Portland is America’s bike capital, whether a mural says it or not. With a bike commute mode share of 7.2 percent, its success isn’t the result of a one single person, but a whole community of caring people who love to experience their city by pedal.
One person, though, has been Portland’s bike soul for the last decade: Carl Larson.
During my two years living in Portland (2008-2010), I met Carl a few times because he was dating a good friend of mine, Sarah Mirk (who deserves her own ode for her greatness), who often helped open my eyes to Portland’s bike scene, especially during Pedalpalooza. Naturally, Carl was always there helping to run an event, always with a quiet, calm and confident yet unassuming voice, just making everything better.
Later after I moved to Seattle, Sarah invited me on a weekend ride they were doing from Everett to a farm past Arlington on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. As Sarah explained, they were going to the Smoke Farm Symposium, an annual gathering of scientists, activists, scholars, artists, and journalists on a former dairy farm with lectures and a dinner catered by a great Seattle chef, which is organized in part by Brendan Kiley of The Stranger. You camp out. I was in.
On a late September morning, we biked the Snohomish flats, suffered up the 20th St SE hill (14% grade), and then rambled along the Centennial Trail in Snohomish County up to Arlington before taking rural roads over a couple of hills before dropping down to the former dairy farm. Along the way, Carl and I talked about the joys of riding new trails (he was excited to be on the Centennial for the first time, which may have been the main reason we were making this trip), the state of bike advocacy, and helmet laws. We both agreed on the laws’ stupidity, but I believe we wore our helmets most of the way.
After an afternoon of lectures and excellent dinner, we camped. Well, I slept in the barn with a blanket. That was kind of cold and hard. The next day we decided the hill up and out from the farm was too much effort, so we decided to carry our bikes across the Stillaguamish — making the weekend easily one of my most memorable bike experiences, and then biked back to Everett.
Carl’s quiet depth and love for bikes had a big impression on me, and is probably one of the main reasons I love biking so much as an adult, why I sought to work in bike advocacy, and why Bike Happy Cascadia exists. In many ways, Carl is the soul of my work.
And yet the degree of Carl’s influence wasn’t apparent to me until I read Michael Andersen’s 2014 BikePortland article, “Something has gone wrong in Portland.”
You see, Carl is the guy who keeps relations with the cops copacetic for the weekly non-permitted zoobombs down from the Oregon Zoo on mini-bikes, for the tall-bike-jousting (yes, with real joust poles) during Pedalpalooza, and for the annual non-permitted World Naked Bike Ride, the world’s largest. He’s the guy who serves breakfast on the Hawthorne Bridge on the last Friday of each month. On the first snowfall of the year, he’s the guy who bikes home early from work to serve boozy eggnog to bike commuters on their way home.
And when he isn’t doing those awesome things, Carl was building community support for bike projects. When a neighborhood business district went nuts against a protected bike lane on their street in 2014, he’s the guy who went door-to-door, talking with dozens and dozens of business owners to forge a new positive path forward for safe bike infrastructure.
There are lots of theories about why biking is so popular in Portland relative to the rest of American cities: flat topography and mild weather; good bike infrastructure designed by passionate city transportation staff; and an activist population fueled by the young idealists attracted (or produced) by its many colleges, most notably Reed College and Portland State.
My favorite theory is posited by BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus: Bike Fun. The culture of biking in Portland is incredibly fun and so people love to bike. Carl has been a big reason for this.
So, when Michael Andersen wrote how Carl seemed begin to showing fatigue following the city of Portland painted over the “Portland is America’s Bike Capital” mural, I began to fear for the soul of bike culture in Portland — and across the country. Anyone who read the article had to worry, was this the end for bicycling’s renaissance in America?
Fortunately, the percentage of people who bike to work and school in Portland has started to increase again and renewed efforts are being made from Eugene to Vancouver to build better bike infrastructure. And our online news outlets like BikePortland and Seattle Bike Blog seem stronger than ever.
What remains to be seen is whether bicycling will continue to be as fun as Carl made it. His employer, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, recently eliminated his position due to budget constraints. While continuing to live in Portland, Carl is now looking for employment back on the East Coast, where he grew up.
Carl’s twitter handle is @LilBikesBigFun. Not only is that a great allusion to his mini-bike zoobombing, I think it’s also the perfect metaphor for his perspective on his priorities: bikes first, fun biggest.
Bikes first, fun biggest will always be the priorities of Bike Happy Cascadia. If we all keep these priorities, Portland’s bike soul will persevere without Carl. Thankfully because of Carl’s work, more and more people are riding bikes, so there’s a good chance that a collection of people can begin to pick-up all that Carl has done.
But we’ll miss you dearly, Carl. Bike happy.
* The featured image for this blog post is Carl’s twitter profile photo.
Read more about/from Carl:
- “Something has gone wrong in Portland,” by Michael Anderson, BikePortland.org (May 13, 2014).
- “Guest Post: Advocate & bike scene advocate Carl Larson says good-bye,” by Carl Larson, BikePortland.org (Jan. 15, 2016).
- “Bye. I’m Carl.” by Carl Larson, BTA Blog (Jan. 15, 2016).
- Carl’s Twitter, @LilBikesBigFun
Sarah Mirk is the reason I know Carl (and was the photographer of Carl & I fording the Stillaguamish, which I’m using without seeking permission first!), so I’m going to pay down my debt ever so slightly by mentioning some of her cool work that you should follow, read, listen to, and purchase: