Harvest Century September 22nd

Turnover of top traffic engineers will shake up city and county

Posted by on March 12th, 2015 at 11:05 am

Cycletrack on SW Broadway-2

Rob Burchfield, who spent 16 years as Portland’s city traffic engineer, is moving to the private sector.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Two people whose judgment calls have shaped Portland’s streets for years — in one case, for decades — are stepping into jobs elsewhere.

Rob Burchfield, Portland’s top traffic engineer since 1999 and a nationally respected innovator on bike-friendly street designs, will leave the city on Friday after almost 30 years. He’s becoming the regional engineering director for Toole Design Group, a national engineering and design firm that specializes in biking and walking projects.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County Engineer Brian Vincent will leave his job April 3. Vincent, whose agency oversees most of downtown Portland’s bridges and many roads outside city limits (Sauvie Island’s, among others), will “pursue a long time career goal of serving as a public works director” by taking that position at San Juan County, Wash., county spokesman Mike Pullen said.

Vincent has been with the county since 2007, when he came across the Columbia River from Clark County Public Works.

Burchfield and Vincent’s successors will oversee things from the use of color on local streets to whether the Burnside Bridge needs right-turn lanes to the best spots for bike-specific traffic signals.

The turnover may bring changes to both agencies. Burchfield’s departure is prompting shifts in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s organization chart, with Director Leah Treat assuming some of Burchfield’s legal responsibilities.

“I have made the decision to move Traffic District Operations and Traffic Design into Engineering Services,” PBOT Director Leah Treat explained in a Feb. 20 email forwarded by PBOT spokeswoman Diane Dulken. “Carl Snyder and Lewis Wardrip will be reporting to [Chief Engineer and Engineering Services manager] Steve Townsen. This will allow for stronger coordination between their Divisions and the Signals and Streetlights Division. This leaves open the question of who will be the City Traffic Engineer. We are working on changes to Title 16 to give all the Traffic Engineer responsibilities to the Director and I will then delegate them among Carl, Lewis and [Signals and Streetlights Division Manager] Peter [Koonce] as makes sense. This change will help current division of duties and also give future Directors the flexibility to deal with changing environments.”

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Burchfield is generally well-liked among local bicycling advocates. His new bio at Toole sums it up:

Inspired by a study tour to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Rob was responsible for implementing many new and innovative design treatments on Portland’s streets. His experience spurred him to conceive and lead the development of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Rob’s achievements earned him the 2009 Public Sector Professional of the Year award from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.

“Rob has been just a great engineer to work with,” said Bicycle Transportation Alliance Engagement Manager Carl Larson. “He’s willing to try new things and really saw the promise that bikes gave cities. I think he really embraced biking as a way to solve a lot of traffic woes. And I think his work with NACTO was huge.”

Burchfield’s new gig also represents a bit of news in the world of local bikeway engineering.

Toole, based in Washington D.C. since its founding in 2003, is one of the country’s two major engineering firms that work mostly in bicycle and pedestrian projects. The other is Portland-based Alta Planning and Design — whose local office is led by Mia Birk, a former colleague of Burchfield’s at the City of Portland.

By hiring Burchfield to open its first Portland office, Toole is stepping squarely into Alta’s home turf and will surely be competing with Alta and other companies for contracts with cities, counties and states in the region.

To us, this just sounds like the latest sign of private-sector confidence in the future of bike infrastructure. Let’s hope the public servants who step into Burchfield’s and Vincent’s current work have similar confidence.

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53 Comments
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    Buzz March 12, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Rob Burchfield has been a long-standing opponent of sharrows on arterial streets, maybe now that he’s leaving the city, there will be some policy shifts that start to allow sharrows on arterials.

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      galavantista March 12, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Sharrows on arterials are a nightmare, IMO — in Seattle, for example, people driving vehicles typically don’t know what they mean, nor give people riding bicycles any more room than arterials without sharrows, and they do little but make people riding bikes feel as though they should be moving as fast as people driving vehicles.

      Maybe there will be another look at accommodating the needs of people riding bicycles who want to access businesses, etc., on arterials (which would be welcome), but I certainly hope they are of the separated, protected kind.

