David Byrne at the Bagdad Theater is Portland's hot ticket tonight. "Why are they getting in but I'm not?!" screamed a middle aged lady at the poor desk clerk on my way in. "Because they're on the list," he said. "You people are full of it," she said. And we are.
Byrne's book is brilliant, before I go any further. And I'm delighted to finally hear what he has to say about it, after reviewing the thing without being granted an interview by his publicist. Seriously: I was willing to do anything for that interview, but no dice. These publicists are full of it.
The evening began with calming music playing over clips of bicycles from Hollywood movies—presumably collated by some poor intern: Meg Ryan, Lucille Ball, the Muppets, Marilyn Monroe, Sean Connery, Jackie Chan, Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Pee Wee Herman, they've all ridden bikes on celluloid. Presenters were Byrne, Mia Birk, a PSU professor and urban planner, Timo Forsberg from the Portland bureau of transportation, and Bikeportland.org's Jonathan Maus. Read about what was said, after the jump.
Byrne began with some book recommendations: Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin, Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities—"this was written at a time when the solution to a poor neighborhood was to just tear down their homes, and if you needed to get from one place to another you just built a highway," said Byrne.
He projected a view of a termite city—"maybe we could learn from termites," and then a drawing by Hugh Ferris, who envisioned cities in the 1920s, and then visions by Frank Lloyd Wright of a city called Broadacre city. "It was a few tall buildings separated by fields with crops and things like that, so that if you lived in one building you might never ever see a person from another building," he said. Then a proposal for Harlem by Buckminster Fuller—"he proposed changing Harlem into basically people living in giant cooling towers." Then an image of Corbusier's Radiant City:
Byrne compared that to an image of an ideal city created by General Motors at the 1939 world fair. "General Motors used to be the largest corporation in the world," Byrne said. "Their ideas had a lot of sway." There were a million lanes:
Byrne projected images of Nashville, downtown Houston—with one person on the street at 11am, "when you'd expect to see maybe more than one person on the street, I did discover a little clump of people round the corner, they were the smokers." "A lot of cities end up looking like this, there's a large parking structure surrounded by acreage."
"This, I'm afraid to say, is what part of Portland looks like," said Byrne, projecting an image from flying into Portland earlier. "It's sprawl." "When cities turn into places like that, that are basically antagonistic to their own citizens, you end up with situations like this—this is Hong Kong, a city with no parks, no plazas, nothing for its citizens at all," Byrne said. "There's no place to gather or sit, it's a city of business."
He projected a picture of Philippino maids gathering in an underground tunnel in Hong Kong. "It's kind of pathetic," Byrne said. "Termites do better than this."
"This is downtown Cleveland," he said. "I went biking in England, and this was a sign, it said anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence. Needless to say there was no one around there saying anything. That whole 20th century idea of the city as a machine leads to a situation where we're put in opposition to each other. We're suspicious of one another, and for God's sake, don't come in contact with one another."
Then, Byrne showed a movie he shot biking through Ferrara in Italy. It was totally different. He said he often finds that he interacts more with cities when he's biking through them. An image of a barbecue shack in Charlotesville. "These are the whorehouses in Utrecht," he said. "They're charming." "This is a Kurdish independence rally, I stopped and checked it out and bought a couple of rugs." "Here's a concert I saw on the sidewalk in New York."
Then he showed shots of bikes trying to find parking as they become more popular—in China, Japan, New Zealand. He showed images of Portland's bike corrals. France's bike share program, "which you probably don't need here," said Byrne, "because everybody probably already has a bike."
Images of his attempt to see the Edison Museum in New Jersey. "This was the only way to get there, you had to ride on a highway. It was...oh my God." Bike paths in Berlin, "kids can ride on them, you don't have to worry." "These are the new bike paths that Janette has put in New York," he said.
Birk wondered how she could follow that, pushing her forthcoming book Joyride—One Woman's Journey to Empower People and Transform Communities. She worked for congressman, and former city commissioner Earl Blumenauer back in 1993 as the City of Portland's bike coordinator.
"He said to me, Mia, we're going to make Portland into the world's most bike friendly city," Birk said, saying the Bicycle Transportation Alliance was a new thing back then. "We had very few people biking, and a skeptical public," said Birk. "They said when is this silliness going to stop? We had a long way to go, we had a lot of opposition back then, and so the Portland you see today, we had opposition from the business community, the fire and police bureaus, neighborhood associations, the school districts."
