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Bike blogger's route takes a write turn

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Jonathan Maus wants to take politics out of Portland biking


by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of BikePortland.org, immerses himself in his work, writing several stories per day about safety concerns and the best of Portland's bike culture. 
Don’t call Jonathan Maus a cyclist. Call him a man on a bike (and sometimes a minivan).

Having spent every day of the past seven years thinking and writing about bicycling issues in Portland, Maus makes it a point to avoid labels like “cyclist,” “motorist,” “woman cyclist” and even “black cyclist.”

Such mode-specific labels are often around in the media, in advocacy lingo, in police reports and city transportation projects — and just contribute to the feeling of “us vs. them,” Maus says.

“If we just talk about people, there’s more of a chance people will relate to each other,” says Maus, the 37-year-old North Portland blog editor and publisher of the widely read BikePortland.org.

In 2005, before most people knew what blogs were, Maus (pronounced “mozz”) launched BikePortland as a way to instantly post photos, news and opinion pieces on everything he found exciting, inspiring and interesting about bike culture.

It was just as Portland’s urban bike revolution was exploding, and the innovations, infrastructure and conflicts — lots of them — were taking root. As city leaders tried to quell the tensions and yet make efforts to improve safety for the growing number of cyclists, bikes became a symbol of liberal city policies gone wild, and also of gentrification.

Through all of the twists and turns, Maus has been at the ground level, growing a loyal base of readers: 8,000 subscribers and 12,000 Twitter followers. It’s been so successful that he’s able to support his family (his wife and three kids, ages 1, 7 and 9) with the full-time venture.

That’s something he chalks up to both luck and a ton of work.

“Certainly something that was gonna happen whether I was documenting it or not,” he says. “I got to be the one with a camera and a blog.”

The venture hasn’t just been for fun. In much of his coverage, Maus has used his advocacy to hold city leaders’ feet to the fire to push for change, or to highlight local people’s accomplishments to inspire the masses.

For example:

• In January 2006, Maus broke the news that cyclist Randy Albright sued TriMet because of an altercation with a bus driver two years earlier on the Hawthorne Bridge. Tensions in the bike community boiled over, and Maus recalls that city leaders brought him into a room and asked for advice. Per Maus’ lead, they held a unity rally and launched the “I Share the Road” campaign, now a common bumper sticker, which Albright helped to create. TriMet also added its section to the bus operator manual called “Sharing the Road with Cyclists.”

• In October 2007, when two young people died in separate incidents while biking, it was another “huge watershed tragic community grieving moment,” Maus recalls. People went to BikePortland to get the latest news, vent their grief, call for change and hold city leaders accountable. The result: the mayor secured $200,000 for the city’s first green bike box, and police named a full-time bike community liaison. “I think it really showed the power of the blog,” Maus says of how events unfolded.

•Â For most of 2011 and into this year, Maus followed PBOT’s proposed “bikeway project” on North Williams Avenue, which soon morphed into the “North Williams Traffic Safety Operations Project.” With the name change, Maus suggested that PBOT was repositioning the project for political reasons, because of the racial undertones of gentrification in the area.

“Fearing push-back from businesses about automobile access and on-street parking, PBOT was on the verge of caving to the status quo,” he wrote in a postscript.

Seventeen months, a huge community planning process and about 40 posts later, a citizen committee approved a design and funds for the bike portion of the project were secured. But PBOT delayed the project indefinitely and is seeking additional money for the rest of it.

Maus says it’s a case in point as to why bicycling needs to be depoliticized.

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Devoted bike commuters like Sarah Reke – riding here in Northeast Portland in 2011 – aren't deterred by the conditions. Even as the number of people on bikes grow, it's still often an 'us vs. them' attitude on the road.

Advocacy journalism

When it comes to inspiring the masses, many in town were enamored by Maus’ profile last month of Ladd’s Addition supermom Emily Finch, who totes her six kids around town by bike.

“Watching her ... is a sight that not only inspires — it forces you to re-think what’s possible,” Maus wrote.

The story went viral, got picked up by local TV news and national news, and became the site’s most popular post ever, driving BikePortland’s daily traffic of 9,000 to 10,000 visitors to 15,000 during the month of July.

While Maus’ reach is broad — often highlighting bike trends and ideas around the world — some say it isn’t broad enough.

Gerik Kransky, advocacy director for the Portland nonprofit Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says Maus does a good job as an “advocacy journalist,” covering the issues he’s interested in.

But Kransky calls him out for not covering the upcoming $1.3 billion allocation of federal resources to transportation projects in Oregon, which the BTA views as the most important bike-related issue in the state.

