Judge rules against City of Portland, says Bike Bill lawsuit can move forward

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Ramras ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit filed against the City of Portland for lack of compliance with the Oregon Bike Bill can move forward.

The decision could have vast implications on how the 1971 law, that requires a minimum investment in bicycling and walking infrastructure in tandem with major road projects is applied going forward, and could result in the City of Portland being mandated to build dozens of bike facilities.

The lawsuit was filed 13 months ago by BikeLoud PDX, a Portland-based cycling advocacy group. The suit was initially dismissed in May 2023 but the judge allowed BikeLoud and their lawyers to append their arguments and refile. So they added context to BikeLoud’s complaint, added names of 15 Portland residents as individual plaintiffs, and listed 21 locations they allege are examples of Bike Bill non-compliance.

The two law firms representing the plaintiffs, Forum Law Group and Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost (TCN&F)*, have a long history of cycling and transportation-related experience and expertise. Reached for comment today, lawyers from both firms told BikePortland they are eager to move forward into the discovery phase where they’ll be able to interview City staff about project decisions and compel them to produce detailed documentation.

“I think [Judge Ramras] got it right. It’s nice to finally get past this preliminary legal question and get into the the merits,” said Chris Thomas with TCN&F. “We are now entitled to learn exactly what’s been happening at the City with respect to these allegations.”

And Scott Kocher with Forum Law Group said, “I’m really thrilled. We’ve got an opportunity now to have real accountability about whether the City has complied with the Bike Bill or not. It’s no longer like ‘Pretty please, pretty please,’ it’s an equal playing field, we’re at the table, and we’ve got a judge calling balls and strikes — instead of us just begging for scraps.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say their clients suffer because the City of Portland has not adequately invested in bike-specific infrastructure. Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 366.514, aka the “Bike Bill”, states that, “reasonable amounts shall be expended as necessary to provide footpaths and bicycle trails,” on streets that have been “constructed, reconstructed, or relocated.” There are exceptions, but the decision-making process for when the law is triggered is opaque and even challenging for agency staff to follow. It is often difficult for the public to verify if a road authority like the Portland Bureau of Transportation or Oregon Department of Transportation is following the law and why they might choose to ignore it for a specific project.

City of Portland attorneys urged the judge to dismiss the case based on three arguments: The plaintiffs don’t have a “legally recognized interest” or “standing” to bring the case because they can’t prove a specific safety interest beyond what any other Portland road user experiences; the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are (according to court filings) “not imminent or concrete because they are based on their subjective fear that it is unsafe for them to bicycle on certain City streets”; and that the proper mechanism to enforce the Bike Bill is the State Highway Transportation Fund.

In his ruling Tuesday, Judge Christopher Ramras disagreed on all three fronts.

In his five-page decision, Ramras cited a 2016 case (MT & M Gambling. 360 Or 544) where the Oregon Supreme Court found that, “a person who… is the statute’s intended beneficiary, has standing to seek a declaration as to the statute’s validity, meaning or effects.” Ramras wrote that the plaintiffs in this case, “belong to the class of people that the [Bike Bill] was intended to benefit, i.e., citizens of the state of Oregon who have an interest in safe paths to access via bicycle for work and recreational purposes.”

And Ramras appeared to agree with lawyers for the plaintiffs that the City’s alleged failure to comply with the Bike Bill exposes these bicycle riders to greater harm because they are forced to take alternative routes or accept an, “increased risk for collision with a car that would be lessened if the city complied with the statute.”

On the matter of whether or not BikeLoud itself has legal standing, Ramras pointed to filings from the plaintiff’s lawyers that includes the fact that a high percentage of their members ride bicycles regularly compared to the general public. “This… shows that a ruling will impact BikeLoud’s members in a manner distinct from the general public,” Ramras wrote.

From here, it’s very likely the case goes into discovery where evidence from both sides will be used to litigate the facts of each location (the plaintiffs will also be allowed to add additional locations if they choose). If the judge ultimately decides in favor of BikeLoud, there could be a number of different outcomes. Those might include: a negotiated settlement where the City of Portland dedicates a certain amount of funding to mitigate harms experienced by the plaintiffs, a requirement by the judge for the City to add bicycling and walking facilities at specific locations, or some other remedy that satisfies the plaintiffs.

It’s still very early in the process, but regardless of what happens next, Kocher and Thomas both agree this is a step forward.

“We just cleared the first hurdle, and the first hurdle was the biggie,” Kocher said.

“The more court decisions we have that interpret this important law and provide guidance about how it how it can be used, is helpful for cycling, advocacy and state,” Thomas said. “It’s absolutely an important step in clarifying who has the right to bring cases under the Bike Bill, and I think that alone should be celebrated.”


