The Bike Vote: How urban cyclists are grabbing the attention of government from the grassroots up

Shoemaker saw that the Fern Ridge Path was getting worse, and decided it was time for a change.

Shoemaker saw that the Fern Ridge Path was getting worse, and decided it was time for a change.

Lee Shoemaker rides his government-owned commuter bike out toward the South Bank Trail in Eugene, Ore. A couple of days ago, he got an email from iBikeEugene — an iPhone application that his department created for riders to report problems in bike lanes, paths and routes — saying that there was a split in the concrete wide enough for a tire to get stuck in on the 2.6-mile South Bank Trail, which runs parallel the Willamette River and is a popular route for riders, joggers and walkers.

Shoemaker works for the City of Eugene’s Public Works department under a special sector — Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. He is the third to occupy the position since the mid ‘70s.

Shoemaker allocated funds toward the popular Fern Ridge Path to make it one of the best-built paths in the city.

Shoemaker allocated funds toward the popular Fern Ridge Path to make it one of the best-built paths in the city.

In Eugene City Hall, Shoemaker says, “We’re not happy with just painting a bike lane on a street. We want to see something better.”

The city of Eugene understood in the ‘70s that biking would be a large part of their city’s infrastructure, Shoemaker says. So, the created the position Shoemaker holds with the idea that Eugene can continue the culture of commuting to work, school and errand destinations with government help.

In acknowledging the need for a bicycle and pedestrian position, Eugene validated cycling as a legitimate form of transportation and backed it with funding.

Eugene’s role in bicycle commuting hasn’t stopped yet; in the city’s most recent election, ballot measure 20-197 appeared in the vote. It called for 74 more miles of bicycle improvements and additions in the city limits. The measure perpetuated the recent trend of bicycles barging into Oregon politics with the expectation of being recognized. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2011 the American government spent $760 million on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, a 28 percent increase from 2008. But, federal spending on biking and pedestrian projects has gone down — the government spent $1,212 million in 2009.

Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of bikeportland.org, believes that money is being used for “light rail” transit, or developing faster trains for interstate travel.

But, he doesn’t see the trend continuing for much longer. As one of North America’s Meccas for urban cycling, Portland, Ore. is the flagship city in the country for advocacy and government assistance in promoting cycling. Maus holds the megaphone for riders in the Rose City.

“I’m just one person with a blog,” Maus says. “But, the impact of that is really large because so many people read it, and those people take a direct link to city hall.”

The blog, which Maus says is one of the most widely read and respected biking blogs in the country, doesn’t simply stretch to the borders of Portland. His site, according to Wolfram Alpha, gets around 18,000 views a day. BikeNewYork.org, a similar blog in a bigger city, gets around 4,800. With a connection like that to the cycling community, he is able to keep riders included in discussions regarding the cycling community and improvements. In turn, city councilors, the mayor, senators and members of the Oregon legislature all know Maus and communicate with him about Portland transportation. The city was the first “large city” to receive a “platinum” ranking from the League of American Bicyclists (LOAB).

“Whenever something bike or transportation related comes up, bikeportland is there in the middle of it because in this town, biking is such a big deal and so many people do it,” Maus says.

On a state level, Maus believes that its biking developments are “about a seven to eight” on a scale of 10 — the LOAB ranks Oregon number five out of the 50 states in terms of bicycle friendliness. On a national level, Maus thinks the country overall is a bit closer to a four out of 10.

“It’s pretty bleak and doesn’t show much great stuff at all,” Maus says.

He does say that many major cities are beginning to understand that in order to be seen as a livable and sustainable city, you have to take alternative transportation seriously on a government level.

“It’s getting beyond ‘You’re not a cool city if you don’t have bikes,’ or ‘You’re not a hip city where young people want to live.’ That was probably a couple of years ago,” says Maus. “Now, it’s being seen as this is just how you’re going to make a successful city that will actually work and be resilient.”

Many have followed Maus’ precedent since he started his blog in 2005. Currently among America’s top 70 cities by population, only four do not have an urban biking blog for their city. The power of these blogs comes from the collection of citizens using their voices to make a change at the government level, also known as a grassroots movement.

“What’s happening with biking is it’s coming from the bottom up. It’s taking longer to percolate and it doesn’t have billions of dollars behind it,” Maus says “But it’s starting to register on the national level slowly because people love it.”

This past election, the Greater Eugene Area Riders (GEARs), a nonprofit biking club in Eugene, understood the power of its own 320-member organization; it interviewed candidates running for Eugene City Council and endorsed whichever ones it thought would help promote cycling rights and improvements. This election, it was Betty Taylor, a councilor who believes that “Alternative transportation contributes to environmental protection and adds to the enjoyment of life,” Taylor said on her City of Eugene biographical page.

“I don’t think it could have done anything but helped,” says Taylor about her endorsement from GEARs. “I was very happy to get it — I really support biking.”

