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A lower speed limit on St. Johns Bridge? Maybe

Posted by on December 18th, 2019 at 4:37 pm

A very sad sharrow in a stressful riding environment. The least ODOT can do is lower the speed limit. (And just FYI, that sidewalk is very narrow and is not technically wide enough for bicycle users and walkers to share.)

I have good news to share regarding a little advocacy effort in St. Johns.

Remember how the Oregon Department of Transportation lowered the speed limit on the St. Johns Bridge to 25 mph during a recent construction project? They told me the rationale was to protect vulnerable work crews who were walking on the bridge sidewalk.

It struck me that everyone who uses the St. Johns Bridge outside of a car is just as vulnerable as a construction worker, so why not keep make that speed limit reduction permanent?

As I shared in October, I made a request to ODOT through their public input portal to do just that. ODOT told me the request would have to come from the City of Portland. So I made a similar request to the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) via the 823-SAFE hotline.

Guess what?

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PBOT, in their infinite wisdom and open-mindedness, agrees!

These people deserve the same safety considerations as other vulnerable bridge users like construction workers.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After three months I heard back about my request. A PBOT engineer investigated the issue and emailed me this week to say: “We reviewed your request to reduce the speed limit on the St Johns Bridge and agreed that a lower speed limit would better match the mixed use of this important bike connection.”

Since ODOT owns and manages the bridge, PBOT has made a formal request to them to conduct a speed study. That could take up to a year, but will probably be done sooner than that.

Given the importance of the St. Johns Bridge in our bikeway system (it’s the only Willamette River crossing in north Portland), combined with the fact that ODOT currently requires us to share the bridge roadway with people driving well over the posted 35 mph speed limit*, it seems reasonable to me that they consider a lower speed limit.

I’m eager to see what ODOT’s investigation uncovers. As I reported last week, they say they want to be more sensitive to speed decisions in urban, mixed-use contexts. This is golden opportunity to put their words into action.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed!

(*A 2010 City of Toronto study found that only 54% of bicycle riders feel comfortable riding on a “major road” with sharrows (PDF, page 27).)

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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53 thoughts on “A lower speed limit on St. Johns Bridge? Maybe”

  1. Avatar maxD says:

    THANK YOU! I am very hopeful for this change. I frequently ride over this bridge, I occasionally drive over and I have walked across a couple of times. I would feel much better about a lower speed limit in each mode.

  2. Avatar Champs says:

    There’s still going to be the Dirty 30 and freight trucks rolling through the heart of St. Johns. Not especially safe or particularly (no pun intended) healthy at either end. I don’t see how this changes anything of consequence.

    1. Many firms with large truck fleets will generally avoid streets with lower posted speed limits in favor of ones with higher posted speeds, such as interstates. Likely there will be a significant reduction in the number of trucks using the St. Johns Bridge from such firms. The lower spped limit also makes it easier for police to write up speeders for larger fines, making enforcement more likely.

      1. Avatar Stephen Keller says:

        Agreed. The alternate route adds 10 miles of congestion to the trip. This won’t reduce freight traffic. And unless it is enforced, I expect this will largely be a symbolic gesture. Maybe I’m being pessimistic. I hope so.

      2. Avatar gilly says:

        Yes, unfortunately, St. Johns is the designated bypass route. Trucks coming west on 30 and heading to I5 north are routed through St. John’s to avoid downtown Portland.

      3. Avatar Frank Selker says:

        I believe that lowering the speed limit will reduce speed somewhat even without enforcement. Enforcement would be icing on the cake. That means both fewer accidents and lower risk of death. Thanks Jonathan.

    2. Avatar Buzz says:

      No enforcement, no consequences; next step is speed tables/bumps (I wish it weren’t so!), the ‘silent policeman’. Truckers will love that! (unless they successfully lobby to get some freight PAC to convince our pols to drop it!)

      1. Avatar middle of the road guy says:

        Exactly that.

        A limit means nothing without a related negative consequence.

    3. Avatar Rebecca says:

      “Hey, I used some of my free time to improve safety for all and the cycling experience of our community.”

