Interview with Rex Burkholder

An Interview with Rex Burkholder

Rex Burkholder is one of the key reasons that the Portland metropolitan area is today a bicycle friendly region. Over the past two decades, he has come a long way from being a bicycle activist and founding the Bicycle Transportation Alliance to being elected in 2008 for a third term as councillor on the Metro Council. He first joined the Council in 2001 and represents District 5 in Multnomah County. Through the years, he has championed various causes aligned with his broader goals of achieving sustainability and mitigating climate change. He spearheaded the update of Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan and now leads Metro’s Regional Climate Action Strategy.

Drawing on experiences of interacting with communities while teaching high-school science, serving as faculty at the Portland State University Office of Student Development and as a founding trustee of the Coalition for a Livable Future, he has achieved tremendous success in engaging communities in crucial decisions. In 1998, he was voted the Most Effective Citizen Advocate in the metro region by 1000 Friends of Oregon and was honoured as a founder of a New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest in 1999.

Rex Burkholder earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy from Tufts University in 1989 and a teaching certificate from Portland State University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology. More details on the issues that he is pursuing are available on his webpage at

In this interview with The Urban Vision, Councillor Rex Burkholder talks about the need for organising communities to empower individual voices. He also praises the relative responsiveness of Metro to citizen’s needs and demands as well as the overall supportive framework provided by the state of Oregon. Councillor Burkholder appears hopeful and prepared to meet future challenges such as climate change and transportation safety.

Read on to understand what it takes for a determined individual to transform his will into the way.

Getting started

Let’s start at the beginning. What motivated you in the 1990s to take up the difficult task of transforming the way Portland lives?

It started with my involvement with the Boy Scouts. Scouting was an important part of my life. A part of it was going out and having fun, but it was mostly about public services by doing projects and helping people. Even as a young person, I was interested in environmental stuff and taking care of natural areas (though it wasn’t called that at the time). We would just go to pick up litter. I also started a recycling programme in my community as a boy scout. I think my family was a major influence. My mother is a major volunteer in her community and she had us volunteer as well.

So as an adult, it was pretty natural for me to look for an organisation that was doing work that I was interested in and volunteer for them or become a board member. I even started a couple of organisations because there weren’t any working on issues such as bicycling (biking).

I was always a bicycle (bike) user. I started biking as a kid and I never stopped. To me, it was a nice mixture of improving personal health, being able to enjoy the world, and also doing something for the environment. In the 1970s, the US had a major resurgence in the interest in biking. This coincided with the oil crisis, when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices. The US has always been very dependent on foreign oil. So for me, this was a big motivator; one that I have kept since. Hence, my whole life involved commuting by bike.

And then I had children. My first son was five years old when he got on to a bike by himself and we went riding in our community. At the time, there were no bicycle facilities anywhere. As a young male adult, I could ride anywhere. I could just race the traffic, yell and scream at the drivers, and make them pay attention. But having a child made me realise that children are much more vulnerable as they do not have such skills. At that time, this inspired me to look for other people with similar concerns.

It is always about other people too. An organiser cannot really be successful unless other people are interested too. So you can either get them interested, or if they are already interested, you just need to help them figure out what to do. And that’s what I did. I helped pull together a group of interested people to form the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). Some of the organising effort was quite mundane – who would keep the database of interested people; who would put out the newsletters and make sure it got to the post office; who would file the paperwork to create a legal entity that could collect donations, etc. Even though it was mundane, I had the time and interest and worked on that part. Then I worked on framing the issue in a manner so as to speak to people about it.

I also worked on understanding how the system works. That is in fact what brought me to this job. I found out that there was this agency (Metro) that actually had a lot of influence over how we spent transportation dollars in the region from the policy side, and the transportation dollars that came from the federal government were also redistributed through here. So I volunteered on a committee here – another volunteer opportunity. It was the Technical Advisory Committee on Transportation. I got to learn how the system worked – where the money came from; where it went; who made the decisions; how the criteria on policies were decided; and even all the acronyms of transportation! Gaining all that knowledge made my work with the organisation more effective because we could understand where the levers were to pull.

On the other hand, the organisation was very important and complementary, because it provided a voice. For instance, it allowed us to send 200 postcards to an elected official demanding action. Had I myself said that I wanted this, it would not have made any difference. I’m just one person; a volunteer. There are lots of people who want stuff. So no one would have listened. Therefore, organising is important for making explicit the desires of the public that were not otherwise seen by the elected officials and decision makers. This model of organising is something that I have learned a lot about over time. You gain power by giving voice to people who care about something but don’t know how to speak for themselves. When they speak together, they see results.

