Portlanders take gravel clean-up into their own hands

It’s brutal out there. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The gravel put out by PBOT to help cars and trucks get around for a few days during the storm, has created a massive and dangerous mess citywide: Bike lanes and road shoulders are a mess and millions of tiny little pebbles are creating slip hazards for bike tires. As we work to convince everyday folks to give biking a try, these conditions work against our transportation goals by telling Portlanders, “We don’t care about people who use bike lanes.”

Tired of waiting for the city to do its job and concerned about the safety of cyclists, this is the year Portlanders are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to getting the gravel out of bike lanes. Thanks to an innovative product and can-do attitudes, local bike advocates are leading the charge.

Since we shared in August that nonprofit advocacy group BikeLoud PDX would partner with California-based Bike Lane Sweeper creator Pierre Lermant, the two have become close collaborators. BikeLoud’s “sweeper” Slack channel has 44 members and it’s active with feedback and knowledge-sharing that appears to be pushing the product forward.

Lermant and his design and engineering partner Cedric Eveleigh have moved onto Version 2.0 and are currently designing V3. In late September, Lermant and BikeLoud Vice-chair Kiel Johnson met with PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller to discuss ways the city could help. They agreed to do run a trial where volunteers leave bags full of gravel along streets, then city trucks come through and pick them up.

Even with new commitments by PBOT to get it cleaned up within a month, Portland’s impressive corps of citizen volunteers has directed their energy to making it happen even faster. After the big ice storm earlier this month, the BikeLoud Slack channel picked up steam and volunteers say the sweeper works great.

Photos shared by users of the sweeper attest to the rave reviews — often showing a lane full of gravel become perfectly smooth in the wake of the sweeper’s spinning brushes. Overlook neighborhood resident Nic Cota shared in a BikePortland comment today that he got a chance to use the sweeper on Sunday. “I got about 5 cargo bikes full of gravel on the small, but critical bike lanes on Killingsworth between Interstate and Michigan yesterday. Easily 1,000 lbs of gravel all said and done. Its amazing how much was in the bike lanes alone!” Cota wrote.

One of the limiting factors is the sheer weight of the gravel and need to off-load it as pick-up happens. That has led to ideas for new versions that sweep gravel to the side, for pickup later by larger vehicles. It’s exciting to see this product working as intended, while its creators collaborate with local advocates to make improvements.

What seemed like a novel little idea when I first reported on it two years ago, now appears to be a legitimate product that could spur a revolution in bike lane maintenance.


There’s a spreadsheet where volunteers can sign up for sweeper shifts. If you’d like to learn more or get involved, check out BikeLoud’s website for links to join them on Slack.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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SE 34th
SE 34th
4 months ago

I really love this! I might suggest that if these crews are on the west side that they consider sweeping Terwilliger south from Taylor’s Ferry all the way to the Chart House. I rode that section yesterday and it was pretty dicey, with thick gravel in places. Because of the proximity of relatively high speed cars passing bikes, I’m really worried someone is going to fall over and get run over.

Fred
Fred
4 months ago
Reply to  SE 34th

Terwilliger south of Barbur was swept this morning. Don’t know about north of Barbur but the map says it was done.

Phillip Barron
Phillip Barron
4 months ago
Reply to  Fred

Southbound. It was NOT swept northbound. Made for an unpleasant surprise riding home in the dark last night.

Nick
Nick
4 months ago
Reply to  SE 34th

If you want to join bikeloud you could volunteer to take the sweeper there: https://bikeloudpdx.org/get-involved/

SD
SD
4 months ago

Do bike lanes need their own mini bike lanes for gravel accumulation?

dw
dw
4 months ago
Reply to  SD

Yes, and yet smaller bike lanes for the gravel that piles up there too.

ADuncan
ADuncan
4 months ago

I also want to give a shout out to an older couple I spoke with yesterday on W Burnside. This couple (primarily the woman) have single-handedly cleaned the sidewalk all the way down from SW Tichner to the Park entry at NW 24th. They are there daily with only a couple of brooms and a little dustpan.

dw
dw
4 months ago

The lil sweeper is genius. Hats off to these folks volunteering their time to clean our bike lanes.

Champs
Champs
4 months ago

I used this beautiful day to haul some scrap to the transfer station. Lucky thing the cargo bike is so slow, because braking is super sketchy.

Every ride is a gravel ride right now, and I certainly won’t be putting my skinny tired bike on the road any time soon.

KC
KC
4 months ago

Related to gravel sorta, noticed that the road striping done maybe 6-8 months ago has already worn down to about 50% in my area. Is that typical or do we use bad paint/application?

Figured gravel just acts like sandpaper to make it come off faster.

Pkjb
Pkjb
4 months ago
Reply to  KC

Wear is probably due primarily to people driving vehicles around with chains during the recent snow and ice, and people in vehicles with studded tires 7 months of the year (or more, in some cases). Studs and chains really rip up pavement and rapidly destroy painted lines in the road.

I’m sure the gravel doesn’t help, but I doubt it’s the primary culprit.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
4 months ago

This story would be even better if one could find a good use for the accumulated piles of gravel and debris, such as creating impromptu diverters.

Fred
Fred
4 months ago

Yes to a design that sweeps gravel to the side. It’s unrealistic for something so small to carry so much weight.

