In this edition of Ask BikePortland we have a question from a reader about neighborhood greenways.
Here’s what they asked:
“Hi! Are there clear guidelines posted about the right-of-way for bicyclists on neighborhood greenways? The only verbiage I can find anywhere is “prioritizes bicyclists.” Had an encounter this week where a man in a pickup truck threatened us for being in the way in the neighborhood (he also lives on the greenway) and drove dangerously close to our bikes while doing it. Thank you.”
Thanks for the question.
Given the prominence of neighborhood greenways in the City of Portland’s transportation planning and network overall, you might assume they have some type of legal standing. Unfortunately, they don’t. At least, not on their own. There are some laws that refer specifically to “streets in a residence district” but they relate to speed limits and don’t directly connect to the presence of cyclists.
Charley Gee, a Portland-based lawyer and expert in bicycle law, says, “As far as I know the neighborhood greenways don’t carry any extra legal protections for anyone. A person driving a car in a neighborhood greenway has the same responsibilities as on any other street. And a person riding a bike has the same protections, but no greater.”
That being said, there are legal requirements for drivers on streets that have neighborhood greenway-like characteristics.
So the answer is sort of yes and no. Let me explain…
Here’s how the Portland Bureau of Transportation defines neighborhood greenway:
Neighborhood greenways are low-traffic and low-speed streets where we give priority to people walking, bicycling, and rolling. Neighborhood greenways form the backbone of the city’s Safe Routes to School network and connect neighborhoods, parks, schools, and business districts. Portland has more than 100 miles of neighborhood greenways in every part of the city.
And the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT, in their Driver’s Field Guide publication) says (emphases mine),
By law, bicycles are vehicles – and they have the right to ride in the roadway. Generally, they must ride on the right, in the direction of traffic. Typically, you’ll find bicyclists in a bike lane if one is available. But there are some exceptions. The center can be safer for bicycles. It’s legal for riders to take the lane when: avoiding debris or other obstacles; the road is too narrow to allow safe passing; they’re moving at or near the speed of traffic; they’re passing someone; or they’re preparing to make a left turn.”
The width of neighborhood greenways (“road is too narrow”) and the presence of parked cars and the door zones (“obstacles”) that come with them, mean you are allowed to “take the lane” and while you are doing so, someone would be in violation of the law if they passed you unsafely. With so many e-bikes being used these days, I also think more and more bicycle riders can operate “at or near the speed of traffic” on greenways given that they have a 20 mph speed limit. Some neighborhood greenways in Portland also have “Bikes May Use Full Lane” signage.
So even though greenways aren’t called out in Oregon law specifically, you do have some legal rights when riding on them. Beyond what I’ve shared above, keep in mind that the design of the streets and the policies that govern them were, in many ways, created specifically to prioritize bicycling. PBOT has done a very smart thing in their nearly 15-year quest to lower speed limits on residential roads. Former Mayor and PBOT Commissioner Sam Adams used the characteristics of neighborhood greenways (without naming them specifically) as a rationale both to give the City of Portland more authority to set speed limits and to lower the speed limits themselves.
In other words, instead of attaching legal rights to specific types of neighborhood greenway users, PBOT and the State of Oregon’s approach has been to essentially say, “We will use engineering, signage, and laws to create an environment on certain types of roadways so people drive safely and the environment is conducive to the types of users we want to encourage.”
Another thing worth mentioning is the presence of shared-lane markings — aka “sharrows.” These markings (a bicycle symbol under two chevrons) are ubiquitous throughout Portland side-streets and are used intentionally as wayfinding signs to point bicycle riders along routes that are designed to be safer than nearby arterials. But they also give you, as a bicycle rider, a bit more legal standing. (On a related note, check out the wonderful video on sharrows just released by the City of Eugene)
To sum up: There isn’t a specific Oregon law that governs neighborhood greenways, but there are clear legal guidelines about where you have the right to ride on residential streets that have all the characteristics (sharrows, relatively narrow cross section, lower speed limits) of greenways.
I hope this answer was helpful. Thanks for asking!
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