pictures of nasty intersections. The part that took me personally the longest to do was to contact someone in the city or other government agency about the issue. There’s no shortage of people to talk to about the streetcar, but I was nervous about calling people. It’s a personal thing, and one that I badly need to get over before I can be serious about being an advocate. I was very impressed when I saw how many people some of my classmates had spoken with, when I didn’t even take advantage of all the leads I got until after class was over. Lesson learned!

The presentations were supposed to only take three minutes, because that’s how long you get to speak at public hearings. It turns out to be a lot harder to give a three-minute presentation than a ten-minute one. Not too many people made the time limit — I’m not sure whether I did, although I practiced hard and trimmed down my presentation until I could give it in that amount of time. My presentation got a very good reception, with particularly kind words from Rick, and is now available, with the rest, on Chris Smith’s Portland Transport blog.

I feel very lucky to have had the class so soon after my arrival in Portland. As I start to get more involved in the Portland transportation scene, having the background has already proven useful. And as Patrick and April, both themselves graduates of the class, reminded us, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know, presenters and fellow students alike, that may help you get things done in the future.

My project on Portland Transport

I didn’t notice this at the time, but Chris Smith posted our presentations from the December 3rd Traffic and Transportation class session on his blog at Portland Transport.

If you’ve been waiting for me to get my act together, wait no longer — the PDF is available there. A few entries later is David Sweet’s NE Fremont project, which truly was the most impressive in how much he had already accomplished. It was inspiring to me to see how much time and effort he had put in, how many people he had spoken to, and the creativity he used in securing funding.

I’ve been working on a post about my experience in the class, but it needs some cleaning up. I’ll try to get there soon, as a complement to this post.

Margaret Mead on manipulation

Later, when I seriously turned by attention to the whole question of manipulation, I began to understand that one should not use either a person’s strength or his weakness against him. As I see it now, the only course that is ethically justified is an appeal to strength — not in order to throw one’s opponent by means of his own strength, but on the grounds that reliance on strength will only work for the good….
I do not advocate a philosophy of blind and naive trust. Occasionally it is clear that a person in a position of power will, if he can, block or destroy something of great value. In such circumstances it is necessary to be politic; this means, essentially, using the strengths and weaknesses of other persons or groups for one’s own ends. In the same way, in wartime, a nation plays on the weaknesses — and even on the strengths — of the enemy. But there is always a price to pay later, an erosion of the capacity for trust, a kind of damage that persists after the war and makes the reestablishment of working relationships much more difficult. –Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter pp. 130-131

This quotation jumped out at me as I was reading tonight because it resonated with something I’ve been thinking about in general, which is how people work together in groups, and also with something I was thinking about today. For various reasons I don’t want to identify the particular situation, but I found myself in this situation behaving ‘politically’, using the influence of someone higher up than I because I knew from past experience, I could get that person on ‘my side’, and it struck me how far that was from straightforward and communication. I wasn’t being dishonest, but I was using my honesty in a calculated — manipulative — way.

I had a discussion with a friend recently about subtle types of dishonest communication, including ‘faux surprise’, when you act as if it has only just occurred to you that a person isn’t doing something you think they should be, when in fact you have been thinking about mentioning it to them for some time and your approach is deliberate rather than spontaneous. It occurs to me that that’s also a type of manipulation — your goal is to get them to do what you want, but you aren’t straightforwardly admitting that. You pretend to be innocent when you’re really being politic.

I particularly appreciate the way she talks about the “erosion of the capacity for trust” that results from this kind of interaction. My actions today were effective, but trying to imagine being on the receiving end of them, I find that I am annoyed with myself, and assign to myself — as I did at the time to some the others in the interaction — a motive other than finding the most effective way to solve what is clearly, based on its recurring nature, a genuine problem. Doing what I did wasn’t my first action, but I really wish that my second action had been to think of something different to do, instead of following the pattern that over time has been established over this issue.

Warm advocacy fuzzies

I don’t do a lot of writing about my advocacy stuff on this blog. If you think the bike-riding stuff is boring, imagine what you would think about stuff that doesn’t even involve riding a bike, but instead involves a lot of meetings and emails and often-tedious government agencies and regulations about bikes, and you’ll see why.

But today, I’m getting a lot of warm advocacy fuzzies for once, and I want to share that joy with the world.

For the last two months I’ve been chairing an SVBC “workgroup” (a small committee of members) on the issue of Caltrain bike accommodation. Basically, there are a limited number of spaces for people to take their bikes on the train to do a multi-modal trip with train+bike, and the spaces are running out. And many people who do this really like doing it, and don’t have other good options, and they were being delayed by 10 minutes to an hour or more, unpredictably, by having to wait for the next train with an available slot. For a long time, Caltrain was resistant to adding more spaces, and cyclists were getting angry and frustrated. A cyclist was arrested due to poor management of a conflict over bumping.

Late last fall, everything came to a head and, as a result of pressure from the community and both bike coalitions (SVBC and SFBC), the Caltrain Joint Powers Board asked Caltrain staff to investigate the possibilities for increases in onboard capacity.

Since then, the workgroup has been brainstorming on ways to improve the system and the amount of capacity, taking input from SVBC members and other cyclists, and meeting with Caltrain staff to express our ideas and concerns. The people on the workgroup have been fantastic to work with — thoughtful, concerned, energetic, and determined to make progress in coming up with feasible ideas for near-term improvements to the situation.

Yesterday at the February 5 Joint Powers Board meeting, staff presented their plan and members and representatives of SVBC and SFBC and the community at large spoke in support of capacity and other system improvements. After staff presentation and lively discussion, the result is that Caltrain is going to increase capacity on its newer, more limited 16-space cars by 50%, and on the older cars (which had 32 spaces) by 25% to 40, a total increase over the day from around 4,000 slots to a little over 5,000. They’re also going to take other measures such as gathering more statistics and formalizing bike input to the agency through a Bicycle Advisory Committee. The JPB also asked Caltrain to try to direct extra bike cars (each train is guaranteed to have 1, but some have 2) to the high-demand trains during the commute hours.

This isn’t everything we hoped for (the workgroup’s position includes a number of other items and a slightly greater increase in capacity), but it is branded as an “interim” solution, and will be revisited. The workgroup will continue to meet with Caltrain staff, and to discuss more ideas for improving the system. It’s a lot more than we had the day before yesterday.

The best thing for me has been seeing the results of our work in print and online (Mercury News, San Mateo Daily Journal, SFGate, SF Examiner), and through emails flying back and forth, commending me, the workgroup, and SVBC for our efforts. I’m but a small cog in this big movement, but it’s very nice to get a few warm fuzzies recognizing the time and effort (and many, many emails) that I’ve committed to the project. And equally nice to throw them back to the workgroup, Caltrain staff, SVBC board and staff, and everyone who cared enough to tell Caltrain that they wanted more.

Caltrain and cycling are my main transportation options, and being able to combine them when I need to is personally very important to me. I’m ecstatic that that’s about to get a little easier.