      “Maybe those nihilist philosophers are right; maybe this is all we can expect of the universe, a relentless crushing of life and spirit, because the equilibrium state of the cosmos is death.”
      – Arthur C. Clark, BP commenters

      Why even try to make anything better, man. Why even try anything at all.

  3. Emailing a speed limit reduction request to safe[at]portlandoregon.gov isn’t a sure bet, but it’s about the highest rate of return on advocacy effort you’ll ever see.

  4. Avatar Loshad says:

    Am I not understanding the statement, or are you forgetting that both the steel bridge and Broadway bridge cross the Wilamette to north Portland?

    1. I’m saying it’s the only bridge actually located in north Portland.

  5. The St. Johns Bridge would be the only place I can think of where I would support full time speed cameras. You speed, a ticket arrives in the mail. Sharing the road at 55mph (my estimate of the actual average traffic speed)

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      Full-time speed cameras should be on every arterial in the city. Why do we accept criminal behavior all over our city, every day?

  6. Avatar Jered Bogli says:

    would be super excited for a 25 mph – I could easily get a ticket on my bike coming into St. Johns from the west side – perfect. all this talk of freight traffic, as a guy that takes the FULL lane any time I’m on that bridge I’ve never had a bad experience with commercial truck traffic on that bridge. Regular folks who don’t drive for a living have made me much more uncomfortable on the bridge.

  7. Avatar The Dude says:

    Guess what?

    No one is going to slow down.

  8. Avatar Algebra Lives says:

    Practical question: For people who do cross this bridge, do you prefer a lane or the sidewalk? I approached it first like other downtown bridges and took the sidewalk, but it’s scary in it’s own way. Suggestions?

    1. Both.

      Whatever it takes to stay alive and chill.

    2. Avatar abomb says:

      I use to live in North Portland and used the St. Johns bridge on a regular basis and I always felt safer riding on the sidewalk. That bridge is a sketchy high speed deathtrap. You get better views from the sidewalk and you can stop and enjoy said view.

      1. Avatar Shuppatsu says:

        I agree but it’s pick your poison. The sidewalk is scary for me as well. Very narrow, with a big unprotected drop from the curve to the street. I get visions of getting off balance, trying to save from bouncing onto the road, then wiping out due to the drop and the oblique angle. Then getting plastered by a speeding car or truck.

      2. Avatar Tom Hardy says:

        I used to live in Kenton and I first rode the St johns bridge in 1953 when I was 8 ye3ars old with my Dad. at that time he said the sidewalk was too narrow, the curb too high, and the railing too low as a gust of wind could do a cyclist grieveous harm and it was a long way down. We used the traffic lane, but stayed to the side when we rode bikes to Sauvis island. I have always ridden in the traffic lane. I have been brushed by cars speeding past with their mirrors brushing me as they blew past like it was a drag strip. 25 would be nice!

    3. Avatar Fred says:

      I once found myself in St John’s on a recreational ride. I saw the St Johns Bridge and thought, Why not? – I’ll give it a try. So I started riding up the fairly steep incline in the right-hand lane, looked in my mirror, and saw a phalanx of trucks and cars behind me in both lanes, heading straight for me. I quickly got off my bike and lifted it onto the sidewalk and scampered up after it. I’ve never been back to the St Johns Bridge and I am sorry for those of you who need to ride it regularly to get where you need to go. It seems like a deathtrap for cyclists.

      25 mph? – you bet! I would ride there again under those conditions.

    4. Avatar Steve Hash says:

      The lane, always (although I have never crossed it at dark). I hold onto the naive belief that if everyone did the same, drivers would learn to expect cyclists on the deck and become more respectful. I have also only had negative experiences with the auto users, other than being uncomfortably close due to their size, the pros are generally OK.

  9. Avatar Asher Atkinson says:

    The St Johns Bridge has always felt to me to be a perfect candidate for active traffic management where lane availability, direction and speed automatically adjust to demand and conditions. Sensors and lights would enable a lot of interesting configurations. Here’s a primer: https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/atdm/approaches/atm.htm

    As much as I’d appreciate cars passing me on the bridge at 25mph, I’m not on the bridge now late on a rainy December night, and I doubt others. The bridge knows for sure, so why not let it decide the appropriate speed limit for the moment. I share the concern that a blunt 25mph limit 24/7/365 will often, and at times understandably, be ignored.