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        soren March 12, 2015 at 12:32 pm

        I don’t think anyone is advocating for sharrows on major arterials in Portland.

        I’d love to see super sharrows on roads were politics has prevented “parking removal” (e.g. bike lanes):

        http://sf.streetsblog.org/2013/09/11/eyes-on-the-street-more-green-backed-sharrows-on-market-street/

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          paikiala March 12, 2015 at 2:44 pm

          Sharrows on District Collectors and higher is what you do when you don’t want to provide bike lanes.

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        Buzz March 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm

        On Portland’s older narrow inner city arterials, you basically have three choices: If you want separated facilities for cyclists, you need to remove either a travel lane or a parking lane, or you can use sharrows.

        More specifically, Rob Burchfield and PBOT made a promise in writing in the Hawthorne Blvd. Transportation Plan to place sharrows on Hawthorne Blvd. once they were approved and included in the MUTCD. That happened over five years ago and yet there are still no sharrows on Hawthorne Blvd.

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          Adam H. March 12, 2015 at 1:16 pm

          Remove a lane of Hawthorne instead, and turn it into a separate cycle track.

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            soren March 12, 2015 at 1:35 pm

            A bike lane was proposed but there was massive business resistance to this (even more intense than 28th).

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              Buzz March 12, 2015 at 3:09 pm

              Soren is correct and I doubt they will reopen this plan for years.

              My point is not that sharrows are the best solution for Hawthorne or other arterial streets, but in the absence of anything else, they are certainly better than nothing as an interim measure while we endlessly wait for something else better to happen.

              Finally, sharrows were the compromise PBOT promised for Hawthorne to satisfy both cyclists and businesses, Rob Burchfield was in the room when this agreement was made, and he has now reneged on that promise.

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                hat March 12, 2015 at 3:24 pm

                They might not be better than nothing. If anyone has data on this please share. I have seen sharrows in Chicago on arterials. Often they are placed on the side of the road in the DZ, not in the center. However, on streets like SW Broadway downtown, I’d rather have a sharrow and take the lane than ride in the narrow DZ buffer that is a nominal bike lane.

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                Buzz March 12, 2015 at 3:53 pm

                Absolutely poor design to place sharrows in the door zone.

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                Adam H. March 12, 2015 at 3:30 pm

                No, they are absolutely worse than nothing. Sharrows would indicate a false sense of security (not to mention conflict with Portland’s definition of which roads get sharrows – “stress-free” streets), which is far worse than no bike markings at all.

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                Buzz March 12, 2015 at 3:57 pm

                Adam – I get that riding in high volume traffic or even having to share the road at all with motorists stresses you out, but you are not the only person on a bike out there, and others may be more comfortable with the concept that you are. Plus, just because there may be sharrows on an arterial street somewhere, it doesn’t mean that you personally have to ride there.

                Above all, don’t let your idea of ‘the perfect solution’ be the enemy of ‘better than nothing’ for a large number of cyclists.

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                Dave Thomson March 12, 2015 at 9:27 pm

                I don’t think we are at risk of anyone in Portland having a false sense of security about cycling infrastructure as long as we have Bike Portland and its commenters to keep us all properly afraid to ride anywhere without a separated cycle track, preferably underground to avoid aircraft incursions.

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            Todd Boulanger March 13, 2015 at 7:46 am

            Yes Hawthorne needs more than a sharrow…esp uphill. Hawthorne is an out of date arterial layout that works for NO street user: drivers, parkers, cyclists, transit, nor pedestrians.

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          CaptainKarma March 12, 2015 at 1:59 pm

          Hawthorne needs a speed limit 20 and speeding ticket cameras if no one wants to give up car congestion there. Everyone would have fair use of the street then, but it’ll never happen.

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        gutterbunnybikes March 12, 2015 at 5:23 pm

        I agree that no one (even bike riders) seem to know how to use them (take the lane people—you should pretend that the arrows on the street are the bike lane- it’s what they are painted on there for).

        But I’m willing to bet with a little education that they’re more effective than unbuffered bike lanes. I Still think that sharrows on 28th is the best design option (after all if it’s good for one direction why not both).

