When you can’t see the bike lanes for the trees

Posted by on May 27th, 2021 at 2:03 pm

(Look out! Branches dip low on North Rosa Parks Way. For scale, the person on the left is only 10. Photos by Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Keeping bike lanes free of annoying and dangerous debris like gravel, leaves and automobiles has always been a problem in Portland (and everywhere bikes exist). Despite this perennial issue, our transportation agencies still don’t have a solid plan to keep bikeways swept, clear and safe 24/7/365.

This year it seems like yet another obstacle is coming our way: tree branches.

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It’s been an absolutely beautiful spring in Portland. An unseasonably warm and dry year has created the most spectacular blooms I’ve ever seen in my 17 years here. Gardens and parks are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Importantly, this record growth also applies to street trees — and their branches that hang into bike lanes.

I started seeing this on North Rosa Parks in my neighborhood during the past few weeks. There’s a spot on our ride to school where I opt to swerve out of the protected lane to avoid the branches (my 10-year-old prefers to bomb on through). Overall there are 3-4 spots where branches slam into our heads. It’s become sort of a game.

Then yesterday I came across a post from a reader on Instagram who had the same experience on SE 17th (see image at right). Reactions to that post (including one person who told me several spots on SW Terwilliger cover half the bike lane) convinced me that this was a big enough issue to share here on the front page.

Strangely, even though these branches impact the right-of-way and traffic lanes, keeping them clear is not the responsibility of the transportation bureau. The issue is handled through Urban Forestry. From my research, it appears there are a few ways to get these branches cut and cleared.

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Since street trees (defined as trees between the sidewalk and the curb) are the responsibility of the adjacent property owner (which could be a business or homeowner or city agency if the tree is in a property owned by Parks, Water Bureau or some other agency), it’s probably best not to cut the branches yourself. I know many of you are self-reliant and probably have the urge to simply make a few trimmings; but that could get you in hot water with a homeowner or the City of Portland (and in today’s heated social environment, it’s best to avoid taking things into your own hands). Instead, there’s a hotline where you can call in a location: 503-823-2633 (TREE) or trees@portlandoregon.gov. That hotline is monitored by the Urban Forestry and, depending on the issue, they can follow-up with an inspection and notify the property owner to prune the tree.

According to Urban Forestry’s website, a permit is required to prune any tree in the right-of-way, unless the branches are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.

If you want some measure of what’s acceptable when it comes to branch overhang, city code requires tree branches to remain 7.5 feet above sidealks, 11 feet above local streets, and 14 feet above arterials or collectors. Suffice it to say there are probably thousands of guilty branches out there!

Keep in mind that after a wild winter (remember that ice storm?) and a sultry spring, Urban Foresty is way behind dealing with these issues, and with budget woes and general lack of staffing to begin with, it could be weeks until they address your concern.

If you have any other questions about this, or want to share conditions on bikeways where you ride, let us know in the comments.

Links:
— Urban Forestry: How to report tree code violations.
Portland City Code Title 11 – Trees

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

SE Morrison between 10th and 11th has a row of problematic trees growing into the bike lane.

Austin
Guest
Austin

I kind of think it’s fun to duck under leaves and branches, maybe have them brush my head. That may be an unpopular opinion?

J_R
Guest
J_R

So, it’s not important to consider the sight-impaired?

BTW, I can find you some places where your head will be “brushed” by thorns!

rick
Guest
rick

There are loads of Himalayan blackberry covering the asphalt of the bike lanes on SW Scholls Ferry Road. I wish Washington County would do something about it for the only somewhat continuous bicycle lanes in Raleigh Hills (and nearby West Slope).

Eamon Haverty
Guest
Eamon Haverty

their are blackberries covering some of the bike lanes on Fremont from 102nd-122nd

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

I’m 6’2″ and so trees over sidewalks are more likely to poke me in the eye than most.
Sometimes when I go for walks around town I take some hand clippers with me and help folks who have forgotten to trim their trees.

Anne
Guest
Anne

Question: where do you throw the branches? Since you’re walking, you have the benefit of being able to throw them [over the fence-if any] into the homeowner’s yards. They’ll really get the message then.

As a cyclist, I’d place them on the planting strip, so as to inconvenience pedestrians the least.

Hypothetically.

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

I definitely always take the time to move any branches into the homeowner’s yard so they are not blocking the sidewalk. I am absolutely not trying to steal anyone’s compost.

Jon Dohnson
Guest
Jon Dohnson

Yeah because people haven’t had anything else on their minds like a global pandemic or anything like that. I’m sure trimming trees is at the bottom of the priority list for many folks some of whom are afraid to even open their front door.

