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Poll: Do you want lights on the North Bank Path through East Alton Baker Park?

The area in question is highlighted in pinkish

The June 10th Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) meeting was – and I know I probably over-use this word – silly.  I’ve only been attending public planning meetings for a few months now, but it never ceases to amaze me how emotional people get when discussing how to get from point “a” to point “b”.   City planners are tasked with the job of making everyone happy, which is hard when even the people in the bicycling community don’t always agree, and at the last BPAC meeting they disagreed quite a bit.

Due to my masterful use of “article-title foreshadowing” you have no-doubt figured out that the issue which caused quarrel was the discussion over the possibility of adding lights to the River Path through East Alton Baker park and the Whilamut Natural Area.

Read on for details and to take WeBikeEugene’s first poll!

Before I get into the details of this rather silly meeting, which was certainly not openly hostile, but at times was also not openly not hostile, I’m going to give a little bit of a background information about this issue.  I ask the reader to not jump to any conclusions before you are finished reading.  Jumping to conclusions leads to awkward meetings and forces me to continue to overuse the word “silly,” and no-one wants that.

The City of Eugene has been tasked by cyclists to improve riding in Eugene and build a strong cycling infrastructure.  One way they do this is by applying for Quick Response Readiness Grants that allow them to do all the engineering and design work on a project before actually receiving the funding to complete the project. If this sounds familiar, it may be because I explained this all two months ago in a post about the upcoming Fern Ridge Bike Path repair.  The grants stipulate that if further grant funding is not found to complete the project within five years that the city must come up with the money themselves.  It is important for the city to continue to apply and receive these grants so that they always have “shovel ready” projects in case they receive a grant which can be applied towards construction costs.

Around this time a BPAC member dropped a bombshell from left field and suggested that, for safety, bikes should be banned from that section of trail and should take Day Island Park Rd instead.  At this suggestion several people in the room, including me, shat ourselves in disbelief and the idea was quickly poo-poo’d (pun intended).

Currently Eugene has received a grant to do the engineering and design work for the section of the Fern Ridge Bike Path between Chambers and Garfield.  This part of the grant was presented at the BPAC meeting, and the possible movement of the bike path and community garden seemed to be news to almost everyone, despite me breaking that story two months ago. But, this article is not about how the BPAC apparently doesn’t read this website yet (scoundrels!), so lets move on.

The aforementioned grant will also fund the engineering and design necessary to bring the North Bank River Path between the DeFazio and Knickerbocker bike bridges up to city standards.  These are old, run down sections of path that will need to be rebuilt soon anyway, and bringing them up to standards would turn them into a 12-foot-wide shared use concrete paths with lights.  This, my gentle readers, is the source of the controversy.

This section of the path runs through Alton Baker Park and the Whilamut Natural Area, an area full of easily blinded nocturnal animals and trees who don’t want their roots to be paved over.  Suddenly we have city standards conflicting with, well, city standards.  Turns out that the 1996 East Alton Baker Plan says that lights should not be in the park, sort of: (emphasis mine)

East Alton Baker Park is one of the largest reserves of darkness left in the metropolitan area and as such provides habitat for many nocturnal wildlife species. But the glare from lights both within and surrounding the park is excessive and needs to be shielded for plants and wildlife to thrive. In addition, WISTEC and the Lane ESD Planetarium (located on the edge of East Alton Baker Park) often hold stargazing events in the area, which also require darkness. The glare from the lights also presents a safety hazard for park visitors.

While that statement seems clear, it is followed shortly by these goals: (emphasis mine)

8.0 Establish the park as an oasis of darkness at night, where park visitors can engage in passive recreational activities, such as star gazing and astronomy. In selected areas of the park, provide limited, low intensity lighting for public safety that is shielded to eliminate glare and that has minimal impact on wildlife.

8.2 Limit lighting in the park to the Autzen bike path, and to the kiosks at park entrances at North Walnut and Leo Harris Parkway, the Eastgate Woodlands, and the north end of the Autzen Footbridge. Lighting fixtures should be shielded to eliminate glare and have minimal or no impact on wildlife.

