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Ask BikePortland: What’s the correct way to cross the I-5 bridge?

Posted by on August 10th, 2016 at 1:21 pm

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There’s no great way to cross the I-5 bridge, but perhaps you can help our reader make it suck a bit less.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Publisher’s note: We’re going to try something a bit different for our Ask BikePortland column. Instead of us bringing in an expert to answer the question directly in the post, we’re going to see if you — our fantastic and smart readers — can help with the answer. Please share your insights and tips in the comments. Thanks! – Jonathan

Today’s question came to us via email from Greg S.:

I have been biking to work from North Portland to Vancouver for about 2 years now and I am still unsure of the “correct” way to cross the Interstate Bridge.

In my head, I should still ride with traffic so when riding North, I ride on the East side of the bridge along with the car traffic heading North and on the opposite side when riding South. But I frequently encounter bikers doing the opposite. I have not seen any signs or publications detailing the correct direction to cross. Does anyone there know?

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Also, then, by this same logic, pedestrians should follow pedestrian rules and walk against traffic. This way, bikers would not sneak up on them because they are not hearing our bell or shouting due to traffic and earbuds. And in the situation of a pedestrian/biker meeting, who should yield? I always slow down and make it a point to yield the right of way at least half the time and most pedestrians move over to let me pass. But yesterday, a walker coming at me was not budging so I slowed to a crawl and then timed our passing so i could maneuver in between the girders and around him and was thanked with a shouted “FUCK YOU!!!”.

I am just looking for some advice or clarification about some standards or common understandings about how traffic should flow on those skinny sidewalks on the Interstate Bridge.

Thank you for your help.

Greg

I know some of you ride across the bridge regularly. Do you have some advice for Greg? Or some resources you could point him to?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

72 Comments
  • Avatar
    Ted Timmons (Contributor) August 10, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    It sucks because it’s so narrow. No idea on the law, but my experience from using it occasionally in the past 25 years is to ride with traffic, like you say. Yes, sometimes there are wrong-way riders, and it certainly takes a lot of negotiation with pedestrians, and yes, it’s crazy-frustrating to get through Hayden Island.

    I feel that pedestrians can/should use both sides for both directions. I’m fine with that.

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. August 10, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    By car, duh.

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      Mark S August 10, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      For someone who thinks motorized vehicles are the spawn of Satan, that is pretty funny.

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        Mark Smith August 12, 2016 at 12:49 am

        Probably only the second spawn of Satan. The first being oil.

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    I wear many hats August 10, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    It sounds like you were mountain biking in Forest Park on a trail. That’s the common greeting from the hiking community. What’s it take to yield to the faster mover? Other locales figured it out. We have this perverse sense of passive aggressive entitlement in the Portlandia region.

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      Dan August 10, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      I don’t agree. By that logic, a cyclist should always yield to a motorist – is that what you want? I feel that the faster vehicle that is more likely to do harm should yield – that’s how MTB trails operate (riders heading uphill have the right of way), as well as the basis of Oregon’s crosswalk law.

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. August 10, 2016 at 2:55 pm

        Yeah, always yield to hikers when riding. That’s common courtesy.

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          I wear many hats August 11, 2016 at 7:29 am

          and if you are overtaking someone?????

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            Doper August 11, 2016 at 11:18 am

            Then you shout, directly into the victims ear, ONYERLEFT! Works everytime..what could possibly go wrong?

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        I wear many hats August 11, 2016 at 7:32 am

        I hear you, but what about if you are faster and overtaking the walker???
        Trail/ path etiquette does not encourage actively blocking the faster user. Cheers, see you on the trails.

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          Dan August 11, 2016 at 1:46 pm

          It’s not so hard, is it? Wait until you have room to pass, just like you would on the road, then give an audible warning (politely) and pass. Someone on foot isn’t required to clear the road/path for a cyclist anymore than cyclists are required to ride on the sidewalk.

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      Trebor August 10, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Umm, have been to the Bay Area?

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty August 10, 2016 at 9:03 pm

        Never! I hear it’s full of huckleberries!

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          Alan 1.0 August 10, 2016 at 9:43 pm

          There are many kinds of fruits in San Francisco.

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        Ted Timmons (Contributor) August 10, 2016 at 10:29 pm

        Do you like gladiator movies?

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    Velolief August 10, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Isn’t it signed to lead you to the correct side of the path anyway?

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      Spiffy August 11, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      yes, I believe it is…

      although hard to confirm without being there, but in Google Street View I see only signs for biking in the same direction as motor vehicle bridge traffic…

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    Kyle Banerjee August 10, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    You did fine.