In the case of bicycling, our efforts really snowballed. Each time we had a success, more people came to know about it and the interest would increase. With the construction of bike lanes, more people would ride their bikes and demand more bike lanes where there weren’t any. So it led to a very rapid change. 20 years ago, none of this infrastructure was in place. Today, it is normal for us to spend a relatively large amount of money on bicycle facilities. Moreover, while thinking about each project we ask how we can make sure that it is safe for people biking and walking.

So, basically the philosophy is – one person could be an expert of the world, but why should anybody listen to him. But if you organise a lot of people around the same issue, then the people in power would obviously have to pay attention.

So when you started looking for other people who shared your concerns and passion, were they easy to find?

Well, one of the interesting aspects, and a good contrast, was the ease of finding people with biking interests versus those with walking interests. Everybody walks, and therefore, nobody feels like “I am walker and must fight for my rights.” But bicyclists seem to feel like they are an embattled minority – they are pushed around by giant vehicles and no one pays attention to them. So it was easier to say, “I am a cyclist and I identify with other cyclists”.

Some people join the effort for support because they need help with their concerns. Others do it for political reasons or for health reasons. We also received critical support from companies that sell bicycles as we help bring them customers. These relationships have enabled us to build the organisation fairly rapidly to be a pretty powerful force in the state.

20 years later

You bike wherever you go, transforming bicycles from a mere recreational tool to a serious mode of transportation. Do you feel there has been an attitudinal change towards biking over the past 20 years in line with the example you set every day?[1]

Compared to the rest of the US, Portland has actually seen a pretty big shift in terms of biking becoming a viable option for a greater number of people, even if this still isn’t true for a majority or even a large minority.

I think the key thing is to create the conditions where biking is actually an option. This is very similar to the history of transit in our country. Very few people took transit when it was of poor quality. Does it make any practical sense to ride the bus when it is unpunctual, unpredictable and infrequent? The same thing is true for biking.

However, with biking there are two issues that we have to deal with. One is making sure that the facilities are there and that people perceive them as safe and convenient.

The second involves addressing the public’s perceptions about general stuff like the weather. In Portland it rains all the time. How do you ride your bicycle in the rain? Well, you could put rain coats on! Maybe your socks get wet once or twice a year, but that should be ok. So a cultural shift is required too.

Moreover, we are such a rich country, even poor people typically own a car. I guess 9 out of 10 households have cars. Driving a car is very convenient and has been quite inexpensive. So why change? We are seeing a cultural shift now with lots of people making a change because they can choose to. They may do it because of political, economic or environmental reasons. So we do have a lot of people who have the option but choose not to use cars.

However, the largest percentage of people who ride bicycles still comprises those who do it for the economics. Biking is the cheapest, fastest, and most convenient way to get around.

Making sure these people are safe should have been a government concern for a long time. But all government planners drive cars and have always thought about cars. Maybe some took the train because they felt it was sexy. But biking? So there are these cultural barriers that we have to get across as well.

There are some neighbourhoodsin the region that have 10-15 per cent of residents who ride their bikes to work throughout the year. In the summer time when the weather is fine, you get an even higher percentage in neighbourhoods that are convenient. So there is the urban design and evolution issue too. You actually have to design it so that people can get to places they need to.

On average, the Portland metropolitan region fares well compared to the rest of the country in terms of biking for commute. For the whole region, including far-flung suburbs, about 4.5 per cent of commute trips are by bike (according to US census data) as compared to around 1.5 per cent trips by transit. So, biking is actually used more than a mode of transportation (public transit) that gets hundreds of millions of dollars every year. So just with a few million dollars, we get a pretty good response! Once you start biking, it’s just fun.

Absolutely! I went on a bike ride recently after ten years! It really was fun, especially the trail along the Willamette River.

I call trails “gateway drugs” to biking. Build a nice trail, with a beautiful park and a natural area, and people love it so much that they want to ride more. And then they are gradually willing to take on a road with a bike lane and so on.

Over 20 years later, do you feel you are close to achieving the vision you set out for when you started?

I had no vision. I just felt it wasn’t right to have your life endangered to ride a bike and we needed to fix it. At that time I didn’t have any answers. I had to do research for myself to find out what works and what doesn’t. I talked to people who know how roads are built to find out how we could make it safer for biking and if there was a better way to do it? So there was a lot of self education.

