Sign in Mt. Tabor Park that was installed by City of Portland, then removed after eagle-eyed citizens complained. (Photo: Carrie Leonard)
City of Portland map, with BikePortland additions in blue to make “informal trails” more visible.

Someone at the Portland Parks and Recreation Bureau decided it would be OK to install signs at Mt. Tabor Park with incorrect information and in the wrong location in what appears to have been at worst a coordinated strategy — and at best a clumsy effort — to scare bicycle users away from parts of the park they have the legal right to use.

We were first notified about the signs on December 28th by a reader named Zack. Two signs on one pole were erected at a busy location (see map) in the popular park just southeast of the main reservoir at the junction of SE Reservoir Loop Road (which is paved) and several dirt trails. The larger of the two signs read, “No Bicycles Please” and the smaller one stated, “Bicycles Prohibited: Bicycles are permitted on paved roads only in Mt. Tabor Park.”

But it turns out these signs were illegitimate. One of the city codes they reference no longer exists, and the other one does not even apply to trails or bicycle use.

Despite their very official appearance and installation Zack was skeptical (more skeptical than even I was initially). He knows the rules and wondered why the signs were posted away from trails where bicycling off-road is actually prohibited in the park. Zack reported the signs to 311.

Around the same day (12/30) we learned that another person, bike advocate and BikeLoud PDX Member Carrie Leonard began to email Portland Parks about the signs. 10 days after her first inquiry, a Parks staffer wrote to Leonard in an email that, “The signs are to indicate no off-road cycling as this is discouraged and we would prefer that bicycles stay on the paved pathways.”

“We would prefer that bicycles stay on the paved pathways.”

– PP&R employee

The problem with that response — and with the sign — is that cycling off-road is allowed in Mt. Tabor Park and the “preference” of city employees should have absolutely zero bearing on that fact. According to the official Mt. Tabor Park map, bicycle use is prohibited on the Green Trail (marked in red on the official map) and all trails marked with small dots as “informal trail.” The 2000 Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan states that bicycles are allowed on all paved roads and all dirt (“gravel”) roads and trails that are over six feet wide.

Somewhat shocked that a Parks employee would casually admit to installing misleading signs with nonexistent and non-applicable codes simply because they’d “prefer” something else, Leonard, who recently served as an advisor to a member of the Oregon State Legislature, looped Parks Commissioner Dan Ryan into the issue. “I want to reiterate my deep concern that it appears that Parks staff is commissioning and posting signage that directly contradicts current City Park rules and statute,” Leonard wrote in her email to Ryan. “I am very troubled if that is actually what is occurring here.”

On January 12th (two days after that email to Commissioner Ryan), Leonard received a response from Portland Parks Public Information Officer Mark Ross. “The sign in question was put up in error,” Ryan wrote. “And our staff has removed it.”

Ross repeated the same answer when I asked him about the signs. He also added that Parks is working on a clearer map and a “system-wide comprehensive signing program that will prioritize safety and be informed by city code.”

But a troubling issues remain: Why would Parks staff feel authorized to create and install a misleading sign? And why has Parks waited over 10 years to clarify and update its signage and maps?

I asked Ross whether or not the employee(s) involved in this episode will be disciplined and/or investigated. He didn’t address the question directly and reiterated that the sign was erected in “error” and that it was “unintentional.”

Related: Opinion: Portland’s irrational fear of off-road cycling

This is not the first time we’ve covered trail-related cycling concerns in Mt. Tabor Park. In 2007, parkgoers began to complain about inconsiderate bicycle riders on dirt trails. Those concerns were brought to a neighborhood meeting a few months later.

Confusion is a big part of the problem on Mt. Tabor. Even well-meaning and courteous riders might not know where it’s legal to ride off the pavement. In 2011, that confusion led to the installation of “No Bicycles Please” signs on the Green Trail. (Note how even back then Parks displayed the sign with that reference to an outdated city ordinance. In 2011 they said they would edit the sign, but 12 years later they are still using it.) In 2012, we again covered trail use confusion and conflicts in the park.

This confusion has real impacts on park users. Just yesterday I received the following text:

“Just had an unpleasant run-in at Mt Tabor – i was riding on a dirt trail around the top reservoir when a man began to yell at me. He stated there are no bikes allowed off paved roads at Mt Tabor. I told him I believed he was misinformed, I live near the park and ride (and or walk) there almost daily. He asked if I wanted to see a picture of a new sign that had gone up, and I said sure. Sure enough he a picture of a Portland Parks sign saying bike on paved roads only—- but then he said the sign had been removed, possibly vandalized and stolen. I’d love to know what the deal is, as this is the first I heard of it. I rode by the visitor center to the info board, but couldn’t see any updates about a rule change. Curious what’s going on.”

This is one big reason why Parks must do better when it comes to managing these sensitive issues. Keep in mind this is a Parks bureau that has not lived up to its promises of increasing bicycle access in our large urban parks. The context of this “unintentional” sign in Mt. Tabor includes a Parks bureau that has had every opportunity to improve off-road cycling in Forest Park and River View — but has fallen on its face both times.

There’s a reason t-shirts emblazoned with: “Portland Hates Me: Mountain Biking Is Not A Crime” were sold at a protest ride in 2015.

In the past 10 years, it appears that no progress has been made to update and clarify the maps and signage that govern off-road bicycling in Mt. Tabor Park — so it’s not surprising that these unfortunate episodes continue to play out. Hopefully this latest signage fiasco leads to a fresh look at the issue by Parks bureau management and/or Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office.

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