BikePortland.org

Reader Story: St. Johns Bridge: Portland, how about a warning?

St. Johns Bridge, Portland OR
A visitor finds that
even the sidewalk isn’t
that nice to ride on.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

[Editor’s note: I am excited to publish the first reader story submitted through our new Share Your Story page. Please keep the submissions coming! — JM (currently in Siesta Key, Florida ;-))]

This story was submitted by Peter Herreid of Madison, Wisconsin:

Portland is the cool West Coast cousin that bike enthusiasts, planners, and politicians from Madison visit and come back gushing about the bikeways, light rail, and urban growth boundary. My wife and I were there in mid-April and have since been rolling out daily dispatches on MadisonBikeLife.com.

So, one day we had just biked a nice tour of northeast Portland’s bike boulevards, or “neighborhood greenways” as they are referred to locally, and wanted to cross the Willamette River to get to Forest Park. The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s bike map, which had till then faithfully served us, showed the St. Johns Bridge as having a “multi-use path closed to motor vehicles.” Fortunate for us we thought, because it was the only bridge up and down the river for miles, so off we went.

“The inescapable reminders of my own mortality to my left and to my right acted as blinders so that I walked most of the bridge looking down at the pavement immediately in front of me, taking deep breaths.”

Approaching the bridge, the sidewalk didn’t exactly look like a multi-use path, but the road looked too dangerous to bike, so we stuck to the sidewalk. Now, you should know that heights make me nervous. I wasn’t sitting upright on my rented Dutch bike anymore. I was tucked low, nearly into a road cyclist’s racing position.

Before the first tower, I was walking it up the sidewalk. Although the railing was high enough above my waist that it would take a conscious decision to jump over, it was not reassuringly high above my waist. Looking down to my right, through the bars of the bridge railing I could see warehouses, docks, and boats on the Willamette, all toy-like in the distance, yet all too real. To my left I couldn’t see much, but could feel the swoosh of each passing truck and then the heavy mist of rain droplets and road wash left in its wake. I couldn’t tell if or how far the passenger side mirrors were hanging over the sidewalk, but imagined them as baseball bats swinging through the air, just feet from my head.

Granted, I was safe walking straight ahead as I normally do, but the inescapable reminders of my own mortality to my left and to my right acted as blinders so that I walked most of the bridge looking down at the pavement immediately in front of me, taking deep breaths. The enclosed passages within the bridge towers did each provide a respite. I took the time to read all of the crude teenage graffiti lining the walls.

The St. Johns Bridge was surprisingly out of character for the bikeways we encountered in Portland. The beauty of this historic bridge would be enhanced by some decent bike accommodations. I read that Portland lost out on an opportunity to rehab the bridge with decent bike and pedestrian facilities in 2005. We hope another opportunity soon arises! In the meantime, PBOT should put a “Scary!” warning on its bike map. Like this:

Fortunately, Forest Park made up for the experience on the bridge. After pushing our bikes up and up Springville Road to the park’s entrance, it was a wonderful ride through the forest with glimpses far down into the river valley. From up there, the St. Johns Bridge didn’t look nearly as intimidating.

— Thanks for sharing this Peter. This bridge is a huge black eye for Portland. Thankfully, ODOT has recently taken note of concerns like yours. Back in February, after a man was struck and injured while biking on the bridge, ODOT announced they would move forward with some bike safety improvements. Hopefully your story reminds them that we’re still waiting.

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