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City says e-bike use on park paths is a violation, but it’s not enforced

Posted by on September 18th, 2018 at 12:19 pm

Portland City Code prohibits e-bike use on paths like the Springwater.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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Thankfully, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) acknowledged the outdated rules and the State Parks Commission recently approved new ones that explicitly permit e-bike use on their facilities.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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The relevant section of code.

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.”

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

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GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

Hopefully they get the language fixed quickly. “Rarely enforced” laws often get used against people considered undesirable by the enforcers.

By the way, Seattle has already done this, perhaps in response to the fleet of e-Limebikes up there. The bike paths in Seattle have large signs stating that Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes are legal.

Champs
Guest
Champs

The bike sharing and manufacturing industries can carry their own water, thanks.

Dawn
Guest
Dawn

Strongly agree this needs to be fixed. We shouldn’t be prohibiting based on type of bike or scooter, but rather enforcing behaviors. I will almost always choose to take the lane on my ebike for efficiency and speed, but where that isn’t possible, I slow down to regular bike speed or other safe speed as befits the situation (i.e. on the bike path/sidewalk from Tilikum to SE Clinton, on the Waterfront (when Better Naito is out of season), along the SW Moody cycle track, etc.)

On a related note, I recently rode an e-scooter from my home near SE 30th and Division to a car rental pick-up on NE Sandy. The e-scooter was my perfect one-way transportation solution…but there are some challenging uphill streets that don’t have bike lanes and taking the car lane on a scooter was pretty hairy. I would have preferred to ride slowly on the sidewalk at pedestrian speed for the sections where I felt unsafe. But current laws don’t allow for that. E-scooters and ebikes will help continue to push the need for protected traverl lanes for a variety of non-car/active transport modes.

Bobby G
Guest
Bobby G

Bike paths should be for non-motorized transport only. You wouldn’t want a golf cart on the multi-use path, why allow e-bikes and e-skooters?

Anne Hawley
Subscriber
Anne Hawley

Now that I’m older, slower, and more mobility-challenged, it’s desirable and sometimes necessary for me to choose my ebike over my regular bike.

So, what, I’m suddenly, simultaneously, supposed to become MORE comfortable riding in traffic? Get out of here.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

Why have laws if they won’t be enforced? Why worry if they aren’t enforced? Maybe the parking ticket folks and the “community policing” downtown beat patrol can leave smal brochures on all the e-bikes they see and we can all hope for change.

I do wonder what it would be like for someone buzzing up and down the esplanade or busier parts of the Springwater at 27mph? Not sure that would be very pedestrian friendly.

Toby Welborn
Guest
Toby Welborn

Why have a law on the books if it is not enforced? It just means the city becomes libel when someone gets hit (or when someone gets all worked up and injures an e-bike rider). Non-enforcement seems like bad advice for risk management. If it is okay to have e-bikes on a path or there needs to be a trial period, do it through a formal process. (I wish this was a mountain biking is a violation in Forest Park but not enforced because of outdated rules story.)

pdx2wheeler
Guest
pdx2wheeler

If you don’t like e-bikes how do you feel about people on bikes going downhill in a public parks? Gravity accelerates people on bikes and they go too fast, too fast for their skill set, and someone could eventually get hurt…

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

“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.”

But it doesn’t say people with disabilities. Should this issue ever arise in court, I’d strongly suggest one argue what it means “to need assistance to be mobile.”

bikeninja
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bikeninja

It seems that we have a shortage of places to travel in non-auto modes . As one commenter suggests I think we should take a moderate compromising tone with Automobile culture and meet them halfway. To be fair and balanced lets take half the streets and make them non-auto traffic and let the auto-zombies do whatever they want on the other half. Seems fair to me, pick our two poles and meet for a solution half-way. With such a solution there will be room for bikes, e bikes, e scooters, skateboards, share bikes, rollerblades, segways, pedal carts and wheelchairs.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

I need my therapy meerkat on my escoot!

Kittens
Guest
Kittens

With all this legal stuff, I am still confused where electric-assisted bikes are mentioned. Or when you mean e-bikes are you talking both full electric and assisted or what?

q
Guest
q

Parks has the ability to create rules for within its parks, so it could legalize ebikes for the majority of areas, but still prohibit them from any particular areas where they might be inappropriate for whatever reason.

I look at park trails from my desk. People using ebikes and scooters seem to love them, and they’re not causing any problems as far as I can see. I’d feel differently if they were noisy. I’m on the paths myself daily alongside them with no issues, either.

The last thing Parks Rangers need is to have their time tied up with enforcing ebike bans, when they have so many more important things to do. (If they’re legalized, I hope nobody decides that Rangers should be enforcing helmet laws, either.)

gl.
Guest
gl.

Thank you, Chris! It’s ridiculous that major portions of our bike infrastructure specifically exclude scooters & ebikes. I agree with Dawn: enforce the behaviour rather than the mode (this is true for Seattle, too: who cares how fast the bike CAN go if it’s keeping to the 15mph limit?).

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

28 mph ebikes on MUPs? No thanks.

Audrey
Guest
Audrey

Is it still illegal if the assist is turned off and I’m on 100% leg power?

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I think many of the comments here focus on the situation that has prevailed for the past couple of years, which is a small number of slower e-bikes ridden at moderate speeds (15 mph) by persons who are older, have physical limitations, or are hauling kids or cargo. I agree with most of you, that isn’t a bad thing at all.

I’m asking us to think ahead to the situation that we are headed for, which is a large number of fast e-bikes ridden at high speeds (25-28 mph) by persons who are buying the new generation of $4,000 “speed pedelecs” to get from point A to B as fast as possible with minimal effort, using bike infrastructure that has been designed and sized for lower-speed uses. That is what I see coming, and I think that will be a problem.

Right now, Oregon law permits 28 mph speed pedelecs to be ridden in any bike lane and we all know there is no effective speed enforcement. You don’t see a problem brewing?

temelcoff
Subscriber

After buying an e-assist cargo bike last year I’ve been a bit of an e-bike evangelist. I’ve seen one of my friends who has never been a cyclist take her kid to school and herself to work every day instead of driving from Sellwood. Both of us ride on the ‘technically illegal’ paths such as Springwater and Esplanade. These are by far the safest routes for taking our kids to school and getting away from cars. And I rode a non-motorized cargo bike for four years and loved it but it’s night and day next to the range and number of trips I can make on the e-assist bike.

I was impressed how quickly Oregon State Parks modified their rules and hope the same proves true for the City of Portland but I’m not encouraged by the statements from Parks or the sign at the north end of the Esplanade banning e-scooters.