“At BTA, we’ve been working on it really closely, staff, elected and appointed leaders,” Kransky says, “and Jonathan and BikePortland.org have been silent on that issue.”

Maus takes that to heart, first noting his limited manpower: he’s been a one-man operation since efforts to bring on paid managing editors and writers weren’t financially feasible.

Maus says he would like to be an ally with the BTA, despite their different advocacy styles. “With my megaphone and their resources, we could seriously be doing some amazing stuff,” he says.

Regarding the state transportation funding, Maus says he has addressed it his own way, through relationships; he’s published a lengthy interview with the director of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Finally, he stresses that BikePortland is about more than just about advocacy, which is the BTA’s bread and butter.

“That’s why I think we connect with people,” he says. “It’s a big tent for people to rally around.”

Dressing like bunnies

Whenever he can, Maus does his part to hold city leaders’ feet to the fire. by: ADAM WICKHAM/TRIBUNE PHOTO - A Portland Police officer rides past the new mural at Southwest 3rd Avenue and Ankeny Street, installed by Pedal Bike Tours. It's already becoming a tourist attraction.

From the window of his fourth-floor office downtown, he has a birds-eye view of the traffic below. He’s been able to keep tabs on a chunk of the city’s new “buffered” bike lane at Southwest Third and Stark Street, a long-promised section that “has become a joke,” Maus reported in April.

“Many people driving cars illegally drive in the bike lane,” he wrote, showing several photos he snapped from above. “In fact, the lane has become a de facto standard vehicle lane with many more people driving cars in it than bicycling in it.”

After he dogged the issue, PBOT set up cameras to monitor it (which malfunctioned), and then promptly restriped the traffic lanes. Maus will no doubt continue to monitor it for himself, and is pleased with the city’s response.

“It just becomes public,” he says. “It’s classic accountability.”

City leaders don’t fault him for shining a light on what he sees as problematic.

“Sometimes we agree with his assessments and sometimes we don’t,” says Dan Anderson, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “He’s thorough and uses the information we provide him fairly.”

The police also see Maus as a resource when untangling the sticky issues around bike conflicts on the road.

“How you say things matters to people,” says Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland Police spokesman who consults with Maus whenever a bike-related incident crops up. “Despite our best efforts ... there’s still an us-versus-them mentality between people on bikes and people in cars. It goes both ways.”

People other than bike enthusiasts have noticed Maus’ work.

In 2009, BikePortland.org was named the No. 1 bike blog in the world. In January, Portland Monthly magazine named Maus one of its 50 most influential Portlanders.

Maus is humbled by the success, considering he had no journalism training. An art history major at University of California-Santa Barbara, he worked in public relations and marketing for several years before moving to Portland in 2004 and launching the blog a year later by taking his best stab at news writing.

“I’m a news junkie,” he says, ‘I just get the tone; I always emulate it.”

In fact, Maus says, watching and emulating the best is something he’s done since he was a kid.

From doing impressions as a child, to copying the skills of NBA players as an aspiring pro basketball player (five knee surgeries took him out of that game), to watching videos of the Tour de France and shaving his legs to go all-out into bike racing — Maus was always looking to the best for inspiration.

The blog’s launch came in the heyday of the newly coined “creative class” — it was pre-”Portlandia,” to its fullest degree.

“Obviously, something really special was going on,” Maus says. “To us (as kids in Santa Barbara), bike culture was riding our cruiser bikes up Main Street. Here, it was people dressing up like bunnies, having free events in the park, people dressing like clowns on tall bikes. ... I got a sense this (bike culture) wasn’t happening anywhere else.”

Ironically, those quirky celebrations of bike culture still happen now but are so common, he’s long since stopped covering them.

In 2006, Maus says he was having so much fun that he slowly quit his other jobs and went all in. He told readers that he wanted to attend the March 2006 National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., but wasn’t comfortable using his own money when he wasn’t making any.

Within a few days, he says, people were so passionate about the cause that they donated more than $1,000 to fund Maus’ trip to the summit that year.

Maus hasn’t solicited money from the public since then, and because BikePortland isn’t a nonprofit he doesn’t receive any funds or grants.

Since 2007, he’s been able to make a profit from ad sales and paid job listings from local businesses. Still, he welcomes donations from people who like what he’s doing.

Now seven years into the venture, Maus is reflecting on how to move forward.

“My energy around the site has definitely changed,” he says, as his kids get older and he wants to spend more time with them. “I’m definitely tired; my brain has gotten worn out from all the controversy, tragedy, hundreds of thousands of comments. But I’m so appreciative that I can be in this position to have this amazing chance to do citizen journalism.”

His dream, he says, is to build a team to keep up the site and make it even bigger, but in order to do that he needs the money to hire staff.