Birk spoke to civic organizations about congestion, obesity, the need for a comprehensive bike system, bike boulevards, offstreet paths, bike parking. "Most people thought I was an alien," Birk said. "But a few folks at the end would talk to me. If each group that I was talking to had 30 people, and I was talking to 3 or 4, then I was talking to 10 percent of the community, and I was on the right track."
In 1996, the city adopted its bicycle master plan, "we started what I think of as a revolution," said Birk. "No city is successful without really excellent staff, as well as the leadership." "Today we have about a 300 mile network of bikeways in the city." She cited projects like the Eastbank Esplanade, working with the city's maintenance bureau to sweep the bike lanes. "I went to Europe in 1996, I visited 18 bicycle friendly cities and I got to bring back a lot of cool ideas, including really cool bike signage, bike signals, bike boxes."
Events like the "worst day of the year ride," the Bridge Pedal, have kept things moving. "What we've learned is that bicycle transportation is a win-win solution for our complex problems," she says. "In less than a generation we have created a city where people choose bicycling as a normal means of transportation."
There were graphs of increasing bike commutes and decreasing bike crash rates. "We have an industry here locally worth $100million annually in retail, tourism, manufacturing and professional services related to bicycling," she said. 38% of school commute trips are bicycling or walking. "Less than a third of people are driving their kids to school—we've really broken the habit of being chauffeurs."
"We have done all of this for less than 1 percent of our city's capital transportation budget," she said. "That is one heck of a bang for buck investment, don't you think?"
The cost of the city's bicycling network is equivalent to just one mile of urban freeway.
"We are not Copenhagen, and we are not Amsterdam," Birk said. "We have a long way to go to be number one." "It's not just Portland realizing the benefits of green transportation and promotion."
Birk is from Texas, originally. "We'd drive literally across the street to the grocery store," she said. "And it never once occurred to us to walk across the street to go to the grocery store." She was recently hired to do a bike plan for Dallas, Texas. "They're determined to advance themselves from where they are now," she said, adding that the effect of bicycling on her stepfather in Texas has been transformational.
"This is tough work, and this takes time to change cultures," she said. "The city of Portland is in the leadership role leading a coalition of cities. We've got folks here from Boston, Chicago, New York, and others that are all working here."
Timo Forsberg from the City of Portland's bureau of transportation, projected a shot of him with hearts around it showing Janette Sadik-Khan from NYC. He said he's never dated a member of a mini bike dance troupe, or got a tattoo of a chain grease mark on his leg.
"Why am I here? It's because I like donuts," he said. "Talking to a group of Portlanders about biking is like talking to a group of Wisconsin dwellers about cheese." "I've served breakfast on the bridges for several years, I've led two night of the living donut rides, I've led the December midnight mystery rides, and several songs of bike love and loss, with my group's best known number, 'some of my best friends are tax-payin SUV drivin breeders.'"
Forsberg talked about normative bike culture—in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, "it's just normal"—and then "secondly there's rebellious bike culture or sub-culture, where you're asserting your bikey identity in the face of hostility." "Here in Portland we're part of the United States, and in this town, grandmothers ride, but we also have freak bikes everywhere. So why did two kinds of bike culture develop in Portland?"
He flashed a shot of Bud Clark. Then said Portland's "sucky economy" had probably had something to do with it. "One last detail that I think is really key is that Portlanders are really nice," he added. "So here we have this Edenic paradise, to which we add a bunch of young creatives with time on their hands," said Forsberg. He thought the biggest thing was "social change through fun."
He talked about the formation, through Indymedia, of a group between Critical Mass and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. "Oddly, the more strident voices were weeded out, and the fun factor took over," he said. Bike Summer was hosted in Portland in 2002. "I managed to avoid a lot of the work, I was on the email list, but first got involved when I showed up at breakfast on the bridges," said Forsberg. "Now this is the interesting thing about bike fun in Portland—you often don't have to be on a bike. Breakfast on the bridges was one of those things where you just got off the bike and met up with whoever was there."
