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Profile in Leadership: Sam Adams
Recently, we were honored to welcome Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Ore., and current director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute to the League Board of Directors. In the Fall issue of our magazine, American Bicyclist, Adams shared insight on his leadership approach to make biking better.
How has your interest in and leadership around bicycling evolve over your career?
As a kid growing up in Newport on the Oregon coast, my Dad got me hooked on bicycling. When I was 14 years old, he bought us matching bikes. Neither wind, rain or logging trucks deterred us, although looking back it probably should have. We would ride up and down the Highway 101 and into the Coastal mountains. Our longest ride was 855 miles over the Rocky Mountains to Threeforks, Montana, to visit my grandparents. I still love the camaraderie, simplicity and freedom bicycling provides and that I first experienced as a kid. As a leader, I seek to bolster biking’s benefits of environmental sustainability, convenient exercise, and affordable mobility that often offers the quickest and most dependent urban travel option.
In your tenure as Mayor, how did you mobilize and empower the different leaders within the government and community to improve bicycling in Portland?
We built on groundbreaking past efforts like those put in motion by then-City Commissioner now-Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). We looked at inspiring examples from other cities. We researched the heck out of the key issues. I involved all transportation mode stakeholders in the process of developing The Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030. Key principles of the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030: attract new riders; strengthen bicycle policies; form a denser bikeway network, especially in East Portland; increase bicycle parking; expand programs to support bicycling; and increase funding for bicycle facilities. These principles were infused with an overarching focus on bicyclist and pedestrian safety. And, to inspire excellence, I set a public goal for Portland to attain the League’s Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community rating.
How have you created collective buy-in to make Portland more sustainable and bicycle-friendly?
I take what I like to call a ‘radical common sense approach’ to the work. I seek to offer clear direction, an outcome or goal and explanation of how it fits into the bigger context of making Portland more prosperous, healthy, educated and equitable. Still, while offering direction, I try keep an open mind. Research is key. So is gathering a representative group of stakeholders together to advise on every step of the work. Have a great staff, which I did. I like to see things for myself. I like to talk to people face to face.
With this team effort, we expanded Portland bikeways system by 75 miles, and focused new investments — like the Bike Box Program — to address the 25 most dangerous streets and intersections for bicyclists and pedestrians. We expanded the Safe Routes to School program and launched Portland’s summer Sunday Parkways bike program, which attracted 109,000 participants last year. In 2008, Portland was designated a Platinum BFC, only one of four in the country.
I want to use lessons learned as a local government leader to help bicycling reach its full potential in this nation as a neighborhood-strengthening, cost-effective transportation option that offers multiple benefits to promote health, environmental sustainability, affordability and equity of access.
During your tenure as Mayor you shared your desire to make Portland “the most sustainable city in the world.” How did bicycling play into that vision?
Because of bicycling’s multiple benefits, to the individual and the community at large, it was a key point of action to make Portland “the most sustainable city in the world.” Portland’s bikeway infrastructure was lacking in East Portland and Southwest Portland. We worked hard to address these deficits, especially East Portland, and brought local residents and business owners to the table to help get it right. We also did public opinion research to gain insight into what it would take to get more Portlanders to take more trips by bike — the nonriders who could be potential riders. The views of this group shaped our work to prioritize the construction of greenways (quiet streets that are prioritized for bikes and pedestrians over automobiles) that connect neighborhoods, more road separated bikes lanes and curb extensions/swales and green bike boxes.
It seems bicycling advocates have become less inclined to highlight bicycling as a means to address climate change. How can we grow partnerships between the climate protection and bicycling movements?
In Portland and Oregon, bicycling as part of needed climate action remains front and center! As the city notes: “40% of Oregon’s carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation, the fastest growing source. Meanwhile, about half of all trips in Portland are three miles or less — a distance easily covered on a bicycle without breaking a sweat.” In my new role, I lead a smart team of researchers to analyze and develop new policies and support coalitions that will encourage the U.S. transition to a strong, low-carbon economy. At WRI, we have just embarked on an effort to compile and report on greenhouse gas emission data on a U.S. city-by-city basis. Hard to believe, but this has yet to be done. We’re working to include all transportation-related climate pollution data, including a more accurate accounting of avoided greenhouse gas emissions based on bike trips. It’s nerdy stuff, but it’s important research that can serve as a factual basis to improve how we plan and operate bike infrastructure and more fully integrate it into all transportation projects.
Why are you excited to serve on the League board?
I want to use lessons learned as a local government leader to help bicycling reach its full potential in this nation as a neighborhood-strengthening, cost-effective transportation option that offers multiple benefits to promote health, environmental sustainability, affordability and equity of access. As a Board member, I also hope to help strengthen the League’s partnerships and connections with both national business and racial justice organizations.