Power To The Pedal

Amid staff turmoil, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance pursues its $600 million-plus dreams and wields huge clout at City Hall.

On a recent, drizzly afternoon, a couple hundred Bicycle Transportation Alliance supporters gathered outside City Hall.

Among them were silver-haired corporate lawyers, working moms and tattooed fixie riders. Some wore yellow raingear over office attire; others, old-school cutoffs over long underwear; many displayed the windblown, slightly undernourished look of the chronically physically fit.

BTA advocacy director Michelle Poyourow, in tweed slacks and hairpins, addressed the crowd and led chants of "Build it!" to a muted recording of Devo's '80s New Wave classic "Whip It."

The crowd that gathered Feb. 4 was urging City Council to approve the city's Bicycle Master Plan, which envisions the construction of more than $600 million in new bike infrastructure over the next 20 years.

"When we go inside, it's important that we be quiet and respectful," Poyourow instructed the crowd, which, like those who ride on Portland's streets, was overwhelmingly white.

In a room filled with the smell of damp wool, council members responded enthusiastically to the plan—which Mayor Sam Adams accurately called "the most ambitious, the most comprehensive of its kind in the country."

For the BTA, unanimous council approval, which came after a second hearing Feb. 11, marked the greatest triumph in the organization's 20-year history and its evolution into a significant political force at City Hall.

It's no accident bike helmets now compete with schoolkids as the leading prop in political candidates' campaign literature.

"To see a grassroots organization mature and grow as they have is pretty damn impressive," says Josh Kardon, the longtime chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "The BTA is a power to be reckoned with. They've got juice in this city."

"They've got a lot of clout," adds Greg Peden, a leading City Hall lobbyist.

But even as BTA members celebrated approval of the Bike Plan, the organization found itself in the midst of turmoil.

The day after choreographing bike supporters' City Hall gathering, Poyourow, BTA's most visible employee, quit.

Although she says her departure was long planned, Poyourow's announcement surprised BTA members. And it came only three months after BTA executive director Scott Bricker was abruptly fired. Seven months before that, Bricker had fired BTA lobbyist Karl Rohde.

In the past year, fully half of the BTA's 16-member staff has quit or been let go.

"It's very disturbing to see so much staff turnover," says Cynthia Chilton, a longtime BTA member and volunteer.

The upheaval comes after Portland bicycle ridership has declined for the first time in a decade (as have numbers for TriMet and motorists), but also when support for transforming the way Portlanders move around the city has never been greater.

Modern Oregon history is a tale of breakthrough achievements—such as the 1972 Bottle Bill—that faded when pioneers lost their momentum, and Oregon lost its leadership role in a nationwide movement.

Whether Portlanders can now summon the political will to fund the nation's most expansive bicycle plan—and preserve the city's reputation as the nation's leading bicycling city—depends to a large degree on BTA's ability to reinvent itself.

Jonathan Maus, editor of the obsessively detailed blog Bike Portland, wonders if the organization is up to the challenge.

"Within BTA, you don't have a clear direction for how to operate," Maus says. "You have some who want to be friends with politicians, others who want to challenge them. There's no unified voice."

Bicycling magazine has repeatedly named Portland the country's top bike city.

"What puts Portland perennially atop our list is you don't need to know anything about bike lanes or city planning to see that it is a haven for cyclists," the magazine wrote in 2008.

What is it about Portland that encourages Zoobombers to scream down from the West Hills on tots' bikes, yahoos to cruise Alberta Street on tall bikes, and weekend warriors to parade their custom-made Italian racing bikes along the Esplanade?

And why is it we have an industry of more than 50 bike shops here, dozens more custom-bike builders, and an ever-expanding universe of websites and blogs devoted to bike news and culture?

Why, rain or shine, is more than one in five vehicles that crosses the Hawthorne Bridge each weekday a bicycle? And why, even as ridership has doubled in the past decade, has the number of cyclists serious injured or killed barely changed?

