A Tale of Portland Bridges
Mia Birk, Alta Planning + Design, with 2014 updates by Jeff Smith and Jill Mead
Figure 1: Key Portland Bridges. Light blue: Bike lanes. Dark blue: Shared-use paths. Green: Shared roadways.
There are 10 bridges spanning Portland's Willamette River, which connect the city's east and west sides. Portland's vibrant downtown is located on the west side, while the east side is home to light industries, emerging business districts, and pedestrian and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods. The bridges are critical for the mobility of all travel modes (see Figure 1). Five local bridges provide downtown access (Hawthorne, Morrison, Burnside, Steel, and Broadway), three other bridges provide local access (Ross Island, Sellwood, and St. Johns), and two carry limited-access freeways (Fremont and Marquam). Multnomah County is responsible for maintaining five of the bridges, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is responsible for four, and the Union Pacific Railroad is responsible for one. The City of Portland is responsible for installing signs, striping, and facilitating access to all bridges.
Today, eight bridges (all but the limited-access freeways) provide improved pedestrian and bicycle access, but this was not always the case. Beginning in the early 1990s, a year-long partial closure of the Hawthorne Bridge galvanized bicycle advocates to press for improved bicyclist access. At the same time, the city launched a major program to engage bicyclists and potential bicyclists in a dialogue about methods to increase bicycling as a means of transportation. Overwhelmingly, improvements to the bridges' approaches and spans were seen as the highest priority because of their poor bicycle and pedestrian conditions and ability to provide important connections.
At the time, the eight non-freeway bridges were a major barrier for pedestrian and bicycle travel across the river. Bicyclists and pedestrians shared narrow sidewalks, and all bridges had access issues that led to safety problems, such as:
- Bicyclists had to cross motor vehicle ramps where there were no markings or yield control.
- There was a lack of bikeway facilities on the approaching streets and structures, which were often congested.
- Narrow, shared-use sidewalks led to conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians using the bridges.
After: Hawthorne Bridge with new 10.5 foot sidewalks that include markings for one-way bicycle travel and bi-directional pedestrian travel on the right.
Flikr user Steven Vance.
On two bridges (Sellwood and Steel), the sidewalks were so narrow that bicyclists were directed to walk their bikes (which they rarely did) through conflict areas. On several of the bridges, bicyclists could theoretically use auto travel lanes. On one downtown bridge (Burnside), this required sharing the relatively narrow, 10-foot-wide outside travel lanes on a six-lane span. On three other downtown bridges, sharing the travel lanes was risky given the narrow lane widths, lack of sight distance, and the volume and speed of traffic. On three non-downtown bridges, sharing lanes meant bicycling on slippery grating, which could be treacherous in rainy Portland.
These problems translated to low bicycle and pedestrian use of the bridges. Surveys of bicyclists found the number one problem cited was bridge facility quality and access. In response, Multnomah County, ODOT, and the City of Portland collaborated on an Federally-funded study called the Willamette River Bridges Access Project (WRBAP). Consultants identified over $15 million in potential bicycle, pedestrian, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements. The city and county subsequently implemented many of the suggested improvements using grants from ODOT, the Federal surface transportation program, and through routine City of Portland, Multnomah County, and ODOT bridge and approach maintenance work.
After: Eastbound Hawthorne Bridge with dashed green "conflict zone" paint at an exit ramp.
Flikr user Dianne Yee.
Beginning in the early 1990s, all of the bridges that connected east Portland to downtown underwent a series of bicycle facility improvements. Likewise, all pedestrian infrastructure was constructed to comply with ADA.
The first bridge to receive improvements was Burnside, which was restriped to provide bike lanes. Prior to the improvements, bicyclists and pedestrians shared 10-foot-wide sidewalks, and bicyclists accessed the bridge via surface streets without bike lanes. The restriping removed one travel lane in the non-peak direction, and signs were added to the bridge span, as well as on most of the approach and access streets. The total cost of the initial improvements was $20,000, paid for with local transportation funding.
After: Eastbound Hawthorne Bridge - bicyclists proceed straight to 10.5 foot sidewalks while motorists stop.
