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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Thankfully, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) acknowledged the outdated rules and the State Parks Commission recently approved new ones that explicitly permit e-bike use on their facilities.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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77 Comments
  • GlowBoy September 18, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    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.

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  • Champs September 18, 2018 at 12:47 pm

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

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    • Chris I September 18, 2018 at 1:22 pm

      And what about the mom trying to ride with her two kids on an e-assist cargo bike?

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      • Champs September 20, 2018 at 12:06 pm

        If my list of social justice concerns could fit on a wall, I’d be writing that hypothetical on the baseboards.

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        • Chris I September 20, 2018 at 2:58 pm

          This isn’t a social justice issue. Why does everything have to be framed that way?

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  • Dawn September 18, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    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.

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  • Bobby G September 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    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?

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    • Moleskin September 18, 2018 at 1:41 pm

      they’re nothing like golf carts.

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      • Dawn September 18, 2018 at 3:35 pm

        Agree e-bikes and e-scooters are nothing like golf carts. In fact, I’d argue that the four person pedal bike contraptions are closer to a golf cart…and should also be banned. They are ridiculously awkward for newbies and out-of-shape tourists to maneuver on our narrow and crowded paths.

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        • Middle of The Road Guy September 19, 2018 at 8:34 am

          How often are those on paths? But i might be thinking of the annoying ones in the Pearl.

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          • Gary B September 19, 2018 at 8:39 am

            They’re rented from an outfit that is in the McCall waterfront. They’re prevalent there in the dry season.

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    • Doug Hecker September 18, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      How about the gas powered bicycles that fly by me in east portland? Just when you think you’re going to get ran over and you realize it’s one of those is a fun feeling…

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    • Dan A September 18, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      How is a golf cart like an electric skateboard? Go.

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      • Gary B September 19, 2018 at 8:40 am

        Motors! All motors are the same! /s

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        • Dan A September 19, 2018 at 9:08 am

          No electric toothbrushes on the path!

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      • q September 19, 2018 at 1:13 pm

        Both are eligible for tax credits, except for the skateboard.

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    • pdx2wheeler September 18, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      Because otherwise that person is driving a car, polluting, and doing everything else that people on bikes can’t stand…

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    • Tim September 19, 2018 at 3:21 pm

      Having recently traveled on some crowded mixed use paths with a 40 to 50% e-bikes, the only real problem we encountered were the wannabe racer types weaving their way through the moms on E-bikes. Can we ban cyclists who think Springwater on a sunny Saturday is the place for a hard training ride?

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley September 18, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    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.

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    • B. Carfree September 19, 2018 at 6:01 pm

      Every day as I ride my granddaughters to/from school, I see one or more very elderly and/or frail (dare I say sickly?) people riding e-bikes on bike paths. The gentleman I saw today clearly could not have ridden a block on a pedal-power-only bicycle, but he was enjoying the heck out of his e-bike (oxygen tank and all). It truly pains me to think of people trying to take this away from such people.

      Like everyone else I’ve also had unpleasant encounters with people on e-bikes, like the guy yesterday sitting on his throttle in brain-dead mode as he came around the curve (not turn, just gentle curve where we could see each other) on the wrong side. I had to yell a bit to wake him up and get him to correct his course. However, the joy I see on the faces of the people who couldn’t otherwise go for a ride far outweighs the occasional oopsie, at least for me.

      Self-interest does keep me from being unbiased here. I’m getting old myself and will probably want to change over to an e-bike in another two or three decades. Also, if cycling is going to grow, it’s likely going to be people on e-bikes who make that happen. I get joy out of seeing people on bikes and angst seeing people in cars, so I’m in favor of e-bikes all around.

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  • Doug Hecker September 18, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    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.

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    • Moleskin September 18, 2018 at 1:54 pm

      There’s already a distinction (in terms of “is it a bike?”) between ebikes that will get over 20 and those that won’t; wouldn’t it work to extend that to Portland MUPs just like all the others? I totally agree that 27mph on MUPs is inappropriate and dangerous.

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    • GlowBoy September 18, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Going 27 on the Springwater (under electric power) isn’t legal now, and won’t be legal if they change the law.

