Tale of the Grip Tape 

Why Charlie Hales Might Be as Good a "Bike" Mayor as Sam Adams

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PORTLAND'S BIKE ADVOCATES, in 2008, thought they'd have the mayor of their dreams. Sam Adams was young and talked of big, bold transportation goals. He had white papers on ideas like street-maintenance fees. And, sure, he'd even strap on a bike helmet from time to time.

It didn't work out quite that way. Adams left behind a legacy of enthusiasm and important projects—safety and bike planning are now firmly embedded in the city's transportation DNA. But he also proved—thanks to his frenetic political style and the fallout of a sex scandal—a frustrating lightning rod.

Fair or not, one of the easiest ways to smack at Adams—for foes like the Portland Business Alliance and the Oregonian—was to smack at bikes and the wonky new era Adams had hoped to start forging.

And now Portland has Mayor Charlie Hales—a streetcar advocate who swept into office on a wave of anti-Adams rhetoric. Bike lanes and green boxes gave way to talk of potholes and paving and "basics." Hales also fired Adams' handpicked transportation director, Tom Miller, so he could put his own stamp on the job.

Funny thing, though? Advocates aren't nearly as bothered as they thought they'd be.

Here's why: Hales, in an interview with the Mercury, says he's committed to picking up where his predecessor left off. And, very importantly, he knows he needs money to do that.

He wants "wow" projects—and he's talking to Union Pacific about a riverside path connecting North Portland to downtown. He's promised to ask voters for some kind of transportation-related revenue. And he wants to put an end to the futile dichotomy—bikes vs. paving—that's infected Portland's transportation conversation.

"I see us spending more on bikes and on paving," he says. "I want us out of the zero-sum game. They don't need to be in opposition.... Yes, we will raise your taxes. I don't think that will be a pitched battle."

But raising revenue, at a time when the state gas tax money that pays for projects is slowing, will still be politically difficult. Adams gave up on his plans for a street maintenance fee amid business outcry. The planning for a new push, last year, also started under his watch.

Jonathan Maus, editor of bikeportland.org, cautions that no one should forget the groundwork Adams laid—and the still-substantial list of projects he left behind.

Those neighborhood greenway streets Hales will spend thousands fixing up? Adams pushed those through city council and Salem, which needed to bless reduced speed limits. Adams built a bike plan and found a way to extend its reach by pairing bike lanes with bioswales funded through sewer rates.

And the sidewalk and safety fixes Hales is championing and preserving in the face of cuts was a rhetorical pivot that came only after a girl was hit by a car in East Portland. Adams helped put those plans in place.

All the same, it's possible that Hales—who bikes with his wife on weekends and sometimes to city hall—might be a more-effective ambassador for bicycling. It's part of his identity, but it doesn't define it.

Hales looks like, and can talk to, middle-aged Portlanders who still think cars are king. He can also take credit, when he was a city commissioner, for riding along with Critical Mass and de-fanging the cops' enforcement.

There's also a growing sense that Portland's spot as America's most bike-friendly town could be slipping. And there's no baggage to contend with when trying to sell something new to skeptical voters.

"It's very clear that bicycling was used as a proxy to get at Mayor Adams. Because of that, bicycling got treated unfairly," says Maus. "With Hales, all that's gone. We're free and clear to start the new era."

Gerik Kransky, lobbyist for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, notes that, for all of Hales' campaign posturing on basic services and street maintenance, the real work in the bureau of transportation hasn't changed.

"I'm not seeing in my role in the catbird seat a significant change in how the bureau is working on bicycling issues," Kransky says. "That's the truth."

But he also points out: "It can cut however you want."

In part, that could be seen as a vindication of Adams' approach to planning. But it also raises the question: If Adams could have done even more, is holding the line merely enough?

"You want to bring people along rather than get in their faces," Hales says about his advocacy—sounding some discordant notes about his philosophy and willingness to turn Portland into a global laboratory for bikes.

He explains he wants to be "smart" and hit "a couple more home runs" and raise cash for a system that's not just "a couple of steps better."

But he is loath to preside over, he says, a system that's so experimental that drivers from places like Beaverton and Klamath Falls look at Portland's roads and "have no idea what they're seeing."

Green boxes in intersections might go. Hales also questioned the idea of striping green bike lanes downtown—singling out the lane on SW Stark and expressing doubt about adding north-south lanes in downtown's West End.

Ridding downtown of bike lanes would make the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) very happy and likely cross advocates like Maus who see standing up to the PBA as a major test for Hales.

"I want to revisit that," the mayor says. "I thought every street downtown would be a good bike street and we didn't need to stripe lanes."

By the time this story's published, Hales might have chosen a new transportation director. He let bike advocates help vet the finalists—another nod.

"They're all going to be fine for bicycling," Maus says. "But are they going to move the needle? That will depend."

Hales, meanwhile, decided to hand off the transportation bureau (director and all) to Commissioner Steve Novick. But, does that mean he won't stay involved?

His answer is blunt: “No.”

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