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S.F. mulls speed limits, tall-bike ban on Golden Gate – UPDATED

Posted by on April 20th, 2011 at 10:41 am

There’s an interesting situation brewing in San Francisco over how to deal with bicycle traffic on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Richard Masoner, a veteran blogger and citizen bike advocate based near the Bay Area, reports on a bike safety study published on April 15th by the Berkeley office of Alta Planning + Design. Here’s a snip from Masoner’s story:

While they concede that safety is not a serious issue on the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) sidewalks, they were paid to Do Something, so Alta Planning recommends a 10 MPH bicycle speed limit at all times on the west and east sidewalks, with a 5 MPH speed limit around the towers, where space and sightlines are constrained.

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District (they commissioned the report) says that the study, “confirms that the Bridge sidewalks and access pathways are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists” and that, “It appears that the current design of the bicycle paths remain safe, when bicycles use that path in a responsible fashion.”

Despite that however, they add, “safety can be further enhanced with the implementation of the proposed recommendations…”

(The study finds that speed was identified as a factor in only 39 percent of the 165 total reported collisions between 2000 and 2009. On a busy day, there can be as many as 6,000 bicycle trips on the bridge.)

In addition to the 5 and 10 mph speed limits, Alta proposes new pavement markings and signage along with a targeted outreach campaign.

Their final recommendation is the most intriguing. Under the heading “Other User Groups” Alta suggests a prohibition on tall-bikes and tall unicycles* with seats over four feet tall (*Note: Alta’s study points out tall unicycles specifically, but the Bridge District and others don’t make the height stipulation, just saying the prohibition would apply to all unicycles) :

“In terms of safety, a “tall bike” (a custom built bike where the seat is situated at a height that may be 5 or more feet off the ground) poses a safety risk to the user from toppling over safety railings. Because the safety rail stands 4’6” tall, prohibition of bicycles or unicycles whose seats are more than 4 feet off the ground might make sense so that no riders topple over the safety railing.”

According to a Bridge District Building and Operating Committee staff report on the new rules (PDF here), violation of the speed limit would result in a $100 fine and, “the CHP has expressed an ability and willingness” to enforce it.

It’s not clear yet what spurred the Bridge District to commission the study (we’ve got a call into the Bridge spokesperson and Alta declined to comment).

There’s a hearing on the proposed new rules tomorrow. According to Masoner, the study has been endorsed by Golden Gate Bridge staff and forwarded to the bridge’s Building and Operating Committee. If that committee approves the proposal, it will go to a vote of the full board on May 13th.

With no clear safety issue apparent, it seems surprisingly easy to set a new speed limit for bicycle traffic and to ban certain types of bicycles on a major connection in the bicycle network. This is an interesting case of how bicycling is a hybrid mode — sometimes treated equal to driving a car, and sometimes treated more like walking.

If adopted, this set of rules could serve as a precedent for handling the tricky mix of bicycling and walking traffic on bridges.

Richard Masoner is urging the Bay Area community to voice their opinions. I’ll leave you with his opinion on the matter:

“Alta even acknowledges that the sidewalks are reasonably safe even now, and asking the CHP to expend resources on bicycle speed limits seems like a waste of scarce state resources to me.

I get annoyed at the speed demons when I’m slowly riding across the GGB with my family, but 10 MPH is unreasonably slow. GGB District’s failed to even solicit user input on a change that will impact every regular bridge user.”

I spoke to Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie on the phone today. She said her Board asked for an in-depth bike safety study in 2008 after seeing a “steady increase in bicycling” in the past 5-10 years. So far, Curries says she’s gotten 30-40 emails from the public about the proposals and says after the hearing tomorrow, there will be a three week public comment period.

When asked about why they agreed to a ban on unicycles (not just tall unicycles, but all unicycles), Currie said they already ban roller skates, roller blades, and skateboards, and that, “the control that a cyclist has is different than a unicyclist might have.”

