Welcome to gravel-in-the-bike-lanes season

Posted by on February 12th, 2019 at 11:17 am

Hello again gravel.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Fresh off leaves-in-the-bike-lanes season, it’s time to gird yourself for gravel-in-the-bike-lanes season.

With the big winter storm last week, Portland Bureau of Transportation crews were out in force laying down gravel to prevent roads from becoming too slick from ice. That’s all fine and good when you need the traction for driving; but the gravel that’s left behind is an annoyance and hazard for bicycle riders. Gravel can cause riders to slip out, it can damage bike frames and other components, and it hastens the erosion of colored pavement and striping many bicycle riders rely on for “protection”.

It seems like we grapple with this issue every year. 2017 was especially bad.

This year we have reasons to be a bit more optimistic about how PBOT will deal with it. For the first time I can remember, they actually publicly addressed it before us or someone else in the community complained about it. In a tweet yesterday, PBOT announced that they’d already swept bike lanes in key bicycle arterials including: Greeley, Interstate, Rosa Parks (lead photo shows that they didn’t quite get all of it however), the Denver overpass, Schmeer Rd (Columbia Slough), Moda Transit Center, and the Broadway/Williams corridor.

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“We prioritize bike lanes on major arterials,” PBOT announced, but then added, “Cleanup is slow. Our sweepers travel at 3 mph to pick up gravel, a fraction of the speed from when we lay it down. Please be patient as we work.”

Yes. Hopefully everyone’s patient — including people in cars when bicycle riders need to move away from the shoulder or out of the bike lane because of gravel, flooding or other hazards.

Speaking of flooding… Things are pretty brutal out there right now. So much water! I posted a photo of a flooded bike lane on Instagram and asked how folks were coping. The responses are cracking me up:

Hang in there. And please let us know what the conditions are like where you are. If you need to report a hazard or other road issue to PBOT, use 503-823-1700 or email PDXroads@portlandoregon.gov.

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

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44 Comments
  • Avatar
    John Lascurettes February 12, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Speaking of flooding, I bussed yesterday and today. I have to walk 1/2 mile between home and my bus. My experience is that there’s an awful lot of linear feet of sidewalks in Portland that do not drain to either side, so when it really comes down like it has in the last couple of days, there’s a lot of mini lakes to circumnavigate from block to block.

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      joan February 12, 2019 at 1:47 pm

      Yeah, sometimes when I take the bus, I realize I’d be drier if I had ridden.

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        John Lascurettes February 12, 2019 at 2:00 pm

        My exact thought this morning. I at least wore the Goretex boots today for the walk, unlike yesterday.

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    igor February 12, 2019 at 11:56 am

    I flatted yesterday on SW Multnomah in the dark and rain on the ride home. I couldn’t see the gravel as I was riding over it, but found a chunk of it lodged in my tire as I was effecting repairs.

    This might be a good place to publish the number to call if you’d like to have a particular stretch of road swept.

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      soren February 13, 2019 at 1:49 pm

      Are you sure it was actually gravel?

      I started getting flats on “gravel” only after PBOT started recycling it and, therefore, hoovering up every small piece of glass and metal on the road. In my case, every such flat has been caused by a tiny piece of glass not an actual piece of gravel.

      IMO, PBOT should direct the large amounts of new gravel they use to major bike routes and use the recycled stuff on other roadways.

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    dan devriend February 12, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    503 823 1700 is the PBOT maintenance line. I find they are exceedingly responsive to bike needs. Put them in your speed dial. I just called in NE Halsey between 162nd and 102nd. (East of 162nd is Gresham road maintenance.)

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      JP February 12, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      Thank you! I rode NE Halsey between 114 and 102 this morning, and it was really bad.

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        dan February 13, 2019 at 11:14 am

        Yeah, unfortunately it’s still really bad, and worse going East. Maybe they will get to us next week…

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          JP February 14, 2019 at 11:25 am

          Fingers crossed! I also called in Fremont between 102 and 122. Thanks for calling and for sharing the number. 🙂

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            dan February 19, 2019 at 10:05 am

            Hm. I noticed today a sweeper moving westbound from 148th/Halsey on Halsey, so I guess from 148th to 162nd isn’t on the schedule?
            I am getting pretty frustrated, two days after the storm everything west of 39th seemed swept, whereas two weeks later and our area is still terrible. I wish they just would not put gravel down if they don’t have the resources to pick it up effectively. Or publish a schedule so we can at least feel taken care of, while marginalized.

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    B. Carfree February 12, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Oregon’s seasons: Dark so I didn’t see you phase 1: Leaves and standing water in the bike lanes
    Dark so I didn’t see you phase 2: Gravel and standing water in the bike lanes
    1 month of nice
    Driving Season, aka “the sun was in my eyes so I didn’t see you”
    Start of school, aka “the kids are screaming, so I didn’t see you”

    Rinse, repeat, add occasional ice to dark season.

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    Lester Burnham February 12, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    What’s the big deal? Aren’t “gravel” bikes the big thing now?

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    Bald One February 12, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    I saw evidence of recently sweeped bike lanes, today. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised!