    1. Avatar Alex Reedin says:

      I could see this being somewhat helpful for faster & very confident riders who take the lane on the St. John’s Bridge. There is a small but significant minority of drivers like me who religiously follow speed limits & even (gasp!) go slower sometimes based on conditions. I would guess the minority who at least follows speed limits the vast majority of the time is about 5-10%, in Portland. If one person drives in the left lane at 25 mph, that gives a good chunk of time with no one passing a bike rider at speed. It’s not perfect, but maybe better than nothing?

  10. Avatar Matthew72 says:

    THANK YOU!

  11. Avatar SD says:

    This is great. Thanks!

  12. Avatar Tom says:

    I commuted to/from St. Helens and NE PDX for a year. The sidewalk is the only way I would use the St. Johns Bridge highway during commuting hours.

    Cameras work. Chevy Chase MD has a section of Connecticut Ave. posted 30 MPH Speed Camera Enforced. Traffic slows dramatically all hours day/night through this section. Contrasting with the St. Johns Bridge, this is a wealthy city. I observed pedestrians and cyclists using marked crossings, and side streets have cars entering the arterial. https://www.chevychasevillagemd.gov/194/Safe-Speed-Program

    1. Avatar middle of the road guy says:

      I used to live there when I spent time at the EPA.

  13. Avatar Chainstays says:

    Fantastic, thank you Jonathan! This would be an amazing change.

  14. Avatar J_R says:

    A lower posted speed on St. John’s Bridge will make absolutely no difference!

    There is virtually no enforcement in Portland.

    Even if there were a willingness on the part of PPB to enforce a speed limit on St. John’s Bridge, there are logistical issues – namely no place for an officer to station himself/herself to record the speed and no place to pull over a speeding motorist to make a citation.

    Yesterday I saw four motorists blow through stale red lights at traffic signals.

    No enforcement. No consequences.

  15. Really disturbs me that so many of you come on here and say, “This won’t do anything!”

    FWIW I have a personal principle of not downplaying other people’s advocacy efforts. Support it, or suggest how it can be improved, but don’t criticize it. That’s just something I believe in. If good-intentioned people are willing to step up and try to make things better, let them shine and find their own path. That makes a much healthier and welcoming activism ecosystem that is better for everyone.

    That’s one thing. The other is… I totally disagree that lower speed limits are not worth pursuing! Many of you say lower speed limits won’t work and that we must have enforcement.

    Guess what? Enforcement against high speeds is much easier and works much better with a lower speed limit. Here’s why I think that:

    First we lower the speed to signal to drivers the expected and safe behavior. Then we work on other things like enforcement, engineering, education, evaluation, and so on… All of which are more effective if the speed limit is lower to start with!

    Geez people, how about some support for someone who obviously cares deeply about safety and is trying to seize an opportunity to do something about it. (Newsflash: I know very well that simply changing speed limit isn’t a silver bullet. I am also experienced enough with the bureaucracy and politics to know you can’t always get what you want right away so you have to be opportunistic.)

    Take a moment and think about your comments. Think about what it would feel like if you stuck your neck out to do something you cared deeply about and then all people (who ostensibly care about the same things you care about) can say is, “This won’t work!”

    Love you. Thanks.

    1. Avatar Steve Hash says:

      Could not agree more, thanks again!

    2. Avatar Keviniano says:

      Comment of the week.

    3. Avatar The Dude says:

      Speaking only for myself (as a critic of your action), I appreciate your thoughtful response.

      Given your passion for this issue, I’m really curious why you aren’t spending your time advocating for speed limit enforcement? For example, there is a lot of discussion here about how speed cameras solve the enforcement problem very effectively. Why aren’t you advocating for installation (or legalization) of speed cameras? And if you are doing advocacy work on speed limit enforcement, please tell me more specifically what you are doing and how to get involved.

      1. The Dude,

        I’ve tried to make it clear that my advocacy is opportunistic. I run this business mostly by myself (my wife helps keep the books, and Steve B takes care of the tech stuff and I have some great guest writers here and there) so I don’t have time to have any intentional advocacy strategy. What I do is seize relatively easy opportunities to make a difference. The lower speed limit during that construction project and subsequent raising of it afterward just didn’t sit right with me and I knew there was a quick avenue to request the change and so I took it and here we are.

