Rex Burkholder, ever the environmentalist, is concerned about a new endangered species in Portland: the biking public official.
Burkholder helped found the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and, as the influential group’s policy director for most of the ’90s, led the pack in Portland’s ascent to bike-city renown. Today, Portland’s bike culture seems vibrant. But Burkholder, now a Metro councilor, insists that if local leaders don’t actively foster the culture, it could fade like an old lane marking.
“You have this great bike culture that’s really ensconced, but it takes investment and support,” he says.
Part of that support, he says, is “the leadership saying, ‘[Biking] is a good thing, we need to invest in it, and we need to live it ourselves, too’”—to wit, the leadership actually riding bikes. But Burkholder says the population of Portland’s biking public officials is in decline.
“I mean, who else is out there riding?” he asks. “The mayor made a big deal about riding when he first got elected. I think his life has gotten more complicated; I don’t think he rides now. Randy Leonard was riding for his health; I don’t know if he’s still riding or not—you don’t hear about it.”
For his part, Burkholder uses a bike for “99 percent” of his transportation and logs, on average, 10 miles a day—making him perhaps the most visible politician on two wheels in Portland.
“Anything I need to do outside my house is by bike,” says Burkholder, who lives in Southeast. “The joke is that I ride my bike because I’m too lazy to walk.”
On one recent workday, I caught up with Burkholder for a ride from Metro’s headquarters in the Rose Quarter to a meeting downtown.
He emerged from the building dressed, per usual, business-casual, and pedaled on his Trek Soho bike onto Northeast Lloyd Boulevard. It had been raining intermittently, but Burkholder says, having been tempered in the extreme winters and summers of the Midwest, Portland weather almost never fazes him.
“When it starts raining,” he says, “I put on my rain pants and my raincoat, but it’s rare that the weather’s actually a factor.”
He headed down to the Eastbank Esplanade, then onto the Steel Bridge bike-ped path.
Maintaining a professional appearance—avoiding the sweat-soaked, windblown look—is a matter of planning and pacing, Burkholder says. He gives himself time to ride unhurriedly. He carries a comb. He arranges his schedule so he doesn’t have to bike long distances in work clothing.
“I think that’s where people get intimidated,” he says, “because if it’s a really long distance, then you do have to treat it like an athletic event.”
Downtown, Burkholder coasted along the waterfront. When he arrives on a bike at appointments, he says, “people do remark like it is something special still.”
But as biking becomes more commonplace—or perhaps just as more people get used to seeing Burkholder biking—that’s changing.
“For many years, it was like, ‘This is really odd behavior,’ to ride your bike,” Burkholder says. “Now it’s like, ‘Well, that’s kind of cool that you do that.’”