For now, he’ll keep plugging away at the stories.

“Every week there’s a story that gets me excited,” he says. “I can’t imagine not being there.”

-jenniferanderson@portlandtribune.com



• Q&A with Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org


Portland Tribune: What are some common misconceptions people in cars have about people on bikes?

Jonathan Maus: I don't necessarily see these two people as being different. Especially in Portland, many people — including myself — drive cars (a mini-van, in my case) and ride bikes around town. But for folks that don't ever bike, I assume they might snap to judgments and stereotypes about people on bikes that have been ingrained in them from American popular culture. Many Americans not familiar with bicycling and/or who don't do it themselves, assume that it's only done for exercise and sport, or just by crazy young people, or by elitist "environmentalists" trying to save the world, or by people who simply can't afford or are not legally allowed to drive. None of those things are true of course, but cultural stereotypes are powerful.

Trib: Bike lanes or sharrows? Which of these would you prefer?

Maus: If I had to pick, I'd like to see more bike lanes; but I just want to see better bike access on our roads in general. Bike lanes are preferable to sharrows because they create space that is legally dedicated only to bicycling whereas sharrows are simply suggestions that bikes might be present on the road. Go ride over the St. Johns Bridge (which has sharrows) where people yell and honk and buzz by you and you'll know what I mean about them lacking proverbial teeth. That being said, bike lanes are considered 1990s technology. Today, engineers and planners are doing more robust things like buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks and parking-protected bike lanes.

Trib: What do you think about the new parking-separated bike lanes that are appearing around town?

Maus: I like them in some circumstances; but it really comes down to design. Each situation is different and there's got to be more to a bikeway than simply protected it with parked cars. I'd like to see these done with more pronounced signage and markings, and most importantly, they need to come with separate traffic signals for bicycle traffic.

Trib: What are the financial benefits in investing in more bike infrastructure?

Maus: The unspoken issue with too much auto use is the extreme costs they incur on our city. And on the flip side, what's often left out of the “cars versus bikes” debate is how much money we can save — and create — if more people rode bikes. Economists have shown that bicycling gives Portland a huge "green dividend" of about $2.6 billion a year. That number comes from not spending money on gasoline that goes to overseas companies and is then spent locally. We also save a lot of money on road maintenance by having so much bike traffic because bikes do not damage pavement to the extent cars do. People who bike regularly are healthier, spend less on health care, and visit doctors less often. There's also a large industry that has cropped up in Portland around bicycle manufacturing, product design, retail sales, and others. Dollar for dollar, there is simply no better transportation investment than building a system that offers high-quality bike access.

Trib: Do you think cycling is dangerous?

Maus: Yes and no. Statistically it isn't dangerous, but the public perception is very skewed because of the culture of fear that is common in America. Also, especially in Portland, when there is a fatal collision, it is often front page news for several days — thus creating a false sense of danger when the reality is that, on average, about one person dies while driving on Oregon roads every day. On the other hand, when cycling, people are mere feet and inches away from large, heavy steel machines and it only takes a minor driving error or tiny lack in judgment to result in tragedy. And because we have so many bike safety gaps in our system, it's common to sense danger when you're biking. Close calls and near-misses happen far too often.

Trib: Should some streets with heavy car, bike and foot traffic (such as Northwest 23rd Avenue) be car-free? What effect do you think it would have on businesses on that street? Do you see this in Portland's future?

Maus: Absolutely. The fact that Portland doesn't have a car-free street in a major commercial district is an embarrassment in my opinion. Many other countries — where transportation decisions aren't nearly as political and where cars are not seen as being synonymous with retail success — have streets where people are only allowed to be on foot. It's simple math really: You can fit a lot more people in front of a store if they arrive on foot or by bike. Parking cars is difficult, expensive and the noise and toxic exhaust they produce isn't conducive to a fun shopping environment in my opinion. I think Northwest 13th Avenue is a prime candidate to become a car-free street. And yes, it's definitely going to happen in the near future.

Trib: Are we truly "America's bike capital," as the new downtown mural grandly claims? Defend this title if you believe it to be true.

Maus: Absolutely, without a doubt, Portland is the bike capital of the world. Being a great bike city is about much more than infrastructure and planning policies and how many people ride bikes. In Portland, bicycles are woven into the fabric of almost every facet of this city and the culture that has been developed around them is without equal anywhere in the world. In Copenhagen and Amsterdam they consider bicycles to be like vacuum cleaners, merely a tool to perform a specific job. Here in Portland, many people celebrate bicycling; they decorate their bikes; they love their bikes. I think eventually we'll have it all — extremely high rates of bicycle usage, a safe and efficient network of streets with quality bike access, and a vibrant and dynamic bike culture.