        When there is an equivalent opportunity to advocate for more enforcement or more speed cameras I will absolutely take it. Not sure why you ever assume otherwise unless you think I have some sort of bias against those methods?

        So I wouldn’t say I’m “doing advocacy work”… I’m doing what I can on the side. The way you can get involved is to 1) support BikePortland because we could kick a lot of ass on lots of advocacy issues with a bigger team that could write and do sales and free me up to do other stuff and 2) just keep reading and sharing your wisdom.

        Thanks.

    4. Avatar ed says:

      What the naysayers don’t seem to recognize about lowering the speed limit: yes, people will speed anyway BUT that means they will drive 55 in a 45 zone, 45 in a 35 zone etc. So lowering the speed limit WILL slow traffic; maybe not to the actual speed limit (too much to expect motorists to actually obey the law 😉 but they will drive slower therefore safer if the limit is 25mph. Don’t let ’em get to you Jonathan; most of realize this is just one of countless ways you’ve made life better for active transportation users over the years and we love you for it!

      1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

        I disagree with that.

        I think they will drive at roughly the speed of others around them as well as how fast the road allows them to drive. Similar to how induced demand works…people will use and maximize what is there.

        1. Avatar Brian says:

          I agree, which will be lower as more and more people obey the new limit.

    5. Avatar Stephen Keller says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      I want to apologize for my pessimism. I’ve lived in St. Johns for over 30 years and watched my beautiful walking and biking neighborhood degrade into a congested mess of distracted, angry and frustated drivers: too much freight, too many commuters avoiding the freeway, too much cracked pavement, too many dangerous intersections. Sometimes I let the grief get the better of me, but I should not take it out here on this community. Please forgive me.

      On that note, thank you for pursuing speed reductions on the bridge with PBOT and the state. A lower speed limit there might be symbolic, but symbols mean something and a few folks (myself included) will pay attention. Even a few obedient drivers at strategic times of day will have an impact.

      On the plus side there have been some good safety improvements on Fessendon, St. Louis and Lombard. I fear that improvements lag behind the degradations, but as my wife constantly encourages me to not let fear govern actions, I’m going to say that the improvements have made for better walking and biking.

      Thank you for your advocacy and persistence without which our city’s life would be diminished.

      Stph

      1. Thank you for sharing that Stephen ❤️

    6. Avatar J_R says:

      I’m sorry you were offended by my criticism.

      I have been an advocate for decades. I served on a bicycle committee in another community; I have personally testified on bicycle/pedestrian safety issues before the state legislature and the Portland Commission. I provided testimony to the city budget committee. I have written letters to the editor.

      I have regularly called on this forum for more enforcement. I appreciate your advocacy, but I still maintain that a lower speed limit will do nothing, especially on St. John’s Bridge.

    7. Avatar Phil Richman says:

      Thank you Jonathan, The St. John’s Bridge reminds me so much of the Vermont & Newbury Bridges along SW Barbur Blvd that are complete deal breakers for the “interested, but concerned.” If the speed limit along that short stretch were 25 MPH, instead of 45 MPH there’d be many more people cycling too/from SW. As it is we patiently await SW Corridor instead. Your efforts are well worth it.

    8. Avatar Brian says:

      Agreed. It worked on Hawthorne with no additional enforcement. Bring on the lower limits!

  16. Avatar Steve Hash says:

    This is a great FIRST step, thanks for advocating Jonathan, now if they would revisit eliminating a lane each direction and adding protected bike lanes…

    1. Avatar Stephen Keller says:

      I think an interesting approach would be to eliminate a motor vehicle lane on each end. We really only need two lanes exiting the bridge in either direction. If the split occurred roughly half way across, it would provide significant room for backups in traffic. The remaining width from the former fourth lane could be dedicated to a fully protected lane for bikes and other personal mobility devices, ideally this would independently signalized at the ends somehow to give vulnerable users an appropriate turn at each intersection. A nine-foot lane for two-way bike, etc. traffic isn’t ideal, but it would be far better than the current situation.