I asked Currie, since they’ve seen such an increase in bike traffic if there might be a time soon when they’d consider giving some of the roadway space to bikes, she said,

“That would definitely not be an option. The mission is to carry vehicles on the roadway and we run at capacity and therefore the roadway lanes are needed to handle the motorists.”

Download the Golden Gate Bridge Bicycle Safety Study by Alta Planning (PDF)

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  • Andrew Kreps April 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Hmm. Two issues I see here are:

    – Tackling a problem that doesn’t exist. Has there ever been a case of a high-seat-pedal-powered vehicle falling off of a bridge?

    – How are you going to reasonably enforce a speed limit when bicycles don’t ship with speedometers? There’s a reason ORS uses relative terms, like ‘walking speed’.

    This is a great example of bicycle legislation by car culture.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

      I agree with your sentiment Andrew.

      Consider how this process differs from how we would go about tackling an auto-related issue on standard roadway. Not that regulating a bridge sidewalk should be the same as regulating a regular roadway, but it seems this is a pretty major bit of rule-making without much time for public input/consideration given to alternatives.

      Again. It’s still not clear why the study was commissioned in the first place, yet it is clear that safety on the sidewalks isn’t a major problem to begin with.

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    • Gabriel Nagmay April 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

      I like that they say “poses a safety risk to the user from toppling over safety railings”.

      To my knowledge, there has never been a case of this happening to a tall bike. However, dozens of pedestrians topple over that railing each year:

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      • Rol April 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm

        The data reveal an interesting preference for jumping off right in the middle between the two towers.

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    • Mark April 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Yeah, it seems like they would first have to legislate some sort of requirement that all bikes be equipped with a calibrated speedometer.

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  • SilkySlim April 20, 2011 at 10:56 am

    The thought of riding a tall bike across a long, windy bridge, 100s of ft. above freezing (shark infested?) waters scares me enough already… I don’t a need a law telling me not to do that!

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  • Jackattak April 20, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I personally don’t see anything wrong with this (except perhaps that it seems to be a solution in search of a problem I guess…which is, as always, concerning).

    What I think they really should do is axe this motion entirely and build bike lanes. Problem solved.

    In general I don’t like bikes on crowded sidewalks and fully support the Downtown Portland sidewalk bike riding ban, so there ya go.

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    • John Lascurettes April 20, 2011 at 11:52 am

      The GGB is just like the Broadway Bridge here in Portland in that the only way for bikes to get across the bridge safely is to go multi-modal on the sidewalks. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The speed limit on the GG Bridge is 50 (and most people drive 55-60); the speed limit on the Broadway Bridge is 30 (and most people drive 35-45 across it). The sidewalks on the GG Bridge, however, are much wider than the Broadway Bridge’s sidewalks.

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      • are April 20, 2011 at 11:57 am

        the analogy is apt. i use the sidepath on the broadway bridge only because it works. if there were more pedestrian traffic (as on hawthorne during certain hours) or if some policy wonk decided to post a limit below the 15 or so that i usually take this bridge, i would be on the deck with the cars. and pushing even harder for repeal of the mandatory sidepath law. unfortunately, the same option is not really available on the hawthorne because the steel mesh deck is not really safe for bicycles.

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      • John Lascurettes April 20, 2011 at 11:57 am

        Sorry, correction – limit on the GG Bridge is 45. Still, no bike are allowed on the roadway there; but they are on the Broadway Bridge.

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      • Jackattak April 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

        Yep, understood. I’ve crossed it many times by foot, bike, and car (unfortunately). I would NEVER even dream of trying to cycle across it in a road lane. I’ve never had a problem with bikes on the sidewalk or navigating pedestrians while riding on it.