Koro Werks
Koro Werks
4 months ago

On a Related Note, Trimet has chains on their buses and is running during the snow, but doesn’t have any employees shoveling the bus shelters or sidewalks near them during the snow and ice storms, leading to increasingly hazardous conditions for people who are trying to get to work without getting their sensible commuter vehicle stuck in the snow or ice.

If Trimet and the City/County etc want people to stay off the roads during inclement weather, like they announce we are supposed to, wouldn’t it make sense for the City/County/Trimet to make it Safe and Accessible to get about without contributing to congestion and traffic incidents?

They raised the Trimet fare fees, we still pay a transit tax, and yet…

Chris I
Chris I
4 months ago
Reply to  Koro Werks

They don’t have staffing to clear the bus shelters and waiting areas. It would be great if they did, but any money they divert to that is less money to pay bus drivers.

Anyone who relies on their two feet to get around in the winter should invest in a decent pair of shoe chains. You won’t use them every year, but they are incredibly useful when we get ice and snow events.

Watts
Watts
4 months ago
Reply to  Koro Werks

Even if TriMet shoveled their bus stops, if the sidewalks are all icy, it still makes accessing those stops difficult. For things to really work, everyone needs to shovel their sidewalks before the ice sets up.

Paul H
Paul H
4 months ago

Cedric Eveleigh is prolific! He’s also designed and manufactured a completely redesigned derailleur-based drivetrain that places the mechanism between the seat and chain stays.

https://www.pinkbike.com/news/a-deeper-look-at-lal-bikes-supre-drive-patent.html

Aaron
4 months ago

My partner decided to go out on a bike ride on his own yesterday for the first time in a while because he’s going through some health stuff and needs to be more active. He wanted to go off by himself and I was so happy to see him confident enough to ride on his own and find his own path… until 30 minutes later when he called me to come rescue him because of a flat. A giant knife-like piece of gravel made a huge gash in his tire and he didn’t know what to do. I was able to get him home safe, but now his excitement for riding his bike for exercise is a lot less because he’s afraid he could be stranded at any moment.

To add insult to injury – when I was riding up Denver Ave to rescue him there was a clear line where the car lane had been swept clean and literally nothing had been done to the bike lane, it was still completely covered in gravel. This isn’t a protected lane, they could have easily swept 4 feet to the right and cleaned the bike lane and half of the car lane, or made another pass to get the bike lane. So glad those cars could drive on a clean road, you know they really need it with those skinny little tires that cars so commonly have, unlike bicycles…

Fred
Fred
4 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

I’m sorry that happened, but I would like to share three words in response:

Schwalbe Marathon Plus

Get him a pair of these tires and he will be able to ride over gravel w/o flats.

cct
cct
4 months ago

One of my favorite things about Portland governance recently has been the schizophrenia; I remember Wheeler and Hardesty telling citizens that Portland needed them to pitch in, and help do things like this that made their community better… followed by howls from the city’s legal staff about liability, and the closure of a number of volunteer programs.

I am happy to see someone at PBOT decided to help, instead of asking Legal what to do. More of THAT, please.

nic.cota
4 months ago

Thanks for the shout out! Lots of gratitude for Pierre and Cedric at bikelanesweeper.com for building this incredibly efficient machine and letting BikeLoud PDX be the ones to utilize it. I got a lot of waves and ‘hell yas’ as I was sweeping the Killingsworth/I5 overpass. Felt a lot of love doing it:)

I see a really good opportunity for PBOT to look at ways getting a fleet of these deployed to neighborhood groups/orgs to help supplement roadway management, similar to how BES has a ‘green stewards’ program for having volunteers maintain the stormwater planters. These sweepers are pennies to the dollar compared to maintenance and operations labor. It would also really help make sure there is a conduit for neighbors to take action instead of waiting an undetermined amount of time for the City to respond and feel safe enough to travel again.

I also just want to add: I still believe the onus is on PBOT maintenance to reframe their ’emergency response’ when they choose to apply gravel. If it takes 2 days to lay down this much gravel: it should take 2 days to pick it all back up. This phase of the response has no right to be drawn out this long and MO needs to include a coordinated ‘pickup’ deployment just the same as it gets laid down. The longer it remains on our roads: the more Portlanders’ trips are unsafe, more damage is done to vehicles (both auto and bike), and more damage is wrought to the pavement/striping throughout the city costing A LOT of money to taxpayers in the grander scheme.

Kyla
Kyla
4 months ago

Thank you for this article!! The gravel and debris in bike lanes – not to mention slippery leaves – keeps me from bike riding and reading that PBOT had stopped all street cleaning except arterial really shocked me. I knew there had to be something I could do – and it looks like there is!

joan
4 months ago

I took a look at the PBOT gravel pick up map and confirmed what I already experienced: they haven’t even made one pass on N Broadway in either direction from the Broadway Bridge to N Williams. Williams and NW/SW Broadway are a key route for folks to go into and out of downtown from N and NE Portland, and yet they haven’t even touched it. Traffic moves fast here, so especially if you are going uphill/east, it can be dangerous to take the lane. The gravel in the tiny Broadway bike lanes is awful. Hope they get there soon, and it’s unfortunate that they wouldn’t prioritize this (which is nothing to do with Nic’s excellent efforts! I appreciate folks trying to fill in the gaps).