By Israel Bayer, Staff Writer
Bike Portland is an example of how a dedicated individual, a camera, a computer and a blog can blossom into a platform for a specific topic and shoot ahead of newspapers and nonprofits that invest millions of dollars to engage and educate the community. In this case, the topic is biking, and that individual is Jonathan Maus.
Starting in 2005, Maus, an avid biker, created BikePortland.org, a daily news blog that covers biking in Portland. In the past five years, Maus, a former public relations consultant, has trained himself in journalism and photography and now runs one of the most popular bike blogs in the region and possibly the world — reaching 8,000 to 16,000 people daily on the latest news on biking in the Rose City.
Israel Bayer: Can you talk a little bit about Portland’s Bicycle Plan for 2030, and where we are headed as a community?
Jonathan Maus: I think the big thing is that’s it’s just a plan. It’s a great plan, the best in the country, but still, it’s just a plan. The only real money that’s been talked about for the plan has been handled poorly and created negative attention. When it comes to actually doing the things that we need to do to achieve what’s in the plan the revenue is just not there.
From a technical perspective (the plan) doesn’t go far enough. In 2005, Mayor Sam Adams and some of the best and brightest from Portland went to Amsterdam and began to talk about how Portland could be modeled after European cities. But if you look at the plan, we do very little to model ourselves on cities in Europe.
We know we have to create separated bikeways from vehicle traffic. More people don’t bike because they don’t feel safe. If we had separation more people would bike. It’s simple.
I.B.: You’re talking bike avenues?
J.M.: Sure. But you could also take a two-lane street and create barriers or medians between vehicles and bikes. We have tried a small-scale project called the Cycle Track near PSU (Portland State University). But it’s not enough.
Europeans have told us time and again that back street solutions do not work. You can’t just have a bike boulevard where both vehicles and bikes are using the same space. If you can’t get people to their destinations on main streets with a bike than we’re not going to reap the true benefits of becoming a world-class bike city.
I.B.: Where does the revenue for this come from, the Department of Transportation?
J.M.: It’s not just about finding new money. In some cases it’s reallocating money towards things that we haven’t spent on before. The way it’s being framed in the public is that we have to spend more money, but it’s not that simple. It’s more of a lack of creativity, political will and imagination than not having the money.
I.B.: By not thinking more creatively are we paying lip service to fighting emissions and global warming in Portland, especially knowing that more biking is one of the key solutions to fighting the problem?
J.M.: It’s hard to overstate how many things it will help by shifting people habits to bike more. It doesn’t even have to be long-distances. Let’s just take a two-and-a-half mile radius. There’s nothing that creates more bang for your buck than using a bike.
The benefits include a clear environmental impact on many levels, including not buying gasoline and using a large portion of oil. There’s a huge social benefit with having people creating community and actually seeing and being able to communicate with the people they are commuting with. It has an economic benefit.
We know that transportation and housing are two of highest costs for individuals and families. By riding a bike you could be potentially saving hundreds of dollars over the course of a month. That’s thousands of dollars over the course of a year.
Fighting obesity and increasing people’s quality of life through healthy living is another. The list goes on and on.
A local economist recently did a study and showed the green dividend of the money we are saving by doing things other than driving cars. We’re driving less than other regions. If you take the gap that we spend collectively that is going into our local economy and is not being used at the pump and going over seas. The study shows the number is around $800 million dollars. That’s a significant amount of money. We have to find a way to leverage this.
I.B.: Does being looked at as the No. 1 city for biking in America hurt us in a way?
J.M.: I think it does to a certain degree. We have a bike friendly mayor, and we appreciate this, but due to a variety of things, including the sex scandal things like biking get perceived as the mayor’s pet projects and it becomes a political football and divisive issue.
When you look at the bike issue in this city we have gotten great press from around the country and all the accolades. Because of this, it appears to many that it gets preferential treatment by City Hall when that’s simply not true. You can’t even begin to compare the money we put into biking to things like schools, or homelessness, but it appears that it gets a priority. Unfortunately, we’ve been generating great press as a cycling community, but we are losing the public relations battle when you look at the big picture.
We have a beautiful city with an enormous grid of streets. Why does every single street have to have cars going up and down it?
I.B.: Where should we start?
J.M.: Director’s Park is a great example. It’s a brand new park with a movie theater and a deli. It’s in the heart of the city and there are these little paved streets on each side that cars just slowly drive up and down. Why not just close the streets? Then you have this connected plaza. It would be a completely different environment and community space.
Another great example would be the Park Blocks. In 2008, Commissioner Randy Leonard said that he thought the South Park Blocks being car free would be a great idea. We had this great momentum. We put on this International Car Free conference in June. Yet, nothing happened. We need bold leadership to make some of these things a reality. We also need stronger activism to say to our elected officials, do this and we’re not going to go away until you do.
I.B.: That brings me to the next question. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance — where do they fit into all of this?
J.M.: The BTA is the biggest voice in the city for biking. They’ve been around the longest. They have thousands of members.
They’ve also become very focused on raising money and maintaining the organization. It’s important in the context of having the resources to maintain and working with legislative issues in Salem and managing their many large events and programs that they do over the course of a year like teaching kids bike safety training in public schools.
At the same time they’ve become very friendly with a lot of the power brokers in the city. I think the BTA would better serve this city if their style of advocacy could be more aggressive. And you can’t ignore the major personal crises. They’ve gone through a series of directors and major staff changeover, and their transparency has been questionable at times.
I.B.: Looking at a lot of coverage around Portland, I don’t see a whole lot about minorities and biking. What’s that about?
J.M.: It’s been a big topic of late. The Community Cycling Center has really taken the lead on this issue and they’ve created a program called, “Understanding the barriers to bicycling.”
They’re working with three social service agencies that work with low-income individuals and they’re meeting with different minority groups around the region to engage people.
I think it’s important to just continue to push biking, and to understand that minorities have a place in the cycling community. I think the percentage of minorities biking in the community is probably a representation of the population of minorities in Portland.
I.B.: What’s happening with cycling in East Portland?
J.M.: Nobody knows exactly what to do in East Portland. There’s engineering and planning issues. Less people are biking in East Portland because we don’t have bikeways serving people in ways that they should. Groups like Community Cycling Center have brought the issue of equity to the table, and now it’s become a long list of requirements that has to be thought about when planning.
I.B.: Last thoughts?
J.M.: If you look at all the depth and breadth of all the people who care about or are doing something with biking in this community, there’s no other city in the world that touches Portland. In many cities, bikes aren’t celebrated on the scale we do in Portland. We have well over a thousand events in Portland to celebrate biking. It’s beautiful but we have a long way to go.