The sad misadventures of milquetoast nincompoops

Sarah Iannarone's new gig will finally fix everything, right?

Iannarone is one of the most incompetent and out of touch people in Portland’s recent political history. After failing to unseat the most unpopular Mayor in Portland’s entire history, she launched a Political Action Committee on November 6th called “Our Portland PAC.” What was the strategic goal? Unclear. She only managed to raise or spend about $1,000 for her PAC, and this month abandoned that project when a new job came her way.

Now she’s landed a gig at The Street Trust. One of those ultra-liberal Portland institutions that is so wrapped up in ideological conflicts that it’s become functionally impossible to be an effective organization. And I guess the people over there have decided that bringing in a new hard-nose ideologue is the right path forward, the remedy to their past problems.

The Street Trust as an organization has been plagued with a multitude of political failures, with by far the most shining example being the rejection of the Metro “Get Moving 2020” bond by voters, which was backed by The Street Trust.

This group has endured consistent leadership failures for over a while now, with the real ugliness and problems with this group becoming apparent in the last few years.

Previously known as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance it was just a rowdy group of anti-car enviornmentalist activists. Their first victory being a contentious lawsuit against the City of Portland that the City was failing to meet Oregon’s Bicycle Bill. The people opposed to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance at the time were Verz Katz and Earl Blumenauer, which isn’t too surprising really given that the Oregon Bicycle Bill was originally written by 1970’s Republicans. BTA actually lost the initial lawsuit and only won in the Court of Appeals.

Out of the lawsuit the City of Portland adopted a bicycle Master Plan. According to Rex Burkholder:

We heard of planners and engineers in towns everywhere saying that “we have to include bike lanes or those crazy bicycle advocates will sue us.”

And that’s basically where this group peaked: “crazy bicycle advocates.”

When Portland entered the 2000’s, essentially a Golden Era or urban revitalization and culture in this city, we saw a surge of alternative thinking, new businesses, and biking. An early 2000’s rise in gas prices lead to increased bike usage and apparent victories for the BTA and bike-friendly City Planners. The zeitgeist of the time was that Portland was a Bike City and bikes were in vogue, everyone will bike and like it, damn’t. With a new plan to invest in biking there was going to be a bike revolution.

In this phase of biking growth it became clear that this really isn’t the equitable activity we had all imagined. Early studies were showing, and it became evident just by looking at the community, that biking was overwhelmingly a white male activity, and predominately young and college-educated white males who are unmarried and without children. These early studies made it completely clear that minorities (particularly black folks and women) did not want to use bikes with concerns about being assaulted by an automobile or cat called by pedestrians or drivers. Liberals believed this core concern was easily dismissed, of course, and that we could somehow brain wash or propagandize minorities into believing that white supremacists won’t run them off the road.

The real problems began in the 2010’s, with probably the biggest case study being the North Williams bike lane project. Between the 1990’s and the 2000’s the white community became a major demographic of North Portland, growing from 20% of the populace in the 90’s to 50% in the 00’s. As the City Club described it:

Over the past decade, those same neighborhoods have experienced what is broadly referred to as"gentrification," where young, white, middle class to affluent individuals and families have moved into those communities, attracted by affordable property values.

The product of these two events has been a fundamental change in the demographic makeup of Portland's historically African American neighborhoods. The installation of additional bicycle infrastructure was viewed by the remaining community members as another disruptive public project carried out without sufficient input from the affected neighborhoods, and as an event that would further erode the character of the community through gentrification.

Your committee heard testimony that many community members along North Williams had repeatedly called for pedestrian safety improvements over the past several decades, with little to show for it. The sudden interest in bicycle improvements in the neighborhood was perceived as the city catering specifically to the younger, white homeowners who had recently moved in.

So, it was a wee-bit racist. Bike projects across the city echo this, with bike activists willfully ignoring that they are a homogeneous community with myopic civic goals only interested in building a little utopia for their privileged class who enjoy a specific hobby. Embracing biking as the only acceptable transportation option is white cultural hegemony on the same scale as the city investing exclusively frisby golf, or, eh, regular golf for that matter, with a 40-something white guy saying that investing in golf isn’t racist because Tiger Woods golfs.

Completely undisturbed by this trend, Portland’s biking liberals shouldered on courageously trying to jam new biking infrastructure into anything they could. Up through 2014 it seemed to be working, biking commuters and bike utilization was increasing, so ostensibly all of these investments were working and were justified. Nevermind that many other cities were seeing similar growth without infrastructure, because biking is tied to gas prices with the peak in oil prices hitting in 2014.

During this peak of bike utilization, in 2013, the City Club of Portland published a lengthy report calling out many of the failures of bike advocates. This report really should be taken as the last sober thought this city ever had about bicycling as it lays out completely rational assessments:

In short, your committee finds that the right question is no longer "Should we promote bicycle use?" It is: "How should we structure our transportation system to optimize choice, efficiency and safety for all modes of transportation, including bicycling?"

….

While Portland has made measurable progress in expanding bicycle ridership and improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, perception trails reality. Your committee heard repeated examples of poor stakeholder identification and engagement for bicycle planning projects, as well as poor communication of those projects' timelines and impacts. This lack of due diligence has made some projects needlessly controversial or vulnerable to delay and cost overruns.

