Upper class cycling culture and the demise of Portland’s bike movement

What happened to Portland’s bike scene?

Maybe first it would help to envision what it used to be. There was this booming, diverse, vibrant DIY bike activist and bike fun scene that transformed this city, from Critical Mass to Shift to any number of wild initiatives popping up. Any night of the week, there was some sort of free bike fun going on; anywhere you were in the city, if you were outdoors you were likely to see a mass of people riding by, all of them smiling. People were coming here from all over the country to see what we were doing and how they could replicate it in their own city. People were moving here so they could sell their car and live their dream.

We also have had a long-running statewide advocacy organization that’s tended to focus more on legislation and programs. It floundered a lot, and that was too bad, but it was also ok because there was so much else going on. But then, five years ago, all those other things just sort of petered out. People, myself included, would start stuff in bursts and fits, and other people would get excited, but then things wouldn’t really go anywhere. Now you look at any bike events calendar that still exists and it’s all corporate rides, races, mountain bike stuff. Where’d the fun go? Where’d the vibrant, wild, free energy go? More to the point, where’s the activism? In 2007, hundreds of people turned out for a citizen-led rally in response to two tragedies; as a direct result, Portland’s bike infrastructure leveled up. Nowadays, bike infrastructure gets improved when someone at the city feels like it, which is decreasingly often in the current funding climate. When individuals complain about conditions, they’re told to turn up at ill-timed budget hearings or just to become a member of that same advocacy organization that recently announced that they’re going to give the poor folks at the city a break from the minimal pressure they were previously putting on them.

Activism—the grassroots, intentional, sometimes messy actions of regular people in pursuit of social change—is powerful, it’s a necessary component of change, it can be incredibly fun and rewarding, Portland is known for it, and Portland’s bicycle reputation is firmly founded on it. So what happened? Matt says it’s because the longtime activists were burnt out. I know this to be a fact. But still, this had happened before, and new people had always shown up to carry the torch. In fact, new people were showing up, and doing awesome things. But the vibrancy of the thing was gone.

You know what I think happened? The recession.

It was in 2009 and 2010 that a generation of activists phased out just as our advocacy organization was struggling the most and various people, including me, were trying to start new activist groups right and left. That’s just when the economy had tanked and rents were soaring. Organizing is hard work, time consuming, and you really have to have not just the passion for it but the mental and emotional energy. As I learned the hard way in those years, that’s a lot easier when you have financial security. When there’s no longer a cushion of steady money, of knowing that you have options when it comes to jobs and housing, when you have shaky job security and overqualified employees are infinite in supply, it’s pretty hard to do anything but work, and worry, and hunker down with your closest people. And in a recession, when you do summon up the mojo to go out extrovertedly into the world and try to shake things up, your message isn’t going to be nearly so well received because the majority of your peers are also hunkering down.

What I saw happen around this time was the same people with the same ideals and ideas as ever, caring just as much as before but absolutely losing steam. And the gap was filled by people with relatively more financial stability investing their time and energy into pursuits like racing and mountain biking, which are fine things to do I guess but not really building the sort of democratic social change that we need more desperately than ever.

And at the same time, the population of Portland was shifting. Rents were going up around business districts that were being developed—with bicycle access as a major selling point. I saw the thrift stores and funky apartments move off the retail strip near my house, replaced by fortress-like condominium buildings with bicycles painted on their move-in banners and residents’ expensive SUVs parked out front. My friends are increasingly no longer able to afford their apartments or buy houses within reasonable biking distance of the city center and its jobs.

It’s hard not to resent the outwardly sporty folks with their jobs and cars and private sector health insurance and brand new bikes every year even as they declaim relative poverty. I know that not everyone who’s popping their bike off a car rack at Sandy Ridge on sunny weekends or joining the lycra’d peloton for a spin out in the countryside is rolling in dough. I know that spending time this way is therapeutic, that the worse things get the more it makes sense to treat yourself to a new whatever-kind-of-fork if it can help you relax and steal some fun moments with friends away from the stresses of the underpaid grind. I know that activism is the opposite, an investment of energy that is more precious than money and that can leave you drained and exhausted rather than ready to face whatever the next week holds.

I know it’s not necessarily an either-or situation… but it’s still hard to watch as the discourse about cycling has shifted, over the last few years, from taking back streets to shredding up trails, from uplifting the community to attracting tech jobs and microbreweries. We used to have both cultures, and there was a healthy back and forth between them of people and money and energy. Now there’s a gaping hole.

What I see happening in the bicycle movement, not just in Portland but in the entire country, is the same broadening and sharpening of the class divide that is wracking our economy as a whole. The forms of bike culture that have historically created massive shifts in our landscape to the economic benefit of the majority—like Critical Mass, like groups of young people who informally tool about on the streets all day—have always been poked and prodded at by media and police, but lately it’s people who are paid to be bicycle advocates and planners and engineers demonizing us disorderly regular folks.

There’s a cost of entry to being taken seriously about bicycling in this climate: You need a city planning degree, or you need a fancy cargo bike or a carbon speedster, or you need to own a car so that you can get to the race if you’re a racer or if you’re an advocate so you can tell other car owners that you’re one of them. Being white, male, or college educated helps—at least if you can nab two out of three.

