SKATEBOARDERS AND ROLLERBLADERS GRANTED SAME LEGAL STATUS AS BICYCLISTS IN PORTLAND
by Ray Thomas
Ray Thomas is a Portland bike lawyer.
In third world countries, roadways are frequently a vital artery, a link filled with people on foot, weighted down by loads, pushing wagons and carts, and generally sharing the roadway with all manner of motorized vehicles including tractors (sometimes pulling loaded wagons), motorcycles, trucks, and buses. Such conditions lead to mutual tolerance by motorized and non-motorized users, created by the necessity of sharing the few existing roadways.
It is ironic that when countries “prosper,” adding more and more motorized vehicles to the roadways, drivers tend to exhibit less tolerance for their non-motorized brethren. Perhaps the ultimate irony unfolds in first world countries, when cultural leaders realize the great cost imposed upon the environment and the deterioration of physical vitality caused by dependence upon motorized transportation.
As a historic matter, tiny pockets of resistance to motorized dominance of the roadway survived in the US through the ‘50s & ‘60s, represented in large part by bicycle racers, club riders, walking groups, forward thinking urban planners, equestrian groups, runners/joggers, and other “contrarians.” The relative prosperity of the last decades of the twentieth century (‘70s-‘90s), and revelations from medical science about exercise, life style, and longevity combined to place focus on human powered alternatives to motor vehicle transportation, particularly in urban areas across the US.
As with most things, change has not been uniform or consistent. While on the one hand more adults commute to work than ever before, fewer elementary school kids ride their bikes to school than in the ‘50s and ‘60s and current technology allows development of high performance low-cost roller blades and scooters, but some cities make it illegal to use the devices on urban core sidewalks out of fear of collisions with pedestrians. Unfortunately, urban policy makers face conflicting pressures, often resulting in increased restriction and regulation of new transportation forms. A recent example of the dialectical effect of attempts to provide for human power is found in Portland’s recent experiments.
Portland, Oregon Experience
In 1999 Bicycling magazine named Portland, Oregon the most bike friendly city in the US. City officials and bicycle advocates had collaborated to create one of the nation’s most advanced systems of bike lanes and pedestrian facilities. Aggressively pursuing “traffic calming” techniques, city traffic engineers utilized landscaped islands, speed bumps, pedestrian overpasses, and a pedestrian/bicycle consciousness raising campaign that attracted considerable national attention.
However, the other side of the coin was revealed by the city’s shabby treatment of other non-motorized roadway users. Buried within the Portland City Code was a provision which prohibited skaters (roller skaters or in-line bladers), and scooter riders from riding upon any streets or sidewalks in the downtown core of the city. The same law also prohibited skaters, bladers, boarders, and scooter riders from using any street within the city between sunset and sunrise, a virtual dusk to dawn martial law.
Legal No-Man’s Land
In the absence of regulation by city ordinances or county codes, the Oregon Vehicle Code takes little notice of boarders, skaters, bladers, and scooters. Under the law these modes of transportation exist in a legal no-man’s land, exempted from the provisions of the Oregon Vehicle Code:
“Devices that are powered exclusively by human power are not subject to those provisions of the vehicle code that relate to vehicles. Notwithstanding this subsection, bicycles are generally subject to the vehicle code . . .” ORS 801.026(6)
They do not conform to the definition of “pedestrian:” “[A]ny person afoot or confined in a wheelchair.” ORS 801.385.
Nor do they fit within the Oregon Vehicle Code definition of “bicycle:”
a vehicle that:
(1) Is designed to be operated on the ground on wheels;
(2) Has a seat or saddle for use of the rider;
(3) Is designed to travel with not more than three wheels in contact with the ground;
(4) Is propelled exclusively by human power; and
(5) Has every wheel more than 14 inches in diameter or two tandem wheels either of which is more than 14 inches in diameter.” ORS 801.150.
If these small human powered contraptions are not bicycles or motor vehicles and the users are not pedestrians, then what are they under the law? Good question; they have a legal nonexistence under the Oregon Vehicle Code.
