Portland’s Bicycle Revolution Started With A Lawsuit
Oregon adopted a “bicycle bill” in 1971, a time of innovation in public policy in Oregon that saw the creation of the nation’s first land use planning system, deposits on soda and beer bottles, and protection of Oregon’s beautiful ocean beaches for public use. Introduced and championed by a Republican legislator from Jacksonville, Don Stathos, the “bicycle bill,” ORS366.514, actually directed state a
nd local governments to provide safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities as part of every road project as well as requiring that at least 1% of state transportation funds be spent on these kind of projects every year. One would think that by 1990, the year I helped start up the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, that every street and highway in Oregon would include sidewalks and bike lanes.
Alas, no. The bill included some exemptions that had been used over the years to avoid including these in most road projects. Our little group of volunteers were based mostly in Portland, the largest city in the state, and we focused a lot of our efforts there. We had become very frustrated trying to convince the City’s transportation department staff that there was a need and a demand for bike facilities, especially on the big streets where there was the most traffic and the most danger for cyclists. They insisted that people didn’t like riding on the main streets (no wonder when they were designed to be dangerous for cyclists!) and it would be better if they used quiet side streets. We insisted that they were required to provide bicycle lanes by state law. They said they were exempt, citing the exemptions in the law. We were in the classic case of “he said, she said” and were extremely frustrated.cep
The commissioner in charge of transportation, now congressman, Earl Blumenauer, supported his staff’s interpretation. We went to the Mayor, Vera Katz, a strong woman who had been the first female speaker of the state house of representatives. She heard our complaints and looked us in the eye and said, “So, sue us.” We were taken aback. As activists we had been trying to always be respectful and work up the ranks, starting with participating in project citizen advisory committees, meeting with key staff people, etc, so we were taken aback when the Mayor herself so calmly told us to sue the City. As she explained it, an important part of the court’s role is to resolve disagreements over the meaning of laws. As an ex-legislator she knew very well how laws are typically the result of passion, self-interest or hasty reaction and aren’t always the finely crafted guidance we hope they would be. If we thought the bicycle law clearly said “you must build bike lanes” and city staff said “we don’t have to, the law clearly gives us an out” then the only way to solve it was to go to court.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Earl Blumenauer asked to attend a BTA board meeting to try and dissuade us from suing. We had chosen a major project as our test case, the building of a new stadium for the beloved Portland Trailblazers, backed by one of the richest men in the world, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The project sat astride streets leading onto two bridges across the Willamette River, which divides Portland. The City would be investing $34 million of public funds to re-construct these roads and build new ones. When the Commissioner met with us, we asked once again, would they build bike lanes on these streets as part of the project. He said no. What the City was willing to do was to sign a side street as a “bicycle route,” leaving the main streets connecting with the bridges unchanged and still dangerous and intimidating for cycling. We said, you give us no choice but to go to court to resolve this problem. He grimaced.
BTA vs City of Portland took 2 years and ten volunteer lawyers to finally be resolved. We lost at district court, then we won at the Court of Appeals after BTA appealed. The Court of Appeals issued a ruling that clarified the meaning of the law consistent with the intent of the law’s author, former Republican state representative, Don Stathos, that state and local governments must provide bicycle and pedestrian facilities as part of all road projects. The City appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court which, agreeing with the ruling of the Court of Appeals, refused to hear the case. We had won. (Thanks to all the attorneys involved but a special shout out to Jay Beattie.)
We had won much more than getting bicycle facilities on these few streets in one town in Oregon. Our victory set off a wave of building bicycle facilities throughout the state. We heard of planners and engineers in towns everywhere saying that “we have to include bike lanes or those crazy bicycle advocates will sue us.” The Oregon Department of Transportation included the full text of the Appeals Court ruling in its official bicycle and pedestrian plan, clearly laying out its responsibility and that of other governments to make sure their roads and streets were designed to accommodate people walking and bicycling. (As a member and chair of the Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee from 1989-1997, I helped write this plan.)
We had tried so hard to be part of the process but there was little support for improving cycling conditions in the City transportation department even after 20 years of the law’s existence and no support at all from the private developers of the project—they just didn’t understand the need –they were building lots of auto parking for their fans. We saw that we would gain little by continuing to work within the process–the stadium was a juggernaut with major support from community leaders, the newspaper and the City. We at the BTA were just a few, without a lot of resources, but with a good idea and, it turns out, the law on our side.