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Closure of River View Cemetery bike access looms as disrepectful riding continues

Hopefully not a sign of things to come.
(Photo: David Cushman)

Bicycles will not be allowed to roll through River View Cemetery this coming Memorial Day weekend (Friday, May 26th through Monday, May 29th).

If that news bothers you, consider this: We’re lucky it’s open to us at all. And if we want it to remain open in the future, we better start riding with more respect.

The historic cemetery that sits on 350 acres of prime real estate overlooking the Willamette River just west of the Sellwood Bridge is a private nonprofit organization that was founded in 1882. Its Board of Trustees generously allows free bicycle access through the property because it provides a safe, direct, and pleasant connection between Sellwood and southwest Portland. The alternate routes on SW Boones Ferry and Taylors Ferry roads are out-of-the-way and very stressful on a bike due to their outdated and car-centric design.

However, despite this amazing gift bicycle riders have been given, far too many people abuse this privilege by riding in a way that fails to show the respect due to this venerable place and the people who visit and staff it.

“I knew that we had to do something to try and address the problems or risk a total ban by the Board of Trustees.”
— David Noble, River View Cemetery executive director

After getting word about the closure earlier this month I reached out to the executive director of the cemetery, David Noble. I know Mr. Noble because, unfortunately, I’ve covered issues surrounding cycling behavior at River View Cemetery many times in the past.

In 2006 we reported that a negative interaction between a bicycle rider and a cemetery maintenance crew sparked talk of a bike ban. Then in 2009 we reported that due to people bicycling too fast, the cemetery felt they had to install speed bumps. “We take our duty to the community very seriously,” Noble told me at the time. “But there’s a point when it gets too out of hand and you have to do something.” A few months after the speed bumps went in, the cemetery’s Board of Trustees held a special meeting to vote on whether bike access should be continued as-is, banned or curtailed. Luckily (thanks in part to Noble’s advocacy on our behalf), they voted for bike access to remain, contingent on raising money for new signs and outreach with the community. Then in 2012 public access was on the chopping block once again after people continued to trespass through the property after-hours (and because someone vandalized an entry gate).

In case you’re new to town, or just learning all this for the first time, keep in mind that River View Cemetery are the good guys. It’s an extremely bike-friendly place that has bent over backwards to maintain this crucial connection in the regional cycling network.

With all that said, I was dismayed when Noble told me disrespectful riding continues to be a problem and the four-day Memorial Day Weekend closure could have been — and might still end up being — a whole lot worse.

Here’s more from Noble about the weekend closure and the context of the decision:

“Following last year’s Memorial Day weekend, our Board of Trustees received dozens of written complaints from cemetery owners about problems they encountered with bicyclists, ranging from rudeness, disrespect, failure to yield to vehicles, speeding, packs of racers, etc. They were all encouraging the Trustees, to ‘ban bikes’ and they clearly weren’t talking about just over Memorial Day weekend. Some of them were bicycle riders themselves and knew that a ban would even affect their own commute, yet they still felt that in the overall picture, bicycles should no longer be allowed.”

The dynamic here is that River View Cemetery is a membership association and the Trustees are appointed by member-owners. Therefore, Trustees need to be responsible to the wishes of members.

Adding to the latest issues is the recent opening of the new Sellwood Bridge and it’s vastly improved connections to the road through River View. Beginning last summer, the new entrance led to what Noble describes as, “An exponentially higher volume of bicycle traffic in the cemetery.” Noble estimates about 700-1,000 bicycle riders use the cemetery every day — about a tenfold increase from before the new entrance was built. Even though only about two percent of the riders cause problems (according to Noble), that equates to about 15-20 issues per day.

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It’s a place to grieve and remember loved ones in solitude. It’s not a place to do hill repeats.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

It would be a shame to see more of these.

These signs exist today, but most people either don’t see them or don’t abide by these simple rules.

A double-edged sword: Much better access due to the Sellwood Bridge project; but more complaints as a result.

“By the end of summer, the conflicts between bicyclists and our owners had grown to an all-time high and I knew that we had to do something to try and address the problems or risk a total ban by the Board of Trustees,” Noble shared with me via email last week.

So, like he has for over a decade now (at least), Noble swung into action. He reached out to the Portland Bureau of Transportation and set up a meeting with stakeholders. In October, Noble met with representatives from PBOT, Lewis & Clark College (a major user of the route whose campus is adjacent to the cemetery), and the executive director of The Street Trust (Rob Sadowsky, who is no longer with the organization).

At that meeting, Noble shared that he feels the only way to avoid a complete bike ban is to reduce bicycle traffic in the cemetery.

Here are the ideas that were discussed at the meeting (via an email from Noble, with my emphases):

1. Put increased pressure on the City of Portland to create alternate bike routes in this area. As an example, it’s always been my contention that Taylors Ferry Road, which currently has two lanes going uphill and one downhill, should be made into a two-lane road and to then create a bike path on either side. Generally speaking, there is the same average number of cars that go uphill every day as go downhill, so sacrificing one uphill lane shouldn’t be a problem. There are other streets where dedicated bike paths could be created to route traffic from the west-end of the Sellwood Bridge to Barbur Blvd., Terwilliger Blvd., OHSU, etc.

2. Contact the many bicycle clubs and racing groups in the area and let them know that River View Cemetery is off limits for training. These groups cause our biggest number of complaints and they need to train elsewhere. It’s one thing to allow commuters and recreational riders to pass through enroute to somewhere else, but having groups of bikes going up and down the route, over and over, simply isn’t OK with us.

3. Increase rider awareness of the fact that this is private property and that passing through is a privilege and not a right. This is particularly important with so many new riders discovering this route due to the new Sellwood Bridge. This would be accomplished by creating a brochure on the topic, which would be distributed to riders who attend or work at Lewis & Clark and by having multiple times during the heaviest riding season (April to October) where BTA volunteers would come to the gates and distribute the brochures to riders.

4. Developing new signage at the gates. It’s been 7 or 8 years since the current signs were put in place and over time riders come to simply not see them. New colors and new language may renew their attention to the rules.

5. Closing the route during periods of heaviest cemetery visitation by our membership. Those would be Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day weekend, Memorial Day weekend and Veteran’s Day. I decided to just observe traffic this year on all those days except Memorial Day weekend to get a sense of whether we had enough problems to justify closure. Easter went fairly well, although there were a few complaints and Mother’s Day weekend is upon us, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m not terribly worried about Veteran’s Day because although we have a lot of visitors, it’s the rainy season and bicycle traffic is already lower. But we will for sure close on Memorial Day weekend [Noble says they typical have 10,000 motor vehicles on the property over those four days]. This was all discussed at the late October Board of Trustees meeting and they voted unanimously for the closure.

Adding to the complexity of this issue is that the main point-person from The Street Trust who worked as a liaison between the Cemetery and the community was Carl Larson, who left the organization in January 2016 after a budget cut eliminated his position. Noble laments not having Larson at the table and hopes someone can step up to continue his important community outreach.

For Noble, the last thing he wants is to have to close bike access. It’s up to us to not put him in that position.

“I know that people are going to be inconvenienced by this,” said Noble. “But in the big picture, avoiding all the inevitable complaints from cemetery clients could make the difference in keeping or losing the route altogether. The fewer complaints I get from our staff and the fewer complaints our Board of Trustees gets from cemetery owners, the less likely it is that they will step in and make any changes.”

Please heed his words and please tell everyone you know to ride with respect through River View Cemetery.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @bikeportland and @jonathan_maus on Twitter, jonathan@bikeportland.org

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