In December of 2000, Portland City Commissioner Charlie Hales decided to lead Portland away from the restricted status imposed upon skates and boards by the Portland city ordinance. Following examples previously set by New York, Minneapolis, and The Dalles, Oregon, Hales asked for legislation premised upon the vision that non-motorized vehicles can co-exist with motorized vehicles in the streets. Preliminary response to a proposed special law was mixed, such as a newspaper editorial entitled “Hales’ Plan for New and Better Road-kill” suggesting that placing skaters on the streets with trucks and cars at night would “boost the number of young organ donors.” Portland’s mayor, Vera Katz, usually a leader on forward looking urban planning issues, stated that she felt spending time on a skateboard ordinance in the City Council was “utterly foolish.” However, legitimizing the presence of boarders and bladers on city streets and sidewalks had considerable grass roots support, and after some amendment and modification the final draft was passed after hearings by the City Council on December 27, 2000.
Brave New World
The new law went into effect on January 26, 2001. It amends and replaces Portland City Code Section 16.70.410 with five major provisions.
The new law allows roller skates, in-line skates, skateboards, scooters, and other similar devices powered exclusively by human power upon any sidewalk in the City of Portland except in the downtown core area [between SW Jefferson, Naito Parkway, NW Hoyt, and 13th Avenue]. This human powered vehicle group may also use any city street, roadway, or sidewalk except on Portland’s Tri-Met bus mall which is a prohibited area.
All persons 16 years of age and younger must wear helmets on streets, sidewalks, and bridges.
Between sunset and sunrise a white light and rear red light or reflector is required.
Laws As Bicycles
The new law incorporates Oregon Vehicle Code provisions relating to bicycles. This means that skaters and boarders must follow the main rules for bike riders: yield to pedestrians but be yielded to in marked or unmarked crosswalks by motor vehicles, not pass motor vehicles on the right (in the absence of a special bike or skate/board/scooter lane), and ride as far to the right on two lane roadways as practicable.
Violation of the provisions of the new municipal ordinance by skaters and boarders results in up to a $25.00 fine, levied against the parents in the case of minors. Finally, the Portland Police Bureau is charged with collecting and reporting annual findings to the City Council regarding injuries and deaths of non-motorized roadway users, and the Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) must designate “preferred skating routes” in the downtown core area and outlying areas of the city for distribution by April 1, 2001.
Portland’s change in legal status for boarders and skaters has elevated their legal status from legal no-man’s land to the legal equivalent of bicyclists on city streets and sidewalks. With their new legal status comes certain responsibilities such as lights or reflectors at night, yielding to pedestrians on sidewalks, using bicycle lanes when available, and riding as far to the right as practicable in the roadway. Oregon Vehicle Code laws prohibiting bicyclists from passing on the right, and traveling at faster than 3 mph in crosswalks are potential traps for the unwary. However, Portland’s step is a good move in the direction of legitimizing non-motorized users in the roadway, and creating a more receptive legal environment for alternative transportation within the city. The proposed system of “preferred skating routes” could lead to positive encouragement for young people in making their claim to a share of the streets, and bicyclists will likely embrace additional non-motorized company in the city’s bicycle lanes. A more receptive legal atmosphere will result in more young people using the city’s streets and sidewalks to get to school, run errands, and ultimately create the potential for independence from the motor vehicle that lasts into adulthood. Our bodies, our species, and our city will all be the better for it.
16.70.410 Roller Skates
A. No person may use roller skates, including in-line skates, a skateboard,
or other similar device upon any street (roadway and/or sidewalk) within the
area bounded by and including SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th
Avenue, except where specifically designated as allowed by the City Traffic
B. No person may use roller skates, including in-line skates, skateboard, or
other similar device upon any street within the City between the hours of
sunset and sunrise.
David Reinhard editorial, The Oregonian (December 17, 2000)
Course Amid Political Storms” by Scott Learn of The Oregonian
(February 25, 2001)