Along with wheat and forest products, laws are one of the major exports of Oregon. The state is fertile ground for legislative ideas. American voters in general say, "The government ought to do something," but in Oregon folks say, "We ought to do something to the government." It is a land of close votes, of great expectations, of bold experiments and partial accomplishments, of reforms that are praised abroad but often bog down at home.
In the 1840s, when the covered wagon emigrants set up a makeshift government, they passed a law under which any married man able to drive four stakes in the ground could claim a square mile of land. This legislation was one of the forerunners of the Homestead Act, which led to the settling of the West, but in Oregon it led to so many disputes over boundary lines that the family histories of the old aristocracy can usually be traced through the court records of their suits for fraud.
Nowadays, when the citizens of the state are not fishing, or dedicating historic sites and campgrounds, or attending hearings to protect the environment, they are settling down with volumes of the Oregon Laws and dreaming up ingenious new measures.
One of Oregon's many legislative innovations is the initiative and referendum, which enables voters to put their own laws on the ballot if the legislature refuses to act. All that is required for a referendum is a petition signed by 4% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election; for an initiative, 6%. Initiative and referendum was a nationwide sensation when Oregon adopted it in 1902, and 21 other states eventually followed suit, but at times the Oregon electorate generated less than earthshaking reforms. One early piece of legislation that voters got on the ballot by their own initiative was a bill outlawing passes on railroads. Enthused by the prospect of passing their own laws, Oregon voters pressed on, coming up with acts increasing the bounty on jackrabbits, legalizing slot machines and regulating the sale of oleomargarine.
Prodded by Oregon's creative electorate, in 1971 the state legislature passed House Bill 1700, the first of its kind anywhere. The law provides that the state highway department must spend a minimum of 1% of all gasoline-tax money—1% of all highway revenue generally—building bicycle and pedestrian paths. The Oregon gasoline tax is 7� a gallon, on top of the federal tax of 4� a gallon (and the federal tax, of course, ultimately returns to the state). Oregon motorists buy about a billion gallons of gasoline a year. From this, one would assume that there is, or should be, or soon will be, enough money to build bicycle paths from Oregon to Rarotonga.
Bills modeled on HB 1700 have been introduced into the legislature of at least 30 other states, and the Oregon law is held by cyclists to be only a little less epochal than Magna Carta. But there is an old problem having to do with Oregon: you can export its laws, but not the people, the climate or the background that produced them. They do not work elsewhere as they do at home. In fact, even at home they often do not work the way they are supposed to.
The bicycle bill squeaked through the legislature in the midst of an environmental uprising that centered on the more famous bottle bill. This measure—also passed and exported and subsequently considered in several states—requires beer and soft drinks to be sold in returnable containers.
Why the bike bill got the backing of the legislators is a puzzle. Perhaps the politicians saw the way antipollution laws were going and appreciated the argument that there were no exhaust fumes from bicycles to befoul the moist Oregon air. Perhaps it passed because nobody expected that it would. Nine Representatives and one State Senator originally decided to back the bicycle bill, whose unique feature was that it compelled the highway department to build the paths whether it wanted to or not. So HB 1700 was passed and signed by former Governor Tom McCall on the seat of a bicycle, the seat then being shipped to the Bicycle Museum on New York's Staten Island. That done, state officials realized nobody in the Oregon highway department knew anything about bicycle paths. This lack of expertise prevailed not only in the state but in the nation. However, one city in the U.S.—Davis, Calif.—could provide a building plan.
In January 1972 an Oregon delegation visited Davis. Almost everyone in that city owns a bicycle and pays an annual $2 license fee for it. There are 22,000 registered bicycles in this farm-and-college city of 32,000. Much of the traffic consists of bicycles. At the corner of Third and F Streets, a busy intersection during rush hours, the ratio of bicycles to cars is 8 to 1. Davis' growth began in the late '50s, after the University of California's agricultural college branch was turned into a liberal arts college. Bicycles became so numerous they virtually forced automobiles off the streets. Some of Davis' streets happen to be extremely wide. It was possible to park cars and run bicycle paths between the sidewalks and the parked cars. These paths proved to be so safe and convenient that a citywide system of bicycle paths was constructed.
Only one automobile-bicycle accident has occurred in a bike lane in the 11 years of Davis' bicycle-path system, which now extends for some 16 miles. One reason for this record is the rigorous enforcement of automobile traffic regulations: complete stops at stop signs and tickets for drivers going 26 mph in 25 mph zones. A uniformed cop mounted on a 10-speed bike hands out tickets to speeding cyclists as well.