*Disclaimer: Forum Law Group and Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost are financial supporters of BikePortland.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor

Congratulations to BikeLoud and the legal teams, this sounds like a big win.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
4 months ago

Haha Director Williams is probably fuming right now.

surly ogre
surly ogre
4 months ago

A nice step forward. Yay BikeLoudPDX !!
meanwhile, PBOT removes bicycle infrastructure that has been installed and fails to maintain other bicycle infrastructure laden with leaves, gravel and other detritus

Fred
Fred
4 months ago
Reply to  surly ogre

You are right to be surly about it!

Todd/Boulanger
4 months ago

Can any BikePortland reader, that is a lawyer or legal scholar, speak to why the judge may have used the term “minute” (adjective: “very small : INFINITESIMAL or: of small importance : TRIFLING per Websters Dictionary) as to the number of the complainants in this petition?

It is not like the bike commuters are <1% of the traffic in Portland OR is this a legal opportunity, that in the future NO matter the number of bike complainants they can seek legal remedy for similar scenarios?

cct
cct
4 months ago

Insert Nelson Muntz haHA image here…

When a landslide took out a major road in SW a decade ago or so, cyclists and pedestrians asked why no infrastructure for them was being built during repair per this law. They were told ‘noone uses it because it isn’t safe, so we don’t have to follow law and improve it since noone uses it.’ Happy to provide testimony if that helps, even just to pile on!

rick
4 months ago
Reply to  cct

Are you referring to West Burnside between 24th and Skyline? SW Scholls Ferry Road had a big landslide around 1997 between Patton Road and Raab Road.

Phil C
Phil C
4 months ago

Hurray!

Charley
Charley
4 months ago

Big flex for Bike Loud! I’m hopeful that this approach pays out.

Since the BTA got kneecapped and turned into the Street Trust, which doesn’t seem very focused or successful (RIP, bill 395), it’s great that Bike Loud is becoming an effective advocate.

Zeekaras
Zeekaras
4 months ago

Not sure why this came up on my Google feed, but it did. And this sh*t has me fuming.

A VERY few, what 1% or less rely on bicycle transportation in this or surrounding areas? And that few have enough disposable income to strong-arm even more changes that will go unused or unappreciated? Here in SE Portland every bicycle my children have had, has been stolen. I’m tired of buying them knowing that they are only going to get stolen again. Furthermore seeing piles of bicycle parts outside if tents on bicycle paths makes me less likely to want to use a bicycle on that path. My neighborhood is choked with bike routes and neighborhood Greenway’s that get used most by people using stolen bicycles to commit crimes in order to support their drug addiction. (I’m now not using those either.)

So when I see in previous comments folks calling out “So-n-so” by name and referring to city officials in an almost personal capacity with more familiarity than is accustomed in the mundane world. I now realize that I have stepped in a tiny community that desperately wants to change the world… to what thier vision of better is. Regardless if thier “better” is at a disproportionate cost to others.

So you think taking Portland to court can force them to do “the thing?” Yea. How did that work when better known lawyers successfully sued the city for not spending money to fix potholes, that they were required by law to fix…. Yea. Google that. I’m still swerving like a drunk to miss potholes, how bout you?

My opinion will not be popular in this small social scene, but it’s my opinion. Bicycles are not the great end all that they were was once thought to be. Easily stolen, hard to track once stolen. Quality places to ride are disappearing, and the city has bigger problems than uphold some old budget contract that will never be lived up to.

Varl
Varl
4 months ago
Reply to  Zeekaras

You sound very angry. A bike ride might help relieve some stress!

blumdrew
4 months ago
Reply to  Zeekaras

It’s certainly more than 1% of trips that are taken by bicycle in the city of Portland. Commuting mode share is readily available in Census table S0801 and as of 2022 the 5-year ACS estimate is 4.1% ± 0.3%. So a small, but not insignificant portion of people do bike to work in Portland. Of course commuting isn’t the full story, but it’s worth pointing out that tens of thousands of Portlanders rely on their bike as their primary means to get to their job.

And you talk about disproportionate costs, but considering that road wear scales to the fourth power of vehicle weight it’s laughable to think that somehow bikes (which weigh on the order of hundreds of pounds with their rider) cause a disproportionate amount of investment compared to cars and trucks, which are an order of magnitude heavier. 10x the weight means 10,000x the road wear. If you want potholes to be a thing of the past, getting more folks onto bikes is a good way to do that.

Sure, bike theft is a problem. But it’s not a reason to not ride, you just have to be prepared with a high-quality lock and find secure storage wherever you can. Fear of theft does prevent me from using my bike for certain trips, mostly ones where I would be out in downtown for an extended period of time at night.

And this is concerning how Portland treats specific repaving and new roads, so fitting in bike infrastructure is part of a design process. The city already pays handsomely to redesign roads anyways, so it’s not exactly going to add significant costs.

fselker
fselker
4 months ago

Huge step forward toward accountability and having the city obey the law. Thank you to Scott and Chris!