8.3 Determine what hours lights should be turned on and regulate them to meet the needs of both park users and wildlife.

So, the plan is not clear (what exactly is the “Autzen Bike Path”), and has different interpretations depending on where you choose to quote from.  At this point it would seem that the best thing for everyone to do is screw the plans and city standards, and just come together and have an honest and courteous discussion about what’s best for everyone.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened at the meeting.  Now our story begins:

The rough plans for the area between the Defazio and Frohnmeyer bridges

The meeting began with a public comment period where members of the The East Alton Baker Park Citizen Planning Committee (CPC), who had heard of the planning process, laid out impassioned scientific reasons for why lighting should not be allowed in park. They talked about nocturnal animals, stargazing, darkness sanctuaries, Nearby Nature hikes, and similar issues.  They made a very good argument, but it seemed to catch the members of the BPAC off-guard.  City officials weren’t planning to brief the BPAC on the project until later in the meeting, so the testimony came as a surprise to many of the BPAC members.  The issue died down for awhile while the meeting covered other matters, but became heated later that night when the tentative plans were finally presented to the BPAC.

At this point it would seem that the best thing for everyone to do is screw the plans and city standards, and just come together and have an honest and courteous discussion about what’s best for everyone.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened at the meeting.

Before we go on I should set the scene.  The BPAC sits around a long table, looking very important, and observers like myself sit in three rows of chairs in the corner of the room. I was sitting in the middle row with several members of CPC sitting behind me.  This unique position allowed me to hear most of what was going on in the room.

The first part of the discussion covered path width. There is a particularly curvy section of narrow path on either side of the Autzen (Frohnmeyer) bike bridge.  It’s the part of the path that has roots up-heaving the path and rides sort of like a BMX track.  City standards call for this area to be widened to 12 feet, and when this was announced there was much muttering and grumbling behind me from the CPC.  The BPAC balked at the idea as well.  Some BPAC members suggested that the path be repaved but kept its current width, but some members of the CPC didn’t like that idea either.

Around this time a BPAC member dropped a bombshell from left field and suggested that, for safety, bikes should be banned from that section of trail entirely and should take Day Island Park Rd instead.  At this suggestion several people in the room, including me, shat ourselves in disbelief and the idea was quickly poo-poo’d (pun intended).  Even the CPC, who should not be vilified and are cyclists themselves, weren’t asking to ban bikes from the area.  They just want the natural area preserved, and so does everyone else.

There is a place for common ground and compromise in this issue.  The city often does not build its paths to city standards for a variety of reasons.  Also, the grant is just for engineering and design, and the process has barely even started.

Next the subject of lights was broached and people seemed to stop listening, but unfortunately didn’t stop talking.  The CPC’s muttering and negating of ideas from the back row set the stage for conflict, and every time a BPAC member suggested a compromise it was shot down.  Indeed there are several options: low intensity lights, lights that turn off at 10pm (which could catch 95% of the winter commuters), lights of a special color, etc.  Certainly with some research a compromise could be found – but the CPC  appeared to come with an uncompromising “kill the project” agenda, and this put some BPAC members on the defensive.

The most exciting part of the night was when BPAC member David Gizara, a nurse, was relating his anecdotal evidence of taking care of people who were assaulted on the path due to a lack of lights.  At this point the CPC was openly interrupting the meeting from the peanut gallery, and Gizara snapped “You guys are going to have to make concessions about lighting,” to which a CPC member angrily responded “You don’t tell us we have to make concessions. You can say that, but the park plan would have to be amended in order for that to happen.”

Like I said, not openly hostile, but not exactly not hostile either.

Mercifully, after this the meeting moved on to other issues, but that didn’t end the discussion.  City planners Rob Inerfield and Michelle Cahill met the CPC outside the meeting room to continue the discussion.  The words were very polite, but the body language was strong.  Inerfield, Cahill, and another employee were backed into a corner and looked like rabbits surrounded by a pack of wolves.  I’m sure the body language was completely unintentional and something the CPC would regret if pointed out, but they clearly came to do battle.

HEY! YOU! SAME TEAM!