    They manage to get about 80-90% of it on the first pass, which seems like a lot, and takes the bike lane from full adventure mode to just routine hazard mode. It’s a huge improvement.

    PBOT has a woefully inadequate bike lane sweeping program during blue skies. During winter months, it is even less adequate – allowing for more unsafe conditions, unnecessarily.

    I went round and round with their maintenance supervisors a few years ago, after they had informed me that their winter storm/snow gravel removal program was over and finished, and said they would no longer be picking up any loose gravel in bike lanes for the season. This after my explanation that many areas of heavy gravel in bike lanes still remained littered on the roads in various locations. Getting that last 10%, and also trouble spots where bike lanes have been routed onto non-road spots, such as cycle-tracks, buffered/protected bike lanes, intersections with sidewalk MUPs, etc, need to be the new focus to move out of bronze-place.

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      Jamon February 13, 2019 at 2:52 pm

      I see the same convoy of “street cleaner” trucks going up and down the same streets in downtown Portland, repetitively about 3-4 times weekday mornings, all year long. They seem to get a kick out of going back and forth, up and down, NB & SB Naito, 5th and 6th. the other streets are neglected in favor of these 4, for some reason. predictability, perhaps? Not like there are GPS on any of these vehicles, to verify where they are actually driving every night. I am sure that would be outside the budget. Who needs accountability, amirite?

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    David Hampsten February 12, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    True Grit.

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    bikeninja February 12, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    The energy and resources used up to dig, crush, sort, haul, spread, then sweep and dispose of all these millions of tons of grit (nationwide) are amazing when you realize the only purpose is to keep the jalopies rolling a few extra days of the year . One day we will find we have more important things to do with our limited energy and capital and this will be one more nail in the coffin of happy motoring.

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      Middle of the Road Guy February 12, 2019 at 3:33 pm

      You seem to have a personal mandate to use the word “jalopy” in every post.

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        bikeninja February 13, 2019 at 10:05 am

        I just use that one because it is kind of anachronistic so it doesn’t carry much sociolinguistic baggage. But I will be sure to change it up to something else from time to time like Petro-Buggy, Fossil Fuel Clown Car, Crude Burning Contraption, F&I debt trap, mobile pollution dispenser and scrap metal living room on wheels. Your wish is my command.

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          soren February 13, 2019 at 1:15 pm

          I used to use the “C” word but I learned on bike portland that stereotyping an inanimate object is profoundly hurtful to many people. I want to let all “people who drive” that I’m deeply sorry for demeaning your multi-ton environment-destroying transportation devices! You rock! We need more of you!

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    Joe February 12, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    sounds fun and loose ;-P

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    Vince February 12, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    I don’t have much love for THPRD and their bike paths for a variety of reasons, but I felt just a little bit of like for them today. Entered the path from the street and came across a THPRD guy with a leaf blower. Asked him in jest if he was cleaning the path. He said he was. The next half mile had indeed been freshly cleaned. Not even a twig in sight.
    Then it was back to the roads. Didn’t matter if they were ODOT, PBOT, or whomever else. The gravel fest continues…

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    2Na February 12, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    It pays to have more than 1 bike in your quiver so you can adapt to days like these if your favorite daily rider doesn’t dig the conditions

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    GlowBoy February 12, 2019 at 6:42 pm

    The real question I have is this: why do road agencies around here insist on dumping pea gravel on the roads? I realize they call it “sand” but it’s not well-screened and includes a lot of large particles. Why not actual sand?

    In Minnesota our agencies use actual sand, not gravel. Works just as well for cars and pedestrians, and obviously a lot better for bikes. Invest in some better screens and you get a win for everybody.

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      canuck February 13, 2019 at 7:31 am

      Because in MN you also use salt, so sand stays put as part of the freeze thaw cycle. In MN you have a lot of packed snow on roads, and sand also helps provide grip in that case.

      Here we don’t use salt and the gravel is for grip more on ICE than on packed snow and clearing roads. Sand on ice pretty much just gets blown across the smooth ice surface.

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        GlowBoy February 14, 2019 at 9:58 am

        That’s a such a misrepresentation of MN conditions and the use of sand I almost don’t know where to begin.

        – You seem to be saying our roads are mostly bare because we use salt, but also that they’re packed snow most of the winter. Can’t be both. I’ll answer your next question: while quiet rural roads may be packed snow for much of the winter, that’s not generally true in the metro area. Most of the snow gets plowed to the curb quickly, the remainder soon turning to mush and then disappearing as it’s melted by the various deicing agents or sublimated into the cold dry air. Between the snowbanks our streets are bare for the vast majority of the winter.

        – Our winters aren’t as consistently cold as they used to be, and we get multiple heavy-rain events over the course of a typical winter. We had one a week and a half ago (which then froze into a thick layer of ice that now underlies our fresh snowpack – in backyards, but NOT on most of the streets).

        – Between the winter rain events and constant snowmelt from our frequent thaws, you might expect sand to wash away – but only if it was the fine beach sand that you seem to be imagining. The sand we use is more like coarsely ground black pepper than garlic salt. It’s just that we don’t use 1/4″ pea gravel. And most of it stays put, the agencies coming around to clean it up in the spring just as in Portland.

