There was a very serious bike-on-bike collision on the Sellwood Bridge Friday afternoon around 5:10 pm. A witness who goes by West Stewart McCall online saw the immediate aftermath and said it happened on the raised path on the north side. Now McCall wants to warn other users about what he feels is an inherent danger on the bridge.
From videos and information shared by McCall, the two bicycle riders crashed into each other about midway across the Sellwood span. One rider was heading westbound and the other was coming toward them in the eastbound direction. The eastbound rider was on an electric-bike and the westbound rider was on a bike with no motor. It’s unclear how exactly the collision transpired, but the westbound rider clearly bore the brunt of it. The rider was down on the ground and McCall said he was “completely disoriented,” unconscious for several minutes and might have had a serious head injury. A TriMet bus operator saw the collision, pulled over and helped render aid to the victim along with another bystander. He was taken to the hospital, but we don’t know his current condition.
According to McCall, the uninjured rider stayed at the scene, but allegedly left without sharing his information and claimed he was not at fault. The Portland Fire Bureau responded to the incident and Portland Police Bureau tells us three of their units also responded. PPB Lt. Nathan Sheppard said it was handled as a medical issue only because it was categorized as a “non-criminal bike crash.”
McCall is worried that the bridge’s signage and markings are dangerous by design because they don’t do enough to discourage two-way bicycle traffic. “This avoidable accident has almost happened to me in the past,” he shared in an email Monday. “Recently, I’ve seen more bikers riding east on the path on the north side of the bridge, putting others are risk of serious injury.”
It’s true that many riders prefer to go east on the north side of the bridge, even though pavement markings installed by Multnomah County (who owns and maintains the bridge) encourage bicycle riders to go one-way only. The bicycle marking has an arrow only in the westbound direction, while the pedestrian marking has arrows in both directions.
I asked folks on Twitter yesterday why it’s so popular to go against traffic on the north side path. Some people said it’s likely that many riders headed southbound on the Willamette Greenway path on the west side of the river don’t know that the path continues under the bridge and will connect them to the south side (see map graphic). They see a path that leads up to the bridge, so they hop on it. “This is exactly my experience,” one person replied. Other people ride eastbound on the north side because it allows for an easier and safer connection to Sellwood neighborhoods and the Springwater Corridor path. “If I was connecting to the Springwater going north everyday I’d use the north sidewalk to avoid the somewhat confusing intersection at SE Tacoma and 6th where I have had a close call once before,” wrote Bjorn Warloe.
Another issue might be muscle memory. The new Sellwood Bridge paths have only been open since 2016 and the old one didn’t have any sidewalk or path at all on the south side. And the path that connects from the west side of the Willamette to the south side to go eastbound opened a year later in 2017.
A sign on the north side of the bridge encourages bike riders to stay to the left to give space to walkers. There are no warning signs to tell westbound bike riders they should expect people cycling toward them. There is also no signage that explicitly discourages people from biking eastbound on the north side.
That lack of signage might be because Oregon law doesn’t recognize any directionality on sidewalks or bike paths. Multi-use paths are a grey area of the law and they’re not even mentioned in the Oregon Vehicle Code.
Lawyer and bicycle law expert Chris Thomas with Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost (a BikePortland advertiser) said there’s a lack of legal clarity when it comes to off-street infrastructure that can lead to confusion. “There is no statutory definition of a multi-use path even though we use that term. There are some multi-use paths that could be categorized as sidewalks or bicycle paths [both of which are defined in statute], or a combination of the two depending on what section you’re talking about,” Thomas said. Either way, unlike travel in a street, Oregon law allows users of sidewalks and bike paths to go in either direction.
Even though legal definitions are confusing and incomplete, Thomas says at the end of the day every user of the public right-of-way has a legal obligation to behave with caution and reasonable care. In this case on the Sellwood Bridge, it appears one (or both) of these riders was not doing that.
Please use this collision as an example of why it’s imperative to ride slowly and carefully when passing other riders.
We hope the injured person makes a full recovery.
UPDATE, 3:05 pm: We’ve heard more from PPB. The rider who was unconscious is out of the hospital and has filed a police report. The police say they’re pulling TriMet video of the collision and doing an investigation to see if any crimes were committed.
UPDATE, 1/11 at 9:05 am: We have heard from someone who is a close friend of the e-bike rider. He wants to connect with the other rider. If anyone knows the identity of the rider who was going westbound (the one who was on the ground after the collision), please get in touch with us.