Friday, October 5, 2012

When Envy Leads to Hope


At times one can get a little envious of some communities. I remember hearing that my great-grandmother (who never really learned to speak English beyond a few phrases) called envy “the green-eyed devil.” So, I’m aware that one should be careful about this.


It is hard not to be a bit envious (from a cycling standpoint) of a town like Corvallis, where the biking culture is so engrained that years of improvements have led to not only a rich cycling infrastructure but also a mindset, where in much of town bikes are just part of the landscape. They aren’t toys or oddities. They are functional and usually very unremarkable appliances for moving around town.

Signs of all types are posted for cyclists to use, showing that they are an expected part of the transportation world here…

Yes, you are reading this sign correctly...

Many traffic lights are specifically set up to detect bicycles, allowing them to stay in their own lane when appropriate…

Lots of parking accommodation has been developed, including covered parking (something that really makes clear the equality of cycling with auto use of a downtown)…

Lots of paths for cyclists and pedestrians, well separated from auto traffic (or entirely removed from its proximity) are provided…and much of it well maintained and very smooth.

In short, a lot of emphasis and expenditure over a long time.

I know Corvallis is a college town (I grew up there), and I know it has very different demographics compared with Salem. It is also very flat in most parts of town. However, I cannot help but feel when I travel there that one of the essential elements to Corvallis is a commitment to thinking well beyond the auto, grasping the benefits to community, fitness, creativity, and openness to new currents in what civic life might mean. In short: I don’t get the feeling people are as afraid of the future there.

I think Salem can be a bit more like this, if we allow ourselves to value our downtown and older neighborhoods in a similar way as Corvallis has done. It is easy to forget that the major improvements to the riverfront area of Corvallis were resisted for years by the “powers that be” downtown; it wasn’t always a pro-biking and pro-renewal mindset there. But eventually a coalition of longstanding Corvallis leaders decided that the status quo wasn’t reflective of the best that town could be, and they overcame the resistance through determination and vision.

Biking isn’t the solution to everything…not by a long-shot. But, it can have a surprising “multiplier effect” in communities by changing the scale, pace, and culture of a downtown from a mass of buildings one just tries to get through to a destination where people and the community they create are the focus. I think this is one of the great challenges for all U.S. cities now: how to encourage encounter in an age of electronic isolation.

As a parish priest, I try to take time out of my pastoral responsibilities to the congregation I serve and be part of the community scene…not only by serving on boards or taskforces, but (most importantly, I think) by simply being downtown: in a coffee shop, chatting with people on the sidewalk, or greeting folks along the way. Cycling helps make that possible by moving the emphasis from isolated “through-put” to engagement and encounter on the human scale. That’s the deeper purpose; exercise and spiritual satisfaction are added benefits, really.

In its way, Salem is groping towards a more modern and livable urban environment. We have a great many pieces of the puzzle already. There are a number of functional cycling elements in place, and others that could be developed without too much difficulty. Things like the Waterfront and traffic-calming downtown are great signs that space for people matters. But, there’s more to it than that.

We are a more diverse community by many standards than Corvallis, and that is actually extremely important, for that is the reality of our nation. By having venues for our burgeoning and fermenting culture to mix, share, and peaceably exchange ideas, we are planting seeds to enhanced livability well into the future. Auto culture tends to lessen this sort interchange, typically emphasizing convenience, individuality, and "cocooning." Cycling encourages a dynamic of interchange by making our cities richer places for humane interaction, rather than alleys for impersonal “in-and-out” transportation or venues for mere consumer transactions.

So, while I do sometimes envy a place like Corvallis for its cycling and community culture, that envy just makes me want to find ways to encourage Salem to embrace both its gifts and challenges in a spirit of hope for the coming years. That’s what the best of those before us did. Perhaps a brass plaque will be put up for our era’s efforts to make life more truly enjoyable and enriching as well!


  1. This is great. So many of the comparative examples come by way of Portland, and as a much larger city, in many ways they are not a good comparison.

    I hope you'll be able to find analogues in Corvallis that illuminate - positively or negatively - situations in Salem!

  2. Great post, UC. My personal observation of cycling in Salem is that it's gathering more momentum. Maybe it's the amazing weather we've been having, or the price of gas, or the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from getting around on a bike. Whatever the reasons, more bikes are moving about town. That said, there are some really troubling spots around town that are scary enough to discourage many folks from taking bike transportation seriously.

    We absolutely need to learn from communities near us, and like us, regarding infrastructure choices and how they serve our long-term goals. Riding and walking are not for everybody but we're not getting any healthier, or more connected with each other, by sitting in our automobiles.

    Glad you're on Salemites! Your blog has quickly become one of my favorites.

    1. Thank you, Kelly, for the kind words and the insights. I, too, have noticed a surprising uptick in not only the number of cyclists here in town, but also the variety of types of cycles and cyclists (something discussed over at SBOB a few weeks back). Like most really good things, utility cycling will probably grow in popularity not as a result of a marketing campaign but because people see the real benefits and decide to investigate. Having the improvements that are going on right now in Salem makes a big difference in translating "investigation" to action. Having some cycleries in town that are beginning to support something more than recreational cycling in a big way is also a help.

      The problems in Salem's over-all scheme for multi-modal transport are real, as you point out. My personal goal is to help out in at least one area: getting a grid of excellent bikeways through downtown from the river to the railway on 12th, and from Mission to Market. We need the core to be fully traversable in intelligent, low-perceived risk ways. Other major issues (to me) include maintenance of bike lanes (debris removal), encouraging schools to train kids in bike safety/maintenance, bike-trains to schools, bike compliance with traffic regs (though I'm hardly perfect here), covered bike parking (perhaps w/solar on top), and increased bike usage/infrastructure in connection with Cherriots. Quite a lot, I know; but I tend to see this issue as a gestalt rather than just pieces. There is a lot more to consider, but it is a start.

      The weather we have been having is simply stunning. I remember only a handful of such autumns over the years of living in Oregon (most of my life). I know some are getting worried about the lack of rain (and there is reason to be, of course), but I'm mostly just lapping up such beautiful weather in this, my favorite month of the year.

      Again, thanks for visiting this blog. I'm happy to be of service to Salem...while I enjoy taking a break from pastoral matters and write/think about something related, but different!