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I don’t like the CPC or that they are bad or mean people. I actually mostly agree with their position, but I don’t agree with their tone.  They went into the BPAC meeting expecting conflict and opposition, and that’s what they got, but it didn’t have to be that way! Many of the people representing the CPC are cyclists and GEARs members and ride the trail often.  Likewise, The BPAC is made up of people who love nature and walk and bike everywhere.  Watching the two groups kibitz was like watching two basketball players who are on the same team fight for a rebound.  I kept wanting to stand up and yell “GUYS! SAME TEAM!” There didn’t need to be any conflict at the meeting, but the CPC’s behavior led to some people like Gizara taking a hard-line stance against them.  Luckily, most of the people on the BPAC remained calmer.

There is a place for common ground and compromise in this issue.  The city often does not build its paths to city standards for a variety of reasons.  Also, the grant is just for engineering and design, and the process has barely even started.  There is no reason to fight so hard this early in the process.  City employees want to work with everyone involved, including the CPC.

The good news is that the CPC invited the BPAC to take a tour of the path with them and the BPAC eagerly accepted.  Maybe on this walk cooler heads will prevail.

Now that you have the story, what do you think?  Should lights be added to this area?

Take our poll, and if you have comments you can send them directly to city planners Michelle.r.Cahill (at) ci.eugene.or.us and Lee.Shoemaker (at) ci.eugene.or.us.  (As well as posting them here, of course.)

8 comments to Poll: Do you want lights on the North Bank Path through East Alton Baker Park?

  • Hans Kuhn

    Is there any data on how many people are impacted (bikes and peds) by the presence or absence of lights on this path? In other words, has the city done an after-dark count of path users in this segment of path?

  • Hans Kuhn

    I forgot to mention in my previous post that I’m nervous about unscientific polls. I probably won’t be taking the poll because I don’t think there’s any useful information to come from them and I don’t want to validate it by participating.
    Online polls are notorious for being gamed by people who use multiple computers and remove their cookies to allow them to vote as many times as the need to “win” and thus don’t represent the sense of the community which is presumably the point of such polls.

  • I think the upcoming bike/ped count numbers should give them an idea. The path is certainly heavily used in the daylight, and I think the goal is to increase after-dark use as well. In theory, lights would increase ridership between Springfield and Eugene in the dark winter months.

    As for the poll, I’m trusting both sides to be honest with it. I also don’t think it will influence the people in charge of making the decision much. This one is sort of an experiment.

  • I don’t use that stretch a lot — and almost never at night — so it could be that I’d think differently if it were part of my regular travels. But …
    Sure, I’d prefer parts of the park to be kept in a more natural state. There aren’t many islands of natural space left in the city.
    Aren’t there reasonable alternative routes that could be used by cyclists? (Yes, I think the idea of a bike ban on this stretch is unnecessary, but if there are alternatives that cyclists could use when it’s dark, why do this? If it’s dark, you’re not really there to enjoy the scenery.
    And if you really want to ride that stretch, you can always put a light on your bike, no?

  • Jacob

    FYI, the Autzen Bike Path the park plan mentions is the path between the Frohnmayer Footbridge and Leo Harris Parkway, which makes sense considering the regular and gameday traffic it’s generated.

    I think one consideration that needs to be brought to the fore is to light the South Bank Path, then encouraging night travel to switch over there if lighting is an issue. The south bank has much less issues with preservation, and is a slightly longer alternative to the north side. It would help if the city could get a Riverfront Parkway – Knickerbocker stretch built someday.

  • Matt

    Ban bikes??? Sounds too familiar. We are becoming a popular scapegoat.

  • Eric Hanson

    I use this section of the path all the time. It’s one of my favorite walking spots in town, and one of the best sections of a fun cycling loop.

    I see no reason to widen this path and/or install lights in the section between Alton Baker and the Knickerbocker Bridge. Some of the coolest and gnarliest trees in the city are along the path here.

    Besides, the other side of the path, next to the abandoned EWEB buildings, is very well-lit for people transporting themselves home along this section. This is what a lot of people choose to do anyway, since you don’t run into the families who gather along the path in Alton Baker.

    Don’t mess with a good thing.

  • Nicholas Baker

    I know plenty of riders, particularly women, who feel uncomfortable riding the North Bank path at night because it is – sans during twilight – so dark.

    That being said, I almost prefer using it at night because of the lack of other bicyclist and the more eerie, natural feel of the forest around me.