      Stph

  17. Avatar Michael Rubenstein says:

    Will only have a chance of having an impact with photo radar enforcement. Otherwise, could be worse than now with some speeding vehicles weaving around vehicles following a lower limit ie more dangerous than now.

  18. Avatar Glenn F says:

    Wonder if the bypass30B can be taken off as a truck route (other than local deliveries) ?

  19. Avatar joe adamski says:

    Traffic Division for Portland Police is in the former City Hall for SJ/Former North Precinct at the east side of the bridge. Still,little enforcement on the bridge.
    Imponderable.

    1. Avatar Steve Hash says:

      My bet is it’s because there is no where to pull anyone over. Perfect place for photo radar though.

  20. Avatar J says:

    Well, now when I drive over I can drive 25 miles an hour instead of 30 thereby slowing traffic down by one lane. Some others will do the same and it’ll help a little.

  21. Avatar Josh Volk says:

    Thanks for doing this! Every little bit helps. Any chance you think the city might recommend not just a lower speed limit to ODOT but also a lane configuration change? Some day I’ll find the time to sketch out what is totally obvious to me and send it to ODOT since they don’t seem to understand from my written descriptions. There could easily be just one lane of motor vehicle traffic on the uphill sections of the bridge with no additional congestion since the bridge is fed from every direction by single lanes of traffic (ODOT has told me that this is not the case – making it obvious that the people handling communications at ODOT have never been on the actual bridge). This would leave space for a bike lane on the uphill sections where the speed differential is most pronounced and therefore the risk is highest, and possibly even on the downhill sections. Even as a pedestrian on the sidewalks I find the fast moving lane right next to me a bit frightening, and driving next to a large truck in a small car is similarly concerning. There really isn’t good space for four lanes across that bridge deck, changing that lane configuration would also leave space for wider motor vehicle lanes. I hope other folks will continue to write ODOT, PDOT and our representatives about this and make enough noise that the bridge configuration finally gets a much needed change.

  22. In October 2018 I observed only one speed limit sign on the bridge for traffic headed West. I sent email to ODOT asking for speed reduction, cameras, and 4 signs in each direction. I also called this in to 823-safe.

    Here is the ODOT email saying they will add one sign for a total of 4. And they make a bunch of excuses about speed cameras, which they could install if they wanted. Every staff person and engineer at ODOT and PBOT is responsible for the record deaths in 2019. They could all sign a petition that baby steps are not acceptable and we must take drastic action.

    quoting ODOT in reply to asking for 8 signs on the bridge. :


    ODOT staff evaluated your suggestion to add more signs to reduce speed on the St. Johns bridge. The findings were as follows: Speed signs along state highways in urban and suburban areas are placed no closer than ¼ mile and may be up to 2 miles apart. If there are no constraints, speed signs are also placed after major intersections. The St Johns Bridge is about 0.70 mile long with speed signs on each entering side, and one additional for the eastbound direction. This is appropriate sign placement and spacing. The other, non-speed related, signage along the bridge must also meet appropriate spacing standards. That being said, a field visit was completed to ensure that the existing speed signs meet appropriate size and reflectivity standards. The outcome of the investigation is that one new speed sign will be placed in the westbound direction, and the existing speed signs will be replaced to ensure reflectivity and visibility.

    With regard to speed cameras, these are enforcement tools that ODOT is not legally authorized to install, operate or maintain. In Oregon, our legislature only allows automated speed enforcement to be conducted by certain City jurisdictions as well as in construction work zones on state highways. Information related to speed enforcement cameras can be found in the Oregon Revised Statues (ORS) 810.438 – .442. Here’s a link to one: http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/810.438. There was a new law passed in the last legislative session that just allows red light running cameras to also track speed enforcement. Here is a news article – http://www.kgw.com/news/local/red-light-cameras-can-catch-you-speeding-starting-thursday/48 And here is a link to City of Portland’s webpage regarding fixed speed cameras: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/576452

    Unfortunately drivers pay very little attention to the Regulatory signing on today’s roadways unless consistent enforcement is available. If you are frequently witnessing drivers behaving aggressively or jeopardizing the safety of others you are encouraged to report this to the Portland Police Bureau non-emergency line at 503-823-3333.”

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