        I understand that to build bike lanes on the GGB would be difficult (if not impossible). But I’d rather see them put money into looking into the possibility of bike lanes than waste it on unneeded “safety” issues. But it’s a double-edged sword, too. I’d also not be upset with the bike speed limit (10 mph, not 5 mph…lol)

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  • Nat West April 20, 2011 at 11:30 am

    jmaus, you should relate this to Portland a bit in your article with, say, a review of guard-railing heights on some of our bike-popular bridges. That would be insightful.

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  • Andrew Holtz April 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

    What jumped to my mind when I read about this proposal is the seemingly endless list of places where motor vehicles create hazards for people… but if you go to transportation officials asking for a fix, the response is typically: “Has anyone been seriously injured or killed?” If not, it’s just filed away without action.

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    • Jack April 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      +1. I brought this up at a Neighborhood Greenway meeting, asking if the city had any statistics on the number of bike-pedestrian collisions/injuries that were attributed to excessive bicycle speed because the proposed plan included bicycle-traffic calming features near a school zone. The representative dismissed my question saying, “Well, no one wants a child to get hit.”

      If only such sentiment actually directed traffic design/policy.

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  • esther c April 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Its been years since I’ve walked across the Golden Gate so I don’t know how crowded the sidewalks are or if the law is necessary.

    But I think its a good idea to enact laws before someone gets hurt if it is necessary. If fast bikes and slow walkers intermingling are causing a problem, do something about it before someone gets hurt. Don’t wait until someone gets injured.

    No one has been injured or killed doesn’t mean the law’s not a good idea. I don’t know if it is or not.

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    • Andrew Seger April 20, 2011 at 11:58 am

      Yea but the people of SF have decided that the aesthetics of having low guardrails are more important than preventing suicides with higher, yet uglier, barriers. I…actually kind of support this. If people want to take their chances on a tall bike I says let ’em. The 10mph limit is pretty ridiculous too. Riding on the MUP in Renton, WA with that speed limit is just painful.

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      • Jack April 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm

        People don’t choose to commit suicice because the GGB has low guard rails.

        A determined person could get over a 20 ft guard rail…or just commit suicide some other way.

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      • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:10 am

        It’s not just “aesthetics” – the GGB is a historic structure, and a national icon – changing the guard rails would require the cooperation of 3 levels of government and a half-dozen agencies, plus a historic review, an environmental impact assessment, and an extended public comment period. Good luck with that.

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  • spare_wheel April 20, 2011 at 11:41 am

    5 mph?

    Good grief! A brisk walking pace is 4 mph. One has to wonder whether Alta Berkeley staffers actually ride bikes.

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    • Elliot April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      The 5 mph speed limit was proposed for the area near the towers. If you haven’t ridden the bridge before, going around the towers is sketchy at any speed. The turns to get around the tower are quite sharp (including two square corners), sight distance is limited, and the path is darn narrow for trying to take a turn. There’s also a wind shear effect where you come around a face of the tower and hit a wall of air that can knock you over if you aren’t expecting it.

      Remember, the path is the same width as the Hawthorne Bridge with an additional railing between the path and the roadway that you need to shy away from, which effectively makes it narrower. And bike traffic is two-way, not one-way on either side.

      If you go to Google Maps, turn on Earth, and zoom in on the tower areas (they have a 3D model of the bridge in GE), you can see how it really is an exceptional circumstance:

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      • spare_wheel April 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm

        I’ve ridden it many times and, IMO, taking those turns at 10-15 mph is entirely safe. Moreover, signage directs the majority of bike traffic (especially the vances) to the other side where there is little, if any, conflict with tourists or recreational users.

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        • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:12 am

          I call BS on that – it’s nearly impossible to ride around the towers on the windward side at 10mph, and it’d be difficult at 15mph on the leeward side – and unsafe in any case due to the blind corners. 5mph around the towers is a good recommendation. It’s doubtful it’ll be enforced if enacted anyway.

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          • Jim April 21, 2011 at 10:14 am

            15 mph is the speed I get slammed into the tower by summer winds.

