Story and photos by Cathy Tuttle
People who bike every day are the folks who ground-truth poor maintenance. We intimately experience gutters filled with leaves and plastic bike lane wands broken in the same locations day after day. We see street trees dying, and giant potholes reappearing over and over on what look like war-torn streets. Then there are the piles of slippery leaves, illegible street signs, shattered glass, chunks of concrete, thorny brambles and so on. These hazards could injure or even kill someone. And they always make us uncomfortable.
Yet as important as it is, a well-maintained stretch of asphalt isn’t much of a photo op or ribbon-cutting opportunity. Maintenance just doesn’t have the same political oomph that “new” has. That means repairing, upgrading, and fixing streets is often overlooked, underfunded and understaffed.
The City of Portland wants to change that.
Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Maintenance and Operations Manager Jody Yates shared her time, knowledge, and experience with us on Friday August 26. Yates headlined the eleventh monthly BikeLoud PDX Policy Ride I’ve hosted, and her topic is what I’m personally most interested in as we retrofit our cities for the future. As a city planner and project manager, I have always been dedicated to building infrastructure we can maintain easily, rather than spending money on streets that need to be constantly rebuilt. Yates is too.
Jody Yates spent Friday afternoon riding in a three-wheeled electric pedicab piloted by Go By Bike founder and BikeLoud PDX Board President Kiel Johnson. Yates and the group who came to this Pedalpalooza ride talked for three hours about the materials under our feet (and wheels) and we barely scratched the surface.
PBOT is responsible for the maintenance of hundreds of millions of square feet of pavement – streets, sidewalks, bridges, staircases, plazas, and more. Though she started just in February 2022, Yates is up to speed on leading a maintenance and operations division of several hundred people. She brings a wealth of practical experience. A civil engineer for the past 25 years, Yates worked mainly for governments in Clackamas, Portland, and most recently in Beaverton. A thoughtful engineer, Yates was instrumental in getting programs started in creative street activation and rigorous asset management. Yates is putting significant energy into assessing where and how streets are failing, and smart ways to improve them.
There are three main culprits of pavement destruction. In order of severity, streets are damaged by: poorly repaired utility trenches, extra heavy vehicles, and tree roots.
Though PBOT’s Maintenance and Operations Division does repairs and implements designs generated by other PBOT divisions, Yates talked about street maintenance as a design issue in and of itself, of how maintenance should be a first consideration and built into designs of new and upgraded streets. Streets need to be easy and affordable to take care of.
Yates said there are three main culprits of pavement destruction. In order of severity, streets are damaged by: poorly repaired utility trenches, extra heavy vehicles, and, far back in third place, by tree roots.
Utility trenches are made by gas, sewer, water, telecom, and other utilities. Yates called out telecom companies for doing a slapdash job repairing the roads they rip up when installing cables. Yates made the analogy of the process of utility cut and covers to a shirt that has been torn again and again; sometimes repaired carefully, but often too quickly. And all the tears and repairs eventually destroy the “fabric” of the street.
On our tour we looked at old streets cobbled with ballast blocks, pocked and pitted asphalt, concrete panels, and even some 100-year-old mixtures of paving material that still are intact because they hadn’t been cut into very much.
Road repaving can cost upwards of $6 million a mile, and with Portland on the hook for taking care of over 2,000 miles of roads, keeping what we have in good condition is very sensible.
Heavy vehicles can and do quickly destroy roads too. Transit stops are reinforced with heavy duty concrete panels instead of a few inches of asphalt that tends to quickly deform under heavy wheels. People walking and rolling do virtually no damage to streets, but cars also quickly wear off paint and thermoplastic, damage curbs and street furnishings, and wear down pavement too. A few divisions of PBOT staff under Yates are responsible for repairing damage to paint, furnishings, and other public street elements.
Street trees are vital to a healthy resilient city, but their roots can also lift pavement as they search for water and nutrients. Streets that have minimal or no car traffic — like the Park Blocks on the PSU campus — have plenty of room for mature street trees. Low-car streets also need much less maintenance to repair paving, paint, and street furnishings. Another reason it’s smart for us to invest in streets that prioritize people walking and wheeling? They never do as much damage to the right of way as cars do.
People who bike care about safety and comfort. That’s why road maintenance is so important to us. Smooth roads, clear sightlines, few conflict zones along routes including door zones and safe intersections. We need clear directional signs to guide us while biking. We need enough room to avoid obstacles and wide enough lanes to ride side by side together or to pass other people biking.
For all these reasons and more we look forward to learning more and working with Jody Yates and PBOT on these issues in the future!