Cheers and jeers for new Morrison Bridge bikeway

Morrison Bridge pathway opening -1-2
Multnomah County Commissioner/Chair
Jeff Cogen.
(Photos © J. Maus)

After more than 12 years of planning and advocacy a new non-motorized pathway opened on the Morrison Bridge today. The 15-foot wide, $1.9 million facility on the south side of the bridge is expected to become a popular route for bike traffic and take pressure off the overcrowded and nearby Hawthorne Bridge.

At the dedication ceremony today, soon-to-be Chair of Multnomah County (they own and manage the bridge), Jeff Cogen, said the 7,000 bike trips per day on the Hawthorne Bridge “Shows how much Portlanders love bicycles,” and that it also shows, “we need to increase that access, because frankly, it’s too crowded over there.”

Cogen also announced that the new biking and walking path is officially dedicated to Gary Tipton and Lynda Pilger. Tipton was riding his bike across the bridge on the evening of July 31st 1997 when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver (who was later sentenced to five years in prison). Pilger was walking with her dog in May of 2004 when she was hit and killed by a man who lost control of his car on the bridge’s steel deck (the driver paid only fines and was cited for careless driving and improper lane change).

Family of Gary Tipton.

The new, safer path Cogen said, is a fitting memorial and is meant to, “Correct what was not right in the past.” Family and friends of both Tipton and Pilger were at the event yesterday and a plaque has been installed on the bridge.

When the five-foot sidewalks on the Morrison Bridge were built back in the 1950s, Cogen pointed out, “cars where king in this country.” Now the pathway is 15-feet wide, but it also must handle two-way biking and walking traffic in a city that has seen bike usage go up 180% since 2000.

Is it up to the task? Judging from what I heard and saw today, the design leaves much to be desired.

The wrong way feels right to this rider.

On my first ride up from Naito Blvd. to try out the new bikeway I came across a man on his bike headed toward downtown. How do you like the new path? I asked. “I want to keep going straight! Why can’t I go straight!?” he said. The man was annoyed that westbound bike traffic is directed back down the cloverleaf ramp to Naito instead of continuing into downtown. Despite two new “No Bikes” signs, the man said, “Well, I’m going straight anyways,” and rode down SW Alder — against oncoming traffic — into downtown.

Another issue with the west side of the bridge is how eastbound bike traffic approaches the bridge from SW Alder. Bike traffic is directed from a bike lane on Alder onto the bridge deck via a median. There’s a stop sign for bikes at the intersection where the cloverleaf onramp from Naito comes up. I was surprised that motorized traffic coming up the ramp does not have a stop sign.

This is what someone on a bicycle sees…
And this is what someone in a car sees.

In a similar situation on Hawthorne Bridge, motorized traffic coming onto the bridge from Naito has a stop sign and bike traffic does not.

If people on bikes do not heed this stop sign (and none did while I watched for several minutes yesterday), they will ride right into fast-moving motor vehicle traffic. Making matters worse, visibility between the bike lane on Alder and the motorized vehicle lane from Naito is severely impaired due to a metal guardrail (seen at left of photo above).

The guys from B-line delivery like the wider path.

As I continued on the bridge headed east, I enjoyed the smooth and wide path. I was alone, but couldn’t help but think how it’d feel on a warm sunny day with tourists, joggers, walkers, and bike traffic zooming by me. Except for a short segment in the middle of the bridge span where a curb separates a sidewalk from the bikeway, there are no pavement markings (like on the Hawthorne) to clearly delineate the biking space from the walking space. (The County says they plan to add markings in the future.)

Coming downhill on the new path to the east side, the path dumps riders out onto SE Water Ave. and it’s not clear how to transition onto the street. As I stood taking photographs, I ran into two other people on bikes who were just as confused as I was.

One of them, former transportation planner Daniel Lerch, was so concerned that the fired off an email to the County, Mayor Adams’ office, and Metro detailing several design issues he says, “pose serious safety hazards to novice and less-than-fully-alert cyclists.”

In his email, Lerch writes,

“There are numerous wayfinding signage and marking problems that, while not necessarily safety issues, are not what one would expect on an officially-opened transportation facility…

I urge you both to look into these safety hazards and rectify them as soon as possible. It is no small irony that a bike/ped path dedicated to two people sadly killed in crossing the pre-path bridge has actually *created* some new hazards that may be potentially life-threatening.”

Looking north at intersection of Yamhill and Water.
Bridge bike access is on the left, but
it’s not clear how to get onto it.

For westbound bike traffic coming from SE Water Ave onto the bridge, it’s not at all clear how to get onto the new bikeway. Sitting at the intersection of Yamhill and Water, just across the street from where the new onramp is, it’s hard to tell how exactly to get onto the bridge. A bike left-turn symbol is supposed to be in the center of the lane but it’s been covered over by a pothole repair. But even if it was there, people on bikes would have to merge across traffic into it with no other signage showing them the way or warning car traffic about their presence (which means 95% of Portlanders won’t do it).

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance has also shared some mixed feelings about the new path. They’re concerned about “relatively steep grades” that may lead to “conflicts at intersections.” They also feel that “bike/ped zones need better marking” and that “wayfinding at either end of the bridge is seriously lacking.”

As one veteran bike advocate told me at the event (but requested to remain anonymous so as not to rain on the parade), the mid-span of the bridge is great, but there is a lot of room for improvement at both ends. “Is it ideal? No. But it’s an improvement, and I’ll take improvement over nothing any day.”

See the photo gallery for more images of the bridge and the dedication event. More coverage from KGW-TV.

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