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      Adam H. March 12, 2015 at 1:14 pm

      Why would you want that? In other cities, sharrows basically mean “stay the hell away from this street if you’re riding a bike”. Arterials with fast-moving car traffic should never have shared space, and instead need separated cycle tracks.

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        Buzz March 12, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        LOL

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    Adam H. March 12, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Director Treat taking the role of City Traffic Engineer is surely a good thing.

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      J_R March 12, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      Really? I haven’t seen much evidence of engineering expertise from Treat. You have to be qualified to be an engineer; you can’t simply call yourself one.

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        9watts March 12, 2015 at 12:13 pm

        ” You have to be qualified to be an engineer; you can’t simply call yourself one.” Sometimes that is the problem. The only folks who get to make decisions are engineers, and the credentialing process caused them to forget their abilities or inclination to think outside the box, experiment, go in new directions.

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          J_R March 12, 2015 at 12:38 pm

          No. The ones who effectively make the decisions are the lawyers and judges. Engineers have long been constrained by the legal folks who are extremely worried, often for good reason, about deviating from the prescriptive nature of the law and by outcomes from rulings in court. Rob has been a real advocate for cycling and has really worked to try to develop and implement some stuff outside the box. Read Mia Birk’s book for some examples of how much effort many engineers have put into trying to advance cycling.

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          Granpa March 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm

          Uh…. Wasn’t R. Buckminster Fuller an Engineer? To say that engineers don’t have innovative ideas is painting with a rather broad brush. One might look at the institutional, political or bureaucratic systems that engineers work in.

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            9watts March 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm

            I said ‘sometimes,’ and I stand by that.

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            gutterbunnybikes March 12, 2015 at 5:38 pm

            Actually if I remember right (I might be wrong – been awhile since I’ve read anything about him) he was a college drop-out and was pretty much self taught. And wasn’t actually an engineer.

            In WWII Fuller was in the Navy I believe he had the title of engineer, as did my grandfather (who was stationed on a submarine) but like my grandfather that title meant something more akin to maintenance tech. than someone that actually designed things, though the maintenance techs did some pretty good mechanical skills to wing it when needed.

            That’s how my grandfather survived the sinking of one of his subs, he and the three other survivors (all engineers) were above deck doing repairs/maintenance when the sub was torpedoed.

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          Anne Hawley March 12, 2015 at 12:56 pm

          There was a pretty good conversation yesterday on Twitter between Jeff Speck (@JeffSpeckAICP, author of Walkable City) and Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian, noted Canadian urban planner), with pushback from others, that went, basically:

          Brent, quoting Jeff’s book: “”Engineers have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

          Engineers: But we gave you clean water. Not all engineers…

          Jeff: Yes engineers do great things and also have wrecked cities. And I also criticize planners.

          Brent: But also engineers are changing their thinking, yay! In Vancouver we have plan-gineers!

          Jeff: Problem isn’t coordination, it’s been bad standards and bad goals, like LOS.

          In my view, Leah Treat assuming the Traffic Engineer task-delegator role echoes the change in thinking that those two big-name urbanists are hashing out publicly on Twitter.

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            paikiala March 12, 2015 at 2:49 pm

            Directors of Bureaus in Portland serve at the will of the commissioner in charge of their bureau. What happens when the commissioner in charge doesn’t like bikes?

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              hat March 12, 2015 at 3:40 pm

              Here is the crux. We have NO ONE in city hall who has empathy with people who bike regularly or will, despite popular opinion, actually make a solid commitment.

              I would like the BTA or a similar group send a letter to the mayor that would stipulate a minimum level of bike infrastructure in place before we would commit to voting for him. How this is done I have no clue.

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      Adam H. March 12, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      It was stated in the article that she’d be delegating tasks to managers. Dir. Treat’s job is to establish the vision for the plan, then delegate that vision out to managers to execute it. She has been shown to be in support of building bicycle infrastructure, so this should be a good thing for people who ride bikes.

      No one expects the director of PBOT to be drawing out engineering plans herself, right?

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        J_R March 12, 2015 at 5:19 pm

        “Establishing vision” is a lot different than you first advocated which was “taking the role of traffic engineer.”