You can still make change happen without any of these attributes, but the media isn’t going to hold you up as an example, at least not as a positive one. “Whose streets?,” we used to yell back when Portland still had a Critical Mass. “Our streets!” was the answer, then. But now it’s becoming clear that this isn’t true, that you can tell who the streets are actually for by looking for the sharrows and crater-like potholes on the one hand, and the separated bike lanes on the other—or more to the point, by going to urban renewal sites and scoping out who is sitting on the street sipping an espresso and browsing the Internet on a $2,000 device.

Non-elites haven’t gone anywhere, are still riding bikes, are still organizing around transportation justice, still out riding for fun and health and to get to work. But as the gap between rich and poor gets wider—in terms of income and in terms of distance—guess whose stories are told, whose concerns are acknowledged, who is represented?

Some people will try to tell you that Portland’s loss of bicycle momentum is because we don’t have enough high-visibility, high-cost infrastructure downtown. I say the opposite is true—our real problem is that a social justice organization serving communities of color in the Cully neighborhood in the northeast of the city are lobbying for bike share and bike lanes and safer streets while the white people who lead the cycling movement still bemoan that bikes are something only white people who live close-in care about. The problem is that high-end bicycle brands are seen as the pinnacle of Portland’s achievement whereas people who actually live and work here still rightfully see cycling as a liability rather than an opportunity.

There’s a push toward something called “equity”—leveling of the playing field by looking towards previously marginalized communities as leaders rather than as recipients of charity and education—in mainstream bicycle advocacy right now [edit: Including here in Portland; here's one way to get involved.] and I see that as an incredibly hopeful and necessary thing; also the thing that the exciting wave of bike activism that roped me into Portland in the first place was largely lacking. But is this new movement strong enough to pull back the tidal shift toward upper class cycling culture? Only if we stop, get back to the streets, and expand the voice of the bicycle movement. There have always been non-rich people, non-white people, non-men riding bikes, demanding better roads. But in Portland the media, the bicycle advocacy establishment, and even the bike activist movements, have found it easy to ignore a subset of these facts. Nobody can afford to do that anymore. Some of us never could.


Update: If anyone’s planning to be in the Pittsburgh area on Sept 11 this year, the Future Bike conference (a one day event right after Pro Walk Pro Bike) is going to be a seriously fun event and also a chance to watch the positive forward motion of a new, equity-oriented chapter of cycling advocacy in the US.

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54 Responses to “Upper class cycling culture and the demise of Portland’s bike movement”

  1. Bjorn August 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    Not to completely go against your point but I would point out as a resident of the cully neighborhood that it is 81% white, so this isn’t really a race thing although many of us who would live here regardless of our race would like better bike/ped facilities. Also people who live in Sumner, Parkrose, Argay, Wilkes, Parkrose Heights, and Russell neighborhoods, all might take offense to your charecterization of Cully as the “Far NE Corner of Portland”. If anything that is the real problem with making the city better for biking, no one involved seems to remember that 82nd is not the East edge of Portland, even though it seems that way sometimes.

    • Elly Blue August 17, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks for pointing out that error, Bjorn. I corrected the fact. Sounds like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of east portland — what’s up with bike stuff out there?

    • bikeleptic August 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

      Right now EPAPbike is really the only one’s doing activism out here in East Portland. Working with the Portland in Motion, Gateway Green projects and all that. Even that has slowed down. They used to do a “Breakfast on the 205 Bike Path” every last Thursday!? Didja know about that? It’s stopped for about the last year. Along with ABC, HaciendaCDC, Community Cycling Center (which are doing the Cully bike programs) there needs to be East Portland action. Because there is none.

      It makes me so sad when I see comments on pages like Bike Portland where they spend several comments defending using Edgefield as a starting location as a bike ride for figuring out commuting and funding needs. Hm No. You need to start where the need is. Like out near Costco & Home Depot off of Airport Way. There’s no close bus or MAX access and even riding a bike there is kind of sketchy. But yet people have to work there. Rode my bike to an interview at a biz office next to the Michaels last year. It was harrowing.

    • Bjorn August 17, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

      It wouldn’t let me reply do your reply Elly so I am just replying to myself.

      The short answer to what is up with bike stuff out here is that I don’t think we are going to get strong support for bike infrastructure until we get some fricking sidewalks. It is awful out here, half the streets you try to walk down are mud bogs in the winter, and you can’t walk out in the street because people use the side streets as cut throughs and drive far too fast.

      Step one to getting better bike infrastructure in Cully is to get sidewalks on all major arteries (e.g. we are about to get our first real park at 72nd and killingsworth but there is no safe way to walk directly there from my house because there are no sidewalks on 72nd). Step two to getting better bike infrastructure in Cully is to get sidewalks and diverters on our side streets so that people feel like they can safely walk places in Cully, because really that is how many people get around out here. Those streets will be safer to bike on as well because of the diverters and once we get a bit closer to meeting the needs of most of the people in the neighborhood who are far more likely to walk than bike, then we should start talking about bike specific infrastructure.

      The city knows this is what the neighborhood wants because they have held multiple listening sessions and that is what the response has been at every session I have attended. I usually throw in some comments about bike stuff too but honestly at this point even I would rather have sidewalks. My initial feeling was that the city should simply build all the sidewalks immediately and assess the adjacent property owners in such a way that they could pay over time or when they sold their properties since values will go up with the addition of sidewalks. However I have heard from some neighbors that back when the city annexed Cully they promised as part of the annexation that they would build the sidewalks and they have gone back on that promise.