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          • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:20 am

            I would add I also disagree with the 10mph overall speed limit – the straight stretches aren’t bad, and the current policy of putting bikes and peds on opposite sidewalks I think adequately deals with the interaction issues.

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          • spare_wheel April 24, 2011 at 9:20 am

            I have taken those turns *safely* at this speed many times. Moreover, calling the turns “blind” is an exaggeration. The turn radius is gradual with decent sight lines. (I’ve been passed at the tower by impatient orange-legged roadies on several occasions. Now *that* is crazy.)

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      • Rol April 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm

        That aspect makes it pretty similar to the St. John’s Bridge.

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  • Judy April 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I live in SF and ride it often. Who is this Alta group? Seems like we wasted a lot of money to study what we know. What a waste.

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    • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

      Alta is the preeminent planning firm for Active Transportation. They’ve won numerous awards for their projects, and are highly regarded as one of the best planning firms for bike/ped projects.

      If they told you what you already know, that’s not necessarily a fault of Alta’s – it just means SF may not have actually needed to hire a planning firm.

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  • Bob_M April 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Tall bikes on the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk?

    Will Mr. Charles Darwin please go the white courtesy phone?

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    • Jack April 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      I believe Charles is currently busy riding his tall bike across the bridge without falling over the railing…just like every other tall bike rider that has ever crossed the bridge.

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  • Dabby April 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    As a person who has been upside down on top of the railing on the Hawthorne bridge, a brief teetering second from going in the river, I can say that this scenario is possible. And very scary, even on a low bridge.
    Of course mine was caused by a slew of green ribbons tied to the bridge railings, not height or rider error. (One of the ribbons hooked my bar end)

    I must say however that banning certain modes of transportation due to this scenario is ludicrous.

    And in my recollection, the downhill stretches of the GG at ten miles an hour would be, well, once again ludicrous and a fairly good waste of momentum.

    Glad I don’t live in S.F. really..

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  • jeff April 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I just crossed the GG bridge this week on a bike, on a foggy Tuesday in April, and saw more people on bikes and on foot than in cars. Why aren’t we talking about reclaiming one of the six vehicle lanes for pedestrians and cyclists?

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  • Daniel April 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I hope these stupid proposals do not get approved. 5 MPH near the towers with their really sharp turns and the stiff wind is something I could live with. But 10 MPH anywhere else, are you serious? If they want to reduce the number of bicycle-pedestrian accidents, then why not allow cyclists to use the west sidewalk at any time and not just starting from 3:30 PM? It is always a pain in the a$$ to make your way through the masses of walking and bike riding tourists. Once I tried to avoid this by using the west sidewalk already 3:00 PM, but upon passing the Toll Plaza Administration Building, there was an announcement over the speakers saying “Cyclist, you cannot use the west sidewalk since it is not yet 3:30 PM!”

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  • Jim April 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    You can hardly keep a bike up at 5mph, let alone in gale force winds that are normal on the W span.

    The guardrail to the traffic lane IS too low. It would be very easy to have a collision with another biker, say, and topple into traffic on a normal bike. Of course that’s probably not addressed in the Alta report. That would actually cost money.

    Collisions happen on the bridge, no doubt. A friend was sued because a woman taking a picture backed into him while he was cycling.

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  • Al from PA April 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Alta Planning is of course Mia Birk’s outfit. Seems different from her admirable initiatives in Portland, to say the least.

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  • dwaiedibbly April 20, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Are they going to ban trucks with lift kits?

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  • Steve B April 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    The times I’ve ridden the Golden Gate, it’s been absolutely packed with people, and I got yelled at by a cyclist who shouted “on your left!” while expecting me to get out of the way. Problem was, I was slowing down to pass a pedestrian. Instant tension! Sound familiar?

    There are a lot of similarities between the climate of the Golden Gate and our Hawthorne Bridge. I hope Portland will someday answer “yes” to using a travel lane on the Hawthorne bridge to increase bicycle level of service, and return the sidewalk space to the walkers.

