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Feb. 4 2010 - 1:37 pm | 571 views | 1 recommendation | 18 comments

Cyclists vs ‘Libertarians’ in Portland

Ordinary bicycle, Skoda Museum, Mlada Boleslav...

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Later this afternoon, Portland’s City Council is likely to adopt a far-reaching plan for bike infrastructure—a plan which calls for a dramatic expansion and improvement of the city’s cycling network, with the audacious (for America) goal of boosting bicycle use to about 25 percent of all local trips.

A few major progressive design and planning efforts define Portland’s history. If you’re ever in the mood for some serious nerdishness, we could talk about the 1903 Olmstead parks report or the 1970s decision to kill the Mount Hood Freeway. The 2030 Bike Plan could well join that wonky pantheon as a suitable 21st Century addition, because cycling is on the cusp of a true Golden Age here. You can find all kinds of numbers to document Portland’s bike-love. The Census recently estimated that about 6 percent of locals commute via bike; as Yr Humble Correspondent noted for Good not long ago, other figures suggest that as many as one in five Portlanders consider cycling either their primary or secondary mode of transportation.

Whatever: a lot of people in Portland like to ride bikes, a lot. No surprise, the proposed plan enjoys the fervent support from Portland’s burgeoning cycling community, which is cooking up a rally to precede today’s Council vote. But then there are the opponents—or, as we say in the waffly parlance of journalism, “some critics”—and they make the truly interesting case study.

Our local daily newspaper, The Oregonian, gave voice to qualms about the Plan’s estimated cost (over $600 million over 20 years) in a front-page story yesterday and an editorial today. This coverage manages to be fascinating in several intentional and unintentional ways; I will leave the heavy deconstruction to Sarah Mirk of The Portland Mercury and the ever-excellent BikePortland blog. For present purposes, I’m interested in the front-pager’s choice of spokesman for the nebulous “critics” who fear for the plan’s expense and, of course, its sinister left-social-engineering agenda:

“They want to make bicycling more attractive than driving for all trips of three miles or less,” said John Charles, president of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute. “Nothing they do is going to make that happen for most people.”

Ah, the Cascade Policy Institute: old friend to Portland journalists who need to fire up the QuickQuotes Quill and get some criticism of local transportation, planning or economic policy to supply the requisite “balance.” This local think-tank is approaching its third decade of plying a very simple gimmick: If Portland is for it, they are against it. The local papers perennially identify the CPI as “libertarian.” And indeed, the Institute itself defines its mission as “foster[ing] individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity.”

I find a puzzling disconnect between this stated goal and the Institute’s apparent position here.

A man or a woman strides resolutely into his or her garage or basement and unshackles a two-wheeled steed. A brief survey of the vehicle’s mechanical integrity ensues, possibly followed by minor hands-on repairs. A helmet latches over chin. Then, this rider sallies forth into the City, prepared to hazard weather, traffic and the unknowable vicissitudes of life—alone. I could extend this argument at some length—oh, believe me I could—but, in short, what pursuit could better incarnate that “individual liberty” to which the Cascade Policy Institute so manfully dedicates itself? You want to know about “personal responsibility” and the efficacy of Burke’s “little battalions”? Go ride a bike and stake your life on the delicate social contract between drivers and cyclists. Go on.

As for “economic opportunity,” the very modest investment Portland makes in bikes—about 1 percent of its transportation budget—has fostered scores of local businesses, including many, many custom-bike buildersa major components manufacturer, the North American headquarters of a globally renowned apparel company and a proliferation of retail shops. Simply put, cycling is very, very good for business. The $600 million the city may spend over the next two decades to encourage even more bike-related commerce could be seen as a minor economic stimulus plan.

On a more ideological note, any advocate of “small government” should love Portland’s cycling policies and plans, because they are a fine example of what the writer William Langeweishe once characterized as “Government Lite.” Even if the City adopts, funds and builds everything in the 2030 Plan, the price tag of about $30 million a year will forever cower in the shadow of other transportation line items. In cycling, small expenditures and minor improvements go a long way. This morning, I used the bike lane on North Vancouver Avenue, which consists of two white lines painted down the side of the road and a few signs. This infrastructure, austere as it is, serves hundreds of people every day and keeps 99.999 percent of them perfectly safe while facilitating their participation in local commerce and industry.

