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

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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.