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Tired of leaves in bike lanes, this Portlander made a pedal-powered sweeper

Posted by on November 8th, 2018 at 3:30 pm


*Many major bikeways in Portland are covered in leaves this time of year. (Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Bill Stites of Portland-based Stites Design likes to create human-powered vehicles that can do amazing things.

Bill Stites

His most successful product so far is the “Truck Trike” which has been used to re-balance bike share fleets and by delivery giant UPS to deliver packages.

And like many of you, Bill is tired of having to ride through the slippery leaves that often block or narrow many Portland bike lanes this time of year. As we saw last week on SW Terwilliger, the presence of leaves in bike lanes isn’t just a minor inconvenience, it can put people at risk and it contributes to already-frayed nerves. At a time when we must do everything possible to promote cycling, this is just one more hazard people face.

We’ve heard from readers who’ve slipped and fallen this year, and several who fear they might. The issue comes up every year, and while PBOT eventually cleans most of it up (they’ve already swept Terwilliger, Willamette, and many other bikeways in the past week), there’s got to be a better way to deal with it. And it’s not just the leaves. Soon it will be snow, then ice, then gravel. People who ride bikes deserve better.

Advertise with BikePortland.

PBOT’s smallest sweeper (seen here on Williams Ave last week) is still too big for some of our new protected bike lanes.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortlanD)

In 2013 the City of Portland added a mini-sweeper to its maintenance fleet with the expressed intent of using it to clear bikeways. But that’s just one sweeper. And at 7 1/2-feet wide, it won’t be able to squeeze into some the newly protected bikeways PBOT has built in the past few years.

Enter Bill Stites’ latest creation: A trailer outfitted with swiveling brushes pulled behind his electric trike. It’s simple and effective.

(Photos: Bill Stites)

Here’s a video of it in action on SE Morrison…

Bill tells us it’s still just a prototype. His ultimate goal is to create a “human scale, appropriate energy consumption,” solution at a reasonable cost.

About a year ago, before he started to work on this sweeper trailer, Bill met with PBOT maintenance staff to talk about the problem. “Our discussion revealed a sticking point,” he recalled via email today. “They insisted that the detritus needed to be picked up for liability reasons. Pushing to the side without picking up was not acceptable (the only exception being snow).”

Bill says designing a system to capture the leaves would up the cost, complexity, and energy consumption. He wants to keep things simple so he plans to keep refining his trailer design. “Personally, I think the design is pretty close,” he says.

Bill’s sweeper creates a clear path about 36-inches wide by pushing debris to the curb. He estimates he could make them available for about $1,500 a piece (the heavy-duty brush-heads alone are $200 each). With a modified hitch that could attach to more types of bikes, perhaps neighborhood associations, local tool libraries, and other organizations could purchase one of these and loan it out to volunteer sweepers.

In the spirit of bike-powered trash-hauler Danny Dunn, we salute Bill Stites and hope to see a fleet of his sweepers on Portland streets in the very near future.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

34 Comments
  • John Lascurettes November 8, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    In 2013 the City of Portland added a mini-sweeper to its maintenance fleet with the expressed intent of using it to clear bikeways. But that’s just one sweeper. And at 7 1/2-feet wide, it won’t be able to squeeze into some the newly protected bikeways PBOT has built in the past few years.

    Face. Palm.

    What I’d really love to see PBOT doing is fining the businesses and/or groundskeepers that are blowing the leaves into the street. That is likely illegal to begin with (leaf day excepted — but they’re not meant to be stored there for weeks!) and definitely unsafe.

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    • John Lascurettes November 8, 2018 at 3:54 pm

      Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever spied that sweeper on the roads, let alone the bike lane. 🙁

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      • Daniel November 9, 2018 at 11:04 am

        I passed it heading south on Vancouver, just before Russell. It seems like a perfect size for unprotected buffered bike lanes like that, personally I wish they had more of them and could run them more frequently. Those areas have trees overhanging the entire bike lane, so there’s no groundskeeper to blame – the only solution is running more sweepers like that.

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    • mark November 8, 2018 at 9:09 pm

      “That is likely illegal to begin with (leaf day excepted — but they’re not meant to be stored there for weeks!) and definitely unsafe.”

      It certainly is illegal. This link is hidden on the leaf day FAQ page from the city:

      https://www.portlandoregon.gov/citycode/article/379409

      It’s interesting that the leaf day FAQ suggests this link to folks who do not live in a leaf zone, but they don’t admonish those who do live in a leaf zone not to push their leaves in the street early. I actually called the city last year and mentioned that they really need to make that information more prominent, and not just to those outside the leaf zones. It appears that my pleas were ignored, or deemed unimportant.