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

I didn’t start doing this during the pandemic, I have been this tall for damn near 3 decades.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

The homeowner is getting free tree trimming. It’s a win-win.

Anne
Guest
Anne

Not all homeowners will agree or cop to it.

Today on my bike I happened to see a person in a yard that has a beautiful but overgrown tree. I asked if they’d mind trimming it. He said, “it’s not mine”. Not “I don’t live here” but “it’s not mine”. Well okay, that’s my permission to do it then.

Avery Silverstein
Guest
Avery Silverstein

“I’m too worried about my own safety to worry about anyone else’s. 🙁 I’m so valid!”

Cleo Robins
Guest
Cleo Robins

Jon,
That’s funny. I think there has been more people doing yard cleanup and gardening in the last year with COVID than there has in the last 10. Everyone is out gardening.

squareman
Subscriber

If the branches are blocking any regulatory signs (e.g., stop sign), then PBOT might be a tool you can use to get involved. In the past, we’ve been slapped with a “trim ’em, or we’ll trim ’em for you and bill you” warning from PBOT when our planting strip trees were allegedly blocking a clear view of the stop sign at the corner; we’re a property back from the corner property and I’ve seen much, much worse elsewhere but we trimmed up the branches anyway and never heard from PBOT again on the matter (so I assumed it was someone that had called it in the first time).

bikerider99
Guest
bikerider99

I watched a PBOT crew just install a new, full-scale “20 mph” sign nearby – they put the sign in the ground immediately (within 3′) of the bushy canopy of a street tree. The front side of the sign is impossible to see from the road unless you are standing next to it looking to the side. what a waste – I guess you can see it in the winter…

Rob Godell
Guest
Rob Godell

squareman,
Would be great if people took ownership of their branches instead of saying it’s worse elsewhere.
All fun and games until someone loses an eye. Just sayin’ Thanks for trimming your branches!

squareman
Subscriber

I do hear where you’re coming from, but they really weren’t blocking the view of the stop sign. I was rather astounded that they said the view of the stop sign was blocked because it seriously wasn’t, not from the roadway one bit. This is the view of those trees (the purple cherries) in front of our old house (from the Google Maps car that has an excellent view of the sign) that they asked us to trim. https://goo.gl/maps/8RvmwX178Rv6iz1d7

Just for reference, here’s the opposite end of the block where a stop sign is clearly visually encroached upon by a nearby tree. https://goo.gl/maps/65VdKLfaWe73CBwB8

Maybe I misunderstood the notice (this was long ago) and it was about sidewalk clearance, but the maple in that view was the much more aggressive grower that I had to yearly keep trimmed up to avoid blocking the sidewalk for head clearance, and they only mentioned the cherry trees in the notice.

I'll Show Up
Guest
I'll Show Up

There’s a hotline for that! 503 823 1700.

Badger2000
Guest
Badger2000

You’ve listed PBOT’s dispatch number. I think you mean to list the number for forestry, which is 503-823-8733. As the article stated, tree trimming is managed by Parks not PBOT.

J_R
Guest
J_R

I’ve had really mixed results from my dealings with the city. In one case, I complained about tree limbs of trees planted between the street and sidewalk. I was referred by Urban Forestry to the Building Division who referred me back to Urban Forestry. In other cases, the trimming by the homeowner consisted of trimming a few wispy branches when half the sidewalk was blocked by an overgrown hedge. Repeated complaints to the city still did not produce compliance with the code.

I completely understand why pedestrians do a bit of their own pruning.

Cleo Robins
Guest
Cleo Robins

I agree. The city has essentially stopped enforcing its codes. Or they are so behind it is basically the same as not enforcing. I think it now takes 5 to 6 years for a damaged sidewalk report to get investigated.

Watts
Guest
Watts

I’m curious why you would use the term “Karen”. Aside from its sexist and ageist connotations, it’s also just plain mean to people who happen to be named Karen, some of whom are pretty awesome people. Surely there’s a better way to express what you want to say without perpetuating stereotypes.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

This article totally resonated w/ me. I got hit in the head by a tree branch today! Planning to bring some loppers w/ me tomorrow

Stephen McLandrich
Guest
Stephen McLandrich

Slightly off topic. N Williams between Knott and Graham has trees along this left side of the road (very much used) bike lane. The roots of the trees make for some uneven pavement but worst of all, in the fall, the hired landscapers blow the leaves off the field to the west of the street right into the bike lane and leave them there. Amazing!

