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Portlanders See Through the “Bike vs. Car” Racket

Debate Club poster

Debate club poster
(Photo: Garrett Downen/Bus Project)

The Wheels to Wealth program is finally communicating with an audience it always wanted to reach out to. Program Director Sreya Sarkar took part in a debate in SE Portland that attracted the biking community of Portland.

As part of their monthly Debate Club series, the Bus Project and the Portland Mercury hosted a “bikes versus cars” debate at Rontoms on July 31, 2007. Four panelists were divided into two teams. BikePortland.org’s Jonathan Maus and Scott Bricker, the interim executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, were supposed to argue in favor of bicycles. Mel Zucker of the Oregon Transportation Institute and Sreya Sarkar of Cascade Policy Institute were supposed to argue for cars.

Sreya Sarkar listens to one of the many questions about the Wheels to Wealth program

Sreya Sarkar listens to one of the many questions about the Wheels to Wealth program
(Photo: Matt Davis/Portland Mercury)

The debate was set up to fuel the media- and politician-engineered animosity between bike and car supporters in Portland, but the pleasant surprise was that it turned out to be a forum for communicating new ideas across the artificially erected boundary between cars and bikes. A number of gray areas were recognized that diluted the identity of the panelists as strictly pro-bike or pro-car.

To start with, both panelists representing the bike side (Maus and Bricker) admitted to owning cars and driving occasionally. Then Sarkar discussed how both Metropolitan Family Service’s Ways to Work program and Community Cycling Center’s Create a Commuter program help low-income workers in Portland reach their places of work. Clearly, there should be space for accommodating both modes of transportation. Mel Zucker threw in a brief but thought-provoking discussion of jitneys, vehicles that can easily adjust to customer demand like buses but unlike the streetcar and light rail.

Mel Zucker objects to the data offered by the bike side

Mel Zucker objects to the data offered by the bike side
(Photo: Matt Davis/Portland Mercury)

All the panelists agreed that the population in Portland is growing by leaps and bounds. It soon will be difficult to “contain” Portlanders within the urban growth boundaries. Therefore, there is a need to encourage, if possible, the development of other urban areas like Portland beyond the West Hills or towards Wilsonville and connect them with good roads and expressways.

There were some interesting moments. The “stop and go” session was amazingly biased. A series of topics or ideas, like “federal funding for bike lanes” or “gas tax,” were supposed to be brought up; and the panelists were to be asked whether they think it deserves a thumbs up (Go!) or thumbs down (Stop!). But almost all the questions were more like, “Do you endorse all the bike-specific projects in Portland?” The debate moderator, Commissioner Sam Adams, displayed a completely unnecessary pro-bike stance throughout the debate. The animated exchange of comments between Zucker and Adams made the audience cheer a couple of times. Some statistical data were presented by both sides.

 The strange 'stop' and 'go' session

The strange “stop” and “go” session
(Photo: Garrett Downen/Bus Project)

The greatest takeaway from this debate was the amazing audience. The room was packed with 150-plus people, mostly bikers. As expected, they clapped whenever Bricker and Maus spoke, but they also cheered when the car supporters delivered. The intelligent audience could easily understand that the car-bike divide was overrated and that there were other intricate issues that are hardly discussed in public, such as the unyielding terrain, distances between residences and workplaces, and occupational reasons that make driving more feasible for some Portlanders. After all, transportation is the means to get to work and other places and not an end in itself. Someone from the audience also asked why TriMet was not included in the debate, since public funding goes into maintaining their services.

A huge crowd, including Steve Buckstein from the Cascade Policy Institute, listens to the debate.

A huge crowd, including Steve Buckstein from the Cascade Policy Institute, listens to the debate
(Photo: Garrett Downen/Bus Project)

Several blog postings and their responses after the debate revealed that the main mission of the Wheels to Wealth program is now understood by the organizers, participants and audience of the debate.

Some encouraging blog quotes:

“For all of the bikers who thought that everyone from the Cascade Policy Institute was a two-dimensional, cars-only monster, it was instructive to see that Sreya, who heads up the Wheels to Wealth program, is genuine in her passion for getting low-income people into good jobs.” — The Portland Mercury – Blogtown, PDX

“From what I heard last night she seems like a completely reasonable person with good intentions.” — BikePortland.org

“Both ‘sides’ in this debate (though there are probably more ‘sides’ out there that were not represented) are equal because we need to value a diversity of views regardless of whether one view has a majority or not.” — User comment at BikePortland.org

For more information on the Wheels to Wealth Project at Cascade Policy Institute, contact Sreya Sarkar at (503) 242-0900 or sreya@cascadepolicy.org.

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