City Hall for last night’s Bicycle
Advisory Committee meeting.
File photo: 5/8/07
Symbolic of the pent-up demand for more mountain biking in Portland, nearly 40 people crammed into the Lovejoy Room inside City Hall last night for the most crowded Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) meeting I’ve ever attended.
The agenda for the night was cleared to make room for a mini-summit on mountain biking (or the lack thereof) in Portland; which has long been a neglected part of our cycling story.
The committee, which advises City Council on all matters related to bicycling, heard from both advocates and citizen cyclists who came to share their frustrations over a lack of off-road riding opportunities in and around Portland and their willingness to help change that reality.
In addition to the usual suspects, the committee was joined by several special guests including; board members of the Portland United Mountain Pedalers (PUMP); Roger Louton, President of PUMP and Western Region Rep for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA); Jim Sjulin, North Zone Manager (which includes Forest Park) for Portland Parks and Rec; Chris Distefano, formerly a board member of the IMBA and now marketing director for Chris King Precision Components; Scott West, Chief Strategic Officer for Travel Oregon, Veronica Rinard with the Portland Oregon Visitors Association; and local framebuilder Tony Pereira.
The mountain biking presentation opened with PUMP’s Tom Archer. Trying to find common ground between the historically transportation-oriented focus of the PBAC, he shared his view that most mountain bikers also commute to work and that that they have “a lot more shared interests than differences” with the PBAC.
He went on to say that he wants Portland to look at how other cities have integrated mountain bike trails into urban areas,
“We think mountain biking can be part of a commuting network. In a lot of places around the country, mountain biking is moving into an urban setting in the form of skills parks, urban trails…and in many cases people are linking small sections of singletrack to the commuting network…we see a lot of opportunity for that in Portland.”
He also stressed that mountain bikers intend to be not just trail users, but stewards, and that they’re,
“willing to put some hard work into this…we really think we can be an asset to the community.”
Archer then handed off to PUMP’s President and Western Region Rep for IMBA, Roger Louton. Louton took the committee through a slide show titled, “Portland mountain-biking: The case for improving riding opportunities.” The presentation was a crash course in mountain biking and introduced the PBAC members to what mountain biking, and mountain bikers, are all about.
He told us that an authentic mountain biking experience comes with riding singletrack, but that the current Forest Park Management Plan only allows mountain bikes on “trails” that are at least eight feet wide. He also shared results of a recent study that on a properly built trail, (responsibly ridden) bicycles have no more impact than hikers (who he warned are increasingly using carbide-tipped poles that could do more damage than bikes).
Louton also pointed out success stories like the I-5 Colonnade Skills Park built under the freeway in Seattle. That project took just $30,000 and one month to build.
“I’m here because I love Portland and I love mountain biking, and I see a bit of a gap between those two”
Next to share his views was Chris Distefano. Distefano is a 15-year bicycle industry veteran who, prior to moving to Portland three years ago, spent 10 years as head of public relations for Shimano America. Distefano spoke with an impassioned sense of purpose and his rousing speech (audio available below) marked an exciting new era for mountain bike advocacy in Portland.
He told the committee how he was “absolutely devastated” that Portland did not even warrant a mention in a recent NY Times article about how cities across the country are putting a priority on urban mountain biking.
“In this city, to have an authentic outdoor experience on a mountain bike in the natural world, cyclists have to drive at least than two times longer than they ride…I believe that’s inconsistent with the values of this city…and I moved here because of the values of this city.”
“If we’re going to say we’re America’s best city for bicycles — which we were and may still be — let’s not forget other cities saw us as number one, and they came after us, the same way the Red Sox went after the Yankees.”
Distefano also shared the social and economic elements of increased mountain bike access,
“Back in Orange County…I had pizza with friends every Wednesday night for 10 years. We spent $9,000 a year at New York Pizza. You talk to the shops on 23rd…would they like to have an infusion of cash like that? I think they would.”
“We’re not asking for huge infrastructure…it doesn’t take much money…it’s a lot of sweat equity and if you do it right a trail will last forever. Mountain bikers don’t destroy things, jerks destroy things. We want to be stewards, we are not users, we are not extracting resources.”
“…we’re not mountain bikers, we’re all one big group. Let’s work together on this.”
- Download MP3 (11 MB, 12 min 25 sec long)
Listen to Chris Distefano’s speech.
A Q&A session followed and some interesting comments were made by Jim Sjulin of Portland Parks and Recreation. He admitted that his agency has not dealt enough with the popularity of mountain biking,
“We’re overdue in dealing with the quick rise in this activity.”
File photo: 5/8/07
He also said he looks forward to working with mountain bike advocates but warned, “we’re never going to go as fast as you’d like us to on this.”
Sjulin seemed sincere in his willingness to work on this issue and suggested that an upcoming Forest Park Management Plan update would be a “great train to be on” for mountain bikers. He also made it clear that he must balance the interests of hikers and runners, and that there’s a lot of work to be done for mountain bike advocates.
But Forest Park access is just one of the issues mountain bikers brought to the table. They want to see little bits and pieces of trails get put in wherever possible.
It won’t be easy, and many challenges await this renewed mountain bike access effort. One of them was summed up by Chris Distefano when he mentioned that the “bike loyalty” in this town has always been made up of “transportation people” and that it will be “tough to crack into that.”
Luckily it looks as though they are on the right track. In the coming weeks, city bike coordinator Roger Geller will experience his first dose of singletrack mountain biking when he joins PUMP members for a ride out in Scappoose.
For more coverage of mountain biking issues in Portland, see my archives.