    The only mistake you made was assuming that someone must be sober, mentally stable, and reasonable just because they are on foot. Just as it’s not a great idea to assume all motorists have all these qualities, the same should is true for cyclists and peds.

    For all you know, the guy you encountered was a bike hater who was particularly cheesed off because his lifted rig was impounded following a recent DUI arrest.

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      Anna G August 10, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      Have to agree with Kyle on this, I did this commute for a couple of years and there were always folks going the “wrong” or opposite way to me. Do what’s easiest for you as far as access to your route to and from the bridge (I always went with the flow of traffic) as it put me next to the MUP on Fort Vancouver, the nicest part of my ride. As with any MUP, as most bridge pathways are, go slower when there are others around, and expect some to be clueless (joggers w/headphones), and perhaps aggressive/unstable as well.

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      Mark S August 10, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      Or the person was traveling back to Washington after processing his “returnable” beverage containers at the Bottle Drop outlet at Hayden Meadows. I used the quotation marks because a number of folks in Washington, who do not pay a deposit on their containers, are doing a fine job of scamming the Oregon system & receiving a “refund” on said containers.

      I always travel with the flow of traffic in the adjoining freeway lanes.

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    rick August 10, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    When will the adjacent railroad bridge add bike and pedestrian access? Vancouver has removed the industrial warehouses and making it a Pearl District.

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. August 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      You mean the CRIME BRIDGE?

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      Chris I August 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      Good luck getting the railroad to agree to that. The railroad bridge is older than both of the I-5 bridges, and will need to be replaced at some point. It is also a 2-track, low speed bottleneck on the busiest rail line in Oregon. I would like to see the state partner with the railroad to build a new 4-track bridge that would give passenger trains priority and have an attached MUP. But that doesn’t seem to be a regional priority…

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        TJ August 10, 2016 at 3:08 pm

        Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge across the Willamette has similar potential.

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      J_R August 10, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      There are some who think that railroads are second only to God in authority over the world. Railroads disagree with that ranking.

      It took years of negotiation for the railroad to agree to the shared walkway on the lower deck of the Steel Bridge. It took years of negotiation to allow the Springwater Corridor to be placed next to the railroad line from OMSI south to the Sellwood Bridge.

      I’d rank the chance of getting pedestrian access on the BNSF bridge over the Columbia River to be near absolute zero on a scale of 0 to 100.

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty August 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm

        Where absolute zero is -273 on your scale, I presume?

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          lop August 16, 2016 at 1:13 pm

          -273.15

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          • Adam H.
            Adam H. August 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm

            0 K

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        TJ August 10, 2016 at 5:46 pm

        I don’t know. The rail roads do not have the same opportunities to acquire land and dig giant canyons through the middle of Portland neighborhoods like they once did. I would not be surprised if leverage on drayage improvements and improved rail bridges (still have to answer to maritime), plus the fact freight is height restricted due to low old RR over passes (Columbia Blvd), creates a situation where the rails have to play ball.

        BNSF is not in a good situation to call the shots in Portland. Bridge 5.1 will have a MUP under it. UP will develop land below the bluff. Congestion will continue to slow multimodal and drayage.

        Their land is insanely lucrative. Portland owns land that would make more sense logistically for some of the yards. It’s not as if 100 years of the same rails still make sense today. Things will change… eventually.

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        David Hampsten August 11, 2016 at 5:41 pm

        The correct order of precedence is:
        1. Shipping and barge traffic (since 1792, Capt. Vancouver RN, etc.)
        2. Railroads (they got right-of-way in the 1840s, long before any rails were actually built)
        3. God
        4. All other surface users, including emergency services

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          q`Tzal August 12, 2016 at 7:09 pm

          5. All you filthy muggles walking and riding bicycles

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    John L. August 10, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    I’ve been biking from Portland to work in Clark County for the past seven years. The bridge paths are not well signed and I’m not aware of any regulations so I can only offer my opinion on the “correct” way to cross.

    I always ride with traffic: northbound on the east side and southbound on the west side. Pedestrians use both sides for both directions. Both sides are scary narrow, but the east side is a few inches narrower than the west, so some riders seem to feel safer using the west side to go both directions, which occasionally creates conflicts.

    In my experience, most conflicts resolve easily and courteously. Most pedestrians duck between the girders to let riders pass. When two riders going opposite directions meet, one pulls between the girders to let the other pass. I’ve never had anyone shout at me – I hope what Greg experienced is a rare event.