      As far as how to fund these improvements along with other similar safety measures throughout the city I think the street fee is a very poor funding mechanism and that we should be funding improvements by charging a market price for parking everywhere in the city where it is scarce. That alone could probably generate most of the revenue needed.

  2. Beth August 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    I agree that the recession has taken a big bite out of grass-roots activism. I also think that Portland has been, for well over a hundred years, an insanely majority-white city, whiter than nearly any other major West coast city in the US; and that demographic is going to mean that things play out a certain way.

    But I believe that there are other factors at work in this scenario:

    1. The “middle class” we’ve spent the last hundred years lionizing (and the last dozen or so years eulogizing) is actually a historical blip on the timeline, something that had not happened before and will likely not happen again. Prior to the rise of a middle class, there were basically two classes in most societies. We’re freaking out because, in our short time on the human timeline, we haven’t personally experienced anything like a two-class society; but rest assured, for millennia that was mostly the norm. Going back to it would be scary and sad, but if you take the longer view it would be entirely shocking.

    2. This country has been bought and sold a thousand times over since long before I was born. I learned that in high school and have watched it continue to play out in a long, downward slide. I do not expect there to be any Social Security when I reach “retirement” age; instead I am laying the foundations of creating and building community so that we will be each other’s support system as we all begin to age. I am fifty-one. If I stay healthy and the planet continues to slide slowly enough, I can hope to live at least another twenty years, and perhaps longer. I will be surprised if there is anything left of Social Security when I reach seventy. When I am old, my survival — and that of the future generations for which I am partly responsible — will be up to me. It will be up to us.

    In the face of a global economy that I haven’t the financial or political power to change, what’s left is to build community with other people — and yes, that will mean I do so to the exclusion of some other people in the world because these things work best when they are smaller and more local — sharing skills and resources and helping care for and teach each other’s children, and living by example so that those children learn how to live more simply and sustainably.

    What remains is eschewing the consuming of mass-produced culture and, where possible, creating a smaller-scale human culture from the ground up. That intimate, deliberate, grass-roots community-building is where my hope lies.

  3. Beth August 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Coreection to above, end of second paragraph: “…in the long view it would NOT be entirely shocking.”

    sorry

  4. Janet August 17, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Down here in California, I’m seeing distinctly new bike energy coming from people living in places like San Jose’s East Side and South Los Angeles County. In San Jose, the monthly Bike Party draws thousands in a grassroots-driven, permit-free night ride. The participants are as mixed socio-economically as the city is itself, but the largely lower income and/or Latino East Side represents.

    Some of the Bike Party regulars are now pushing hard with “I Bike I Vote” campaigns to get people registered to vote and are gathering candidates positions with respect to bicycling and making the results known. There’s definitely a shortage of women within the group, but people of color and people with lower incomes are better represented they have ever been before.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      Janet, thanks for this observation. It does seem to me that the most exciting new movements in cycling right now are coming from the energy of people who haven’t been heard the national conversation until recently — and now it’s like decades of bottled up energy transforming everything for the better!

  5. spare_wheel August 18, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    Well that’s a new take on lance wannabe scape-goating. Instead of blaming them for intimidating new cyclists they are now the cause of long-term activist apathy.

    This is so incredibly off base it’s not even funny. There is no plague of carbon-fiber speedster elitists in Portland. I should know because I’m a carbon fiber-riding elitist speedster (also a vegan anarcho-syndicalist who believes in *direct* action).

    I think one reason for the “apathy” is that many long-term activists now have jobs in not-for-profits, the planning industry, bikepreneur businesses, and other bike-associated businesses. This has led to a culture of appeasement and compromise that has sucked the fight out of bike activism in this town.

    As I wrote on Bike Portland:

    It is difficult to get a person to support being *LOUD* when their job depends on good relationships with the city and “stakeholders”.

  6. Fred Lifton August 18, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    The anti-cycling opposition knows that divide and conquer is the route to success. Thanks for helping them out with the “divide” part.

    Being inclusive means including everyone. We should strive for that.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      How on earth is this divisive?

    • spare_wheel August 18, 2014 at 11:03 am #

      Elly,
      I happen to agree with you that this is a class-based society and that this should inform bicycle advocacy (at least for people who give a shit.) Nevertheless, you cheapened your argument by using stereotypes that are very popular among college-educated white folk from upper quintile backgrounds.

      People who ride $3000 custom-built local bikes and people who ride plastic bikes are not all classist assholes.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 11:08 am #

      And at what point in this post am I demonizing people who have money or spend it on bikes? I’m talking about social movements, cultural priorities, and what communities benefit or don’t. Anyone reading this who sees the post as an attack on your personal choices or wealth, well, that’s something you need to get square with yourself. I’m not the wealth police.

    • spare_wheel August 18, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

      “I’m talking about social movements, cultural priorities, and what communities benefit or don’t.”

      I get that…and your post does make me want to do/give more.

      “lycra’d peloton”, “carbon fiber speed racer” and “sporty folks with their ..new bikes every year”

      Nevertheless, the above reads like bike sub-culture lance-bashing flame bait.

      Just in case “non-rich people, non-white people, non-men riding bikes” actually read your blog post I thought I’d link to this to help explain the context:

      http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/02/10/61-bicycles/

  7. Cherokee Schill August 18, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    This is a “class divided” issue. The bike infrastructure lobbyists are pricing out the people who commute because of economic factors alone. That isn’t to say they don’t still enjoy their bicycles. But let’s look at this from the understanding that it isn’t one ethnic diversity against another. More people need to get off their butt’s and start “Doing”.
    How much money would it take to organize a children’s group ride where you educate the parents and children on how to safely drive their bicycle? Nothing! Nothing, but your time. You have time to sit on the internet and bitch and someone who is pointing out the differences and the changes that need to be made. Then you have time to organize a group ride.
    Now shut up or put up.

