Holman Lane is an unpaved fire lane in Forest Park. It winds uphill from northwest Portland almost a mile and nearly 500 feet in elevation from the corner of NW Aspen and Raleigh (map) before it meets with the quiet and tree-lined NW 53rd Avenue. Holman is open for cycling, and for those who know about it, provides a beautiful and safe connection between downtown and the West Hills, Skyline Boulevard, and points beyond.
But there’s an important detail about Holman Lane: bicycling is permitted only in the uphill direction. That’s too bad for people like Mike Owen, a Portlander who recently discovered Holman’s charms and utility.
“It is awesome,” Owen wrote to us via email last month. He likes it not just as a place to find solitude and urban recreation. To Owen, Holman is the preferred alternative to riding on busy and narrow NW Cornell and Thompson. Those roads are a popular gateway between downtown Portland and Skyline Blvd and the West Side for many road users (not just those on bikes). For fit and experienced riders, Cornell-Thompson aren’t too bad. “But it’s a terrible route for kids, families, timid riders or many commuters,” Owen wrote.
Here’s more from Owen:
“The alternatives [to Cornell/Thompson] are all the way out to Saltzman Road (Firelane 1 is unrealistic to go up), up to Pittock Mansion (tough) and dead-end on busy Skyline Blvd at Barnes, Zoo to Fairview and then again a long Skyline slog with cars and no shoulder or room to bike, or maybe backtrack to NW 61st, similar to where a Zoo route down and then up the Highway 26 route could take you.”
Owen likes Holman (for many of the same reasons as I do) because it’s wide, it begins in a quiet neighborhood that’s easily accessible by bike, and it ends up in the hills on NW 53rd, a very quiet street that sees very little auto traffic.
For those reasons, Owen wonders, “Wouldn’t an awesome commuter route that parallels Cornell through Forest Park be a win for everyone?”
As it stands, Holman’s isn’t a viable route because you can’t legally ride a bicycle in the one direction that holds the most potential. Its use as an uphill route is limited due to its steep grade (averages around 10%). But downhill, it would be a very useful road for people who want a safer option away from the traffic on Cornell-Thompson.
So, why the downhill biking ban?
As far as we could tell, it dates back to the early 1990s. A 1992 article in The Oregonian refers to it:
“Mountain-bike activists worked hard to open two fire lanes and Holman Road in Forest Park to cyclists, after cyclists were limited to Leif Erickson Drive. But after only a year, residents near Holman Road already are pushing to reclose the little-used lane.”
And the ban was set in stone when it was called out specifically in the Forest Park Natural Resources Management Plan (Chapter 4, page 75) which states, “One way bike traffic is allowed on Holman Lane, cyclists are allowed to go up only.”
We were aware of that language in the plan; but we had still had questions about it because the signs posted on the fire lane itself makes it appear as though only the bottom 200 yards are off-limits to biking. There are two signs posted on Holman Lane that address this issue — on in the uphill direction and one in the downhill direction (both of the signs are just south of its intersection with Wildwood Trail).
Here’s the sign in the uphill direction (which refers to an outdated section of Portland City Code)…
And here’s what you see in the downhill direction (about 0.8 miles down from NW 53rd)…
We asked Portland Parks & Recreation for a clarification and alas, it appears the entire 0.9 mile length of Holman lane is uphill-only. “It appears that bike traffic on Holman Lane was directed to be unidirectional because of the steep grade and a concern for pedestrian / bike safety,” wrote Parks spokesman Mark Ross to us via email. We didn’t find any record of actual conflicts (or mention of them in The Oregonian archives); but as we know all too well, the word “safety” can have a powerful and broad impact on policy.
“Riders speed down Holman Lane, which is posted as an uphill only trail.”
— Catherine Thompson in City Council testimony on November 21, 2013
As the 1992 mention in The Oregonian alluded to, there are some people who wanted no bike access on Holman Lane and safety concerns were a convenient way to argue their case. It doesn’t appear that anyone is trying to close Holman to bikes completely these days; but the downhill ban in the name of safety seems to be as strong as ever.
Just last month, Forest Park activist Catherine Thompson addressed Mayor Hales and members of Portland City Council about a myriad of bike-related concerns. Among them were that people on bikes make Forest Park unsafe. “Riders speed down Holman Lane,” Thompson claimed, “which is posted as an uphill only trail.”
While the ban persists, folks like Mike Owen are curious if it’s possible to revisit it. As a safe bicycling route between the Northwest Heights neighborhood (around Skyline Blvd) and northwest Portland, Holman Lane could increase access for many people at no cost to anyone. Walking nearly a mile downhill on a dirt road isn’t feasible. If safety (or even erosion for that matter) is a concern, perhaps a 5 mph speed limit is a better solution?
We plan to explore what it would take to consider a change in this policy and open up Holman to bicycling in both directions. We’ll report back what we find out.
In the meantime, what are your experiences with Holman Lane? Do you ride it? What do you think about the downhill biking ban?