A big reason for all of the above is the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. The BTA cannot take all the credit, but it certainly deserves a lot.

The organization has rolled a long way from its modest beginnings.

In 1990, Rex Burkholder and nine other cycling enthusiasts came together after a couple of them put up posters on the Broadway Bridge. The goal was simple, Burkholder says: "We wanted to make the streets safe for bicycling."

Initially, the small volunteer effort focused on tasks that Portlanders now take for granted, such as persuading TriMet to allow bikes on buses and trains.

As the BTA grew, its grassroots activism cross-pollinated with politics. The organization launched Burkholder's political career: After six years as a paid staffer, he won election to the Metro Council in 2000 and is now running for council president.

In the past decade, BTA shifted into a higher gear. Between 2004 and 2008, BTA's revenues nearly tripled from $494,000 to $1.32 million. Bicycle ridership grew dramatically during that period as well (see chart, above).

Anchored by 5,000 dues-paying members (current fee: $40) and contracts with the City of Portland and the Oregon Department of Transportation, the BTA built a solid financial foundation. Although BTA is a statewide organization, about 80 percent of its membership lives in Portland.

The group focused on educating and encouraging kids to ride through its Safe Routes to Schools program, which operates at 25 Portland schools and brings in a quarter of BTA's budget through a city contract.

BTA also made friends in high places.

Since winning election to City Council as a commissioner in 2004, Mayor Sam Adams has made transportation his primary focus.

Last year, in his first year as mayor, Adams hired Catherine Ciarlo, a former BTA executive director, to be his transportation adviser. Adams' chief of staff, Tom Miller, is a keen cyclist and former BTA board member.

"BTA's influence at City Hall is disproportionate," says David Bragdon, president of the Metro Council, which handles regional transportation planning.

At Metro, in addition to Burkholder, Councilor Robert Liberty is an avid cyclist, and communications director Jim Middaugh is a BTA board member. Clackamas County Chairwoman Lynn Peterson and Washington County Commissioner and chairman candidate Dick Schouten are both dedicated riders and BTA members.

BTA's political influence is evident in ways large and small. In 2007, the Legislature approved a "Share the Road" Oregon license plate, which yields BTA more than $40,000 a year.

In 2006, highway planners invited BTA to help design the bike and pedestrian features of the proposed $4.2 billion Columbia River Crossing bridge.

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation

When the BTA walked away from that process in frustration last August, the public blow-up pressured project sponsors to slim down and smarten up the bridge design.

"Because, different from other like-minded groups, they'd actually been at the table trying to make the project better, BTA's departure was significant," says Bragdon, whose agency is a leader in the CRC process.

BTA also played a major role building Portland's reputation a pre-eminent bicycling city.

In 2008, BTA's reach helped Portland become the first U.S. city to host the Towards Carfree Cities conference. And in 2009, BTA hosted the national Safe Routes to School conference.

Under Bricker, who became BTA executive director in 2007, the group beefed up its board.

Mary Roberts, who led Hanna Andersson and Rejuvenation Hardware before becoming CEO of the Joinery, a Woodstock furniture maker, became the new board chairwoman. Her vice chairman is Stephen Gomez, a former Nike executive.

"They have a really strong board now, with a lot of individuals who have business backgrounds," says Mia Birk, CEO of Portland's Alta Planning, which designs bike plans nationwide. "That's different from the past."

In January, Mayor Adams rolled out the final draft of the 20-year plan to increase the network of planned bikeways from 630 to 962 miles and to increase ridership to 25 percent of trips. A picture of Adams appeared on the cover of the plan's executive summary, along with the image of one other man—the BTA's Bricker.

"BTA deserves quite a lot of credit for the plan," says bicycle coordinator Roger Geller of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. "When you look at the success of bicycling in Portland, a big part of it is BTA encouraging and advocating for good facilities and lots of facilities."

But even as BTA pushed City Hall toward the nation's most ambitious bike plan, the organization began to wobble in that frightening way that sometimes precedes a crash.