    • Bjorn August 18, 2014 at 10:21 am #

      Divisive might be a bit harsh Elly, but it does get a bit old to have people discount the work that you do because you are a white man with a job over and over again. Your straw man that depicts only two options, groups serving communities of color in the Cully neighborhood lobbying for bike share and bike lanes and safer streets vs evil white people who lead the cycling movement and bemoan that bikes are something only white people who live close-in care about is divisive and exclusionary. I (and many of the other people who actually seem to be attending community meetings in cully and advocating for safer streets, creating cully centric bike rides and pedalpalooza events etc.etc.) are completely left out of this simplistic view that doesn’t account for the fact that someone could be white, live in cully and want to be able to safely walk and bike around the neighborhood. I think the Cully Association of Neighbors has done some excellent things to try to pull in people who might not otherwise get involved, we pay for spanish translation at our meetings for example, but the neighborhood is mostly white and so are most of the people advocating for safer streets in the neighborhood, so it might be better not to discount their work as being less important.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 10:26 am #

      Bjorn. I think highly of you and am disappointed to see you play the “neglected white man” card. Please consider that this is one example in one blog post about a topic that has not been well-covered in the specific sphere of Portland bicycle blogs. There is a huge conversation to be had here and this is one entry in it. What I did not write about here is all the amazing work that IS happening in Portland and deserves massive amounts of credit. That’s one trend, and a really exciting one, that I have written and spoken about extensively. What I’m talking about here is a different, if related trend.

    • Bjorn August 18, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      I would not have brought it up Elly but you specifically asked what someone might have found divisive about your post, and I told you. This is not the first blog post about biking in portland, or even the 10th that seemed to have the underlying message that work I did should be considered less than because of my skin color, or just as common because I have a decent job. After awhile it does add up and makes me a little less interested in taking the time to push on this stuff. I think it is great to try to pull more people who are not currently involved in, I just think it is better to do it without using stereotypes to put down the work people are actually doing.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 11:00 am #

      I’m certainly sorry that you feel that way, since that was not remotely how this post was intended. But perhaps that feeling can be an opportunity for empathy with people whose hard work has actually and directly been marginalized and belittled because of their race, class, gender, etc.

  8. melody August 18, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks for writing this Elly. Your point about the narrowing concept of bike advocacy is right on. What happened to all my CM people?! We had such a strong voice once upon a time.
    I don’t think you are being divisive at all. Rather, you are reminding us privileged bike advocates that we need to keep in mind that bicyclists include people other than the richies hanging on Williams. We need to fight for the needs of all bicyclists!
    Great piece. Thanks the posting this.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Thanks, Mel and Cherokee. A smart colleague recently said — if we want to get this stuff right we need to get off the Internet and get together in person and make things happen. I’m inspired.

  9. Jim August 18, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    The villain, if you’re really looking for one, is the net and social media. People are great at griping and bitching from the comfort of their homes or coffee shop, and feel good about blowing hot air (yes, as I am doing now), but they won’t be bothered to get off their asses.

    Example: Furgeson. So much outrage on social media, but zero action. In my 20′s, there would have been marches on Furgeson, Washington, BODIES going to the places where numbers matter.

    Understand, the powers the be don’t give a rats ass what anyone says on social media, but the do care when BODIES are in their face.

    Before the net made it so easy to be distracted by everything, in the 60′s and 70′s protests, you heard of things through word of mouth, flyers, and underground newspapers. If you wanted to know more, you had to show up at the protest.

    Now, with the instant online dialog, everyone has their say, feel good about themselves as having done something, and pop another brew. Fool’s Paradise.

    And lastly, looking at the voters turn-outs, how can you expect change if you don’t vote. And if you do vote, why keep voting for the same fools over and over?

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 10:34 am #

      Jim, you have a point, but at the same time there IS action happening in Ferguson and elsewhere in response to the atrocities, and much of it is being organized using social media.

    • Jim August 18, 2014 at 10:53 am #

      I understand that social media is helping the LOCAL protesters in Furgeson. Anyone probably more than 500 miles away is just protesting via avatar.

  10. Nick Falbo August 18, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    “My friends are increasingly no longer able to afford their apartments or buy houses within reasonable biking distance of the city center and its jobs.”

    This is a huge deal. After building out the most bikable inner city in the US, we are slowly pricing out the people most interested (and in need) of bicycling for transportation.

    • Michael Andersen, BikePortland August 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

      Agreed.

      There are two ways to increase the percentage of Portlanders whose trips touch good bike infrastructure. One is to increase the geographic territory covered by good bike infrastructure, and the other is to increase the supply of homes and businesses in areas that already have good bike infrastructure. IMO we should be doing both of these things.

      Central cities aren’t inherently expensive (just ask the 1980s). Neither are bikable neighborhoods in general. They’re expensive in Portland because restrictions on development (in the central city) and inertia in street design (further out) have made it hard to meet the rapidly rising demand for homes and jobs in bikeable neighborhoods. When that happens, richer people will always bid poorer people into less desirable places.