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  • J_R November 8, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    While I appreciate Bill’s actions, pushing the leaves into the gutter is not a solution.

    I live on a corner parcel with one of the streets featuring a moderately steep hill and lots of street trees on both streets. A compounding problem is that my uphill neighbors blow and sweep their leaves into the street. Leaves in the gutter end up washing down the hill where the clog they storm drains and create a puddle that inundates the entire intersection. Just this week, my spouse and I spent 30 minutes in our rubber boots wielding shoves and pitchforks to clear the storm drains and shovel the leaves from the gutter so the water could drain. We’ll be out there doing the same several more times in the next month.

    The solution is removal of the leaves along with a prohibition against putting leaves into the street more than 48 hours in advance of the city’s schedule leaf collection.

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    • John Lascurettes November 8, 2018 at 6:02 pm

      Happens at my corner too and I’m in the flatlands. It’s going to happen whether they collect in the lane or get shoved to the side of the lane. The real problem is that the property owner is responsible for cleaning the street of leaves (and why Portland offers Leaf Pickup day in the first place); yet most homeowners and nearly all commercial owners put the leaves IN the street. That is the problem. At least Bill is making it a safer place for bikes.

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  • Buzz November 8, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    I’ve been composting all my leaves for years (3 street trees plus 4 more, all sizable at this point, on a single city lot), it’s not that hard to do. Blowing leaves into the street is just plain lazy, and they just don’t magically disappear, I don’t know what the property owners and yard maintenance contractors are thinking when they do this.

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    • John Thurston November 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

      They’re probably thinking:
      “There! My lawn is all clear and those leaves are now Someone Else’s Problem.”

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    • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 9:48 am

      We compost in place too (even mulch it) but I’m in the leaf pickup zone. There’s enough tree canopy in my hood that it’s way too much leaves to leave in place. It would choke out the roots rather than feed the roots of my garden. So leaf pickup day is great to get rid of that big bulk and then we compost with the stragglers the rest of the season.

      PS: pickup for me was today and we didn’t rake out the huge, property-wide mound of leaves into the street until last night.

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    • Matthew in PDX November 9, 2018 at 10:04 am

      I have an electric blower vac, I vac up all the leaves on our lot and any in the gutter in front of our house. The blower vac mulches the garden litter and I put it in the green compost bin for removal on trash day. I don’t want the corner of my street to be flooded by a blocked drain.

      Then again, when it snowed last year, we were the only residents on our block who cleared the snow from our sidewalk. Maybe it was the years of living in NYC that conditioned us to keeping things cleared (NYC Department of Sanitation is very liberal with its citations).

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      • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 10:37 am

        Imagine that, enforcement as a motivator.

        PS: thanks for shoveling. I usually do our sidewalk and both my neighbors when it comes down and sticks. One is an elderly widow and the other is a single mom.

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  • BikeSlobPDX November 9, 2018 at 7:58 am

    I rake mine and put them in the green compost bin. I can only do one bin a week, but that limits how much raking I have to do every week, and by the time all the leaves are off the trees (mid December) my yard is cleared.

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    • Gary B November 9, 2018 at 9:56 am

      FYI, there’s no limit on the compost pick-up. So if you find yourself wanting to do more than a bin a week, those big paper yard waste bags are handy.

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  • 9watts November 9, 2018 at 8:11 am

    Hats off to Bill!
    So fun to see how your mind works. I look forward to further iterations.

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  • Tim November 9, 2018 at 8:19 am

    Pretty cool. I have been thinking about how a bike sweeper could work, but in my design fantasy the leaves are transported back onto the property that blew them into the street in the first place. Blowing leaves into the street so they are somebody else’s problem is just unimaginably rude.

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  • jered November 9, 2018 at 9:09 am

    Yeah Bill good to see you still making thought provoking stuff!!

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  • Julie Hammond November 9, 2018 at 11:23 am

    We live on Rosa Parks and are received no special information about where to rake our leaf day leaves now that the bike lanes are curbside. For folks who commute along Rosa Parks, heads up that on Nov 26 and Dec 18 the lanes will likely be filled with leaves. It seems unsafe for us to rake our leaves into the bike lane (obviously) but also unsafe and ineffective to rake our leaves into the traffic lane (there are no parking spots in front of our house).