The second bridge to be improved was the Hawthorne Bridge. Before initial improvements in 1997, bicyclists and pedestrians shared six-foot-wide sidewalks on the bridge, and there were no bike lanes and few sidewalks leading up to the bridge. Bicyclists shared the roadway or used sidewalks to access the bridge, resulting in conflicts between bicyclists and motor vehicles in several areas. Expanded sidewalks were added to the bridge in 1997. From 1998 to 1999, sidewalks were expanded to 10 feet on each side, sidewalks were filled in, bike lanes were striped on all approaches, and conflict areas were redesigned. The first ramp from Naito Parkway was closed entirely, while the second ramp was reconfigured to force motorists to stop and give bicyclists and pedestrians the right of way at separate bike and pedestrian crossing areas.
After: The 300-foot passing lane and bike lane buffer on the eastbound ramp from Hawthorne Bridge.
Flikr user Dianne Yee.
With the recognition that the Hawthorne Bridge was the most popular bridge for bicyclists, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) added additional facilities to the bridge approaches in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, a buffer and a 300-foot passing lane were added to the bike lane from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the bridge. In 2013, a buffer and passing lane were added to the eastbound ramp up to Grand Avenue. Extra space for the bike lane was created by narrowing travel lanes.
After: In 2002, a bike signal was added to westside, westbound Broadway Bridge to split bike movements.
In 1998, the Broadway Bridge had its 10-foot-wide sidewalks resurfaced, the eastside approaches improved, and bike lanes added on the westbound Lovejoy Ramp. Previously, bicyclists and pedestrians shared the slippery sidewalks, there were no bike lanes, and the design of approaches led to road user conflicts. The redesign involved the modification of conflict areas and the use of colored paint to better define the conflict areas that remained. These modifications cost $300,000 were funded by Multnomah County and City of Portland transportation funding.
More recently, in 2013, buffered bike lanes were added to the SW Broadway approach ramp between Hoyt and the bridge. Prior to the buffered bike lane project, the road had four 9.5-foot traffic lanes and one five-foot bike lane.
After: Bicyclists use the new buffered bike lane after crossing the Broadway Bridge.
Photo by Jonathan Maus - Bike Portland.
Prior to 2001, bikes and pedestrians shared one five-foot sidewalk on the upper deck of the Steel Bridge, and some bicyclists used the roadway. In 2001, the Steel Bridge Riverwalk opened, providing a 12-foot bike and pedestrian path along the lower deck of the bridge. From the eastside approaches, the new Eastbank Esplanade provided a shared use path and bike lane connections to the Riverwalk.
Before: Steel Bridge, upper deck. Bicyclists and pedestrians had to share one, 5-foot sidewalk with guardrail.
After: A cantilevered 12-foot shared-use path was added to the lower deck of Steel Bridge. The "Riverwalk" connects to paths on either side of the bridge.
Flikr user Robert Ashworth.
The final and most recent bridge to receive bicycle infrastructure improvements was the Morrison Bridge. Similar to the other bridges, bicycles and pedestrians previously shared five-foot sidewalks and the ramps were the scene of frequent conflicts between road users. In 2009, the 5-foot sidewalks with narrow pinch points were replaced with a 15-foot shared-use path on the south side of the bridge. The project was completed in 2010, with a total cost of $1.9 million. In 2012, the Morrison Bridge gained the distinction of being "bicycle friendly."
Evaluation and Results
The City of Portland collected bicycle counts on the bridges (Figure 2). The counts show an enormous increase over time in bicycle use on the five downtown bridges. Portland's detailed bicycle counts have also allowed the city to calculate crash rates. The increase in bicycle infrastructure, along with the greater number of bicyclists, has led to a steady decrease in the crash rate since the early 1990s (Figure 3).
A clear link can be made between facility improvements and increased bike use on the bridges. Overall, the number of bicyclists using the five bridges increased from less than 4,000 per day in 1992 to over 18,000 in 2012, with large increases seen in the years following major improvements. On the Hawthorne, Burnside, and Broadway bridges alone, bike use went up 78 percent in the 1990s, compared with a 14 percent increase in the population and an 8 percent increase in motor vehicle use on these bridges. The following results should be noted:
- On the Burnside Bridge, bike use tripled from 300 daily cyclists to about 1,000 once the improvements were made. In 2012, over 2,000 daily bicyclists were counted.
