Using the Legal System to Level the Playing Field for Bicyclists by Greg Hayes

Between 1993 and 1995, the advocacy group, the Oregon Bicycle Transportation Alliance, sued the city of Portland because the Department of Transportation (DoT) refused to include bike lanes in the construction of two major new roads. The victory was due in large part to a state law which requires that bicycle and pedestrian facilities "be provided wherever a highway, road, or street is being constructed, reconstructed, or relocated."

In 1993, a new stadium was proposed for downtown Portland. The arena was centrally located and accessible to existing public transit facilities. Unfortunately, two major roads involved in the project were going to be hazardous for bicyclists. Both roads included double-lane automobile right-turns that would cross bike-traffic space. The roadways also approached two of the four bike-accessible bridges in Portland, where bridge access is extremely important.

The Portland DoT refused to include bike lanes on the roads because they claimed that fewer car lanes would cause automobile traffic congestion when the stadium was heavily used. (Sound familiar, San Franciscans?) The Portland DoT even quoted nonexistent city policies that prohibited the construction of roads that "could become congested."

After exhausting all other options, the BTA decided to sue the city on the grounds that it had failed to uphold a provision of the the state law, which requires that bike/pedestrian facilities be provided when roads are constructed, reconstructed, or relocated. The law also requires all municipalities and counties to spend at least 1% of their state highway funds to provide such facilities.

The law was created in 1971 by a state legislator who was unhappy about the fact that driving the mile and a half to the statehouse was safer than walking or biking. The statute had been on the books for more than 20 years, untested in court and largely ignored or misunderstood by city and county governments throughout the state.

The City of Portland argued that it had upheld its obligation to the law by spending the required 1% on bike/pedestrian transportation projects. The BTA argued that the law required such facilities be included on "all new or reconstructed roads." In December 1995, the Oregon Supreme court decided the case in the BTA's favor. The BTA then dropped the suit, feeling it had made its point.

Consequently, the bike lanes in question exist today, and Portland's overall compliance with the "Oregon Bicycle Bill" has greatly improved. Portland city staff now commonly use the precedent as a rationale to require that bike facilities be provided in new projects. According to the BTA, city staffers say things like, "We need to have bike lanes or we will be sued." Imagine that sentiment in San Francisco!

In last year's member survey, many people expressed interest in seeing more articles in the newsletter documenting other cities' successes and attempts at grappling with the issues we face in SF. If you know of other good examples we should cover, please call 431-BIKE, x2.