Here we go again.
After seven months of advisory committee meetings, tonight the City of Portland will unveil a first draft of a list of potential sites to build new off-road cycling facilities. And like we’ve seen several times in the past, now that the moment of truth is drawing closer, people who want to prevent any improvement in bike access in local parks and natural areas are digging in for a fight.
This time the action is swirling around the city’s Off Road Cycling Master Plan process, a $350,000 effort to once-and-for-all create a comprehensive strategy to address the growing demand for places where Portlanders can ride a bicycle on dirt trails that doesn’t require a drive to Hood River, Sandy, or the Coast Range. The plan doesn’t draw any lines on the map, nor does it mandate the construction of any new trails. Its goal is to create a citywide inventory of where off-road cycling could work and what type of facility could be built at each site (it’s looking at all forms of dirt riding, from singletrack to skills parks and “pump tracks”). Part of that inventory is likely to include Forest Park, a location steeped in emotion and controversy on boths sides of this debate.
And since this is Portland and the city is talking about riding bicycles on dirt trails in Forest Park, a group of people who are vehemently resistant to any changes to the status quo have emerged to try and stop any forward movement.
A group calling itself “Friends of Forest Park” has been sending around emails (PDF) and has launched a petition to gather support for their cause. They say “Forest Park is facing the greatest threat in its history,” because the city plans to allow bicycling on existing trails like Wildwood. That’s not true at all, but it hasn’t stopped the group from spreading the same fear-mongering statistics and propaganda they’ve spread for many years. The group is spearheaded by Marcy Houle, the same woman who helped persuade the city to punt on the issue at the end of a lengthy public process seven years ago.
Houle and her groups’ tactics have had some impact already. 536 people have signed their petition since it was launced one month ago and “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed shared it with her 101,000 Twitter followers. For what it’s worth, a petition calling for more bicycle trail access in Portland got 1,500 signatures in just 36 hours.
The local media has helped the Friends group too. KGW-TV ran an unbalanced story a few weeks ago and the NW Examiner, a neighborhood paper whose publisher is infamously sour on biking, ran yet another one-sided story on the issue.
For their part, bicycling advocates have been working within the public process by participating in the advisory committee meetings. They’re taking a similar tact that they used to great success in a Metro planning process for a parcel of land just north of Forest Park: Make the very strong case for responsible off-road cycling, work in partnership with government to help answer the demand for more of it in the Portland area, and then do everything possible to support the often difficult process of making it a reality.
After much deliberation and even protests by anti-biking groups, Metro council recently sided with bike advocates on this issue. The City of Portland now must decide if it will do the same.
Portland needs a roadmap for off-road cycling. If we get it right we can usher in an exciting new era of stewardship and conservation in our local parks and natural areas while providing a new, healthy, outdoor activity for thousands of people. If we succumb to the status quo based on the non-factual and hyperbolic arguments of some residents who are unwilling to share our public spaces, than we will have missed a valuable opportunity to become a better city.
The Off Road Cycling Master Plan advisory committee meets tonight (8/25) from 4:00 to 7:00 pm at 1900 SW 4th Avenue (7th Floor). Here’s the agenda (PDF).
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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