One of the most visible indications that things were off kilter came during the 2009 legislative session.

Unlike most small nonprofits, the BTA employs a full-time lobbyist.

Previously, Bricker handled that task, going to Salem in 2005 and 2007 with safety-related bills that passed.

In 2009, Bricker's successor, Karl Rohde, took an ambitious legislative agenda to Salem. Rohde, a former two-term Lake Oswego city councilor, pushed bills that would increase state funding for bicycling and increase penalties for motorists who collide with cyclists.

But BTA's priority bill concerned a major cyclist pet peeve—stop signs.

Portland traffic cops wrote cyclists 788 tickets for running red lights or stop signs in 2007, more than twice the 2006 total.

Lately, BTA and the Portland Police Bureau have dramatically improved the relationship between bikes and badges, collaborating on a police training video on bike laws and jointly signing a community policing agreement (even making Poyourow an honorary police officer last week for her many contributions to bicycle-related traffic and safety issues).

But BTA still wanted an Oregon version of an Idaho law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs.

At BTA's request, Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland) introduced an "Idaho Stop" bill in 2009.

Shortly after the bill's initial committee hearing, the BTA fired Rohde. Bailey says that move killed the bill.

"That was the nail in the coffin," Bailey says.

Embarrassing disclosures followed BTA's legislative failure. Six months later, in BTA's annual report, Bricker acknowledged financial errors, including double-counting some revenues and misclassifying other items, which he attributed to "inadequate accounting systems and oversight."

Bricker replaced BTA's bookkeeper with the organization's first professional accountant.

Small nonprofits frequently screw up. At most of them, the legislative snafu and accounting mistake might have passed without notice. But not in Portland's bicycle world.

"Because bicycling is so beloved here, every move we make is public," BTA board chairwoman Roberts says. "That doesn't happen at other nonprofits."

In this city, people are passionate about causes ranging from old-growth trees to feral cats to fair trade coffee. But none of those issues boasts a full-time blogger like Bike Portland's Jonathan Maus.

A rangy Southern California transplant, Maus, a 35-year-old former bike racer, fills his site with pro-bike advocacy mixed with original reporting and skepticism.

"I think Jonathan goes to great lengths to be independent and not be an extension of the BTA," says Rohde, the former lobbyist.

Last fall, Maus broke the story about BTA's accounting problem before the group even had a chance to tell its members.

Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation

Bike Portland readers reacted strongly.

"Deeply troubling news from the state's largest bike-advocacy organization," wrote Beth H, the first of 37 commenters on the story on Maus' site.

"I don't know what kind of further proof people would need to be convinced that the message [is] that the BTA is not well run," wrote a commenter identifying himself as John Thomas.

Board members took some of that criticism to heart. On Nov. 18, 2009, they fired Bricker.

"He's an incredible advocate," Roberts says. "But his strengths didn't match with the strengths that you need as executive director."

Roberts says the decision to let Bricker go is part of a broader shift to more aggressive advocacy.

Bricker had grown up with the organization in his 11 years there, and although he had plenty of critics, he'd also built a loyal following.

At the BTA's annual meeting at the Lucky Lab brewery in Northwest Portland in December, members, including Mark Ginsberg, a lawyer who represents injured cyclists, grilled Roberts about Bricker's departure.

Citing personnel privacy considerations, Roberts declined to explain the move, which left some members confused and angry.

"It was very uncomfortable and very emotional," says BTA volunteer Chilton, a retired employee benefits consultant.

"People were hurting for the loss of Scott," Chilton says. "And yet the board can't talk about it. The whole thing got out of control, and that wasn't to anybody's benefit." (A national search for Bricker's replacement is under way.)

From 2000 through 2008, city figures show Portland bicycle ridership rose 190 percent.

But as WW first reported in January, that dizzying ascent skidded to a halt in 2009, when ridership actually fell about 6 percent. (Explanations for the decline include lower gas prices and joblessness; transit use and driving also declined by similar amounts.)