The vision, really, in my mind is about how we can develop cities sustainably. And transportation has a big impact on that. It may not be the be-all-end-all, but it certainly has a large impact in our circle of things. It is one area that is fairly discretionary in terms of choosing what mode to spend your money on. The choices of transportation spending in turn have a big impact on urban form and therefore, a big impact on things like greenhouse gas, pollution, safety and quality of life.

So that is why I focused on transportation. It all comes from that big picture of how we survive on this planet as a species without destroying it. Urban areas are where our biggest impact takes place.

And I understand that you are also an integral part of the update of the Regional Transportation Plan of Metro?

Well, we just finished that update and it was a four-year process. It is something that we do under a federal law every four years. But this was a major change in direction of that programme and we made that change happen by starting quite differently and actually going to the public and asking them what they wanted.

The way we did this was by first telling them that we spend $700 million on transportation every year just for the Portland metropolitan region (just public expenditure, not private). And then we asked them if they were getting what they wanted. And they would normally ask what we meant by this, and we would tell them that we wanted their opinion on what they wanted their community to be like and how they would spend transportation dollars to achieve that.

So what did we get from the different groups that we spoke to? There was a wide variety of groups (low-income groups, only-Spanish-speaking low-income groups, environmentalists, business people, health care professionals, etc.). When posed with this question, they all said the same thing – we want a strong economy, we want a safe and healthy community, and we want some place that is fun to live in and is a vibrant and exciting place to be.

It is these outcomes that we redesigned our transportation plan around, which is a totally different process from the rest of the US. The rest of the country focuses first and foremost on how to improve the flow of traffic. Then they get into details such as freight, but it starts out with transportation as an end in itself. But it is not.

Transportation is, in fact, a means to get to something that we want. Using this approach, one designs quite differently, asking how transportation would link with health, equity, economy etc. This is quite a different question, and so that is why it took so long to update the Regional Transportation Plan; because we redesigned it totally.

It is very interesting that now the federal government is taking a lot of lessons from what we learned, which we hope will help other states use a similar approach. They are also doing a lot of work to provide technical assistance to other places that want to do outcomes-based planning.

We have gone a step further now with outcomes-based planning and are using it for other decisions that we make like our land-use decisions and our design and development decisions. So for me, this is one of those revolutionary concepts that actually make so much sense. Why didn’t we do this before? Because we have a history of practice of doing it a certain way!

Current situation

Portland’s doing well on various sustainability indices. What do you think works for the Portland metropolitan area (policies, funding structures, infrastructure, land use planning, etc.)?

One thing that is very important and makes a big difference in Oregon is the state-wide planning system that we have. It was adopted in the ‘70s. It has 19 goals and while some of them are pretty obscure, the No.1 goal is public involvement. It says that the public has a right to be involved in every decision we are making in the government, specifically for land-use, transportation, affordable housing and similar issues. So there is this culture that has developed where people expect to be involved and the elected representatives and the government work to make sure they are involved; it is one of our big responsibilities. It has really been built into the culture.

Here is an example of how this responsiveness affected my advocacy. In many cities like New York and San Francisco, there is a very strong practice of Critical Mass[2] actions on a regular basis, where bikers shut down the downtown during rush hour and create all sorts of traffic conflicts as a protest against car-dominated planning. There was an attempt to organize Critical Mass for biking here as well, because it sounded cool. But the concept never caught on, and a lot of it was because we had a responsive government.

My organisation, which didn’t organise Critical Mass, was actually able to point out how much investment we are getting; that these problems are getting solved and the government is responsive. Again, this is an involvement piece, where we went to the government and said we have a problem and the government responded that they better solve the problem. We may disagree on the exact response, it may cost money with a fight over how much money gets spent on it; and support may need to be built over time. But the overall approach of the government is to listen to the public and accept there are problems that need fixing and agree to work on them.

This culture is very different from other states. I might complain about the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) a lot. But I am told that our DOT is actually very open, engages the public, and has an investment strategy that is quite different from any other state. This is all because of an open and responsive government.

What are the issues that remain to be addressed?