    The worst conflicts that I’ve seen are between two riders going the same direction. Some fast riders don’t want to share the path with a slower rider ahead of them. The path are too narrow to pass, so if you encounter a slower rider ahead of you, please be patient, don’t tailgate, ring your bell or shout. You will be able to pass when you get across the bridge.

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      Tom Hardy August 10, 2016 at 8:09 pm

      The general rule is always ride with the traffic and for pedestrians to walk against traffic (so that they can jump out of the way). I have found that there are many educational wannabe experts (school teachers) that insist that both bikes and cars walk and ride against traffic, even on one way streets.

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      esther2 August 11, 2016 at 9:32 am

      I’m always amazed by cyclists who won’t wait for a slower rider yet expect cars to wait patiently for them.

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        Middle of the Road Guy August 11, 2016 at 11:56 am

        The anointed elite do not have to use reason or accountability.

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    JD August 10, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    According to the ODOT, there is no right way to do it. ODOT was going to put directional signs up back in 2010, but came to the (questionable) conclusion that people wouldn’t adhere to the instructions based on data — inaccurate in my experience — indicating that the majority of cyclists traveled against the flow of traffic on either side of the bridge. And then they came to the even more questionable conclusion that nobody wanted directional signs anyway. See BikePortland’s coverage: “ODOT Says No to New Markings on I-5 Bridge Path,” June 3, 2010. Dennis Mitchel of ODOT is quoted in the article. I emailed him with some questions about his data and he was impressively responsive — but, I think, wrong in his conclusions.

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      David Hampsten August 11, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      It’s also a WaDOT decision as much as ODOT. Judging from the two-way bike traffic on the I-90 floating bridge, I’d say they also would prefer to make no decision on one-way versus two-way, for any user.

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    Mav August 10, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Unfortunately as JD noted, there is no ‘right way’. Do exactly what you’ve been doing. Most pedestrians I’ve encountered over the last three years of VNC to PDX commuting will move over for cyclists once they see you, and it sounds like you got a bad egg. As far as which side and direction goes for pedestrians, it doesn’t matter to me but I do wish all cyclists would choose to go the same way as traffic. Some cyclists will go northbound against traffic because the walkway is a little wider, but can cause some awkward situations of both riders having to stop halfway up or down the hill and negotiate themselves around each other.

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    Todd Boulanger August 10, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    I concur with JD…ODoT needs to take another look at this…the City of Vancouver had money back before the great recession hit to sign the directionality of the two routes on the north side but ODoT would not sign off on it. I had similar conversations in 2006ish with ODoT when i was organizing ‘RU Bridge Curious’ rides ‘to the MAX and BACK’. (Things could change if ODoT took another look at it…nothing is written in stone.)

    There are two main advantages to bike riders travelling with motorized traffic on the bridge:
    1) riding at night you vision will be less effected by on-coming headlamps (and rain squalls from trucks); and
    2) reduces the friction and complexing of traveling in tight spaces for pedestrians and other cyclists (improved safety / less stress).

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    Mike Sanders August 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    The directional signs on the entrances to the bridge on each end do encourage peds / bikes to go North on the east side and south on the west side. That makes sense. On Tillicum Criossing, the left lane of the walkway is for bikes (one way only), while the right is for peds. That should be true on the Interstate Bridge, too.

    The Amtrak / UPRR bridge should be updated to have ped / bike lanes on it. If we ever get a new Intersrate Bridge, such a route would be huge during the construction process. And if the politicians insist that the new bridge must be auto oriented, routing peds / bikes that way might be the best option. Same goes for the one over the Willamette. A ped / bike crossing on that location, or nearby, would be a hugely important connector between NW and the Northside. Both should be on the must-do list.

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      Ted Timmons (Contributor) August 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      On Tillicum Criossing, the left lane of the walkway is for bikes (one way only), while the right is for peds. That should be true on the Interstate Bridge, too.

      It doesn’t have striped lanes, but Broadway does the same thing- one-way bike traffic, two-way ped traffic.

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    bikeninja August 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Put the cars and trucks on a Ferry, then use the whole bridge for bikes and pedestrians. This will cure lots of the traffic problems in North and Northeast Portland as well as helping climate change. It might help convince Vancouver folks that bringing the Yellow line over the river is a good idea too, without cars there would be room for that too.

    Problem solved.

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      Mike Sanders August 11, 2016 at 10:24 am

      You can’t put a ferry across the river on I-5. The backups would be even worse than they are now. Makes no sense. Homeland Security would likely deep-six that idea pronto.

