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

(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.


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.


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 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.

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

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