A big issue is safety. We still have a very motor vehicle oriented concern about safety. There is a huge lack of reporting. Unless someone is seriously injured or killed, it will not be reported as a biking or pedestrian accident. Moreover, the official response too often is “that person shouldn’t have been crossing the street there”, or “they should have been wearing bright coloured clothing”, when the real question is why do we have a 45 mph speed limit in a business area with houses around it? Well, it is because cars need to move fast!

So safety is still a big issue. Of course, the fatality rate has really been dropping in the whole country. I guess some of it is due to changes in attitude, which recognises that more has to be done for this section of road users. But we still just look at biking/pedestrian accidents simply as tragic, when instead we should be looking at our design to determine what is wrong with it. Why was this person going so fast? Why couldn’t they see the bicyclist? These are design issues that we can deal with.

In addition, enforcement of traffic laws is a huge issue. Speed is another regulatory issue.

Another issue is the ongoing subsidy for car use. Free car parking is available everywhere while it is still hard to find good bicycle parking. Given that the price of gas in the US is so cheap relative to the true cost of oil, it becomes very hard to convince car users to try the alternative. Well, why should they, when their existing mode is nearly free and comfortable and they don’t have to be rained on!

Finally, we must look at are our communities’ design in a new way. Can your child get to school easily within the neighbourhood? Can they get there on a non-busy road? Can they cross the street alright? We have not designed that way in very long time, because the assumption was that you drive everywhere. And so, it is very convenient if you have a car, while it isn’t if you don’t have one. This in turn affects equity, safety, and pollution. So a lot of work still needs to be done.

It is interesting that despite the relatively low gas prices, Portland has the highest number of hybrid cars in the US. What is your take?

We are early adopters. I don’t know where that came from though. We have the third highest number of Nissan Leaf’s that have been ordered, despite being a small community. There are big long lines in downtown Portland for I-phones. That kind of social innovation and interest in new things has benefited our investments in biking as well. People want to try something new, and are willing to be upfront about it.

Future plans

What will be your next steps after your current term as councillor?

My major concern right now is climate change, and how do we respond to that effectively. And I see that needing more and more work. I am not interested in running for an elected office. Metro is a very peculiar government, very different from most of the governments. I have been very happy here at Metro, because I have been able to make change happen within this environment.

What I hope to do now is make change happen on a larger scale. So I am in the process of exploring options for that. I do not have any answers yet. I could possibly work with a university or with another government; not as an elected official but as a manager in a programme that looks at the issue of climate change and how to respond to that.

Maybe you’ll have time to come down to India and spearhead community involvement there?

I would love to come down to India. I have been invited a number of times to South America to talk about sustainable transportation and climate change and what we have been doing in Portland. I think it is mainly because I am an elected official from the first-world who says, “I ride my bike and guess what, we are spending money to help people ride bikes and take transit”. This is a message that is not usually heard from the first world countries. They would usually recommend building a big highway and buying cars. So yes, it would be fun to come to India as well.

My takeaways:

  • Organising people around an issue is the best way of making your voice heard. Community engagement allows many individual voices to aggregate into a much stronger voice that cannot be ignored. However, this process is time consuming and often grueling, and takes a lot of determination and hard work. Constant efforts, discussions and marketing can also create cultural shifts, with more people willing to live sustainably.
  • Transportation, and for that matter any issue that affects daily life, is all about providing options. Governments should not impose any one solution on everyone, but rather create conditions that allow commuters to select active transportation including biking and walking as viable options. If the conditions are right and practical, a larger number of people will themselves make choices that favour of greater use of active transportation.
  • Urban design and form are key determinants of what transportation options are viable. Hence, instead of focusing policies on creating smooth transportation flow, a better approach would be to use outcomes-based planning, which considers efficient mobility as a means to achieve desirable outcomes such as health and equity.
  • The Portland region, and the state of Oregon, has a very responsive government unlike other regions of the US. This has allowed communities to be involved in major policy decisions and play an important role in shaping the urban form.
  • Nothing is perfect, and requires constant improvements and deliberations. Portland, despite being a leader in supporting sustainable choices such as active transportation, still has issue such as safety, culture and increasing car use to deal with.

[1](Portland residents are twice as likely to use transit and seven times more likely to commute by bicycle than the average metropolitan resident of the U.S., according to the latest census bureau estimates [Mayer 2007]

Source: Portland’s Green Dividend, CEOs for Cities).

[2] Critical mass in biking is basically a form of protest. The concept is that you get a lot of people on bicycles and they ignore the traffic rules because you have the critical mass. You have so many people on bicycles that you cannot be stopped.

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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.