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.
The amount of smashed glass in east Portland is out of control now. And this isn’t auto glass, it’s sharp shards from our bottle-smashing friends around the city. It’s become nearly impossible to avoid occasional flats in this part of the city.
If we aren’t going to do anything about the behavior side, the city seriously needs to step up their sweeping. The Halsey overpass sidewalk, for example, has been covered in glass and gravel for at least a year now.
This would be huge- I agree. My most direct route between home and work uses bike lanes on Interstate and along Naito. The last couple of commutes I was noticing that I was having to take the lane for significant stretches because of glass, branches/blackberries, or piles of trash. I have been trying to get my wife to try biking to work, but I am struggling to find a route that wouldn’t have a dealbreaker. IMO, PBOT should focus on all the dangerous gaps in their network and figure out how to keep it safe and clean. A few years back, this site promoted an interactive map to locate gaps in the bike network- anyone remember that? Is it still available?
Yeah you shouldn’t have to be “brave” to ride your bike around
Well, I won’t be attending – but I hope that at least somebody who attends will express some appreciation for PBOT’s efforts. Of course PBOT’s maintenance of cycling infrastructure is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good for an American city. (We’re not Amsterdam and never will be, so that comparison is useless.) While I’m grateful for this website, I do think that people are too critical here and not appreciative enough of PBOT. It’s easy and cheap to criticize; finding constructive solutions takes hard work. As for moi, I do my heavy urban riding with a suspension fork and 2.4″ tires, which mitigates the detritus.
We aren’t even Vancouver BC. Was just there, they have actual protected bike lanes with people using them for biking and scootering.
It looks like PBOT wrote this. Do you work for PBOT?
Would be interesting to feel respected by the maintenance division, but the disrespect is engineered into every design and baked into the process of planning and outreach and hand-wringing and budgeting before we can even post a sign to ask cars nicely to please stop killing people.
Regarding PBOT and gravel: if you can’t pick it up, don’t put it down. It’s really not any more complicated than that.
C’mon, Watts – they have to put down gravel to protect drivers and their passengers. If a cyclist here or there is maimed, that’s a price our gov’t leaders are willing to pay.
PBOT is really 4 bureaus: Maintenance, which is controlled by the budgets of both PBOT and BES; Signals and Street Lights; Engineering, Right-of-Way and Civil Design (who control the biggest chunk of the PBOT budget for capital improvement projects); and everything else – what the PBOT Director actually directs and controls – PBOT planning, GIS, Sunday Parkways, parking, parking patrol, finance, and so on. At least this was the case in 2000-2015. The 3 directors of Maintenance, Signals, and Engineering are civil servants who cannot be fired by the PBOT director nor by the Mayor, whereas the Mayor can fire the PBOT director.
Who’s in charge of those other directors then? Who hired them?
You hired them and you are in charge of them, just as you are in charge of your police officers.
They were hired as low level employees and gradually got promoted within the city’s civil service. Some go back to the 80s when PBOT was first formed out of the Department of Public Works in 1988. They are protected by the city’s civil service and various union contracts from being fired – essentially the only way to fire them is if they commit a serious crime – so the city has to be careful who they hire. The only way you can remove them en mass is literally by defunding their departments.
Directors are represented by a union?
This is a good first step…it is much needed and is a critical issue nationwide…some of it is cultural + institutional (which you point out) plus geopolitical (its more common for public works staff to live our in the suburbs / exurbs vs inner city where these facilities are necessary)…
…and it would be interesting to see what the maintenance branch line staff think of bike ways…do they understand them…respect it…or is it just ‘junk’ that breaks quickly and makes their tasks more difficult to do with limited budgets…I would ask the question (how can the new generation of bikeways be made better in their eyes.)
Street sweeping in general is dismal here. What’s the point of sweeping when cars can remain parked on roadsides? Often indefinitely. Every other city I’ve lived in with sweep schedules had them posted, occurred promptly along with ticketers and tow trucks.
I know, right?? Talk about killing two birds with one stone vs the months-long, one-off complaint-based abandoned autos process. If you can’t move it for street sweeping does it really belong on the road?? And we’d have clean streets to boot!
Watching them leave sweep marks down the middle of the road just makes me smdh.
Your term “modal disrespect” perfectly describes the problem. The silos within the larger PBOT silo exacerbate the problem. For example, the city has invested in wands/bollards along SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy. bike lanes, but then hasn’t swept the “protected” portions for at least a year. It’s to the point where weeds are growing in a mix of gravel, sand, composted leaves, and glass. SW Terwilliger has predictable seasonal problems with overgrown vegetation, but instead of proactively addressing this (as the city does with restriping streets), users have to complain to get anything done.
I was fortunate to visit Amsterdam this spring, and maintenance there is totally different. The Dutch (as well as Danes) have OCD regarding bike lane and sidewalk maintenance. Not a leaf, weed, or glass shard in sight. It really sends a clear message about what transportation modes the government really supports. PBOT not only needs to proclaim support – it must demonstrate it.
I’ll believe it when I see it, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time lobbying for it, that’s like beating you head against a brick wall. The Maintenance Bureau is responsible for all kinds of bike route snafus, such as closing greenways to chipseal them with no prior notice, to installing double-thick thermoplastic sharrow markings after they chipsealed over the original markings. All on exhibit on N/NE Tillamook between ~MLK and NE 24th. No thanks! And cleaning roads with a sweeper just isn’t as sexy as resurfacing them with hot asphalt. Plus there are all the roads that receive no attention at all and are just allowed to deteriorate into a minefield of potholes…
Reminder that our August BikeLoud West Policy Ride features PBOT Maintenance Chief Jody Yates.
Ride gathers at 12:45 and rolls Friday, Aug 26 1PM Director Park. https://www.shift2bikes.org/calendar/event-15068
This will be our 9th in a series of monthly Policy Rides highlighting Parking, Signals, Trees, Social Services, Street Seats, and many other rides that BikePortland has done stories on. Thanks!
If you see glass, etc in a lane you can continue to use the complaint-based response system:
PBOT 24/7 Maintenance Dispatch
Available 24/7 for emergency road hazards.
I haven’t used this in a while but I typically saw sub-24hr turnarounds in the beforetimes.
I had honestly completely forgotten that maintenance line even existed until some else recently recently asked about contacting PBOT.
4-flats in the last 2 months, glass, metal debris from from burned vehicles and accidents that never received full clean up attention. I’m tired of dealing with all of this, if the city wants people to ride then the least they can do is keep the bike paths cleaned, they purchased a “special” street sweeper for just this purpose, it obviously is not getting used. I’ve been riding the same way to and from work for the last 5 months, there is still the same debris from when I started riding that has compounded and am tired of the flats and swerving in and out of traffic to avoid everything. It’s just about time to start driving again I guess and deal with the way they’ve screwed up the streets, I’d rather do that and be safe than dodging debris and traffic.
Truth be told, we’re getting close to leaving this failed city…