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A new era has begun: City of Portland officially opens first pump track

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Today in the Hazelwood neighborhood, the City of Portland officially opened the Ventura Park Pump Track — the first of its kind in a Portland park. Commissioner Nick Fish (who oversees the Parks department) came out to SE 117th and Stark for the event, and as he looked out at dozens of young kids buzzing around the track, he said, “We’ve got to clone this!”

Fish must have been pleased to see a park in East Portland full of activity, with a new feature made possible by a strong partnership with the non-profit Northwest Trail Alliance. The NWTA is the same advocacy group that he left at the altar nearly two years when — after a long and often contentious process — he decided to not improve bicycle access in Forest Park.

NWTA advocacy director and former president Tom Archer touched on that issue during his remarks today. Speaking about the kids camp (which began at the pump track today but tomorrow will pile into trucks and drive about 45 minutes out to Sandy Ridge to access some real trails) he told the crowd, “Most trails in Portland aren’t open to bicycles and we really want to help change that.”

“In a city where bikes are so popular and bike commuter is revered,” continued Archer, “the lack of venues for recreational cycling is unfortunate… We need to provide more opportunities like this not only for our kids, but for big kids like me.”

They don’t agree on everything when it comes to off-road bicycle policy; but Archer and Commissioner Fish know that it takes a working relationship to move things forward. And that’s exactly what today symbolized…

NWTA’s Tom Archer (L) and Commissioner Nick Fish.
Commissioner Fish and some pump track fans.

Commissioner Fish pointed out that the pump track won a “Best of the City 2012” award from Portland Monthly magazine. He called the track a “great example” of how his cash-strapped Parks agency can do, “Small improvements with big impact.” Fish also thanked the NWTA profusely. And he should. Without the NWTA’s fund-raising (about $8,000 for the track so far) and 500 hours of volunteer work to build it and make it happen, this never would have happened.

In an unprecedented partnership, the NWTA will manage the pump track and handle all of its ongoing maintenance and construction. Sweetening the pot even further, the non-profit has also proved they can bring in private cash. Local bike part and accessory company Portland Design Works announced a $5,000 donation to the pump track today and the entire staff, co-owners Dan Powell and Erik Olson and sales guy Kevin Murphy, were on hand to see the fruits of their investment.

The crew from Portland Design Works. (L to R) Dan Powell, Kevin Murphy, Erik Olson.

It was my first time at the Ventura Park track and my initial impression was that it was way too small. When you’re just standing there, it doesn’t really look like much. It’s just a few lumps of dirt. What’s the big deal? I wondered. It wasn’t long before it all sunk in. The kids — and the adults — couldn’t get enough of it. “Can we go again?!” I heard one of them yell. After snapping a few photos, I grabbed a bike (thanks Tom!) and tried it for myself. Wow! I had no idea how much I loved pump tracks until I did a few laps. I’m hooked!

Imagine a series of smooth berms and small rolling bumps all connected in a loop. The idea is that you don’t even pedal, you just pump your bike up and down and around in order to create momentum. By pushing your bike into the bumps and turns (using both your arms and legs), you get a thrilling ride and a fantastic, full-body workout. Mountain bikes (with the seat all the way down) work best, and BMX bikes work too.

Here are a few more action shots…

I chatted a bit with Commissioner Fish after his short speech. He likened the evolution of pump tracks to Portland’s experience with skate parks. After skaters were initially villified and found themselves with nowhere legal to ride, activists (led by current PBOT Director Tom Miller) got together, got into City Hall, and eventually created a master plan. Five skate parks later (with more in the works), “And it became normalized,” said Fish. “I think it’s a similar trajectory… In some ways it’s better organized.”

With this first pump track in the books, Emily Hicks, a policy advisor in Fish’s office, said subsequent tracks should be “much easier” to pursue. She said seeing this one be so successful and having precedent for the permitting process will bode very well for the future of pump tracks in Portland.

I think the largest issue is simply identifying locations where these can go. The public buy-in, the volunteers, the non-profit partners, the sweat equity, the private donations — that’s all easy stuff in my opinion. What would be most helpful is if Parks could identify potential pump track locations and then let the community do the leg work. These things are no-brainers. Cheap, fun, popular. Let the cloning process begin!

— Stay tuned for more details on another pump track coming to the New Columbia neighborhood.