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  • BicycleDave April 21, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I can’t believe “…The mission is to carry vehicles…” Shouldn’t the mission be to carry people?

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    • Spiffy April 21, 2011 at 8:40 am

      bicycles are vehicles… the problem is “the roadway lanes are needed to handle the motorists”… it’s as if they contradict themselves…

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      • Jackattak April 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

        Totally. I thought the same thing when reading the update.

        Although does California consider bicycles “vehicles” like we do here in Oregon? If not, then I can understand her POV (from a legal perspective, anyway).

        Not all states consider bicycles “vehicles” or “traffic” (which is stupid, of course).

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        • John Lascurettes April 22, 2011 at 1:00 am

          No, bikes are not under the definition of “Vehicle” as defined in the California Vehicle Code:

          Because “vehicle” does not include a device moved exclusively by human power,[10] a bicycle is not a vehicle for purposes of traffic law.[11] However, in many respects bicycles are treated as if they were vehicles. By statute, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, … except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.”[12] The law thus accommodates the vehicular-cycling principle, accepted and practiced by experienced bicyclists, that cyclists should act and be treated as drivers of vehicles.[13]

          The language of Cal. Veh. Code § 21200 demands close attention. What is a “provisio[n] applicable to the driver of a vehicle” (or, equivalently, to a “driver”[14])? Clearly, if a provision referenced by this section applies to all drivers, then it also applies to all persons riding a bicycle upon a highway. But what about a provision that applies only to drivers of certain types of vehicles?[15] Does such a provision also apply to bicyclists? The answer must be that it does not, because it would be impossible to determine whether bicyclists should be classed with the drivers of vehicles who are subject to the provision or with those who are not.[16] By the same token, provisions that apply only to certain types of drivers[17] do not automatically apply to bicyclists.[18]


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  • Dan Liu April 21, 2011 at 4:49 am

    The problem is that the Golden Gate is as much a tourist and walking destination as it is an automobile bridge, and has historically played both roles. Every time I’ve brought my bike there, it was easier (and more scenic!) simply to walk across, given the density of pedestrian traffic. 95% of traffic on the sidewalk is there to look at and experience the bridge as a structure — there is no destination on the north side!

    There are three types of cyclist who use the GG regularly: road warriors going to Marin for day rides, bike tourists, and tourists on rental bikes. The tourists on rental bikes tend not to be so polite, situationally aware, or capable of handling their bikes around pedestrians, who themselves are usually there to look around and take group and landscape photos. The vast majority of roadies on the GG are familiar with, and cross the bridge regularly, but you’ll see an occasional bicyclist of any stripe startle a mob of tourists. As for unicyclists and tall bikes…well, I’ve never seen one there, and I’d worry about their sanity if I did.

    Bottom line is that Portland has no analogue to the Golden Gate bridge, as a destination in itself. One solution could be to open the west sidewalk to bicycles, and ban them on the east side. However, as far as I can tell there is no way to access the west sidewalk without crossing five lanes of dense highway traffic. Short of that, it’s likely ot fasible or even desirable to demarcate pedestrian and bicycle lanes on the sidewalk, both because of the limited space around the pylons, and because of lost opportunities to see and photograph the bridge with family & friends.

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  • Brad April 21, 2011 at 8:33 am

    How much did Alta make for that brilliant piece of consulting work? I’m inspired to hang out my own shingle and become an “active transportation planner and consultant”?

    “I recommend that you make bike riders slow down near pedestrians. Also, wear a coat on cold, rainy days, be nice to elderly people, and not let children play in traffic. Where’s my check?”

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    • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Brad – try *reading* the report instead of just the article.

