Blogger rallies the biking faithful, and City Hall blinks

When Mayor Tom Potter's budget left out $100,000 for a seemingly arcane bicycle master plan, Jonathan Maus knew he had a story.

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Published May 10, 2007 by The Oregonian
By Ryan Frank 

When Mayor Tom Potter's budget left out $100,000 for a seemingly arcane bicycle master plan, Jonathan Maus knew he had a story.

Maus had covered the plan for months on his bike-only Web site, bikeportland.org. When they saw the mayor's budget, Maus and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance posted to their respective blogs and called on their thousands of readers to e-mail the mayor's office.

Within three weeks, cyclists fueled by Maus and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance logged the second-most e-mails and letters to the mayor in more than 18 months. On Monday, Potter found some extra cash, and the plan got its money.

The campaign shows the bike community has arrived as a player in City Hall politics.

The master plan, basically a big report that lays out the city's blueprint to encourage more cyclists, is a tiny piece of the city's $3 billion budget. Potter's folks say he wanted to fund it anyway. For them, the e-mail blitz just confirmed that people cared. And in a political context, bike backers still trail the numbers who turn out for police issues.

But their ability to draw so much interest so quickly puts them among the most effective grass-roots, low-budget organizers around.

"When you talk about clout, we have new exciting players in City Hall," said Scott Bricker, policy director at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, who counts Maus among those players.

Only in Portland.

Only here can Maus, a self-taught Web journalist/bicycle advocate, help drive a grass-roots campaign to shake loose $100,000 from the mayor.

"I'd give Jonathan a lot of credit," says Commissioner Sam Adams, who runs the city's transportation office.

Only here can a 32-year-old with a passion, a laptop and a camera support a family of four writing about city bike funding, clown bikes and the Sprokettes, a girls stunt-bike team.

"I wouldn't recommend it to anybody," Maus said. "It's blind idealism"

Only here do people such as Jonathan Maus seem to end up. Far from Orange County

Maus reports and writes from a home office at the back of his 80-year-old bungalow on North Michigan Street. His wife, Juli, and two girls, ages 4 and 1, play in another room.

Maus is part of a new wave of young people who've found a home amid the new urban lifestyle that's sprung up in Portland since 1990 or so. They arrived chasing the city's vibrant downtown and relatively affordable houses.

It's a far cry from Orange County, where Maus grew up. "A concrete jungle," he says. His stepdad and mom, both teachers, got him into cycling. At 12, he did his first 100-mile ride, stopping to nap part way.

After college, Maus rolled through bike-related jobs. By 2004, he decided Southern California and its glitz didn't fit him.

"It was getting hard to relate to people with a couple of million dollars in the bank," he says.

Maus and his wife fell for Portland's bike culture and cheap houses.

"We just came up and bought a house in a weekend," he says. "Typical Californian." Pedaled into bike politics

Bikeportland.org took off early last year.

Maus created the blog in summer 2005 and pedaled his way into the city's bike world. He wrote about rides to Kelley Point park and new street markings.

But he says he hit it big with the Randy Albright story.

After a close call, Albright pulled in front of a TriMet bus to get the driver's attention. The driver opened the door and allowed a rider to get off and assault Albright. Maus broke the story with pictures from the bus's camera, a reporting coup.

"I was a journalist all of a sudden," he says. "I got the story up, and it went absolutely crazy."

This, Maus thought later, was the first in a series of signs the Web site might make a full-time job.

He had contract work helping bike companies on marketing and sales. But he was quickly losing interest and falling in love with the blog. He told his wife he was done re-signing clients. Soon, the Web site would be the family's main income.

He figured a good Web site would sell — eventually.

"That was probably a really bad decision," Maus says. "I have two kids." Journalist or advocate?

Maus loves scoops, but he wasn't the first to break news of the bike master plan last month.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance, a Portland-based bike advocacy group, sent an e-mail alert to its thousands of fans. Maus picked it up and repeated the alliance's message for an e-mail campaign. The bike plan debate, Maus says, "is the result of something I've been building to for a long time."

This April, Maus says he had 1,800 subscribers plus 41,000 unique visitors to his Web site, more than twice as many as a year earlier. Half his readers are Oregonians, but in March he had at least 100 visits from every state. He says his idea has spawned imitation sites in Seattle and South Carolina.

Maus' site is "probably the best bike blog in the world," Bricker says.

Maus' popularity helps generate $3,000 a month in ad sales, $50 a pop for job postings and a few bucks for picture sales. Combined, they make Maus the rare local blogger who can make a living on writing.

But Maus is conflicted.

He wants to be a more professional reporter, but he also wants to keep his activist roots. He interviews city bike planners as a reporter and sits on the bike master plan committee as an advocate, a step that's usually forbidden for independent journalists.

"Jonathan has to be careful," Bricker says. "Is he a media source? Is he an advocate?"

At home, Maus is conflicted about not seeing his girls during work on days that can stretch 15 hours. This week, he was about to leave for a dinner party with his family when the phone rang.

Naito Parkway got its new bike lane striping, the caller said.

Maus jumped on his Co-Motion road bike and rode out to snap a picture. He got the story first, but he was late to dinner, causing a minor domestic disagreement.

"To many people, that's really important," his wife says of the new bike striping. "But I see it differently."

Yet it's that endless curiosity and obsessive determination to "celebrate what's going on and make it better" that's made bikeportland.org work.

Reflecting on the site, Maus says: "At one point I'm really excited. Then I think I'm a loser.

"It's totally insane. I'm totally out of control with this thing."

Ryan Frank: 503-221-8564; ryanfrank@news.oregonian.com

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