  11. Gerald F August 18, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I’m new to Portland and I’m eager to get involved in bike advocacy. For the past two years I lived in Washington, DC where bike activism has a healthy “loudness,” but probably not on the level of Portland five years ago. DC Bike Party’s monthly ride regularly draws over 500 riders. It is notably non-critical mass like, with a slow pace and laid back, festive feel. WABA, the member-supported advocacy group gets in the face of the powers that be and any anti-cyclists. Black Women Bike DC came out of nowhere and is now a force.

    Anyways, back to Portland. I’ve come across the following bike advocacy sources: BTA, BikePortland, PBOT active, shift2bikes, and now Taking the Lane.

    What other sources should I be following on social media, and what are some of the casual, social group rides? Thanks.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 10:48 am #

      Welcome, Gerald! And very glad you asked — I just edited the story to post a link to the Avenues to Advocacy initiative being developed by the Community Cycling Center here in town. If you go to the link there’s an email address where you can sign up to get in the loop and potentially get involved.

      One of my dreams is that someone will start a Bike Party in Portland. Maybe that someone is you?

  12. Gerald F August 18, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    A Portland Bike Party does sound cool, but I feel that it should be led by someone who’s been in Portland for more than a couple weeks. I’d be happy to assist if any true Portlanders want to grab the reins.

    I overheard that there is some sort of night time ride in Portland that may get as many as a couple hundred people. Anyone know what ride that is? Thanks.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 11:05 am #

      Gerald, you’re talking about the Midnight Mystery Ride! If you’d like to get the invite (it’s sent out at noon on the second Friday of every month; the ride leaves twelve hours later that same day), sign up for the listserve at http://www.shift2bikes.com

      Also, there is a fine history in many cities of new people with fresh energy moving from out of town and starting a new successful ride. I say go for it.

  13. Cain August 18, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Elly,

    First off, thank you for providing such a splendid article. Words cannot express the joy I experienced while reading your work.

    I can’t speak on behalf of Portland, but I can speak on behalf of a very similar scene going on in San Jose.

    As an active organizer in the community, what it comes down to, and what it has always come down to, is the people. We treat activism and organizing as “jobs”, as when we burn out, we go home, hang up our activist hat, and retire from the lifestyle.

    What we need, is more individuals who embrace a positive community for all else as a lifestyle, people who embody what they preach, as opposed to those who simply treat activism as a job or task.

    A perfect example is my former boss, and good friend, Amie Frisch. Amie serves as the Executive Director and Co-Founder for Veggielution Community Farm in East San Jose. Veggielution functions as a non-profit that provides healthy, sustainably-grown food to their local community, for free or at low-cost.

    I had the pleasure of doing an outreach event with Amie a few months ago. I won’t disclose which company setup the event, but it was a “Prom Party” ear-marked for the more upper-crust, tech type that Silicon Valley is so well known for. For this event, local businesses and non-profits were granted the opportunity to set up booths and introduce themselves to a social class they might otherwise find themselves cut off from. Amie and I arrived to the event early, set up our booth, and begin making the rounds to introduce ourselves to the other participants before the guests arrived.

    In talking to one of the booth runners, the operator had made mention that she would be unable to leave her booth all night, as she had no partner to cover for her. Amie let the operator know that should she need anything, she could come find us and we’d cover for her as need be. Certainly not an uncommon courtesy, and a welcome one at that.

    As Amie and I continued to make the rounds, we came to a booth where a sushi chef was providing free rolls for all participants of the event. Once again, we engaged in small talk, getting to know one another and the causes we represented.

    “Could I get one more order of sushi? My friend in the corner can’t leave her booth tonight, and I know she’d love to try your dish.”

    I must admit, I was completely taken back. I’ve always known Amie to be a kind, warm-hearted individual. However, it never occurred to me how deeply her values were ingrained into her very being. Amie does not simply walk the walk and talk the talk as needed. Her non-profit is a direct reflection of herself; putting the community before the self.

    Of course, looking back on the moment, it would be rude not to extend an helping hand to someone in need. But how often do we talk about this value, as opposed to actually acting upon it without hesitation, let alone even second-guessing if our action is “right” or not?

    I had come to this event with the intention of conducting business. I intended to bring money into Veggielution, prove ourselves a worthy cause, and create more exposure for our organization. I had my work hat on, and was ready to market until the cows came home. Amie, was as she always is. Passionate, caring, and ever mindful of others.

    Being an activist should never be a task or a job. Being an activist should simply be part of who you are at your core; a person who wants to make the world a better place. Whether she realized it or not, Amie provided a perfect example of everything we all strive to be in just one selfless action. And she didn’t even need to put on her activist hat.

    Maybe the issue isn’t so much policy, or lack of activists, or even lack of funding. Maybe we just need to take a notion from Amie, and simply embody what we preach.

  14. Jonathan Maus August 18, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    Such great and important points Elly. There’s a lot of risk in sharing new/different viewpoints on topics people are very passionate about (like biking), and I know how much guts it takes to hit “publish.”

    I am very glad to see this stuff being talked about because, like Elly, I think grassroots (unpaid) activism (in both fun and more serious/political forms) is absolutely essential to pushing Portland over its current hump. I’ve been trying to get folks to realize everything isn’t hunky-dory in Portland for many years now. Admitting this fact is the first step to making things awesome again and what Elly brings up in this post are contributing factors to why we have stagnated.

    Real estate prices, geographic/demographic shifts, the shift to more conservative/careful/friendly advocacy by the BTA. It all adds up!