Richard Hughes, the president of GEARs, thinks that endorsements are potentially the most important aspect of the club.

“GEARs has changed in that five years ago, we were kind of a quiet bunch of people that all primarily rode road bikes,” Hughes says about the 21-year-old non profit organization. “Now, we represent commuters, we have bike classes, and we’re advocates [for all cyclists in Eugene].”

Richard Hughes rides the paths he helps create.

Although this is the first time that GEARs has endorsed political canidates, Hughes believes that elected officials need to start looking at a “GEARs position,” as it could be the percentage points needed for victory.

Hughes has expanded the GEARs discussion past Eugene. He now communicates and works with lobbying groups such as Transportation for America in order to help communicate the needs of Eugene’s urban cyclists to government positions.

City of Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy has been watching GEARs’ role in the government increase since she took office in 2004. She has worked with the group for the past couple of years, honing in mostly on their expertise and knowledge of what the cycling community needs and how they can get it.

“I don’t think in any election, I’ve felt anything like a ‘bike vote,’” she says, smiling at the thought. “So, to me, having people use and ride bikes and making bikes easier to use is keeping with both of those goals that I have for the way we will do things in our city.”

And, although she cannot ride a bike because of lower back problems, she knows that cycling is a part of the Eugene’s character.

“Every time we have a transportation project of any kind, [biking] is part of the discussion,” Piercy says.

According to the last census, 8.3 percent of Eugene’s population said that they bike to work, compared to .05 percent nationally. Lee Shoemaker notes that this number isn’t exactly accurate, because the census does not ask people who ride their bikes to school or stores. Regardless, Shoemaker would like to see that number doubled by the next census in 2020. The start to that, in his opinion, is an infrastructure that allows cyclists to feel safe commuting by bike.

“I think that’s one of the next biggest things about the safety and getting people to do it is make more streets more bike friendly,” he says, flipping through maps designating bike friendly and unfriendly areas. “And, that’s the next big push.”

Shoemaker finishes his inspection — his tire found no crack that could have sent him over his handlebars. Perplexed, he takes one last look around: nothing. But, he hasn’t checked further to the east. For another day.

The Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator turns his bike around and pedals away on the cold but sunny Eugene afternoon, keeping his eye out for any other potential hazards.

“You’ve got to make cycling safe for people to want to do it,” he says.

SIDEBAR 1

The most recent bicycle transport debate in Eugene, Ore. is cycling developments on the busy, four-lane S. Willamette Street. At the moment, there are no bicycle lanes between 18th and 32nd Avenues, which leads to Spencer’s Butte Park, shopping centers and residential areas.

“GEARs will need to play a leadership role in order to get this designated so that all modes are represented,” Hughes says.

With the Willamette project currently at issue, Piercy and Shoemaker are in the middle of a heated debate between cyclists and drivers who want their space on the road.

Shoemaker says that the Eugene biking master plan was calling for cycling reform on Willamette street back in 1974. The changes have been pushed from year to year for various reasons, but Shoemaker believes now is the time for the change.

“To me, a big indicator of when people are uncomfortable (riding a bike in the street) is when there are sidewalk bike riders,” Shoemaker says.

The sidewalks along Willamette street are bumpy, narrow and generally blind to drivers attempting to turn onto Willamette street. Although both Shoemaker and Piercy have received resistance toward the project from drivers, Shoemaker believes firmly that soon, cyclists will be able to ride safely on Willamette with drivers.

Improvements will be largely funded with Eugene Ballot Measure 20-197, which passed 64/35 according to the lane county elections page.

SIDEBAR 2

Oak Cliff — a suburb of Dallas, Texas — is not know for too much. Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assinator, once lived in the small area, but overall many Texans couldn’t tell you the first thing about it.

In the cycling community, though, Oak Cliff is establishing its name among other top cities from Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, a non profit organization promoting bicycle rights in Oak Cliff, has caught the attention of Jonathan Maus from bikeportland.org.

“They are doing some really cool things down there,” Maus said. “It’s always interesting to see these smaller towns pop up for doing really cool things with biking.”

Bike Friendly Oak Cliff focuses on making cycling fun and safe for the whole family, which will help build a strong infrastructure, they say. They are working to reshape Dallas streets and having a say in streets that are put in. The organization also works with local businesses to offer bike riders discounts and offers a forum where pictures of stolen bikes can be posted for the biking community to keep an eye out for.

In a southern city that reported only 820 commuters — .02 percent of their population — in 2010, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff believes that they can make a difference one suburb at a time.

“Bike lanes increase ridership. Ridership increases awareness. Awareness increases safety,” wrote co-founder Jason Roberts.

About Branden Andersen

Branden is a senior journalism major focusing on magazine journalism at the University of Oregon. He currently is the managing editor at FLUX magazine.
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