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          paikiala March 13, 2015 at 10:20 am

          State law, in every state, is pretty clear about calling yourself an engineer without having passed the two (or more) exams required. Some states, like California (seismic) and Alaska (low temperature), have extra tests to get the license to practice. The first test requires a 4 year degree from an accredited program. The second exam requires 4 years of employment under the supervision of a licensed engineer before you can take it. Engineers have national and state ethics rules, in addition to legal requirements they have to meet to keep their license, and some states, like Oregon, also require continuing professional development hours to maintain the license.
          What happens when the administrator in charge disagrees with the delegated authority engineer’s recommendation?

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    Katie Mangle March 12, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    “To us, this just sounds like the latest sign of private-sector confidence in the future of bike infrastructure…” As the group leader of the Portland headquarters of Alta Planning + Design, I completely agree!

    When Alta was first getting going, there were but a few handfuls of people working on this nationwide. Today there are hundreds if not thousands. Alta is a mission-driven company, and we know that it’s good for all that there are more planners and engineers doing this type of work. Our Portland-based staff are planning and designing for active transportation in OR and around the country. We see more and more communities thinking about how to design and invest in bicycling and walking – our country only needs more people leading and assisting with this import work.

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    David Lewis March 12, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Sharrows on arterials aren’t the problem…

    Arterials are the problem.

    They are a stupid idea from traffic engineers of decades past and are as useless today as strip malls. Thankfully, the geniuses who for decades kept widening the roads and adding lanes left roads wide enough for trams to operate in the medians, so everybody wins. It will take some strong-willed independent planners to actually install such systems, and unfortunately this country is short of those kind of people in government.

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      paikiala March 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

      The concept that engineers do stuff all on their own is misguided at best. Engineers provide solutions to problems defined by society at large and specific customers. Those over-capacity roads we have today were built by people who thought higher speed and vehicle through-put were ‘better’. The definition of ‘better’ has changed over time, and will continue to do so. Engineers provide solutions to achieve the goals of the current ‘best’.

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        9watts March 13, 2015 at 10:38 am

        “Engineers provide solutions to achieve the goals of the current ‘best’.”

        The idea that engineers simply follow orders, provide solutions to problems defined by others, is absurd. Engineers are deferred to, looked to, relied on as experts in a thousand ways. Their training and approach to problems (defined as something that can be solved by an engineer) pervade our society and its approach to making decisions, solving problems.

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          paikiala March 13, 2015 at 11:02 am

          So, the next time you hire an engineer, don’t tell him what outcomes you want, that will make his job so much easier!

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    Doug Klotz March 12, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I would like trees to shade intersections. The City’s Urban Forestry office, with agreement from PBOT, says trees can be no closer than 25′ from the intersecting street curb, for visibility. However, on many recent developments the trees are more like 37-40 feet away, leaving more sidewalk and asphalt baking in the sun. Carl Snyder said that he puts trees 25′ from the intersecting property line (not the curb, so at least 12′ further). He couldn’t explain why there’s a discrepancy, and this practice seems to continue.

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      paikiala March 13, 2015 at 10:32 am

      Doug,
      People will always make mistakes using the right of way. A Safe Systems/Vision Zero design seeks to mitigate the potential for fatal or serious injury outcomes.
      It will always be a balancing act to compare two alternatives and their respective trade-offs. Trees provide shade, and that includes shading night time illumination, another safety issue, particularly at intersections. The practice of putting street lights between intersections 30+ feet off the ground also needs to change.
      The traditional standard in Portland for tree placement is 15 feet from the corner property line, so the distance from the curb includes the RoW from curb to property line. If that is 12 feet, then the distance from curb is 27 feet. This is usually so that a STOP sign can be seen by people driving. The speed of vehicles approaching the intersection also affects sight distance, as you know, so when speeds are higher more clearance should be provided.

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        Doug Klotz March 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm

        I don’t object to site-by-site tree planning. What I sense going on here though, is not that. It is a blanket 37′ instead of the agreed-upon 25′, regardless of the location. I guess it’s easier to just make the default further away than look at it case-by-case. There are hundreds of locations in Portland where trees are way closer than 25′ from the intersecting curb, with no increased crash risk that I am aware of.