….

Your committee concludes that there is little organized opposition to bicycle use in Portland. However, there is latent, but pervasive, uneasiness among some residents that expanding bicycling opportunities will come at the expense of other modes of transportation.

The document goes on to explain completely no-nonsense compromised based politics that would result in better transportation and happier residents like:

…these may include turning low-traffic streets that parallel major thoroughfares into"bicycle boulevards," limiting some on-street parking, especially close to intersections where sight lines are impeded, and creating additional bicycle-friendly routes between neighborhoods, similar in design and function to the Springwater Corridor and the I-205 bike/pedestrian path. However, this also may include eliminating some current bicycle lanes on high-congestion streets and designing safer options for bicyclists that incentivize alternative routes and discourage direct interaction with motor vehicles where possible.

This type of compromise is basically what everyone has thought made the most sense: let’s build some dedicated bike roads, only for bikes, and we need to take bikes off of some roads entirely. Yet this type of reasonableness is completely unpalatable today, mostly because a fringe of the community hasn’t cared about the transportation policies, only their quixotic environmentalist ambitions.


Internal to The Street Trust / Bicycle Transportation Alliance, problems have been happening all along.

Scott Bricker was fired in 2009, and according to Bike Portland reporting it was expected that Scott was brought on board in 2007 to:

right a ship that has been slowly drifting off course for years. Bricker replaced a former executive director, Evan Manvel, who left the organization after a similarly short tenure (two years) marked by mixed accomplishments.

Bricker was the eighth staff member to be let go by the BTA in the 2009 calendar year

Internally some of this mess were financial issues, as in 2008 they were operating at a loss over fairly substantial accounting problems.

Bicker’s postmortem pointed to problems within the BTA over opinions on the Columbia River Crossing project. This is very likely because one division of the BTA are realists who understand we desperately need a new bridge with modern requirements to match future growth (and simply want associated bike lanes across it) and apocalypse worshiping environmentalists who believe any concession to car culture is treason of the highest order, in particular if it increases vehicle utilization (which a new and bigger bridge would).

BTA looks for a new leader and finds Rob Sadowsky, an activist from Chicago, in 2010. Rob Sadowsky led organizational maturity at BTA, in particular getting a 501c4 (a political arm) established. While some BTA employees were ousted and there was internal shakeups, things seemed stabilized until 2017 when Mr. Sadowsky was suddenly (and without prior notification) kicked out of the group. I don’t know the internal drama, this was announced the day after the group renamed it’s self The Street Trust, and reading between the lines it’s because they had more political ambitions and wanted more funding.

Then Jillian Detweiler came along and she seemed to offer more of the same that Rob Sadowsky offered: political lobbying and funding candidates. She’s the one who pushed the Get Moving 2020 bill into Metro and on to the ballot, but in truth these were priorities from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance that dated from way back in 2005. People really weren’t impressed and the belligerent in the community really wanted more. This schism (among other issues) has lead to splinter groups like BikeLoudPDX, with the difference between Bike Loud and The Street Trust being like the difference between AOC and Bernie Sanders: old liberals vs young liberals.

When Ms. Detweiler resigned in the summer of 2020 a trio of people took over the role. The only news of the departure is again from Bike Portland:

As for why she chose to move on, Detweiler said “financial headwinds” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic were part of the decision, but that the organization is “in a stable financial position” due to donations and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.

So, financial issues, again. This seemingly brought The Street Trust to become a skeleton crew.

It’s unclear why a horizontal trio of leadership didn’t work out and The Street Trust are now are convinced that a terrible and failed politician (who has no financial experience) is the right solution. Perhaps you’re thinking, well Sarah Iannarone learned how to be a good fund raiser during her campaign? Nope. According to tabulation by Jack Bog, “As of October 16, the city had forked over to her campaign the princely sum of $557,770.” Yes, she raised money, but a huge chunk of her war chest was tax dollars.

Equally though, approximately 40%-50% of The Street Trust’s funding (approximately $400k) comes from government contracts.

Essentially, Sarah Iannarone has moved from one tax payer supported job that’s completely useless, to another.

What does the future of this group look like under her watch? Given her ideology and this recent trend of failing Portland nonprofits proposing new taxes that directly fund their organizations, I’m going to bet she’s going to take a page out of their history and propose a new public revenue stream for transportation. It’s very likely that this new tax will in some way support this institution.

Another predictable direction this group will go is highlighted in the comments of the Bike Portland article:

It seems that every non-profit in Portland is hearing the Sirens signing to them that they now must pivot to racial/social/climate justice instead of their original mission. The Sirens are sure to lure many of them into the rocks of confusion. I would just like to be able to bike around town with out worrying about getting hit by a speeding car every other minute. Anything wrong with that?

I completely emphasize with this commentator, but at the same time, when looking at big picture policies like our city’s transportation direction, we shouldn’t willfully ignore the opinions and needs of minorities, and that’s precisely what the bike community did in the past. Today though, if they try and listen to minorities, they’re going to find a message they don’t want to hear.