      First off, Alta was hired by the LLP that the city hired – they are a subcontractor. Second, the primary focus of the report was synthesis and analysis – there was no existing summary of current conditions for cycling on the GGB. This report provides that synthesis of data and summarizes it. The recommendations come from the analysis, and are actually the least valuable parts of the report. The recommendations aren’t surprising – they are basically the same recommendations Alta has made in other locations. They aren’t surprising, because they are the same practices both SF and Portland have been implementing for years. This is one of the biggest bike planning firms doing a study for one of the best biking cities in the US – of course there are few surprises in the report. That doesn’t mean the report isn’t necessary. The city has to have the analysis and recommendations to back up their own analysis when they take their recommendations to the City Council and the public.

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  • matt picio April 21, 2011 at 10:05 am

    For a view of the sidewalk in question:

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  • esther c April 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    The problem is that cyclists that are using the bridge for transportation are being lumped with the ones using it for recreation and expected to use the sidewalk with pedestrians.

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  • adamdoug2011 April 23, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    I rode that bridge for 5 years as one of the people “headed north” for day rides – its terrifying and exhilarating. The old “guard rails”(on the west side) were at about a foot separating the bike sidewalk from a lane of incoming traffic – luckily they were raised. this really is an issue of common sense. if you don’t have a clue enough to slow down around those towers, you are going to get into a head on collision. The tourists on rentals are the worst, so it goes.

    I made the comparisons to the Hawthorne bridge often during my time in portland – it still shocks me that there are no guardrails on the Hawthorne bridge to protect cyclists from going into the autotraffic lanes.

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  • Jim April 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    The GG Bridge Authority probably needed Alta to come in due to the long-term closure of the west span, but if the administrators just opened it up for cyclists at all hours the ped side is open (after the work is done) there is not issue and we can talk about something else.

    All these years I haven’t heard a compelling argument as to why it is closed at all.

    Riding this bridge forever still did not prepare me for the Hawthorne lack of rail situation. Why haven’t you
    Portlanders done anything about this?

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  • Dude April 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Tall bikes are relatively new. They have only been around for a couple of years. It makes good sense to not let them be in an appropriate place that could be a danger for them. If they did fall off then their family would sue because the guardrail was not high enough. They could make a higher guardrail, but people could also make even higher bikes. Its better that people just follow the law

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  • Skid April 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Gabriel Nagmay
    I like that they say “poses a safety risk to the user from toppling over safety railings”.
    To my knowledge, there has never been a case of this happening to a tall bike. However, dozens of pedestrians topple over that railing each year:

    At least one person has died this way, in either Chicago or Minneapolis. It’s very spooky to ride a tallbike over a bridge on a windy day, but I don’t think common sense should be legislated.

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  • Joseph Stanchfield April 24, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I don’t have any experience with the GGB, I am a rider form Portland and I commute through Portland on my unicycle several days a week across bridges. I don’t understand why the ban includes all unicycles. The tall ones, okay, giraffes are sketchy there. But as far as control goes with a unicycle vs a bike, in my opinion a unicyclist has more control.
    It already goes slower than a bike, they turn on a dime, and stopping distance is 15 feet maximum. No rider is going to go across a bridge without significant confidence of control of the uni. Which means that there is no danger of losing control into traffic or pedestrians. At least no more danger than riding a bike has. There is no worry of brake failure due to it being entirely powered by the rider.
    The current ban does not make the distinction between tall unicycles and the short ones, but there is a very significant difference and it needs to be addressed.

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  • Karen Zink April 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I am a unicyclist, and the statement “the control that a cyclist has is different than a unicyclist might have” is true, but in the opposite way she meant it. Unicyclists have far more control in crowds and busy situations than bicycles. I can stop, start, and turn on a dime way easier than any bicyclist. If I stop peddling, the unicycle stops. Period. My feet on the peddles are the brakes, making stopping nearly instant and not dependent on equipment, like bicycle brakes. Plus, by nature you cannot go nearly as fast on a unicycle. Banning unicycles makes no sense at all!

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