        Getting our sidewalks and streets shaded is not just aesthetics. It’s reducing the heat island effect of unshaded hardscape, as well as allowing for more green features in a crowded urban environment. To come down to it, it’s about slowing global warming.

        In most cases, the traffic signal pole is located at the PC/PT point (where straight curb transitions to curved). Many of these signal poles are as thick as the tree trunk. Proper street tree maintenance includes trimming up above sight lines. So, there should be no qualitative difference between the two “poles”. Forcing all trees further away from corners seems to be from a lack of time to analyze where they could be located to best serve their important purpose, while maintaining safety.

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    gheadbarry March 12, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    Coming from a midsize midwestern city two years ago, I continued to do what I always did and found side streets that are well paved and have slight inclines and declines. Sharrows are great for navigation and helping to get around an unknown area with ease as opposed to a high traffic thoroughfare, so are bike lanes, trails etc… Lets face the fact that plenty of them are in pretty rough condition and eventually we all find the right route for ourselves.
    I think that people get intimidated and start to forget that the best way to get around a city is to get out and ride in the city. People will be drawn to the attitude and expression of the local culture as much if not more than the “rules” any structure puts in place. If people see people enjoying life, they want to mimic that.
    My 20 mile roundtrip commute goes from a parking lot in SE to an industrial park in NE and uses every type of medium to ride on. It also puts a smile on my face. I think we need to concentrate on proper crossings for streets like Glisan over 205, 82nd anywhere, downtown… to get the 8-80 group out there finding their own best route through this great city.

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    Evan Manvel March 13, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Paging Seattle’s Dongho Chang… your next job awaits! (Psst – Portland would be lucky to have him).

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      paikiala March 13, 2015 at 10:34 am

      PBOT is eliminating the position and will use two other (existing) engineers to provide the duties.

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    SW March 13, 2015 at 6:56 am

    hat
    Here is the crux. We have NO ONE in city hall who has empathy with people who bike regularly or will, despite popular opinion, actually make a solid commitment..
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    We have no one on the city council worth retaining for any reason, including Charlie and especially Little Caesar.

    Fish does bike ..AFAIR (did he replace his stolen one ?)

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    Todd Boulanger March 13, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Good luck Rob.

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    SW March 14, 2015 at 8:47 am

    paikiala
    Doug, Trees provide shade, and that includes shading night time illumination, another safety issue, particularly at intersections. The practice of putting street lights between intersections 30+ feet off the ground also needs to change.
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    I’m glad you brought up tree planting.

    Crossing 122nd to the library (from the east) at the signalized ped crossing, trees are planted now to the crossers left. Now when looking left to make sure that cars have stopped , that view is obscured. And evidently the car cannot see the ped either

    I ventured out into the crosswalk semi-blind and was closely missed. It’s a line-of-sight problem that the tree planting made.

    Emailed Novick’s office. No response.

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      Doug Klotz March 14, 2015 at 10:17 am

      I’m sorry there was an issue there. Looking at Street View, it seems the trees are just planted, and have some leaves near their trunk. As the tree grows, these should be pruned up to above head level. (Perhaps they need to be pruned now). But it still looks like there’s room to step out beyond the tree, while still at the curb, or within that little curb extension. The signal pole itself looks like a bigger obstacle than that tree (at least in that street view) If the drivers were not slowing for the flashing lights, that’s an enforcement issue.

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    SW March 14, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Doug Klotz
    I’m sorry there was an issue there. Looking at Street View, it seems the trees are just planted, and have some leaves near their trunk. As the tree grows, these should be pruned up to above head level. (Perhaps they need to be pruned now). But it still looks like there’s room to step out beyond the tree, while still at the curb, or within that little curb extension. The signal pole itself looks like a bigger obstacle than that tree (at least in that street view) If the drivers were not slowing for the flashing lights, that’s an enforcement issue.
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    I think you are correct that when they grow and the trunk extends that the view of traffic will return. Have been tempted to do a “midnight pruning job” on the lower branches.
    Another problem at that crossing that will not mature and go away is the car carriers that deliver to the toyota dealer there. They park in the median or bike lanes and are so big that views are completely blocked.
    Why can’t they pull into the lots ? (same problem at the chevy & ford dealers, but not the hyundai one)

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    Doug Klotz March 14, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    There is something appealing about the midnight pruning job. My understanding is the trunk doesn’t really extend, the whole tree grows more height. So any branches that are too low now will remain there, and get thicker. So, pruning off these lower branches early is the best remedy, as long as so much foliage is not removed that it endangers the tree. Of course, you should contact the city about this. I’m sure they’ll get out there quickly to prune it.