    So now that more people are aware of these issues, what should we do? (First is to continue to make even more people aware of these issues of course.)

    We have some major hurdles right now. The political situation is bad. Definitely the worst I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been here. I think grassroots activism can help that equation, but it will be a big lift. IMO if we break the political paradigm that exists right now – where bicycling has become a dirty word at City Hall – we can get back on track.

    And of course the way we can change politics is by getting more people — from all over the city and from all different races and walks of life – activated and engaged with the issues. But that’s really hard with a widening economic gap and constantly changing neighborhoods.

    I don’t have all the answers yet.. but the one tool I can share is an ability to bring people together to share information and ideas.

    Back in 2009 our community had a very similar conversation to the one we’re having right now (
    http://bikeportland.org/2009/12/04/time-to-unite-the-city-behind-biking-and-other-ideas-shared-at-our-social-26764) . Back then I hosted a social gathering and we talked about stuff like the lack of bold action by the BTA (and a BTA staffer was part of the conversation!), the impact of the “bike fun” movement, and so on. One thing that came out of that meeting was the group now known as Active Right of Way. Those folks have done some great work, but due to lack of dedicated resources (both human and financial), they haven’t become a full-fledged activism org. And it’s worth noting that in 2009, the awareness of the equity gap in bike advocacy wasn’t even on the radar.

    OK I’ll stop there for now. Stay tuned. It’s people like Elly and others on this thread that will be key to getting us out of this funk… I am really looking forward to publishing a story titled, “How Portland got its groove back”

  15. bArbaroo August 18, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    I have another observation to offer. I’m not sure it’s right, but

    For me activism doesn’t feel as inclusive as it used to. In the days of critical mass and Bike Summer I never felt as if I didn’t belong. I loved bicycling so I was welcome. So were employed engineers, land-use planners, and under-employed alike. In other words, I never got the sense that I was too poor, too rich, too white, too educated, too uneducated, or too square to attend. Those events had a air of inclusion. And, if you watch Joe Biel’s After Mass movie you’ll see a wide range of bikes and bike riders in the footage – fancy bikes, cheep bikes, tall bikes, recumbants…. Same with Bike Summer, and also still the case (in my opinion) for the majority of Pedalpalooza rides. However, is bike fun the same as grass roots bike activism? I say no.

    Critical Mass was great and inclusive but as the so-called bike culture has developed in the last decade, so too has a sense of cliquishness that feels exclusive (my opinion and insecurities, I know). As an older, less hip person I don’t get a sense that I’d fit in if I wanted to tag along. My problem, yes. But a problem. Since I usually deal well with social situations, knowing that I would feel this way tells me that I am probably not alone. I don’t exude bike culture, I ride new a new cargo bike, I sometimes ride with e-assist, and I have a car. So, when I can write letters, attend city council meetings, and quietly work very hard to educate and create new cyclists – why would I show up to a grass roots bike culture event that seems to dislike and resent some of who I am?

    Additionally, I think times have changed (or I have aged/or both). But, it seems to me that what is missing for me in my experience as I travel by bike is that the motorists are so clueless about how bikes need to move and what rights we have. In other words, there’s a big chunk of work to do in educating those who don’t ride just how to operate around bikes. Part of that is leadership, including leadership that makes it clear that harassing cyclists, or endangering vulnerable road users is not OK, and will not be tolerated. In my opinion some great ground could be made on this through grass roots activism, but it would need to be done in a way sensitive enough not to turn people off. And that grass roots activism needs to be coordinated with the work of land-use planners, paid bike advocates, politicians, and recreational riders, to really make the big changes happen.

    And we all need to be careful not to alienate each other. If as I imagine that there are folks like me feeling excluded from the bike culture, and those with privilege (me?) are excluding without taking responsibility for that, then perhaps before we work at growing activism, we just work on growing our understanding and compassion for our fellow cyclists no matter how different their lifestyle is from ours. So, perhaps a Come Together event that is open and inclusive and welcoming to ALL is what we need to launch the new age of Portland activism. Yes…I will think about creating that event. Elly, care to join me?

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      Barb, thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, and for stating them so well. I would love to lend a hand and some promotional volume to a Big Tent sort of ride or event. The economic pressures I’m talking about here pretty much have led to me being either completely overextended or out of town all the time when I’d rather be producing bike fun, but count me in to give anything like this a big push.

  16. Dan Kaufman August 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Occupy Wall Street happened. Bike Swarm happened (still happening, btw). But, when it came to getting involved with any of that, as I recall, most of the bikey-2000ers we’re too cool, too cynical, had other things do, or (as you say, Elly) too burnt out. We also chanted “whose streets?”.

    • Elly Blue August 18, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Too true, Dan. Thanks for pointing these things out. I think we’re on the same page — this stuff has happened and still happens, but the lens of bicycle discourse has shifted to follow the money.

    • Dan Kaufman August 18, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

      I think we are on the same chapter, anyway, Elly.

      Maybe we expect too much from the “bike community” when it comes to promoting liveable streets. (I want to point out that liveable streets are also affordable).

      People who ride bikes and advocate for a better city are just the cavalry. But the liveable streets movement needs a ground game.

      I believe you said in one of your zines that a good neighborhood is walkable first. We need to push to make our walkable (inner city) neighborhoods affordable, as well. That will require things like mandatory inclusionary zoning and section 8 housing. Tina Kotek has a work group on this very issue and they needs to hear from us. http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/08/housing_advocates_sharpen_tong.html

      Oh, and Bikes in the Street!

