Warning: The following contains a lot of my opinions that might be uncomfortable for some readers.
For a city with a rich legacy of cycling with aspirations to be even more cycling-centric, the lack of care and capacity that the Portland Bureau of Transportation spends on keeping cycling paths, shoulders, and lanes clean is unacceptable and embarrassing.
It’s an issue we have amplified countless times over many years here on this site. Whether it’s gravel in winter that litters bike lanes for months, piles of unplowed snow, forgotten leaf piles that turn to slippery muck, car-traffic detritus, or branches and overgrowth that spill into the street and force riders to mix with car users — this is a problem that needs a proactive, strategic solution, not just the complaint-driven, one-off system we use know.
That’s why I was very happy to see the following item on the agenda of the upcoming Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting:
Jody Yates, new group director at PBOT’s Maintenance Operations (MO), and David Mulvihill, new manager for Maintenance Construction, will discuss with the BAC maintenance operations and challenges in regard to bicycle facilities. This will be an opportunity for the BAC to work with MO leadership to solve problems associated with declining maintenance resources and increasing transportation infrastructure.
This is big for several reasons:
- Many folks don’t appreciate that PBOT is really like two bureaus. There’s Maintenance Operations (MO) and then there’s everything else. The MO folks have their own culture (ahem), headquarters, bosses, and so on. And because MO staff are mostly workers skilled in operating heavy equipment and doing physically-intensive jobs (think paving roads, fixing potholes, and so on), some of them tend to have a, let’s just say, slightly different socio-cultural-political perspectives than the planners, engineers, and marketing/outreach folks we typically highlight on these pages. It’s not that they are necessarily anti-bike, it’s just that keeping bikeways clean probably isn’t something most of the rank-and-file maintenance staff see as a high priority — especially when they’re stretched thin dealing with increasingly frequent severe weather events. And given their union and aforementioned bureaucratic separation, it’s tricky for PBOT leadership to change this dynamic.
I say all this because having the MO leader come to the bike meeting is a great sign that long-simmering tensions between these two camps is easing and better days are ahead.
- Right now, PBOT doesn’t have a transparent, proactive approach to keeping bikeways clean. I know this, because I’ve pestered them privately for something like that several times and I’ve never been satisfied with the response. If we are going to lay down tons of gravel, we need to also budget to clean it up by a specific date. If we can publish snow plow route for driving routes, we can publish one for biking routes.
Whatever comes this meeting, BAC members and advocates should push for a binding, written agreement so we can hold PBOT accountable to specific outcomes.
- Crappy bikeway conditions is a reason why more Portlanders don’t bike. Right now, top PBOT brass and even Mayor Ted Wheeler are scratching their heads trying to figure out why bike ridership has declined in the past eight years or so. They’re reluctant to admit the role dirty bike lanes play. Few things reek of modal disrespect more than pulling into a new bike lane only to see it covered in trash, water, leaves, gravel, or all of the above. And when people feel disrespected (and/or once they’ve gotten too many flat tires from broken glass or have had to swerve into other traffic to avoid a hazard), they change behaviors to avoid that feeling. I never come across such bad lane conditions when I’m driving my car!
I realize this is a tough issue. There’s never enough funding for maintenance and there’s always new infrastructure coming out. And PBOT’s ever-growing mileage of physically-protected bikeways that are impossible for larger sweepers to access have only complicated the issue. But if we want to be a legit major city, we have to get better at this.
And while I’m cautiously optimistic that PBOT is finally coming to the BAC to get help, I hope they realize it’s not the bike advocates’ problem to solve. PBOT needs to figure this out once and for all. Clear and safe travel lanes are a basic right everyone deserves — regardless of the vehicle they use.
Stay tuned for coverage from Tuesday’s meeting. Find the Zoom link and more details here.