Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on September 18th, 2018 at 12:19 pm
Last summer we stumbled upon an inconvenient truth about electric bike use in Oregon State Parks. It turned out that despite their popularity, it was illegal to operate e-bikes on State Park paths and trails.
Thankfully, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) acknowledged the outdated rules and the State Parks Commission recently approved new ones that explicitly permit e-bike use on their facilities.
Now it appears the City of Portland might have the same problem.
“If the City is serious about accomplishing its goals, it needs to act soon to allow at least some level of e-bike and e-scooter access to these areas by non-disabled Portlanders.”
— Chris Thomas, lawyer
The city code that governs the use of vehicles on paths and trails managed by Portland Parks & Recreation, 20.12.170, prohibits the use of e-bikes. That means it’s technically illegal to ride one on the Springwater, Eastbank Esplanade, the Peninsula Crossing Trail, in Waterfront Park, Gateway Green, and so on. The only exception to the rule is the use of “electric mobility devices” that are used by, “persons who need assistance to be mobile.” In other words, people with disabilities.
That was news to me. And given how many people I see using e-bikes on those paths, this seems like a problem.
This issue was put on our radar screen thanks to an article written by Portland lawyer Chris Thomas earlier this month. Thomas is the son of well-known bike advocate and lawyer Ray Thomas and works at the law firm of Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost — the same firm that recently published a free legal guide for e-bike riders. (Disclaimer: They are also a BikePortland supporter.)
Thomas’ article asserts that current city code makes it illegal to use an e-bike in Portland parks and he urges the City of Portland to remedy the situation by updating the code. Here’s the salient excerpt (emphasis mine):
“…the provision that really caught my eye from the above code provision relates to e-bikes. 20.12.170(D) subsection (1) exempts e-bikes from the general prohibition on ‘motorized vehicle or motorized wheeled vehicle or motorized wheeled device’, but only when ‘used by persons who need assistance to be mobile.’
Therefore, non-disabled e-bike riders are granted no exception to the e-bike prohibition, and are prohibited on all Park paths throughout the City. According to the Portland Parks directory, Parks include not only the Springwater, Esplanade, and Waterfront Park, but also the Peninsula Crossing Trail, Gateway Green, Forest Park and Powell Butte. Indeed, Portland law excludes non-disabled e-bike riding on some of the City’s most convenient, safe, and scenic bicycle corridors.”
Before printing the article here, I wanted to give PP&R a chance to confirm or clarify Thomas’ reading of the law. I know bicycle law in general can be very murky because of its hybrid legal status — sometimes bikes are treated as human-powered vehicles with laws different from cars, and in some statutes they’re treated the same. Add an electric motor and you need a law degree to speak with any certainty.
And that’s just what PP&R did. They asked the Portland City Attorney for help before responding to my request.
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It turns out Thomas is right. Here’s the final word from PP&R Public Information Officer Mark Ross:
“Yes, City Code (PCC 20.12.170.D) does prohibit e-bikes from operating on park property, unless being used as an electric mobility device. That includes trails like the Eastbank Esplanade and Springwater and other properties managed by PP&R. This has been the case for years.
Having said that, our priority is always public safety. Our Park Rangers focus on educating people about safe operation of all equipment in shared use trails, and we not yet had any significant issues with e-bikes.”
What Ross is saying here is that, while the code prohibits the vast majority of e-bike use in Portland Parks, they aren’t actively enforcing it. This is because no one has complained about it yet and because they don’t have many staff rangers devoted to it.
“The Scooter Pilot and your question have had us looking closely at the code and the way people use (and would like to use) our public parks, while maintaining our focus on safety.”
— Mark Ross, Portland Parks & Recreation
I asked Ross if they’ll take a page out of OPRD’s book and update city code to explicitly make e-bike use by non-disabled people legal.
“The Scooter Pilot and your question have had us looking closely at the code and the way people use (and would like to use) our public parks, while maintaining our focus on safety,” Ross shared with us in his reply. “We are having internal discussions about e-bikes on PP&R-managed property. We cannot say with certainty that PP&R would be looking to allow further e-bike use in city parks (beyond the current criteria of only if used as a needed mobility device). The Bureau may have such discussions (or similar ones around amending city code in other ways in response to the presence of scooters/e-bikes) internally or with other bureaus such as PBOT, and even then, I don’t know the priority this would have over other Parks projects. With no firm plans nor timeframe for doing so, we do not wish to set expectations which could or would not be realized.”
In other words, for now you’re technically in violation of city code by riding your e-bike on Parks-managed paths and trails.
Thomas thinks that’s unacceptable — from both a legal and transportation policy standpoint.
Even if it’s not enforced, Thomas says if there’s a collision, the e-bike (or e-scooter) user could face an argument in court that they were a trespasser and shouldn’t have been in the park in the first place.
And anything that discourages the use of e-bikes on such important transportation corridors just isn’t in line with Portland’s ethos, Thomas argues.
“The prohibition of non-disabled e-bike use, as well as all e-scooter use, from many of our City’s prized bicycle and pedestrian facilities seems inconsistent with the City’s stated goals of fighting climate change, promoting non-car transportation, and improving safety for vulnerable road users,” he wrote in his article. “If the City is serious about accomplishing its goals, it needs to act soon to allow at least some level of e-bike and e-scooter access to these areas by non-disabled Portlanders.”
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