  17. Chris Anderson August 18, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    As an educated affluent white father, my take is that the scene has matured. We sent up a major signal flare with our first round of work, but the new population we attracted needs avenues to activism. Personally I think the most potent message we have now is the family biking movement.

    BTW I take the lane on pretty much every neighborhood street and almost no one fucks with me. I’m pretty sure it’s doesnt hurt that I am a 6 foot tall white dude on a $$ cargo bike with a three-year-old blonde passenger. If only everyone could get that kind of treatment.

  18. Will August 18, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    “But lately it’s people who are paid to be bicycle advocates and planners and engineers demonizing us disorderly regular folks.”

    I’m not from Portland, so may be missing the reference, but who or what is this referring to?

    • Elly Blue August 19, 2014 at 8:24 am #

      I am mostly talking about Critical Mass.

  19. Fred Lifton August 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    How is this not divisive?

    “It’s hard not to resent the outwardly sporty folks with their jobs and cars and private sector health insurance and brand new bikes every year even as they declaim relative poverty.”

    I used to work in a small town bike shop. Our customers ranged from field-worker immigrants on K-Mart Huffys to dentists on carbon wonder bikes. I saw the whole thing as an ecosystem, where all the parts are interdependent. Our shop could not have survived without those dentists replacing their Serrotas yearly or the immigrants getting their flats fixed.

    If we want to stop our insane over-reliance on cars, if we want bikes to be taken seriously, we need to be clear and united that cyclists are simply people, not members of a “bike culture”. The labeling and generalizing and categorizing you’re doing here only serves to create an “us” and a “them”, and it sounds like you’re just whining about a time gone by when “us” looked more like “you”.

    I need a safe route to ride whether I’m in my kit headed to the West Hills on my lovely Rock Lobster, or trundling downtown on my old beater commuter MTB. We have more in common than we do differences. We should be celebrating that, not throwing stones at “elitists” (or fixsters, or DUIcyclists, or cargo-mommies, or any other sub-culture).

    You know who else likes to throw stones at perceived “elitists”? Do you really want to be making these kinds of arguments? This is not the way. We can be better than this.

    • Elly Blue August 21, 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Hey Fred, I know you aren’t the only one who interpreted the essay this way. In fact so many did that my friend Dr Echo Rivera created this smart, illustrated response. Instead of trying to write up a less eloquent duplication of her point, I refer you straight to the source.

    • jim August 28, 2014 at 8:09 am #

      Fred Lifton –

      I think the statement is honest, not divisive. Some people have access to far better healthcare, far more material goods (including bicycles) than other people, live in areas with far better infrastructure (eg sidewalks, bike lanes). This can lead to resentment. I think this is a valid area of discussion. Is this situation acceptable? Is it something to work to change? Resentment may not be the most helpful reaction, but is perhaps understandable, and calling it divisive seems to be suggesting the whole topic is taboo.

      I’ve worked in bike shops for years. Flat fixes don’t keep the lights on. Your bike shop ecosystem sounds more like a caste system, wherein the high and the low have their place, and all will stay that way forever if we are not allowed to discuss and consider change. I understand the desire to keep a business afloat, but if our bike culture is so fragile that we cannot question the equitability of its structure, and instead have to import the systemic biases and prejudices of our wider culture, then what exactly are we working for here? A few lines of paint on the street? We can be better than this.

      I agree that we should be celebrating our commonality. The best way to do so is to ensure that all people have access to common goods (healthy & affordable transportation, good city infrastructure, one could broaden this to include healthcare etc. too.)

      This brings up the big question – what are the goals? It used to seem like it was about more than just the bicycle. Do we want to build a bicycle culture that mirrors our society, or a society that mirrors our bicycling culture?

  20. Cora August 21, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    http://www.oregonlive.com/sports/index.ssf/2014/08/world-class_cycling_race_could.html#incart_river

    Through downtown and the west hills. Heaven forbid they venture into interesting territory like over Mt Scott, Powell Butte etc.

  21. John August 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    I guess I’ve now been employed as a bicycle advocate long enough to be criticized by the bicycling “right” (John Forester and his ilk) and now from the bicycling “left” (not just Elly). The biggest difference between now and then is that I have a lot more company in my office.

  22. spare_wheel August 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    Hi Elly,

    I had remembered that you road a sweetpea and was going to write something snarky but google revealed that you are selling it.
    Hopefully the reasons for the sale are political/personal and not financial. I wish you luck either way.

  23. Chris I August 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    My wife and I (both native Portlanders) live in older east Portland home that we are slowly renovating (Gasp! Increased property values!), and we own a few modestly priced bikes (including a lavishly excessive used Surly Big Dummy cargo bike) that we use to get around the neighborhood, and to and from work, reducing the traffic and pollution in our city; but we are somehow now part of the problem?

    So, as members of the top 10%, we should have purchased a house in Beaverton and bought SUVs to commute long distances to our jobs in east Portland? Or maybe we should just try not being “rich” as you call us? What should we do?

    • Elly Blue August 27, 2014 at 5:31 am #

      Chris, I’ll just answer your last question at face value: “What should we do?” Here are some ideas:

      a) Keep spending a ton of money at local bike shops. Thank you for supporting the local economy.
      b) Educate yourself about Portland’s history and current economic trends. Look at different neighborhoods, like that one in Beaverton you prefer not to move to. Why are they the way they are?
      c) Educate yourself about why some folks are wealthier than others and maybe give yourself a little less credit and consider the bigger societal forces at play.
      d) Speak up for what’s right for the city, not just for yourself.
      Thanks for asking.

