Guest article: How urban mountain biking fits in Portland

Guest article: How urban mountain biking fits in Portland

Every dot is a urban mountain biking trails system Every dot is a urban mountain biking trails system[/caption]

There’s no shortage of urban mountain biking trail systems in the U.S. Portland is lagging behind.

This post was written by Joshua Rebannack and it’s based on the “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” presentation he recently gave in Portland.

The issue of urban mountain biking has been one that made its rounds through the halls of government at Portland multiple times in past decade. But regardless of the property, the conditions, or the proposal, the result has been the same: mountain bikers are promised trail mileage, that “this time will be different”, only to end up with nothing at the end of the process.

Into this history comes “Knobbies in the Neighborhood”, which I presented on March 17th, 2016 to those in attendance at the Multnomah Athletic Club (MAC). What does it have to say about urban mountain biking? How can it inform Portland’s Off Road Cycling Master Planning process?

The first section of “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” considers the state of urban mountain biking across the whole country. As of last count there are 256 individual urban mountain biking trail systems comprising 1,925 miles of trail in cities across the nation. From New York City to Tacoma, from Miami to Duluth, urban mountain biking has found a home. Whether they be in parks, urban wildernesses or federal wildlife management areas they have been a success wherever they are. These trails aren’t new either, spanning nearly a quarter century of time.



So why would looking at existing urban mountain biking trails help Portland? Firstly, it provides a source of knowledge that Portland can draw from. Seeing that Portland is one of the few major cities without urban mountain biking helps frame the process as, “How do we…?” Recognizing that other cities have had urban mountain biking for decades also instills a confidence that urban mountain biking can work over the long haul.

The second section of “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” goes through the process that we, as mountain bikers, as sustainable trail designers & builders, go through to avoid ecological impacts. In Portland, the belief that mountain bikes on trails cause more impacts than hiking has been the sticking point in the past. Some of this is just a misunderstanding of how modern trails are built and maintained. Some of this is, unfortunately, intentional misinformation from individuals and groups who dislike mountain biking.

Did you know, for instance, that the current sustainable trail guidelines of the United States Forest Service (USFS) were created by mountain bikers? Or that sustainable trails are built the same, regardless of the primary user group? Lastly, did you know as part of the design process for sustainable trails that biologists, geologists and historians or sociologists are involved in determining the layout of the trails?

All these discussions are important, especially for Portland. Everything we do as humans has an impact on nature, whether it be hiking or mountain biking. The real discussion that needs to be had is what level of impacts Portland is willing to accept, whether from boots or tires. Sadly, many of the same individuals and groups leading the charge against urban mountain biking encourage activities that have impacts far in excess of what mountain biker groups would ever be comfortable with, even suggesting that creating erosional conditions is ‘fun’ (see this recent tweet by the Forest Park Conservancy). Seeing the processes we as mountain bikers go thru to prevent ecological impacts helps refocus the debate on what matters: the real impacts to vegetation and soil from all users.

The last major section of “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” focuses on how to create trails that are safe for everyone. More than any section, it leans heavily on the lessons of those cities that have urban mountain biking. There is a real fear that putting mountain bikes on the same trail as hikers will cause issues or injuries. It’s not an illogical fear. However, it’s a fear based on not knowing how other cities have solved this problem.

Other cities have various methodologies to control how the public use the trails to prevent negative interactions. One of the most common method is something called “directionality”. Directionality is defining the direction of travel on the trails. If we define a direction of travel for trail users, we can also predict where issues might occur and find ways to avoid negative interactions. Often directionality is combined with other controls based on the volume of users on a trail. The more users, the tighter the controls. Those solutions could work for Portland also.

In the end, where do the lessons of “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” fit into Portland? Due to the way Portland is considering urban mountain biking, thru the Off Road Cycling Master Plan, those lessons are most applicable now, at the beginning of the process. Without understanding what others have done or are doing, Portland could end up with concepts and choices that were found to be substandard in other cities with no way of changing them without redoing the whole process. What’s concerning is that current materials for Off Road Cycling Master Plan excludes any lessons of, let alone any mention of, existing urban mountain biking systems. Citizens of Portland, especially mountain bikers, should be very concerned about a process that doesn’t even talk about the previous 25 years of experience with urban mountain biking.

All in all, giving “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” was a great experience and a lot of fun. I would like to thank the Northwest Trail Alliance for setting up the venue and invitations. I would like to thank all that attended. Hopefully, everyone went away understanding something new about urban mountain biking.

If you didn’t get a chance to come to see “Knobbies in the Neighborhood” all is not lost. I will be giving an encore presentation of the Portland specific version on April 3rd, 2016 via Google Hangouts at 6:30pm PST. To view the presentation, please send an email RSVP to by 4:30pm PST on April 3rd to receive an invite to the Google Hangout.

– Joshua Rebannack

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