Cyclists vs ‘Libertarians’ in Portland
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 builders, a 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…