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    • MiddleAgedHucker September 18, 2018 at 10:58 pm

      Are you kidding me? Have you tried to pace the Lance Armstrong Tour De Portland enthusiasts? They’re routinely doing around 25-30 as they pass me on the SpringW all the time, and apparently noone noticed. I’m routinely traveling around 20 on a BMX whether on Hawthorne or Downtown. And strangely, noone seems to be dying from anything but Motor Vehicle incidents. There’s not difference between the olympic class pedalist doing 28 mph and the eBike assisted commuter doing 28, so don’t go drawing lines in the sand now.
      Methinks alot of you folks have broken internal Radar Guns. You hear someone can do 16 MPH on a Bird Scooter for some reason you think it’s light speed. It’s a speed I have to *pass*, and pretty standard for a non powered longboarder on a mild slope

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      • PS September 19, 2018 at 10:07 am

        Yeah, there is a difference. Someone capable of riding 28 MPH on the flat has spent years gaining that level of fitness and has the bike handling skills to go along with it. Someone who rides an e-bike for whatever their reason, can just throw a leg over day 1 and go that fast. It is a material difference in experience and not comparable at all. That doesn’t even get into the geometry and position of a non-ebike capable of riding that fast and an e-bike with comfort bike type riding position and the resulting compromises to handling characteristics.

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        • Moleskin September 19, 2018 at 11:54 am

          True, but I’d hope that good judgement would be used around other users, especially wobbly erratic children, and when the path is generally busy with people trying to have a nice relaxing time.

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          • Moleskin September 19, 2018 at 2:52 pm

            yeah, rethinking my initial “true” there having read the comments below..

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        • MiddleAgedHucker September 19, 2018 at 1:34 pm

          Wow. That is hands down the most privileged, elitist thing I’ve yet to hear on this site. I was unaware we indulged in the concept of Bike Royalty here.
          You need to take your ego out of this. The paths aren’t just for the Annointed, and their opinions.

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          • PS September 19, 2018 at 5:41 pm

            This must be sarcasm…

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        • Paul September 19, 2018 at 2:17 pm

          That’s a “sometimes” problem. Many ebike riders (like me) have also been riding for many years/decades and have excellent bike handling skills. Outlawing all ebikes because some of them have bad riders makes little sense.

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          • Dawn September 19, 2018 at 2:25 pm

            Agree with Paul. I’ve been riding an e-bike for over 5 years as my daily commuter. And I have years of traditional cycling experience before that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I see plenty of traditional bike users speeding and behaving in erratic ways. This is a behavior problem not a type-of-bike-problem.

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            • Johnny Bye Carter September 24, 2018 at 12:30 pm

              These are the same arguments that drivers use. Why limit everyone when you’re a great driver? Where’s the fairness? Won’t someone think of the children‽‽

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    • Middle of The Road Guy September 19, 2018 at 8:35 am

      It has to happen to Mayor Wheeler personally before he acts. He only recently found out there was a trash problem in town.

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      • Doug Hecker September 20, 2018 at 9:03 am

        And of all places, it was NW 23rd where he had that realization. Ted is terrible. His new bike though, looks nice.

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  • Toby Welborn September 18, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    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.)

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  • pdx2wheeler September 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    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…

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    • AB September 19, 2018 at 10:44 am

      We must ban gravity!

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      • q September 19, 2018 at 11:03 am

        Or just leave it in place but not enforce it unless there are complaints.

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        • Doug Hecker September 20, 2018 at 9:06 am

          Complaining to the city about cyclists bombing down Tabor doesn’t go very far.

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    • Tim September 19, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      Been there done that – have the scars to prove it.

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    • Johnny Bye Carter September 24, 2018 at 12:35 pm

      That’s why Zoobombers gear up.

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  • Gary B September 18, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    “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.”

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 18, 2018 at 3:09 pm

      FWIW I asked Chris Thomas about that exact issue. He said it’s clear that the intent of the law was to include people with disabilities and that trying to say “I need mobility assistance” would likely not be a winning argument in court.

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      • Gary B September 19, 2018 at 8:57 am

        Thanks JM. Like many legal issues, the forum and context would be important. If you’re getting sued because you were riding an e-bike like an a-hole, and the plaintiff sought to argue you were breaking the law when you hit them, then yeah, the judge is probably going to strictly construe the Code. But in other contexts, I wager you would get a judge to construe it liberally. I bought my e-bike because I needed assistance pedaling while recovering from a catastrophic leg injury. I am not technically disabled. If I were riding carefully in the waterfront but sued for something that wasn’t related to the electrification of my bike, I suspect the judge would rule that I fit within the exception.

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    • pdx2wheeler September 18, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      It’s the “Therapy Dog” defense… use it and the world is your oyster!

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      • Middle of The Road Guy September 19, 2018 at 8:37 am

        It’s shocking how many ill-behaved therapy dogs there are at my coffee shop. People will find myriad of reasons to justify their own selfish behaviors.