Momo
Guest
Momo

PBOT did recently grind down the bike lane in a few places on that stretch you’re talking about to smooth it out, but it’s still an issue and always will be until the hospital (owner of all those properties) cuts down all those Sweetgum trees, which are not only notorious for lifting up the surrounding pavement and sidewalks, they also drop those hard spiky balls into the bike lane certain times of year. Sweetgums aren’t even allowed to be planted as street trees anymore, and in my opinion they are one of the few types of trees that should be proactively cut down when they’re along streets.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

As a 6’5″ individual, this is a big issue for me, and I’ve often resorted to trimming problem trees myself. For larger branches, I highly recommend a small folding saw. They collapse down to 8″ or less, and can make quick work of small to medium branches. Be sure to cut them where they hit the trunk, as cleanly as possible.

PdxPhoenix
Guest
PdxPhoenix

Funny, there were a few smallish branches on my former route to work… I tended to just bend them on the way by, hoping to either redirect them or that they’d break, leaving the homeowner to deal with.

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

Glad to hear I am not the only volunteer arborist helping to keep things clear, I will start cutting a few more inches off.

Rob Godell
Guest
Rob Godell

Help out your fellow bikers and just cut them yourself! I’m going to start carrying some pruners in my repair pack. We’re on our own in Portland. What’s the homeowner going to do anyway? Call the cops? They’ll show up in like 2-3 weeks. Hahaha.

Amy Yahf
Guest
Amy Yahf

My wife’s name really is Karen. She finds it offensive when people use her “name in vain”. Not so cool Jonathan. Thanks!

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

Your wife sounds like she suffers from Gottron syndrome, my condolences.

Riding Rabbit
Guest
Riding Rabbit

bjorn
I had to Google Gottron syndrome. It causes a prematurely aged appearance. How does this apply to Amy’s wife? I’m guessing this is some sort of erudite insult but I think I’m too daft to get it.

Gottron syndrome is an extremely rare inherited disorder characterized by a premature aged appearance (progeroid), especially in the form of unusually fragile, thin skin on the hands and feet (distal extremities). Although the disorder is most typically recognized in early childhood, these characteristic skin findings are present from birth

Matt
Guest
Matt

I’m guessing the implication was the referenced “thin skin”.

Cleo Robins
Guest
Cleo Robins

Interesting. Guess bjorn is promoting aggressions against women. Not so cool bjorn.
Probably shoud take down his post Jonathan which is an insult and against the site’s mission statement.

qqq
Guest
qqq

?

qqq
Guest
qqq

One thing that could help would be to waive the permit requirement when the branches being trimmed are within the required clearance area. What’s the point of requiring a permit that should always be granted? Does the permit requirement accomplish anything other than adding an obstacle to people who want to keep the required clearance area clear?

Xavier E.
Guest
Xavier E.

qqq, Totally agree with you but in practice we probably don’t need to bother with a permit. I just can’t imagine there would be any negative consequences in “enforcement is bad” Portland. Better to keep the bike path clear than worry about laws that aren’t enforced anyway. Us cyclists need to take care of each other. 🙂

qqq
Guest
qqq

You’re right, there’s not much chance anyone trimming their trees to meet the clearance requirements is going to get cracked down on.

On the other hand, what PBOT should really do is do a public “Trim it Up” campaign to get every property owner to go out next weekend and trim up their branches that are in the way of people biking and walking. But having to add, “First, go get a permit from Urban Forestry to avoid being fined” really throws a wrench into that concept.

Steve C
Guest
Steve C
qqq
Guest
qqq

Yes, I know. It says that above in the article. 1/2″ is tiny, especially when measured “at attachment to the stem”. These are branches that are literally no wider than a pencil a foot or two from the stem, that you can cut with the same small pruning shears you cut flowers with. Why not exempt cutting all branches within the required clearance area? There’s no case where that permit would ever be denied, since the cutting is required. And no point in any review or inspection.

chris
Guest
chris

A bit off topic, but whose job is it to control the roundabouts from getting overgrown? The one at Lincoln & 37th has weeds/bushes that really block the view of any oncoming traffic, and Woodward & 58th always has thorny blackberry branches reaching out to grab you, ouch! I’m sure there’s plenty more like that all over the city, those are just a few that I ride past daily.

Angelo
Guest
Angelo

When I moved to Portland, the fall leaves and rain basically made the bike lanes unusable (wet leaves from October to December). It struck me as very strange that Portland of all places would have bike lanes that were not useful when it rained, although it did explain the need for the mandatory use law.