Scrappers

"IT USED TO BE, 'We don't give money to bikes, they don't pay taxes!' You'll still run into some of that on the hill," Oregon State Senator Jason Atkinson warned the 100 cyclists who rolled into Salem last week to lobby their legislators.

Atkinson wore his vivid Spandex and star-spangled socks from an early morning ride six legislators took to show support for bike issues. But a week after bike-loving citizens flooded Oregon's capital, it's looking more and more likely that all four of this year's main statewide pro-bike bills are doomed. What went wrong for bike advocates?

"The largest thing is that people are really focused on the looming budget hole," says Representative Tobias Read, whose vehicular homicide bill would have created stiff penalties for dangerous drivers who kill bikers or pedestrians, if the bill itself hadn't died in committee early this week. "It has left less time and mental space to consider new ideas."

But the anti-bike sentiment Atkinson alluded to also made this year's push for bike funding an uphill pedal. Statewide, Oregon spends only one percent of its transportation budget on projects for non-motorized transit. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) is pushing one bill that would up that funding to 1.5 percent—but the chance of it passing is up in the air.

"There's a sentiment in the building that now is not the time for investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure," says Representative Jules Kopel Bailey, who represents Sunnyside, where 22 percent of voters commute by bike. "There's a perception that cyclists are a small group of people who are sometimes viewed as a privileged class. The argument is that cyclists have enough—they can choose to bike on back streets."

Scott Bricker, executive director of the BTA, agrees that the organization needs to improve its communication.

"Bicycling is a hot media topic. Unless you can control the topic perfectly, the story can get away from you," says Bricker. The Idaho Stop Law story definitely got away from the BTA in early reports about the law, which would allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields in empty intersections.

In March, a KATU news story mistakenly reported that the bill would let cyclists run stoplights. Similarly, an Oregonian article printed the day of the bill's hearing was headlined "Roll on, Bikes, Roll on through Stop Signs." The Oregonian politics editor later explained to angry cyclists that the article's intention was "humor, not bias." But angry blog comments on BikePortland.org attacked those articles and legislators who questioned the bike bills.

"I don't think there's hostility toward cyclists across the board, but there are certain legislators who felt like they got stung," says Bricker. "The Oregon legislature has not acknowledged that bicycling and walking are legitimate modes of transportation for our region."

This is the first session in recent years in which not a single BTA-backed bill has passed. In 2007, the BTA spearheaded five successful bills, including one punishing careless drivers and one creating Oregon's "Share the Road" license plate. This year, the BTA's bills for vehicular homicide and the Idaho Stop Law died, while increased bike funding and a bill for better drivers' education are on the rocks, say representatives and advocates.

Also, the BTA fired its only Salem lobbyist in the middle of the session this year—a move some critics say hurt the passage of bike policies. Bricker says the BTA is shifting to focus on long-term bills that might take several sessions to pass. He adds that the group is also saving money with its new lobbying model, involving a team of volunteers, an advocate assistant, and Bricker filling in as lobbyist.

Jonathan Maus, editor of BikePortland.org, thinks a big change needs to be made.

"We need to stop chipping away from the bottom; we need someone at the top to be a champion for bikes," says Maus, fantasizing about a governor who would help push bike funding through the legislature. Instead, bikes are almost entirely absent from Governor Ted Kulongoski's big transportation plan.

And although Portland is a platinum-certified bike-friendly city whose mayor who has been spotted astride a road bike, the city transportation department earmarked a measly 0.7 percent of its budget for bikes from 2000-2007.

Until people at the top start prioritizing bikes, says Maus, "We're going to be viewed as a tiny interest group, crying and clawing for little bits of funding."