THE CRYPTIC MESSAGE popped up last Halloween. It was a tweet, from a new Twitter account called PDX Transformation (@PBOTrans), and it read simply: "I bet you wonder what we're up to."
At the time, not many people did—to this day, the tweet has collected just a handful of likes. But less than five months later, plenty of people have found reason to wonder about PDX Transformation. More accurately, advocates, transportation officials, cyclists, and others are curious what the mischievous figures in league with the account will do next.
Since last year, PDX Transformation—both the person behind the Twitter account and a growing contingent of adherents to the cause—have formed the local chapter of a nascent movement in national bike advocacy. Tired of lobbying for safer road conditions, they say they're taking matters into their own hands.
On December 30, 2015, PDX Transformation offered the first look at its purpose when it tweeted a picture of six orange traffic cones guarding a Southeast Portland bike lane. "First cones DEPLOYED!" the tweet read. "Find them; enjoy them."
In the months since, the account has revealed new deployments regularly: cones keeping cars away from the bike lane at N Willamette and Rosa Parks, for instance, and cones where N Williams crosses Alberta. As we write this, there are cones warding careless motorists off the bike lane on NE 21st as it passes over I-84.
These cones typically sprout up on right curves, which car drivers tend to take too tight and breach the bike lane, but the only real requirement is that someone's flagged the area as unsafe.
The "transformations" don't last long—cones disappear, or get mauled by cars—but they've inspired a healthy debate among Portland cyclists. Some people jealously watch over the deployments, posting regular updates on Twitter, and replacing cones when they're knocked down. Others find it unhelpful, or worry the antics will just confuse bike riders or block traffic.
But very few people know who began all this in the first place. We were curious, so last week, the Mercury met the founder of PDX Transformation for a couple of beers after he got off work, agreeing beforehand we wouldn't reveal his identity.
The guy behind @PBOTrans has been a committed cyclist for a decade, owns a home with a garage full of bikes, and bristles at the fact that "cars have taken more than their fair share." He's jovial and earnest about improving the city for bicycles, but says he'd "been a little frustrated lately. When I hit [on] this, I felt like: This is my thing. The positive energy I've been getting is just amazing."
There are some good reasons to remain anonymous.
For starters, he's been stealing cones. A PDX Transformation tweet from December 26 reads: "Turns out Christmas Day is a fine time to appropriate material for reallocation."
"I will take cones that aren't actively making the city safe," he tells the Mercury. "I'm redistributing them."
Look what showed up at 21st bridge over I-84! pic.twitter.com/leNgFvFAc1— PDX Transformation (@PBOTrans) February 29, 2016
It's not the only illegal aspect of his pursuit, as both the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) made clear when we asked. Placing cones like the PDX Transformation guy's been doing could land him (or one of his likeminded "agents of transformation") a $260 traffic ticket for "unlawful sign display."
"A cone is technically a traffic control device, and to place one of those you need authorization from the city," says PBOT spokesperson John Brady.
This risk has led the guy behind PDX Transformation to take some amusing precautions.
"I've found if I dress up with a reflective vest and hardhat, no one bugs me," he says. Once a lady asked what he was working on, assuming he was a city employee. His reply: "We're out here working for you!"
The guy's not always costumed. He rolls around with cones on his bike (hidden in trash bags), which helps him be responsive. At N Williams and Alberta, he says, "Someone asked us to do it. We did it. Same day."
These guerilla tactics aren't unique to Portland. Similar movements have popped up in Boston and Seattle. The guy behind PDX Transformation says he looked to a likeminded outfit in New York City for inspiration.
But there's no doubt Portland's taken a liking to the effort. PDX Transformation recently raised $1,000 via a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a new cache of 28-inch cones (all of which will be spray-painted with a PDX Transformation logo). A traffic device supply company has offered to sell cones to the cause at cost.
Then there's the contingent of Portlanders—made up of local cyclists—who have signed on to help the effort without having any idea who's behind it. The PDX Transformation Twitter account is packed with daily updates on which cones have been knocked over or deformed beyond use, along with praise. (March 3: "Thank you so much for putting these cones up. I ride this way everyday. Feels x10 safer already!")
At least one Portland transportation official has tweeted jokingly about seeing a PDX Transformation cone "in the wild." Other PBOT staffers follow the account. And neither police nor PBOT seem to be much concerned with the transformations. PBOT hasn't fielded any complaints, as far as Brady knew, and isn't actively sending workers out to remove the cones.
"People biking [and] identifying concerns with lanes—that's important information," he says. "The means with which it's being done, I think, we are less enthused about."
Part of the hands-off approach might stem from the fact that Portland's placing a heavy focus on safer streets right now—at least in theory. Last year, amid a rash of ugly bike-car crashes, Portland City Council formally adopted Vision Zero, pledging to eliminate serious injuries and deaths on city streets in the next decade. A gas tax voters will consider in May would put millions toward new road-safety improvements. The city's mayoral candidates are falling all over themselves to support the idea of protected bike lanes throughout town.
But for the guy behind PDX Transformation, it's all too hypothetical, and too far away. People are being endangered on city streets now, he feels—so now is the time for action.
"I'm poking them," he says of city officials. "I'm trying to get a reaction. If the reaction happens, maybe I can stop poking."