The Big Idea – Show a Little Respect

Empathy, respect, compromise: all keys to overcoming stubborn resistance on the path to creating more bikeable, livable, healthy communities.

A few days ago I rode to my hairdresser’s house/office. From downtown Portland, you can take the Moody Avenue bike lanes, which lead to a separated path along Willamette River’s delights where you’ll see geese and herons, flowing water, peace. In between Moody Avenue and the path is a private access road fronting a longtime business, Benz Spring Factory.

At one time, in the early 1990s, this stretch of the path was unpaved and pockmarked. From the company’s perspective, its poor condition was just fine.

I was Portland’s bicycle coordinator at that time, tasked with building our bikeway network. I had been warned by a number of folks that Bill Benz was a tough customer who would never listen to me. I figured there was only one way to find out. And so, on a rainy day one spring, I rode over to meet with Benz.

It did not start well.

“City keeps sending folks like you, wanting to take my property.” His tone was flat and angry, his worn, leathery face flushed with emotion. He was of medium build, dressed in jeans and flannel, chest puffed up with some combination of pride and eagerness to fight me and whoever else dared to challenge him.

He showed me where a Parks Bureau official had told him they wanted the path – in a wholly different spot than the access road – along the back, riverside of his property, right where his grandfather had planted a row of now mature and clearly beloved trees.

“They want to take my trees,” he cried in anguish.

I could completely empathize with the parks official. The riverside was a better location than the driveway, providing both a better view and a more direct route. At the same time, with the recent passing of my own grandfather, I felt Benz’s pain.

“Tell me about your grandfather,” I suggested. “Did he start the factory?”

An hour later, my head was full of tidbits about leaf, coil and custom springs, from those used in mattresses, to airplane landing gear, diving boards, bicycle seats and more. Made right there, shipped all over the world. Quite interesting, I had to admit.

Finally, we ended up by the driveway, which he readily agreed to allow the city to pave, as long as business truck access was still prioritized. Deal!

Cost: $30,000. A bargain at twice the price.

Today, Benz Spring Factory and the cherished trees are still there, as are thousands of daily walkers, joggers and cyclists, peacefully co-existing on the paved path/ access road.

Here’s the lesson: we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. An old Texas expression, valid as Benz’s trees are tall. Empathy, respect, compromise: all keys to overcoming stubborn resistance on the path to creating more bikeable, livable, healthy communities.

Mia Birk is the award-winning author of Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet; president of Alta Planning + Design; principal, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc.; and co-founder of the Initiative for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation at Portland State University. For 20+ years she has been transforming communities and empowering people to bicycle for daily transportation, one pedal stroke at a time. She, her husband and 2.5 children (baby due in May) live and ride in Portland, OR.

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