In contrast, the automobile—beloved by those freewheeling, zany libertarians at the Cascade Policy Institute—is the ultimate Big Government project, cause of billions in pork-ridden expenditure, insurance mandates, heavy-handed central planning initiatives, property seizures (“takings”), metastatic bureaucracy at local, state and federal levels and massive expansions in law enforcement. All this may fit into some kind of libertarian worldview, but not one with which I am familiar.

In journalism terms, perhaps it would be helpful—and add balance!—if local reporters put these peculiar “libertarians” in slightly deeper context. A quick look at CPI’s financials, some of which are available for free at Guidestar.org, shows that the outfit’s little cottage industry of trashing bike funding and whatnot is at least modestly lucrative. According to the institute’s 990s, between 2004 and 2008, CPI took in grants and donations of about $3 million. According to watchdog sites like SourceWatch and MediaMattersAction, the donors responsible for this largess included the Coors family-connected Castle Rock Foundation and the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation, which also donates to a host of right-wingish causes.

If space is tight, it could suffice to say that the Cascade Policy Institute is “a libertarian think-tank largely funded by conservative donors.” Helpful. It would also be helpful to identify people who make money advocating for cycling in Portland and elsewhere—though I don’t know if I can likewise characterize the description of their efforts as “Orwellian,” as per The Oregonian.

I am sure there is a legitimate and necessary debate about the Bike Plan. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s possible the Plan doesn’t go far enough. Should we aspire to end the local influence of foreign oil potentates who harbor eccentric theological views? Should we free our streets for the use of local people rather than multinational auto manufacturers? Would these measures lead to Freedom, or just another word for…


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  1. collapse expand

    That Oregonian column also struck me as entirely wrongheaded… So I’m pleased to see that this excellent piece has set the record straighter.

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    Now the real question: Has Sam Adams tweeted about this yet?

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    The sad part is people think you need ‘bicycle infrastructure’ to ride a bike in an urban environmental – you don’t. Pretty much every city has a perfectly good system already in place. It’s called public roadways. I ride my bike on them all the time.

    • collapse expand

      Well, true enough, my friend. However, it is pretty obvious that the conditions on an unadorned city street constitute a daunting disincentive for many (not all) riders. If you look at places where many, many people use bicycles for regular transit (Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the perennial favorites), you also see places that have made significant investments in improving cycling infrastructure.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Comparing Amsterdam or Copenhagen to Portland (or any US city) is silly. There are way more differences going on than cycling infrastructure. Those cities have ancient centers with roads cars can barely navigate AND several layers of mass transit AND gas prices that are 2-3 times what they are here AND laws in place and enforced that hold motorists responsible for accidents with cyclists and peds AND most importantly, a mindset that accepts none-motorized transportation as legitimate. Harassment of cyclists by motorists just doesn’t happen. So painting a bunch of strips or posting signs does little here in the US accept further delegitimize bicycles by relegating them to inferior portions of the roadway or off the road all together – just where motorists want them.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Thank you for this intriguing and provocative perspective. I was previously unaware of the Avid Cyclists Against Cycling Infrastructure faction, and am glad to know of its existence.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            Disregarding your sarcasm for just a minute, if you were any kind of reporter or investigator other one who simply parrots the party line of those with a vested interest in whatever it is you are supposedly investigating, you would know that there are huge problems with bicycle infrastructure as it is implemented here in the US and that yes, tons of cyclist don’t want or need or use it. First and foremost: bike lanes. Bike lanes have never been proven safer than riding in the traffic lane. In fact plenty of cyclists have been killed or injured by using bike lanes. Bike lanes invariably position the cyclist within the door zone of adjacent parked cars. The minimum safety margin that should be maintained between a cyclist and a parked car is five feet. If you had one iota of cycling experience, this fact would be self-evident. Additionally, the mere presence of bike lanes leads motorists to believe that bicycles should be in the bike lane at all times, even so much as to alter their route to use only bike lanes to get to their destination even if that means riding blocks out of their way. Since it’s inconceivable to paint a bike lane on every road – and impossible on narrow rural roads – it makes little sense to paint them anywhere. What you end up with when all this infrastructure is implemented is a special interest group – planners, engineers, bureaucrats, do-gooders – most of whom would not know a quick-release skewer from a seat post binder bolt – with a vested interest in promoting, building and maintaining all this crap.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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            Great op-ed, Zach. Vehicular cyclists (or ‘real cyclist’, as they label themselves) are not just avid, they also never heard of the term lowest common denominator when experts talk bicycle infrastructure. I’ve had my share, believe me :) .

