Hallelujah! PBOT will address bikeway maintenance at upcoming meeting

We should clean up our policy around cleaning up. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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.

Closer look at overgrown vegetation on SW Terwilliger Parkway

In this quick video I share some thoughts about biking on SW Terwilliger Parkway, a street notorious for its bad bike lane conditions.

While it’s one of the most beautiful roads in Portland and recently earned National Historic Register status, Terwilliger leaves something to be desired for bicycle users. It’s a precious north-south, not-super-hilly and relatively direct route between downtown Portland and southwest neighborhoods that should be a lot more safe and appealing to people on bikes.

Unfortunately the bike lane is unprotected and relatively narrow — and very often the space that is available for cycling on is covered in either leaves or gravel or branches and ivy (depending on the season). Two reasons for this are because there aren’t any commercial or residential destinations adjacent to it and it’s a park — which means its lush greenery has no natural predator and its only caretaker is a city government with a very lackluster maintenance record.

In the past when I’ve looked into why Terwilliger is so often unmaintained, I’ve gotten the classic finger-pointing between the city bureaus of parks and transportation.

As you can also see in the video, Portlanders are forced to deal with unsafe conditions (which are rampant elsewhere, not just on Terwilliger) that put bicycle riders in dangerous proximity to cars and their drivers who are going 30-40 mph. Since the southbound direction has a slight incline, speed differentials between bike and car users are extreme, which adds to the stress.

At this point, I don’t care who is in charge, it just needs to be better maintained more often!

Thankfully, as you can see in the video, the city has recently cut the overgrowth way back. My footage is from July 15th and since then a lot more has been cut back. That’s great.

I hope the future of this street has a physically protected bikeway and a strong, transparent maintenance agreement so the public can hold the City of Portland more accountable to keeping it clear.

Snow still blocks many bikeways, one week after storm

(Many key bikeways still a dangerous mess nearly one week after the snow fell.)

The major snow and ice storm that moved into Portland Friday is still having negative impacts on bicycling conditions throughout the city. While conditions for drivers have improved greatly in the past few days and some bikeways are clear — large amounts of snow, ice, gravel and debris continue to block access to most bikeways and walkways.

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Love riding gravel? Meet Washington County’s unpaved road “Kahuna” Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan on Smoke Ranch Road, one of his favorites. After riding roads like these for years, he’s now helping make sure they stay unpaved.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s fitting that I first met Dan Morgan on a gravel road.

The 66 year-old former dairy farmer, IBM retiree and Beaverton resident has been riding unpaved country roads his whole life. Now that the activity has become one of the biggest trends in cycling, he’s become an ambassador of sorts. He’s also working to prevent the county from paving over this newly discovered paradise.

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Gravel update: Progress in places and broom-wielding heroes

(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

How are things looking out there on the bike lanes you use the most?

Since our post last week there’s been big progress on some key bikeways we’ve been watching and I’m curious how the clean-up is going for you.

In particular, and since we helped make such a big deal out of it to begin with, I want to share the progress on Highway 30 and the St. Johns Bridge.

Sweeping has happened on the bridge sidewalk. It’s not perfectly clean; but it’s a vast improvement. I got some video the day it was swept (2/17):

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On live TV, reporter shovels gravel off St. Johns Bridge sidewalk – UPDATED

KATU reporter Reed Andrews shoveled gravel on sidewalk of St. Johns Bridge last night. (Watch video of the story below.)

With a shovel in his hand to drive the point home, Portland reporter Reed Andrews with KATU (our ABC affiliate) highlighted the problem of gravel in the bike lanes on their news broadcast last night.

Andrews focused his story on the layer of gravel on the St. Johns Bridge sidewalk we reported on Tuesday. He interviewed the owner of Block Bikes, a bike shop just steps away from the east end of the bridge who vouched for the problems it causes for his customers. The story also included an interview with a bicycle rider who said he often rides miles out of his way just to avoid riding the bridge sidewalk.

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There’s still a layer of gravel on the St. Johns Bridge sidewalk – UPDATED

It’s unacceptable to force road users to make a dangerous choice between being run down by fast-moving drivers or riding over small slippery rocks on a narrow sidewalk.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The only refuge from fast-moving (and often irate) people driving cars across the St. Johns Bridge is still covered in a layer of gravel a month after the last snow storm.

As we first reported nearly three weeks ago, while driving is pretty much back to normal following major snow storms, biking is still hazardous. Massive potholes plague streets and many bike lane markings have all but vanished due to the constant scraping from tire chains, plows, studded tires, and gravel. And there are still many trees and limbs that block bicycle-only lanes — forcing people into adjacent lanes which increases the risk of collisions.

All our various road agencies need to place a much higher priority on the safety of all road users when it comes to their storm clean-up plans.

One of the most egregrious spots is on the sidewalk of the St. Johns Bridge. There’s so much gravel that in some parts you can’t see the surface of the sidewalk. This is a big deal because the St. Johns Bridge is a vital bicycling connection and the roadway lacks bike lanes. With large diesel trucks rumbling inches away, the narow St. Johns Bridge sidewalks are already sketchy enough. Add slippery gravel and you’ve got even more stressful situation.

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For bike riders, the storm’s hazardous road conditions continue

Gravel, gravel everywhere. On the left is the short raised cycle path on SE Division east of 82nd. On the right is the bike on on SE 52nd at Clinton.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

For people who ride bikes in Portland, those nasty winter storms are far from over. The weeks of rain, ice, snow, studded tires, chains, and plows have wreaked havoc on roads — especially in the space used for cycling.

It’s one thing to deal with it in a well-cushioned car, but another thing entirely when trying to navigate a bicycle: Ride in the gravel, mud and other hazards and you risk flats or losing control; ride in the lane and you risk interactions with motor vehicle users.

We hate to complain; but this situation is not new. It’s also dangerous and we haven’t seen significant steps taken to improve it even though it has been on the City’s radar for many years. We’ve documented hazardous post-storm cycling conditions (and PBOT’s response to it or lack thereof) in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2014.

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How’s that gravel treating you? An update on clean-up efforts

City crews picking up gravel
in their trademark, two-sweeper formation.
(Photo: LiUNA Local 483)

It’s been about 10 days since the City’s effort to clean-up about 1,000 cubic feet of gravel began. With so many bikeways full of the annoying little rocks, we figured it was a good time to check in and see how things are looking.

If comments we’ve seen here on the site and elsewhere are any indication, it’s clear that there’s still a ton of gravel out there. I can also say from personal experience that many key bikeways in all parts of the city look like they haven’t been touched by a sweeper at all. Yesterday I rode on NW Everett into downtown. This is a stretch well known to PBOT for the high rate of collisions due to right hooks at NW 16th, so I was dismayed that it hasn’t been swept. After all, braking and making sudden movements to avoid a collision is all but impossible on gravel.

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