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        bikeninja August 11, 2016 at 1:27 pm

        Sure you could, people would have to make other choices than they are making now. The time is not far in the future when driving your petroleum guzzling, greenhouse spewing death machine back and forth from one state to another to make a few bucks, or pick up a bag a cheeze doodles won’t make any sense.

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        Spiffy August 11, 2016 at 2:10 pm

        “The backups would be even worse than they are now.”

        that was the point… thus forcing people out of their cars…

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    Todd Boulanger August 10, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    The City of Vancouver still has this great mini map of how to get across the I-5 Bridge in distribution (by Jennifer Campos). Its at City Hall in the lobby (and after-hours you can sometimes find it at Niche Wine Bar / Angst Event Space on 1013 Main St.)

    http://bikeportland.org/2008/06/03/new-map-improvements-will-make-i-5-bridge-crossing-easier-7749

    Otherwise Google Maps will now guide you correctly as a cyclist across the I-5 bridge. (Tom Tom still takes you via the Hood River Bridge..a trip of 155 miles vs. 5.5 miles…LOL)

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    Joe Adamski August 10, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    With patience and no sense of urgency. Earplugs help, too.

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    kittens August 10, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Ride with traffic. Pretty obvious to me.
    Expect peds anywhere and any direction at any time.

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    Champs August 10, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Let this be the lesson: jerks can and do happen.

    In the social court, like all others, not every plaintiff the victim. It sounds like you were following the rules and deferential within reason; it’s a long ride over if you wait indefinitely. Unless you willfully mistreated another human being, these charges don’t stick.

    Not guilty. *gavel*

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    Teddy August 11, 2016 at 7:26 am

    I used to bike from Portsmouth Portland to Vancouver occasionally and was just too lazy to figure out how to get to the west side (I-5 south) sidewalk so I rode north and south on the east side bridge. If I had run into enough oncoming traffic I would have bothered to bike the same direction as vehicles, but the bike lane is pretty sleepy. I always yielded for oncoming bikes and pedestrians though my earplugs made it really hard to hear anyone behind me.

    Pretty sure a friend of mine would drive their Scooter across the bridge’s sidewalk when they wanted to get to Vancouver.

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      Mike Untz August 11, 2016 at 8:53 am

      ಠ_ಠ

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      Spiffy August 11, 2016 at 2:16 pm

      never seen one of those moped class scooters on the I-5 bridge path but see them on the I-205 path often (all the way down to Clackamas)…

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    David Feldman August 11, 2016 at 7:58 am

    I live in Vancouver, don’t ride the Interstate bridge often but prefer the west (southbound) side for the cleaner exit on the Washington side. I ride it at near to walking pace because of the narrow path and bridge pillars obscuring visibility.

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    Dax August 11, 2016 at 8:31 am

    Its been some time since I road across that span regularly, but I had too many encounters with a particular cyclist that would ride the “wrong” way, using the southbound side to ride north. He would not slow down to an appropriate speed for passing each other, so I felt that I had no choice but to come to a complete stop and stand on the ground. This then escalated to the point that one time trying to pass me he actually ran into me and fell off of his bike.
    I also seemed to run into a couple riding south on the northbound side that had a similar interaction. It actually made me stop commuting by bike over that bridge. To this day I won’t ride across it.

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    Mike Untz August 11, 2016 at 8:56 am

    There are signs on the gates side, they just happen to be on the side that faces traffic instead of the bike path.

    It’s a narrow enough path to navigate without people on bikes coming at you at the same time.

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    esther2 August 11, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I always ride with traffic. If I encounter a cyclist coming in my direction against traffic I try to make them yield to me whether they’re going up or down hill.

    The south bound sidewalk is much wider than north bound and I think that’s why so many people prefer it.

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      Todd Boulanger August 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      Its an local urban myth that one side is much wider than the other…the pinch points are pretty similar. (We looked at it for the CRC.)

      One thing that does strongly affect cyclist comfort for many is vertigo…due to the open design of the older bridge’s metal band / grill work…allowing one’s eye to see the “open” water below much closer below your wheels at speed. (This unplanned operations issue came up during our RU Bridge Curious tours when some riders had to walk or turn back and cross on the other side.)

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        Champs August 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm

        Whatever the difference, it is night and day both up and down.

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        David Feldman August 12, 2016 at 7:51 am

        To me, the holey deck is one of it’s charms, reminds me of the Hawthorne bridge many improvements ago.

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        Dan Packard August 14, 2016 at 9:06 pm

        The west side width is exactly 5 ft. between railing and beams, 4 ft. at the pinch points. The east side walkway width is 4 ft. 5 inches between railing and beams, and 3 ft. 5 inches at the pinch points.