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  • bikeninja September 18, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    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.

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    • Middle of The Road Guy September 19, 2018 at 8:39 am

      How about 7% to start with?

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      • Dan A September 19, 2018 at 9:05 am

        Even 1% would be huge. That’s 20 miles of car-free streets.

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  • Jim Lee September 18, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    I need my therapy meerkat on my escoot!

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  • Kittens September 18, 2018 at 8:18 pm

    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?

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    • Johnny Bye Carter September 24, 2018 at 12:53 pm

      The term e-bike is generic and usually mean any bike with an electric motor. So it includes the kind with a throttle and the pedal assisted kind.

      https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/801.258

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  • q September 18, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    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.)

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  • gl. September 18, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    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?).

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  • John Liu September 19, 2018 at 4:02 am

    28 mph ebikes on MUPs? No thanks.

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    • Chris I September 19, 2018 at 8:36 am

      Not legal now. Won’t be legal if they change the rule.

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      • El Biciclero September 19, 2018 at 9:02 pm

        How is it not legal now? Just because an e-bike can’t go more than 20 MPH strictly under motor-power doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster under gravity-power. What is the speed limit on a MUP?

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        • GlowBoy September 25, 2018 at 1:23 pm

          There is no speed limit on most MUPs. What’s to stop e-bikes from going more than 20 mph under electric power is that only Class 3 bikes can do that, and in most jurisdictions Class 3 bikes are banned from MUPs.

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  • Audrey September 19, 2018 at 1:27 pm

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

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    • Paul September 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm

      Apparently it is. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

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  • John Liu September 20, 2018 at 9:36 am

    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?

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    • pdx2wheeler September 20, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      A “large number” of people on bikes? That sounds like success to me, but I’m a glass half-full kind of guy… The “speed pedelecs” you describe sound identical to the $4000 road bikes blasting through our corridors… Maybe it has to do more with the person on the bike than the bike itself?

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    • Dawn September 20, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      Not to mention, why would someone who wants to travel 25-28 mph seek to use a multi-use path? At that speed, taking the lane is a no-brainer. Speed governors are also a solution and one that can be hacked by the end user, but again enforcement of speed and poor behavior should be our goal…not barring safe use of e-assist bikes and scooters on paths.

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      • q September 20, 2018 at 1:56 pm

        Some popular multi-use paths aren’t running alongside streets.

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        • Dawn September 20, 2018 at 4:19 pm

          Right, but if there is a speed limit set for multi-use paths or they become crowded with all of the ebikes that are going to flood the market, it will make sense for fast users to seek regular roads.

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          • q September 20, 2018 at 5:27 pm

            I agree. I was just answering your question about why someone would use a path.

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      • El Biciclero September 20, 2018 at 1:59 pm

        “Not to mention, why would someone who wants to travel 25-28 mph seek to use a multi-use path? At that speed, taking the lane is a no-brainer.”

        It’s a no-brainer unless The Lane has a speed limit of 45 and traffic speeds of 60, or The Lane is really the shoulder of U.S. 26 between Sylvan and Wilshire…

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  • temelcoff September 21, 2018 at 11:00 am

    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.

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    • Jacky jackson September 22, 2018 at 9:14 am

      Glad to c bike riders aggravated in the way they aggravate car drivers cause as we know traffic laws are rarely enforced against bike riders

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      • X September 25, 2018 at 7:14 am

        . . .traffic laws are rarely enforced. . .

        That much is true. People using the streets with whatever machines routinely break traffic laws. There’s rarely a penalty for it. I had a nice neighbor that I quit talking to because he was a lifetime herder of motor vehicles (trucks, cabs, shuttle vans) and he only wanted to talk about lawbreakers on bikes. The three times I was knocked down riding in traffic I was riding legal, legal, legal.

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    • MiddleAgedHucker September 22, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      The same. I’m not a convert yet, but these knees are getting old, and I don’t plan on giving up biking just because of a silly thing like age or crippling infirmity. If enabling eBike commuting makes converts and gets them off the 205, or is there for me when I retire I retire my normal pure pedal power paddy wagon, then we better embrace it, rather than self appointing ourselves as hall monitors just because it feels good and we have opinions. You get more riders, e or not, and you get more paths and consideration from the state.
      It’s either that, or the save-the-environment purists better not gripe because I am still driving my Tacoma everywhere instead of biking because an unfortunate slice of the pedaling community are arrogant and think they get to decide who rides, who doesn’t, and how

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    • X September 25, 2018 at 7:17 am

      Those signs are pure dadaism.

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