"Bike culture feels like being in middle school," he said. "You feel kind of awkward and overwhelmed as you meet up with these people."
Eventually, Bike Summer became Pedalpalooza. He talked about Zoobomb. The world naked bike ride.
"Bike culture feels like being a teenager—having the thrill of finding your own bicycle girlfriend," he said. Today's the last chance to log miles on the bike commute challenge!
God, Forsberg's talk went on FOREVER. "Could it just be that we all just got older and kept riding?" he asked. "It feels like being an adult where you're looking for a house with your bike realtor. It's like being a parent where you're trying to figure out when do I put them on a bike of their own. It's like being a crotchety old person and saying you know, we didn't ride like that in my day."
"It feels like being a normal person, not an outsider," he said.
Jonathan Maus from Bike Portland introduced himself, "My name is Jonathan Maus, and I'm a bicycle activist."
"For some of you will know that I've had a love-hate relationship with the word activist. One of the most common questions I'm asked is are you a journalist or are you an activist? I've always thought that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist I had to distance myself from being an activist."
"I once said I don't really care about the issues any more, I'm just trying to write the news," said Maus. "And I realized with that statement that I had hit rock bottom." "So now when someone asks me am I an activist or a journalist, I have a very short answer. Both."
"When the thing that you want is to create a city where biking is affordable and comfortable and safe for everyone, it takes activism to make it so," he said. "Without passionate and dedicated individuals who are vigorously turning their ideas into action, Portland wouldn't be the number one bicycle commuting city, nor would it have have the most vibrant and rich culture of any city in the world."
Maus referenced Blumenauer's activism, SHIFT, Critical Mass—"love it or hate it, no discussion of bike activism in any city can exclude Critical Mass," said Maus..."for decades it defined bike activism in many cities and in many cases it still does—in January 2005, our mayor Tom Potter joined the ride, but shortly after Mayor Potter was on the ride, there was a crackdown that ensued on the ride, and as late as May 2006 there were still ugly physical clashes between riders and police. To this day, Critical Mass only really exists as a date on a calendar. People just got tired and frustrated and bored with the nature of Critical Mass."
"My formative years were spent at the end of a cul-de-sac in Orange County California," he said. "So I didn't take anything that I saw when I first got here for granted." "I wanted to document and share it with as many people as I could, and if I did things right, then maybe people would get similarly inspired."
"Bike advocacy is happening here by every kind of person you can imagine," said Maus. [Still not one African American in any of the photographs...] "It's being done by teachers and dentists." "There's some amazing, independent people who have an idea, act on an idea, and make really great changes."
Maus said he thought the World Naked Bike Ride—"one of the largest in the world, for sure"—is one of the best examples of bike activism. "Just the sheer novelty of it encouraged people new to biking to actually give it a try. I have a feeling some of those people just went there to be a part of that right there. I've gotta admit I was naked when I took that. That's why you see the flashes going off."
Maus also brought up the example of ghost bikes. "A lot of people are aware of our bike boxes, in 14 high crash locations. But I don't think everybody realizes that these bike boxes didn't just come from a sketch," said Maus. "These bike boxes followed a very tragic span, all the result of citizen activism." He said the mayor and city really "had no choice but to do something this bold," meaning bike boxes, following the outpouring of emotion and activism.
"But I wonder, will it take more high profile tragedies before we see such bold and decisive steps again?" asked Maus. "We're at risk of becoming too comfortable, we're at risk of complacency here. We're at the table now, but now that we do have a seat, there's a risk that we've lost leverage. We're being heard but are we saying the right things? The stakes are higher, now."
"The challenge is to strike the right balance between aspiration and confrontation," said Maus.
"In a bike race, you can be at the front of the race the entire time, but unless you can push through the pain and difficulty of the final lap, you'll be spit off the back with very little reward for your sacrifice." "In bike activism, we're all in it together, and if we keep pedaling through the pain we'll have all the rewards that we need."
"I think we've gone a little longer than we expected, we're not going to do questions and answers," said Byrne.
"It's not our fault," said someone in the audience. Groans of disappointment.
"I know it's not your fault," said Byrne.
"Thanks, everybody for coming," said Byrne. "Thanks, everybody, for doing this."
And there's a standing ovation, regardless. For the presenters, or for ourselves?