    Car carriers may be a more difficult issue. They should have flaggers out there for the entire time they’re parked illegally, stopping traffic so people can cross the street where the signal is not visible. I’m sure a friendly word with the auto dealer will solve that (or not!).

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      J_R March 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm

      In my experience the city doesn’t really care about the trees that interfere with bicyclists and pedestrians.

      Interestingly, the Bureau of Transportation appears to have no role at all with street trees. If the offending vegetation is in the property owner’s yard, you should complain to Development Services. If the offending vegetation is in the planting strip between the sidewalk and streets, it’s in the jurisdiction of Urban Forestry. In either case, they will eventually inform the property owner that it’s his responsibility to maintain the trees. In reality, whoever you complain to will try to point you to some other bureau to deal with it. If you persist, they will eventually send someone to view the property and inform the property owner, but the city staff do not follow-up to see that it is done properly.

      For a city that claims to promote alternative transportation, the city is totally deficient in making property owners maintain vegetation so it doesn’t interfere with bicyclists and pedestrians. I’ve tried and tried and tried, but there’s no interest in this topic at City Hall.

      I can completely understand the appeal of the midnight pruning job. Be aware, the city will crack down on you for unpermitted pruning even though they won’t enforce pruning that is a hazard for pedestrians and bicyclists.

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        Buzz March 17, 2015 at 4:41 pm

        I’ve been waiting over 8 months since I first contacted the city regarding pruning of trees interfering with the bike lane on N. Interstate on the west side of the Moda Center. They finally responded to me about 2 months ago, but the trees still aren’t pruned.

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          Buzz March 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm

          My guess is that if you do some guerrilla pruning not at midnight but during the day, with appropriate gear (i.e. hardhats, workboots, safety vests and glasses and a few traffic cones) no one would pay any attention to you at all.

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    Steven McAtee March 15, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Yes it is an interesting time. I am excited to see how things at PBOT end up!

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    SW March 16, 2015 at 8:18 am

    J_R
    In my experience the city doesn’t really care about the trees that interfere with bicyclists and pedestrians.
    Interestingly, the Bureau of Transportation appears to have no role at all with street trees. If the offending vegetation is in the property owner’s yard, you should complain to Development Services. If the offending vegetation is in the planting strip between the sidewalk and streets, it’s in the jurisdiction of Urban Forestry. In either case, they will eventually inform the property owner that it’s his responsibility to maintain the trees. In reality, whoever you complain to will try to point you to some other bureau to deal with it. If you persist, they will eventually send someone to view the property and inform the property owner, but the city staff do not follow-up to see that it is done properly.
    For a city that claims to promote alternative transportation, the city is totally deficient in making property owners maintain vegetation so it doesn’t interfere with bicyclists and pedestrians. I’ve tried and tried and tried, but there’s no interest in this topic at City Hall.
    I can completely understand the appeal of the midnight pruning job. Be aware, the city will crack down on you for unpermitted pruning even though they won’t enforce pruning that is a hazard for pedestrians and bicyclists.
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    thanks for the answer.

    IMHO, “The City That Works” …. doesn’t work very well.

    looks like they’ll send you in circles till you give up ?

    My neighboring house is a rental. Renter would block my mailbox with her SUV.
    Mail delivery person left 3 of those pink “you are in violation of … , plse stop it” notices on her vehicle. Sometimes the mail person just would not even stop .. I’ve had to chase the mail truck down the block.

    Contacted Portland Parking Enforcement 4 times .. email, calls . Their response ?? nothing.
    IF Parking Enforcement doesn’t enforce parking, then what do they do all day ?

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