Last Friday afternoon, July 20, without much warning, Evan Manvel announced that he was leaving his position as the executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) after two years at its helm.
For any other advocacy group, the public and media response to his departure would have been a collective, "Oh." But, this being Portland, which derives much of its reputation and pride from strong bicycle activism, Manvel's leaving is officially A Big Deal.
"It's been a wonderful couple of years," Manvel said in the statement announcing his departure. "I've been honored to lead such an amazing organization and see it grow so significantly. There's no doubt about it—the bicycling renaissance is here, and the BTA is leading the charge."
He also reportedly left the organization in solid financial shape—in the weeks after his exit, the BTA will be bringing in people to fill five new positions, a sign that it has grown into legitimate, professional advocacy group.
And it couldn't come a moment too soon. The city is poised to move into a new phase of bicycling-as-transportation, with what will probably be huge political fights over increased bike boulevards, on-street bike parking, bike-specific traffic lights and crossings, a new bridge over the Willamette, and separated bike paths. In each of those fights, bikers will likely be pitted against automobile activists and freight lobbyists, unless they can manage to find a common ground.
But, for at least a year, if not longer, some members of the bicycle community have quietly grumbled (off the record) that the BTA has lost some of the energy and leadership it once had, when they were fighting smaller battles, like increased bike lanes. Those critics wondered if the organization was going to be able to adapt to the new environment, and help push Portland along in the coming years.
The board appears to have answered those questions by promoting Scott Bricker, the BTA's policy director, to immediately take Manvel's place. Bricker has been at the BTA for nine years, starting as the education director and moving on to be the group's lobbyist in Salem and at city hall. He's technically in the executive director position on an interim basis, but he says there is "no current plan to look for someone else." And even if it's only an interim position, Bricker doesn't appear to be treating it as such.
"Change can be difficult, and change can be exciting," he says. "There is currently so much opportunity to move biking forward, and we're still very much in a position to move it forward."
"I want to take the Sam Adams approach," he added. "In my first month, I want to meet with all of our staff, our major donors, and all of the key stakeholders to help drive our mission—and then keep meeting with them. I plan on getting out into the community."
Bricker says he plans to "ramp up" the BTA's efforts on specific campaigns, like securing more bike boulevards (there's a goal to reach 100 miles of them by 2010; the city currently has 40), engaging in public information campaigns to get more people on bikes, and working more closely with local law enforcement, which frequently sets up stings to nab stop-sign-blowing bikers.
Critics have also pointed out that the BTA hasn't done enough to reach out to the fringes of the bicycle community—like the Zoobombers, mutant bike riders, the Shift group, etc. But, as one person recently pointed out, the BTA has served as a sort of "designated driver" for the bike community. The kids can get wasted, so to speak, because they know they've got someone sober who'll keep them from going into a ditch.
"We recognize that we can't be all things to everybody. We're a mainstream bike organization," Bricker says. "Shift is an amazing group, and we're really proud of them. We deal with issues like low-traffic streets and Safe Routes to Schools—mom and apple pie stuff—but these issues benefit everybody."