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.