            Cheers,
            Marc
            amsterdamize.com

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Galen, my numerically anonymous friend, I am sorry that you mistook tolerant politeness for sarcasm—it is an easy mistake to make in this barbaric age. For what it’s worth, I meant what I said: it is an intriguing and provocative perspective.

            (I’m afraid the comment function here is not working quite right, so this dialogue—if indeed one may call it such—may appear out of order.)

            Now, help me understand: are you arguing that more people would ride if there were no bike lanes?

            I may or may not have “an iota of cycling experience”—I am a humble commuter and recreational rider, and don’t make a habit of talking in self-important tones about my own abilities, which are modest at best. But I have been riding very regularly for years in Portland. I have lived in the city for 10 years. In that time, the city has made notable investments in the cycling network. The number of regular riders has increased dramatically. So please help me understand your views in this context.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Zach – my sarcastically polite friend,

    Portland is a left-leaning city with a lot of cyclist. So which came first, the cyclists or the infrastructure? You have lived there for 10 years so I would say you have a unique experience in a unique environment as it relates to the rest of the country. Basically, it doesn’t relate.

    What I am saying is this: bike lanes are the invention of transportation engineers specifically to get bikes out of the way of motorized vehicles. Any thought as to the well-being of the cyclist is secondary by a wide margin. Again, I reiterate that this fact is self-evident. The design, specifications and placements of bicycle lanes by and large INCREASE the danger to cyclist from both overtaking vehicles, right turning vehicles and parked vehicles. It’s basically a built-in design flaw. Since cyclist are already viewed by the transportation engineering establishment as second-class road users, and their numbers are pathetically small in comparison to motorized road users, any complaints regarding these shortcomings are dismissed. Basically it’s segregation for the sake of the many at the expense of the few. There are some simple, inexpensive structural changes that can be made to transportation management to better INTEGRATE and safeguard not only cyclists, but pedestrians and other slower moving vehicles the transportation mix:

    1) Enforcement of existing traffic laws
    2) Reduction of speed limits in urban areas
    3) EDUCATION of prospective drivers license holders as to the proper technique of passing slower moving vehicles.
    4) When roads are rebuilt/widened, construct the curb lane to a width of 14′ or more
    5) On multiple-lane urban arterial roads, designate the right lane for bikes, buses and right turns only (this is done in Maryland/Delaware beach resorts and works quite well)
    6) Replace storm drains with grates with curb opening structures

    The most important fact to remember is this: Even if you live in Portland, some where some how you are going to ride on a road without a bike lane. Nothing bad will happen to you. You won’t spontaneously combust. It’s OK to venturing outside of your self-imposed cycling safe-house made of traffic paint. Trust me.

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    Zach, I couldn’t agree more with your underlying point that libertarians should champion biking rather than knee-jerking against it just because a lot of big-government liberals happen to like it. I understand John Charles’s anti-transit arguments. I don’t understand his anti-bike arguments.

    I think the CPI is basically an advocacy organization on behalf of upper-class suburbanites. I don’t happen to think upper-class suburbanites need much help getting their opinions out there, so *I* wouldn’t work for them, but there’s nothing nefarious about it.

    That said, the “bikes are good for the economy” argument is silly. If people weren’t spending that money on bikes, they’d be spending it on something else. What’s good for the economy in the long run is efficiency. There are some reasonable arguments that bikes are relatively efficient and there are others that bikes aren’t. But you might as well say that rain is good for the economy because it makes us buy rain jackets, or that car prowls are good for the economy because they force John Charles to replace the broken window on his automobile.