        – The sand we use provides plenty of grip on actual ice, which we get plenty of. We get more ice storms than Portland, and have had half a dozen already this winter.

        What I’m suggesting is not a wholesale switch to fine sand, but just better screening to filter out the largest particles – sometimes seeming to exceed 1/4″ in size – that I see mixed in with the actual sand put on Portland-area roads. Up to 2-3mm (1/8″ or so) would be fine.

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          GlowBoy February 14, 2019 at 10:01 am

          Taking back my 2-3mm comment. That’s probably still going to be a bit large and marble-like for narrow-to-medium-tired bikes. 1-2mm would be more like it.

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    John Lascurettes February 13, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Coming down NE 12th to SE Sandy/7th, it’s easy to spot in the gravel’s edge where drivers cut into the bike lane on the regular.

    Also, I noted that the buffered sections serve an extra purpose: the gravel was at a minimum where the buffer and plastic wands were. That is, the displaced gravel from the auto lane ends up in the buffer and not directly in the bike lane. Put THAT down as an added benefit of separated bike lanes.

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    chris February 13, 2019 at 10:58 am

    Solution: Ride a gravel bike.

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      chris February 13, 2019 at 10:59 am

      I knew mine would come in handy at some point.

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      Andrew Kreps February 13, 2019 at 11:40 am

      Gravel packed in dirt stays put pretty well. Gravel on asphalt is more like riding on marbles. Show me a marble bike and I’m in.

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        Welsh Pette February 13, 2019 at 6:55 pm

        I feel like that’s an over-exaggeration and not a very sensible assessment of what really happens when grit gets in the bike lane. You could try wider tires or Ride straight and not make erratic turns (like driving a car properly in ice conditions). It is really not that hard for most competent cyclists.

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          El Biciclero February 16, 2019 at 8:15 pm

          I still have a problem with actions that are taken to improve conditions for drivers, so that they don’t need special skills or equipment to keep driving around—for maybe one day—but that then create ongoing conditions that require cyclists to pull out all their precision bike handling skills and switch tires, or possibly use an entirely different bike (‘cuz don’t we all have at least three or four?). Regardless of what skills a bicyclist may or may not possess, the imbalance is obvious.

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      Jason February 13, 2019 at 12:33 pm

      Solution: hire someone to drive a street sweeper. PDX needs those, I guess.

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        GlowBoy February 14, 2019 at 5:55 pm

        Portland has street sweepers. They bring them out in the spring to clean the winter grit off the streets.

        But it’s not spring, yet. It can still snow. The chance is still significantly non-zero until near the end of February. No sense going to the considerable expense of sweeping the streets if you get snow – and gravel on the streets – once again the following week.

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          Bald One February 18, 2019 at 12:39 pm

          I guess you haven’t noticed that the gravel does not stay in the main auto travel lanes for more than a few hours after it is applied to the street or after the snow/ice are all gone. It is the action of the cars driving on the gravel that almost immediately tosses all of the gravel off to the side, and into the bike lanes and up on the sidewalks. Leaving the gravel on the street after the snow is gone (usually within hours) has absolutely no benefit for the auto drivers, since the gravel has all moved over to the gutter lanes, and is very detrimental in the bike lanes, where it concentrates and persists for weeks and months. I wish the city would simply end this practice.

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    Welsh Pete February 13, 2019 at 6:52 pm

    Is this really a problem? Is it really causing unsafe riding conditions and damage to bikes? I’m not trying to be contrary, I’d really like to know more about how much this really is an inconvenience and danger to cyclists. . The roads can be pretty crappy at the best of times. I commute on SE Woodward between 52nd and 73rd. It is a designated bike route but it is full of pot holes, cracked roads and gravel. So I started using bigger cushier tires on my single speed road bike. And, Its been a better ride overall… The added side bones is, the bigger tires have encouraged me to take different routes and seek out unpaved and crusty roads within the city limits, like I love to do on weekends on my so-called gravel bike out in the boons. We can’t expect velodrome conditions living in the NW in a city that can’t maintain its roads. Maybe we should re-think our equipment…?

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      X February 13, 2019 at 8:46 pm

      Funny, I was just looking at the dust on my road bike, up on the hook wearing 25C Gatorskins. That’s a lot of tire but I wouldn’t set up a street bike in Portland with less than 35s or maybe 38s. Some of my favorite street rides have had 26 x 1.75 tires, and if you really want to be insoucient about trolley tracks a 2.25 street slick sucks it all up, tracks, rough seams, gravel, steel plates, whatever. It’s not racy, you still have to drive, but you can push into a corner and not fret about how tight your cleats are.

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      John Lascurettes February 14, 2019 at 8:59 am

      Sure, there are condition problems all over the city. But as someone else said, gravel on top of pavement is like marbles. I don’t want to corner on it, and I don’t want to have to come to an emergency stop on it.

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      Fred February 16, 2019 at 6:22 pm

      “Is this really a problem?” Um – yes.

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