This has been a lousy year so far for America’s Cycling Capital. Last month, a bunch of businesses along a major bike corridor co-signed a letter whining that if the city replaces spaces for free car parking with better, safer, sexier bike lanes, they might lose business to drivers, and so fire off their NIMBY missile they did. PBOT promptly dropped their plans for a smooth bike route up NE 28th avenue. Likely, these businesses just shot themselves in their collective foot, as now existing bike traffic will be diverted off this commercial drag to residential NE 30th. Whoops. Bye, bye bike business!
Then, this month, a cherished mural (that was technically an ad, but whatever) got buffed because apparently the city has a stupid code about the size of letters painted on certain historic buildings (but not others) the details of which are boring and nobody really cares that much. The point is this mural inspired a lot of people. It made them proud. It made them feel recognized for riding their bike via a 100 foot declaration of Portland being the fucking best at something.
Thursday, May 8th, 2014 – final days.
Some naysayers were quick to criticize Portland as undeserving of this title since we’ve stagnated at a 6% bike mode share for the last several years, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still the best. Quality, not quantity, right? Even if we weren’t ‘The Best’, you don’t stop cheering for your team when they don’t win the finals, amiright, Rip City?
About the stagnation, it’s quite true. Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Boulder, Long Beach, and many other cities have surpassed Portland by building European-quality separated bike ways. The best we’ve managed is to paint a few striped buffers on the ground and move parked cars out from the curb. Sometimes drivers actually comply with this redesign. So, um, about that quality vs. quantity thing again…
Michael Anderson penned an extended end of days essay over at Bike Portland that reportedly made people cry. Those who’ve devoted their lives to getting bikes in the street are feeling worn. Portland should be doing better than 6%, and we shouldn’t have to see iconic public art (or giant pro-bike ads) get buffed over – especially when just blocks away is a four-story tall painted advertisement assaulting the senses by propagating a “Love of Cars.” Seriously, this thing just disgusts me.
Monday, May 12th, 2014 – gone for now.
The massive depiction of an otherwise picturesque landscape literally littered with operating and derelict motor vehicles – somehow insanely presented as virtue – feels like a sick joke. Among the clouds float ghosts of cars, in non-irony of the fact that combustion engines are devastating our climate while pumping toxic exhaust into the air we breathe. Fields for growing food – even birds and insects have been replaced by motorized vehicles. And somehow depicting this perverse advertisement in our public space is totally legal according to city code.
Yes, ‘For the Love of Cars‘ we’ve poisoned our air, dumped lead and mercury into our oceans, made streets uncrossable, mutilated public sidewalks, deafened ourselves with noise pollution, replaced family time with hours-long commutes, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes with depressed and elevated freeways, stressed ourselves to sociopathic levels of road-rage, ran over millions of wild animals – and now – the Earth’s surface temperature is rising so rapidly we may not be able to stop the catastrophic warming effects of desertification, ocean acidification, wildfires, droughts, super-storms, and rising sea levels. If there’s something worth ‘Loving‘ about cars, I haven’t a fucking clue what it is.
In light of recent events, it’s easy to be cynical. Assessing things, Portland’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of hitting its goal of 25% bike mode share in the next fifteen years. Often it feels we’ll never get there at any date, much less by 2030.
Many European cities have surpassed this level by waging an all out war on cars, rightfully recognizing the automobile is not compatible with human-scaled cities. Portland, on the other hand, can’t even remove a few dozen free parking spaces so that a single street can function as the through-way it was originally designed to be. Our elected leaders cower away from mentioning bikes unless it’s purely talk of ‘safety’ or satire.
How does one stay positive in light of these failures? How do we redouble our efforts – if we even can?
Years ago when the CRC freeway expansion was being pushed by a bunch of allegedly “progressive”, “eco-friendly” Democrats in the state legislature, I wrote my very first post for Mismanaging Perception wondering where the slayers of the Mt. Hood Freeway were today, and if the lessons of their victory could help inspire a new generation of neighborhood activists to stop a 12-lane mistake. My prediction proved prolific. The CRC was suffocated by a coalition of environmentally intelligent Gen-Xers, Right-leaning fiscal hawks, and some of the very same people who crushed the Mt. Hood Freeway scheme in the 70’s.
One could argue energy expelled taking down the CRC distracted from the push for a more bike friendly Portland. Playing defense can suck life out of your offense. I know many who were left feeling emotionally drained in spite of our CRC victory. Like the bike advocates and the brick walls they ran into – or watched get painted over – fatigue kicks in, people start feeling burnt out, with some never recovering. It’s hard to stay constructive, focused, and feeling like you’re making a positive difference.
So, is there anything good to report back in the Portland bike world of late?
The answer is hell yes. There’s actually much to celebrate. Right now there are several politicos running for office who are regular bike commuters including Don Gavitte and Nicholas Caleb, and their campaigns are utilizing swarms of bikes to help GOTV. Portland Sunday Parkways remains as popular as ever, surviving attempts at being scaled back by the powers that be. The afore-mentioned NE Multnomah avenue has actually proven what a real bike lane should be, and how well it functions (despite some drivers still parking in it). The Shift calendar continues to see far heavier use than when I moved here a decade ago.
Bridge construction – West towers facing South, February 2013.
Perhaps most exciting of all, Portland stands poised to complete the nation’s largest active transit and bike/ped bridge, excluding all private motorized vehicles. That’s right, Tilikum Crossing (or the Working Kirk Memorial Bridge, depending on your politics) will exclusively carry streetcar, MAX rail, buses, emergency vehicles, and people walking and cycling – but not one damn car. Be assured, Portland’s first new bridge over the Willamette river in four decades will be a destination just as much as it will be a popular through-way.
Obviously, we’re all a bit shell-shocked by the erasure of Portland’s brand as the nation’s cycling capital – literally and figuratively. Let’s allow this moment to serve as a wake up call.
The right mix of successes and failures have a strange way of motivating people when they least expect it. Summer is closing in and Pedalpalooza is right around the corner. Take a day or two to help a non-rider get onto a bike, and invite them to your favorite groups rides. There’s no way they won’t crave more after experiencing Loud and Lit, Bowie vs. Prince, or the infamous World Naked Bike Ride. Who knows, maybe even Critical Mass will finally return to Portland this year?
Growing a social movement involves forging personal relationships, encouraging friends, and going out of your way to help others. Better infrastructure can go a long way, but so will organizing as a community of cycling comrades.
See you in the streets!
All images copyright Hart Noecker and Rebel Metropolis.