    Does anyone else have experience with this? I’ve reached out to the city but have yet to hear back.

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    • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 12:21 pm

      Are you in a Leaf Day pickup zone? All the literature is available online if your address is within. Otherwise, you are NOT ever supposed to put your leaves in the street. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/698236

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      • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 12:25 pm

        Looks like Rosa Parks between I-5 and MLK are zones N6 and NE1 (divided by Vancouver Ave). I don’t know the dates for those zones.

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      • osmill November 10, 2018 at 11:39 am

        John, I think you read Julie’s post a bit too hastily. She says in the first sentence that this is in reference to “leaf day leaves,” and she lists the leaf day dates for her residence. It’s also clear from Julie’s post that she has looked at the city’s instructions. And as she indicates, the city’s info does NOT appear to address whether you are to do something different with your leaf-day leaves if there is a curb-side bike lane in front of your residence. Since there are no specific instructions related to the presence of a bike lane, the city is in fact telling you to rake your leaf-day leaves into that curb-side bike lane.

        This seems to be another example of PBOT overlooking (or ignoring) collateral impacts of new bike infrastructure, and perhaps of a lack of internal coordination between different PBOT functions.

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        • Julie Hammond November 13, 2018 at 12:19 pm

          Yep, the lack of communication between city departments (municipal waste) and PBOT was exactly my concern. In years past were were told to rake our leaves to what had been curbside parking which–hooray!–no longer exists. I’m a huge fan of the new bike lane alignment, and am really looking forward to poured curb protections being installed, but feel its important to point out this lack of coordination. And while as a cyclist I am willing to give up the lane for a few hours on two days of the year, I also want to the city to (a) be consistent with what they are telling residents to do and (b) inform cyclists/bike lane users of potential impacts.

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  • Fred November 9, 2018 at 11:31 am

    I would like to be able to look at a Google map that shows which streets were swept on which dates. Unrealistic?

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    • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 12:21 pm

      Why would Google track this? You can look up your address here to see if you’re in a pickup zone. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/698236

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      • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 12:27 pm
        • Fred November 9, 2018 at 2:02 pm

          Hi John: I’m not talking about leaf pickup and I’m also not talking about Google Maps. I’m suggesting that the city do a Google Maps integration that would show cyclists which streets have been swept on which dates. They could link to it from their web site, and cyclists could use the map to decide which routes to ride. If I had known Terwilliger was swept, for example, I would have ridden it this morning instead of Barbur, which has been *horrible* the past couple of days.

          Many organizations are taking advantage of Google Maps API and I’m wondering if PBOT could too. Thanks.

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          • John Lascurettes November 9, 2018 at 2:10 pm

            Gotcha. I misunderstood. Yeah, it would be pretty cool to know both when a particular street might get swept (even if it’s tentative) and when it last got swept. I wonder if it would lead to more or fewer calls to the city. “Can we get some street sweeping soon?” vs. “I see it’s been over a year for this street!”

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  • Bald One November 9, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    I would still like PBOT design staff put a moratorium on creating new physically protected bike lanes until they have a signed document of understanding on road surface maintenance for these designs. If that cute little sweeper doesn’t fit, they need to have buy-in from maintenance that they are going to get out there with brooms and shovels and clear the road by hand according to an acceptable schedule – or how ever they decide to do it. These protected bike lanes are hazards with no mitigation other than possible citizen intervention. And, they are much worse for debris than simple buffered bike lanes. Perhaps the PBOT designers should take every Friday and grab a broom and shovel and go sweep their latest bollard-lined or curbed construction. Or, perhaps Lime/Bird should be forced to clean these as they profit on them (although, this would be a slippery slope to the future of tolled corporate bike lanes).

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  • Opus the Poet November 10, 2018 at 3:01 am

    Just an FYI, you can buy a cordless leafblower/vacuum at Harbor Freight for about $80 that would suck up the leaves from the sweeper and dump them in a bin on the trailer. I’m not sure how much spare batteries cost but I think you will probably need several.

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  • Steve November 11, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Well, I must admit, I have learned something new. I had no idea that blowing the leaves into the street was illegal. I was “taught” by my father that you do that so the cars grind it up. I live on the corner of a neighbor hood greenway and will change that behavior immediately (luckily I have a teenage son :)).

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  • hotrodder November 13, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    Hey, check it out! This invention made it to the GCN show! Go to about 14:40 to see Sy and Dan talk about the street sweeper!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xi5bX9UU3Zs

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