    • Cora Potter August 27, 2014 at 10:03 am #

      Chris do you live in east (of the river but still pretty central) Portland or East Portland? There’s a big difference in terms of class and ethnicity composition, equity and investment on the part of the city.

      If you live in east Portland – there are plenty of neighborhoods (Irvington, Grant Park, Laurelhurst, Eastmoreland, Alameda, and more and more Buckman, Kerns, Sunnyside, Hosford-Abernathy, Richmond etc) in the area that are becoming exclusive to transportation disadvantaged residents of Portland at large.

      If you live in East Portland, thanks! Keep riding your nice bikes in the area and fixing up your house – there’s no opposition to that. But we also ask that you ride your fancy bikes to local businesses, encourage your favorite central city businesses to consider East Portland satellites and business operation styles that cater to a broad range of residents and that when push comes to shove, you adopt East Portland culture (which is a lot different than what’s portrayed by inner neighborhood residents) rather than demand that things happen the other way around.

  24. Michael M. August 26, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    Interesting discussion — thanks Elly Blue for a thoughtful post to kick it off. One thing I wonder if you might productively explore down the road are the differences between a lot of terms that I think you and others are all bandying about loosely. It’s a little hard for me to tease out whether you are more concerned about the changes to bicycle “activism,” “advocacy,” “fun” or “culture.” Obviously, they are all related, but they are each distinct also. The type of effort described by Bjorn is related to but distinct from the type of effort described by Dan (Bike Swarm), just as Critical Mass is related to but distinct from Safe Routes to Schools, and all of the above are different from the sentiments so nicely expressed by Barbaroo.

    You seem mostly to be talking about changes to the nature of bicycle activism, but also about the changes to the other aspects of the broader culture as well. I know, for me, who started to get involved with the bicycle movement in bits and pieces five or six years ago and then pulled back from it, the problem was never finding a clearly articulated goal (or even set of goals). Safer street is great, but for whom? Who benefits? These didn’t seem to be questions bicycle advocates or activists wanted to address.

    My first involvement in any kind of activism came back in the days of ACT UP in NYC and I quickly learned how messy, energizing and draining it could all be. ACT UP suffered from the same problems — inequity, racism, classism, cliquishness — you and others are talking about here, but the difference that stands out to me was that we all knew what we were fighting for. Those problems could be worked through without tearing the movement apart because we had defined objectives and we knew exactly who those objectives would benefit. That’s not to say it didn’t get rancorous and painful, and that people didn’t become disaffected because of those problems (or just because of burnout) — they did, but as you say, there were always more people to replace them.

    It seems essential to me that if you really want to build a grassroots movement around an issue you have to speak to the needs of the grassroots. Advocacy or activism in support of safer streets doesn’t really do that when the grassroots knows it won’t benefit from the changes the movement is trying to affect. It seems like at least a few times a month I come across yet another article about how this or that city planner or transportation engineer or so-called “citizen-activists” (an exclusionary term that implies you can’t be an activist if you aren’t first a citizen, yet one used in active transportation discussions frequently) has returned from Copenhagen or Amsterdam so excited about the bicycle infrastructure, usually accompanied by a wealth of pictures of said infrastructure and hundreds of happy, happy people on bikes using it. Yet somehow, 99% of the time they neglect to mention the accompanying social infrastructure that makes all that engineering possible — they don’t mention the universal health care, they don’t mention the housing policy and protections for renters, they don’t discuss the employment protections or benefits, the education systems, or even the low rates of homelessness and poverty relative to the United States. They don’t make it clear that residents of cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam understand they have a social contract that means when their city prioritizes certain types of infrastructure, they will all benefit from it. We don’t have that here — we know what happens to neighborhoods that get desirable infrastructure and we know we don’t all benefit from it. As you say, it’s clear that they aren’t “our streets.”

    As long as bicycle advocates and activists want to keep pretending that these questions don’t matter, I don’t see how you can build a grassroots movement for change.

    • Elly Blue August 27, 2014 at 5:34 am #

      Michael, thanks so much for this thoughtful comment and for keeping the discussion going in an interesting way. It’s true, it’s so easy to have bike blinders on that we forget we aren’t just riding along in a vacuum.

    • Jonathan Maus August 27, 2014 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Michael,

      Good points.

      I never considered that about the term “citizen activist.” I use it a lot to describe volunteer activists who aren’t employed/paid by a group. But now that you mention it, I’ll think of something else to use.

  25. Richard Masoner August 27, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    My view of “citizen-activist” is completely the opposite of Michael’s! To me, it implies not exclusion but rather the idea that active participation in democracy is a vital part of citizenship.

    • Anne Lorimer August 27, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      Yeah I get what Richard means — I really using ‘citizen’ to construct activists as people properly fulfilling their civic duties. Unfortunately, words don’t simply mean what I want them to, and the word ‘citizen’ all too easily yokes my discourse to a more powerful and exclusionary social vehicle. So I try to resist the alluring word, because an important sector of transportation activism (at least where I live, a poultry-industrial city in the Shenandoah Valley) has been organized by people for whom automotive transport is difficult and often dangerous: deportation can be only a traffic stop away. If you can think of a word that has the snappiness of ‘citizen’ without the exclusion, I’d be very grateful.

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