HERE'S AN EASY WAY to tell if your bike-crazy city's leadership doesn't quite share its enthusiasm: The mayor of nearly three years rides his bicycle to work one morning, and it's a big deal.
Back in 2013, when Mayor Charlie Hales' tenure was still shiny, the Mercury tried to divine whether he'd be the friend to bicyclists his predecessor, Sam Adams, had been. We found reason to hope ["Tale of the Grip Tape," Feature, June 5, 2013].
Hales enjoyed taking weekend rides with his wife. Even though he'd just won on a "back to basics" platform (well, that and a "never assaulted a college co-ed" platform), the mayor said there was plenty of room for bikes in that picture.
"I see us spending more on bikes and on paving," he said. "They don't need to be in opposition."
A little more than two years later, this grand vision has failed to materialize. True, Portland's sunniest budget of Hales' tenure just sent generous millions from the general fund over to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)—but that money's largely going toward paving and basics.
A sense of the trepidation that dominates increased bike-oriented spending showed itself late last month, when Portland City Council directed PBOT to pursue new standards for ensuring the city's low-traffic "neighborhood greenways" are kept safe for cyclists and pedestrians. Most of the changes PBOT will pursue under those standards cost very little in the context of road maintenance, and could help attract new cyclists in a city that claims it wants a quarter of people commuting by bike by 2030.
But city commissioners took pains to telegraph, in voting for these new standards, that mountains of cash weren't suddenly going to be shifted toward bike projects.
"We have to be clear with the public about what we're asking here today," said Commissioner Nick Fish. "These projects are aspirational."
And so Hales, after nearly 33 months on the job and looking for re-election, made a show of his first commute by bike to Portland City Hall on August 31, and it became the big enormous deal I spoke of earlier.
At least one journalist rode with Hales. KGW sent a van to creep along next to the mayor's route, filming his joyous bike-commute face. Hales became displeased, the station reported, to learn there were bumps in the road just west of the Hawthorne Bridge.
It's a little late for a mayor who said he wanted to prioritize bikes and basics to be finding this sort of thing out, right?
Portland's lack of bike progress isn't remotely all Hales' fault. The city stalled out in attracting new commuters well before he took office, and he was stonewalled by angry citizen and business groups in attempts last year to find new millions to improve city streets.
And there has been limited progress. We're a Vision Zero city now, though there's no hard deadline for ending serious crashes and deaths. Incremental improvements happen all the time.
As much as it rankles people to hear it, bikes are an important part of this city. They'll need to be more important still as new Portlanders further snarl city streets.
A mayor who rides his bike to work more than once every three years is in a much better position to make that happen.