Bike advocates used this development as a rationale for the new bike plan: Given the current infrastructure, ridership is close to maxing out. PBOT has studied who does not ride and why, and Geller says the safety enhancements in the Bike Plan should appeal to the 60 percent of the population that is "interested but concerned." (See chart, page 20.) City Council bought that message, approving the bike plan last week even though it didn't identify a funding source.

But BTA and its allies have a strategy for that (see "Cycling for Dollars," page 22).

The mark of BTA's influence may be less the sign-waving members Poyourow summoned to City Hall earlier this month than the degree to which BTA has built partnerships with the city's largest employers.

On Feb. 4, Poyourow orchestrated nearly three hours of City Hall testimony. The usual suspects, dressed in fleece, wool and slickers, spoke.

The most weighty presentation, however, came from a Welsh-accented man in a dark suit and red power tie: former Oregonian columnist Jonathan Nicholas.

"BIKE MAFIA": Powerful cycling advocates Jonathan Nicholas, Mia Birk of Alta Planning and Bike Gallery owner Jay Graves. IMAGE: Courtesy of Jonathan Nicholas

A founder of Cycle Oregon, the annual weeklong ride around the state, Nicholas retired from the daily in 2008 and is now vice president for communications at ODS Health Plan.

He came to City Hall to emphasize that cycling has friends in powerful places who want the "retrofitting of our entire urban environment."

"The major employers of our community—no fewer than five of the top seven, incidentally, are in the health business—are clamoring for this commitment," said Nicholas.

The healthcare companies want the bike plan for the public benefits it provides: less pollution, less traffic congestion and a healthier population.

Employers also want workers who exercise regularly, because they are cheaper to insure. Cyclists also need less parking space.

Mobilizing its membership and working with companies like ODS and Kaiser Permanente, BTA is making elected officials feel their collective weight.

"The goal is to exert leverage," says board chairwoman Roberts. "Our view is, the city has to now make a meaningful down payment on the bike plan. We have a role to play, and that's to apply more pressure."

Cycling For Dollars

The Portland Bureau of Transportation says building the Bike Plan will take 20 years and cost $613 million. Most of the money will go to three proposed improvements in the city's bike system:

First, 368 miles of separated in-road bikeways ($409 million). Those bikeways will include everything from painted lanes to lanes physically separated in height, or by parked cars or other barriers from the roadway. Second, 78 miles of bike trails ($133 million), similar to the Springwater Corridor. Third, 256 miles of bicycle boulevards, which are existing low-traffic streets that will be redesigned to reduce motorized through-traffic and provide additional safety elements for cyclists, such as the cyclist traffic light at Southeast 41st Avenue and East Burnside Street ($67 million).

There are a couple of important points to note: First, the plan is aspirational, which means the city is not committed to the expenditures but hopes to find the money.

Second, at either price, the plan is a relative bargain. Here's why: PBOT figures from 2008 show that more people already collectively bike (8 percent) or walk (4 percent) than use transit (11 percent).

And yet, TriMet's annual operating budget is nearly $500 million. That just covers the cost of keeping buses and trains moving; it does not include the cost of new lines such as the MAX Green Line ($600 million) or Milwaukie light rail ($1.4 billion).

The Bike Plan identifies about $4 million in annual funding available for bike projects over the next five years. Mayor Sam Adams is also promising an additional $20 million over 10 years from savings at the Bureau of Environmental Services.

That leaves a big gap, which Adams has asked a task force to study for nine months.

The city's best hope is probably U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Portland Democrat who as a city commissioner spearheaded the 1996 Bike Plan and is a reliable source of federal transportation dollars. Blumenauer has proposed legislation that would create a $2 billion "Active Communities Transportation Act."

Jonathan Nicholas, who chairs a regional group called the Executive Council on Active Transportation, says the Bike Plan puts Portland in a similar position to its light-rail funding successes. "I think we are uniquely well-positioned to take advantage of federal funding," Nicholas says. —NJ

WWeek 2015

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