        Sometimes it’s easier to just loop up onto I-5 and take the right lane either way since the motor vehicle congestion is so bad.

        They need to take out the elevated humpbacks of the bridge center sections (revised in the 1950’s) and return to the original flat design. It would make the bridge easier to cross and increase sight lines.

        P.S. My second paragraph above is a joke 🙂

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    Ozman August 11, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    I ride this bridge everyday (well, almost). You should TRY to ride with traffic and yield to pedestrians. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the bridge and you either have to cross over to the other side (many people don’t know how to get to the other side if it’s their first time), go ahead and cross against traffic. The last time I crossed against traffic I had a biker coming the other way try to give me a talking to, but when you don’t care it’s easy to skirt on by.

    I’ve also found pedestrians on that bridge to be the most courteous out of any interaction I’ve had at other places in the city. They’ll get out of your way if they know where you are.

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    julia August 11, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    I used to ride both ways until I finally understood that it’s polite to ride with traffic. Sometimes pedestrians do walk in front of you and you have to wait until they notice you to get by. I found a good trick if they can’t hear your bell or voice: shift your gears and the crackling usually alerts them.

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    Lester Luallin August 11, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    I always ride it with traffic. The choke points aren’t all that bad. They might be better with a stripe indicating the centerline.

    On one windy night I hooked the metalwork with my brake on the northbound side but that was a freak occasion. I’ve been over it with 800mm bars a few times and now going across with 420mm road bars makes even the pinch points seem absolutely gaping!

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    Nothing August 12, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Ozman
    I ride this bridge everyday (well, almost). You should TRY to ride with traffic and yield to pedestrians. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the bridge and you either have to cross over to the other side (many people don’t know how to get to the other side if it’s their first time), go ahead and cross against traffic. The last time I crossed against traffic I had a biker coming the other way try to give me a talking to, but when you don’t care it’s easy to skirt on by.
    I’ve also found pedestrians on that bridge to be the most courteous out of any interaction I’ve had at other places in the city. They’ll get out of your way if they know where you are.
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    “When you don’t care”

    Really? What I read there is “when you don’t care about safety” because it’s not safe to do that.

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    Adam August 13, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    I encountered this today – two peds to navigate around, and one cyclist going the “wrong way”.

    I really think bikes should operate as they do on Hawthorne, one direction only on each side of the span.

    Peds might be more reluctant to take the western sidewalk, because there is that extremely sketchy dark long tunnel under I-5 to navigate on Hayden Island.

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    Mike Sanders August 15, 2016 at 10:00 am

    The access points on I-5 to and from Jantzen Beach aren’t very well designed at all. They’re leftovers from the old US-99 alignment; even after modernization in recent years, they’re still terrible. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t a ped / bike bridge from the east end of Hayden Island to the Portland side of the Columbia. Having only one exit off the island makes no sense. It’d be better than the current bike route across several freeway ramps (the CRC project would have changed that).

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    Roger Horner August 16, 2016 at 7:57 am

    As someone who rode this for nine years as part of a commute from Vancouver to downtown Portland I also rode with the flow of traffic. Although there are circumstances where I found it safer to ride against to flow of traffic.

    There are times when the wind coming through the gorge is very strong. On days with a 20+ mph East wind I would elect to ride on the West side of the bridge to allow the bridge and traffic to help shield me from strong gusts.

    I agree signage that suggested the best way to ride across the bridge would be good, but most of the riders I encountered that consistently rode against traffic were user that I would expect probably would not adhere to any signage posted before the bridge.

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    Ted Timmons (Contributor) August 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Here’s a hyperlapse of riding south across the bridge:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1dKH1Vrhlo

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    Terry August 19, 2018 at 7:27 am

    I’m pretty sure you did everything right and the guy that yelled at you is the guy that yells at everyone (especially bikers) on and around the Interstate bridge. I have had many run-ins with this dude. He recently slammed his forearm into me as I attempted to pass him at the pace of a pedestrian. I filed a police report, but I don’t know his name. If anyone knows who he is, please let me know. This guy is a terrorizing menace to anyone biking in the area.

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    Dina June 22, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    I might have met the man referenced by Terry in 2018 or the author of this post.
    When I ride over the bridge, I always ride with traffic, too. Today, a pedestrian was coming at me on the incline northbound (east side). I figured, surely he won’t make me stop my momentum and dismount, and instead will just slip in a girder (?) to let me keep climbing. No, sir! He nudged up to the rail on the far East side where I was riding and yelled at me, while he kept walking and I was forced to stop. Wow.

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