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Rob Sadowsky Discusses Why He Left Street Trust, Isn’t Returning to Chicago

Former Active Trans director Rob Sadowsky, who was let go yesterday from Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Photo courtesy of Sadowsky

Yesterday Bike Portland reported that Rob Sadowsky, who led Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance in the 2000s, was abruptly let go from his job as director of the Street Trust (formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) by that organization’s board of directors. [Disclosure: As an Active Transportation Alliance employee and consultant to the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bike program in the mid-2000s, I indirectly worked under Sadowsky.]

Contrary to an anonymous tip I received last night -- more on that later – Sadowsky is not returning to Chicago to work at Active Trans. I caught up with him by phone this morning to get more details on why he believes he was relieved of his duties at the Street Trust, his future plans, what he feels were his biggest accomplishments in Chicago and Portland, and why, despite his affection for our city, he isn’t coming back here.

Just as the Chicagoland Bicycle Formation changed its name to Active Trans under Sadowsky in 2008, broadening its agenda to include walking and transit campaigns, on Monday the BTA transformed into the Street Trust, with a multimodal mission. The very next day the group’s board told Sadowsky, who had served as director since 2010, that he was relieved of his duties, effective immediately. Former deputy director Stephanie Noll will temporarily lead the organization while they search for a new director.

“Rob provided excellent leadership at the BTA when we needed it most, providing five years of stability and guiding us through the mission expansion process to becoming the Street Trust,” said the organization in a statement. “We know that he is ready for his next challenge and is ready to pass the reins of Street Trust to our next leader as we begin the next chapter of our work.”

Sadowsky, speaking from his home in the wake of an eight-inch snowfall that had paralyzed Portland, a city with only a handful of snow plows, says his firing wasn’t completely unexpected. “I myself had been thinking it might be time to move on,” he said. “I like fixing problems more than I like maintaining the status quo. So the surprise wasn’t that there was going to be a transition, the surprise was ‘Give me your keys.’” He believes the chief reason he was asked to leave was that the board was looking for someone who would be more skilled at fundraising and more interested in spending time on it.

“It’s a very nuanced, complicated issue,” Sadowsky said. “To me, the story is that in 2010 I took what was then a floundering organization and helped them gain focus and move to step B.” He noted that the Street Trust, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that can’t endorse political candidates, recently launched an associated 501(c)4 for political organizing, as well as an affiliated political action committee to raise money for candidates. “The time was right for someone to take it to step C.”

Sadowsky said this moment in the evolution of the Street Trust is similar to what happened in 2004 when he took the reins of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation from founding director Randy Neufeld, who had helped create the organization in 1985. “We moved it from being a bike group with cult of personality under Randy to a larger organization with a focus on complete streets,” Sadowsky said.

Here’s what Sadowsky says his top five achievements were in Chicago:

    • Broadening the organization’s reach in the suburbs
    • Winning a citywide Complete Streets policy
    • Creating the community connections necessary for the Active Trans-funded "Open Streets" ciclovia events (“Even if the city didn’t wind up doing s--- with it.”)
    • Helping build a coalition for a Cook County anti-childhood obesity initiative
    • Engineering the formal transition from CBF to Active Trans

And his top five achievements in Prtland:

    • Helping bring bike-share to town, despite initial resistance from local cyclists and the BTA board
    • Winning a citywide Vision Zero policy
    • Creating a Families for Safe Streets coalition of traffic violence survivors
    • Creating an equity plan that expanded the group’s mission to include support for efforts to address transportation-related social justice issues
    • Engineering the formal transition from BTA to the Street Trust

As for the future, Sadowsky said he was in talks with the Portland-based consulting firm S & G Endeavors before he was let go, and he has already been hired for a job that involves executive coaching. He’s also looking into the idea of serving as an interim director for organizations that are doing a search (like the Street Trust is right now).

Mysteriously, last night, before I had heard about Sadowsky’s firing, I received an anonymous tip from someone who claimed, “Rob is in talks with the Active Transportation Alliance… about reclaiming some role -- not necessarily the executive director role.” The tipster said this info came from someone at Active Trans. However, both Sadowsky and current director Ron Burke say there’s no truth to that story.

“It’s funny that that rumor is out there, but there’s no chance of me coming back to Chicago in the next eight or nine years, while my wife is still working for the state of Oregon,” Sadowsky said. “I love Chicago and Active Trans, but Ron’s got his work that he’s doing and I don’t need to be involved with that. I like to keep going from one place to another, but not going back."

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