  6. collapse expand

    Zach,

    Thanks for the post examining my article.
    Unfortunately, it is misleading to those who haven’t actually read my full coverage of the issue.

    I understand that you have to maintain the narrative about newspaper reporters being lazy unenlightened Darth Vader-like soldiers of the status quo and bicycle advocates being healthy, thoughtful, free spirits. (For the record, I’m both — a journalist and a bike commuter).

    But I didn’t call the plan Orwellian. You took one sentence of my story out of context to define the entire piece. The reference to Orwell was juxtaposed with an H.G. Wells quote about how cycle tracks will be in Utopia. The Orwell reference pertained to the city of Portland’s official 2030 Bike Plan web site, which encourages visitors to hit a link to “support the 2030 biycle plan.” There is no link for those who might have concerns or oppose it. There is no link that says, simply, “Comment on the 2030 Bike Plan.” It’s hard to argue that doesn’t leave an Orwellian after taste. I can send you my copy of “1984″ if you haven’t read it yet.

    Also, I’m not sure how familiar you are with the inner workings of an independent and balanced news organization that is expected to be a watchdog and is the news source of record for an entire state. But I don’t have a Rolodex of contrarian sources that I fall back on to add a dash of conflict to a story. Indeed, I quoted someone from the CPI because it was among the voices who had officially sent comments to the city to oppose the plan. If I’m reading your post correctly, you’re saying the CPI has no right to a voice in this debate. Perhaps an advocacy blog such as Bike Portland is comfortable excluding voices in order to promote an agenda. But that’s not my role. I have written thousands of stories for The Oregonian and I had never quoted the CPI previously. Indeed, if you search my commuting blog’s archives, I have been openly critical of their positions on transportation issues.

    At the same time, you didn’t mention any of my other coverage on the 2030 Bicycle Plan — including a Q&A with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, in which reps were allowed to voice their support without interruption, and my columns supporting elements of the plan.

    I wrote this post in response to the stories that heralded in your post:
    http://tinyurl.com/ydwv29h

    If you wouldn’t mind correcting the record or at least bringing some balance to your coverage of my coverage, it would be greatly appreciated.

    All the best,
    Joseph Rose
    The Oregonian

  7. collapse expand

    Zach,

    Thanks for the post examining my article on True/Slant. I just got around to reading it. Unfortunately, it is misleading to those who haven’t actually read my full coverage of the issue.

    I understand that you have to maintain the narrative about newspaper reporters being lazy unenlightened Darth Vader-like soldiers of the status quo and bicycle advocates being healthy, thoughtful, free spirits. (For the record, I’m both — a journalist and a bike commuter).

    But I didn’t call the plan Orwellian. You took one sentence of my story out of context to define the entire piece. The reference to Orwell was juxtaposed with an H.G. Wells quote about how cycle tracks will be in Utopia. The Orwell reference pertained to the city of Portland’s official 2030 Bike Plan web site, which encourages visitors to hit a link to “support the 2030 biycle plan.” There is no link for those who might have concerns or oppose it. There is no link that says, simply, “Comment on the 2030 Bike Plan.” It’s hard to argue that doesn’t leave an Orwellian after taste. I can send you my copy of “1984″ if you haven’t read it yet.

    Also, I’m not sure how familiar you are with the inner workings of an independent and balanced news organization that is expected to be a watchdog and is the news source of record for an entire state. But I don’t have a Rolodex of contrarian sources that I fall back on to add a dash of conflict to a story. Indeed, I quoted someone from the CPI because it was among the voices who had officially sent comments to the city to oppose the plan. If I’m reading your post correctly, you’re saying the CPI has no right to a voice in this debate. Perhaps an advocacy blog such as Bike Portland is comfortable excluding voices in order to promote an agenda. But that’s not my role. I have written thousands of stories for The Oregonian and I had never quoted the CPI previously. Indeed, if you search my commuting blog’s archives, I have been openly critical of their positions on transportation issues.

    At the same time, you didn’t mention any of my other coverage on the 2030 Bicycle Plan — including a Q&A with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, in which reps were allowed to voice their support without interruption, and my columns supporting elements of the plan.

    I wrote this post in response to the stories that heralded in your post:
    http://tinyurl.com/ydwv29h

    If you wouldn’t mind correcting the record or at least bringing some balance to your coverage of my coverage, it would be greatly appreciated.

    All the best,
    Joseph Rose
    The Oregonian

    • collapse expand

      Joseph—

      First of all, I owe you an apology for this delayed response. I recognize that adding to a debate over a weeks-old newspaper article violates the ADD creed of the Internet. But, better late than never, as they used to say.

      I do know how it is: you spend a day or many days reporting a piece, you write it in good faith, and suddenly the Internet mob is after you in full cry. I take it from the robust tone of your response here that the piece attracted a fair amount of comment; I know that the bike crowd can cut up pretty rough when they feel their virtue is not properly represented in the media. If my own work above fell victim to the ad-hominem tendencies of the blogosphere, I apologize. We all get carried away sometimes.

      You argue that I am “maintaining” a certain narrative. Well, perhaps—though if I am, you’ve construed that narrative in pretty dire terms. But anyway, that’s a hard thing to judge about one’s own writing. Am I maintaining a narrative? I guess I’m prepared to concede the point. I would say, though, that I am not the only one who read the Oregonian’s coverage that week and suspected the paper was “maintaining” a narrative of its own: one in which a minority of crafty bike advocates foist a ruinously pricey utopian scheme upon an unsuspecting public. So maybe it’s a wash.

      You know as well as I do that the word “Orwellian” is inflammatory. It describes the manipulations of totalitarian governments better than a minor instance of hamfisted bungling on the part of local democratic authorities. You may have a point, but that word is a blunt instrument for making it. All the same, I am short a copy of “1984″ if your kind offer stands; I’ll trade you straight up for a copy of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” wherein he lays down the dictum: “Never use a…figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I am always pleased to meet another Orwell fan. I think that if you and I compare notes on the great man, we will soon find that the fascist octopus has sung its swan song.

      I started working for newspapers in 1996, but you’re right—I never filled a staff job at one with the august mission of the Oregonian. One would think a paper of such scope would have no shortage of independent sources on the transportation beat, but like I said before, I know how it goes. You go to print with the sources you have, not the sources you wish you had.

      My criticism, which I perhaps did not express as precisely as I should have, concerned the prominence you gave to CPI’s views and what I perceived as a lack of context for those views. John Charles is Graf Six of your story, which tells readers 1) There’s a big bike plan; 2) the Mayor likes it, as he would; 3) John Charles does not, and is, in fact, at the head of a battalion of “critics” who feel similarly.

      I simply find the portrayal of John Charles’ views as the third-most-important thing about the bike plan an odd editorial decision, and maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree about that.

      You are correct in saying that I did not survey your past coverage of the CPI, and maybe that was unfair. However, I have seen local journalists deploy quotes from Charles and CPI folk in just this manner many times; there’s a damn good chance that I’ve done so myself.

      I guess they’ve done a good job in establishing themselves as a go-to source for perspective, but I think we all owe it to our readers to explain where our sources are coming from if possible. Does it matter that John Charles makes (as far as I could tell from the documents I could access from my humble freelance blogger’s desk) a six-figure salary for espousing his positions? Or that the CPI believes that “the science of climate change is far from settled and there exists no consensus on the causes, effects, or future of climate change”?

      These facts do NOT mean the CPI does not have a legitimate voice in any debates (nor did I say as much; I think you’re maintaining a narrative there), but they certainly help flesh out their point of view. As a journalist, I question the use of partisan, professionally contrarian sources just to add “balance.” Are you relaying the CPI’s point of view because the guys at the Institute have particular insight on this issue, or just because they exist and are talking? But that probably opens up best-practice questions too broad to deal with here.

      In closing, I would like to point out (or make clear, if I failed to do so) that this post concerned only this particular story, not your previous work or personal commuter choices, which I applaud.

      Thanks for getting back to me, and sorry again for the delayed response.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    Joseph, Zach, my compliments. Your thoughtful back-and-forth here is well-nigh inspirational for anyone who despairs at the state of the Web’s usual debates.

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