SKATEBOARDERS from all over the country know Portland's West Hills. The steep streets around Washington Park provide a fast, twisting ride that's hard to beat. But an ordinance that Commissioner Randy Leonard's office is planning to bring to city council on June 27 would put the brakes on the skaters—banning skateboarding on 10 streets around the Southwest neighborhood.
Skaters, police, and neighbors have been talking for nearly a year about how to resolve noise and safety issues in the Arlington Heights area. Skaters and neighbors both want to avoid tragedy, but they're split on how best to promote safe skating: through education or an outright ban.
Leonard's ordinance (PDF) would ban skating entirely on 10 popular routes, including SW Fairview, but leave a "transportation corridor" through the area.
"The city recognizes that skating is a form of transportation, but the neighborhood is saying, 'Hey, there've been frequent reports of skate accidents in this neighborhood. One day we're going to hear a story of a severe accident,'" says Leonard staffer Stuart Oishi.
Adds Eric Nagle, the Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association chair who is pushing for the ban: "Folks in the neighborhood really, really don't want to see a skater die on our streets. The likelihood of a tragedy like that has been growing every year as the volume and craziness of skating on the [hill] has exploded."
Portland is nationally known as a city with a rare, progressive approach to skating. While other cities have outlawed skating in their downtowns, Portland's city council legalized skating on all city streets 11 years ago, even having "Skate Route" signs installed around downtown. Now, the only non-skate streets in the city are along the transit mall.
Downhill skater and race organizer Billy "Bones" Meiners was upset to hear about the proposed ban—he's been working on a committee with police, city planners, and neighbors to come up with solutions to the neighbors' issues for the past six months. The group was working toward educating skaters, not outlawing them, he says.
"Banning it is not going to stop people from skating," says Meiners, who has been skating in Portland since 2005. "Right now we have the chance to create a responsible and respectful skateboard community. It takes time. It's not going to happen overnight. If you ban it, all of a sudden all of this work we've been putting in to educate skaters is just thrown out the window."
Meiners says the group has okayed plans to distribute pamphlets of skate laws to local skate shops, film safety videos, and work within the skate community to encourage safer behavior. Legally, skateboarders are like cyclists—they must stop at stop signs and wear a reflector or lights at night.
Leonard's office says educating skaters is all well and good, but that the best way to ensure safe streets is to ban skating on the controversial roadways. "You can talk directly to the folks that skate there consistently, but there are lot of people who come from out of town—you can't really control it," says Oishi. "It's like herding cats."
According to Oregon Department of Transportation records, 41 people using skateboards, rollerblades, scooters, or wheelchairs were involved in vehicle crashes in Portland between 2009 and 2011. Only one of those—from last November—occurred on the targeted SW streets.
Sergeant Pete Simpson, a Portland police spokesman, says the bureau has not had any recent reports of skate-related property damage in the area, though he's had a handful of complaints about noise.
"They pretty much self-police, so we haven't dedicated a lot of energy to sitting up there," Simpson says of the skaters. "There haven't been many issues, so we can spend our resources where they're needed elsewhere."
Commander Mike Crebs worked on the skate committee with Meiners and doesn't have an up-or-down opinion on the ban, but says enforcing current traffic laws is tricky because it's hard to safely pull over skaters.
"If you ban it, there will be some people who say okay and don't skate up there, but there will be other people who think it's just another exciting challenge," says Crebs.
In an effort to promote safer skating, Meiners and others are doing something new: They're organizing fully permitted skate races, including a Mount Tabor downhill race in late June and, last weekend, a race on Washington Park's switchbacks.
"It was awesome—100 kids showed up, every one of them had a helmet," says Meiners. "As the community grows, the need for these kind of events grows. Just because there are a few rogue elements, we shouldn't ban skating entirely."