- On the Hawthorne Bridge, many improvements were made over a multi-year period. The most significant jump in use occurred in 1999 after the sidewalks were widened, from about 2,400 cyclists to over 3,100a 32 percent increase in one year. Today, this bridge remains the most heavily used by bicyclists, registering over 8,000 trips per day in 2012.
- On the Broadway Bridge, a 54 percent increase in cycling occurred the year after the major improvements were made. Bicycle counts from summer 2012 showed that over 4,400 bicyclists were taking trips over the bridge per day.
- On the Steel Bridge, bike use went up 220 percent after the Steel Bridge Riverwalk and Eastbank Esplanade opened in May 2001. Before the project, only 410 bicyclists were counted using the Steel Bridge; in 2012, over eight times as many bicyclists were counted.
- The first counts on Morrison Bridge taken in 2012 showed 860 bicyclists per day.
Figure 2: Results of bicycle counts on downtown Portland bridges, 1992-2012
Methods used to count bicyclists have become more sophisticated. In August 2012, PBOT and Multnomah County partnered to add a permanent, 24-hour bike counter to the Hawthorne Bridge. Known as the "bike barometer," the counter records the number of bicyclists every day, posting each day's counts to a website. At just over a year following its installation in 2012, the counter registered its two millionth trip. Data from the bike counter show that bicyclists account for almost 20 percent of all traffic on the bridge.
The increase in bicycle infrastructure, along with the greater number of bicyclists, has led to a steady decrease in the crash rate since the early 1990s.
Figure 3: Bicycle Crash Index, bridge locations, 1991-2012.
Source: City of Portland, 2013
Conclusions and Recommendations
Improvements to make Portland bridges attractive for bicyclists have been cited as a major factor in the increase in bicycling in Portland. From 1992 to 2008, bicycle commuter trips increased from less than one percent to about seven percent of all commute trips, making Portland one of the cities with the highest percentage of work trips, by bicycle, in the United States.
A key to the heavy and increasing concentration of bicyclists on the Hawthorne, Steel, and Broadway bridges as opposed to the Burnside and other bridges is that on these three bridges spans, bicyclists are off-street on either wide sidewalks or shared-use paths, with bike lanes on the approaches. In addition, the city added bicycle lanes to all streets connecting to the Hawthorne, Steel, and Broadway bridges, overcoming a major hurdle in getting people to the bridges. In contrast, on the Burnside Bridge, cyclists operate in striped bicycle lanes adjacent to traffic, which is uncomfortable for some cyclists.
Two new projects promise to further improve bicycle connectivity across the Willamette River. A new bridge for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge, is scheduled to open in fall 2015, providing access between the Springwater Trail and the South Waterfront neighborhood. Fourteen-foot shared-use paths will be built on each side of the bridge. The bridge will cost approximately $134.6 million and represent an important investment in transit, pedestrian, and bicycling infrastructure. And in South Portland, the Sellwood Bridge will reopen in 2015 following its replacement. The new bridge will feature two 12-foot shared use sidewalks and two 6.5-foot bike lanes.
City of Portland Bureau of Transportation
City of Portland. Portland Bicycle Count Report 2012. 2013. Available: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/448401
Hannah-Jones, N. Morrison Bridge path construction starts today. The Oregonian, 26 March 2009. Available: http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2009/03/morrison_bridge_path_construct.html
Killen, J. Hawthorne Bridge gets new bike and pedestrian lane striping. The Oregonian, 10 October 2013. Available: /hawthorne_bridge_gets_new_bike.html>http://www.oregonlive.com/cycling/index.ssf/2013/10/hawthorne_bridge_gets_new_bike.html
Maus, J. First look: New green bike lanes in Rose Quarter Transit Center. BikePortland.org, 15 October 2008. Available: http://bikeportland.org/2008/10/15/first-look-new-green-bike-lanes-in-rose-quarter-transit-center-9469
Maus, J. Wider bike lanes on NW Broadway ramp. BikePortland.org, 2 July 2013. Available: http://bikeportland.org/2013/07/02/first-look-wider-bike-lanes-on-nw-broadway-ramp-89573
Maus, J. Hawthorne Bridge counter logs 2 million trips in just over a year. BikePortland.org, September 2013. Available: http://bikeportland.org/2013/09/26/hawthorne-bridge-counter-logs-over-2-million-trips-in-just-over-one-year-94524
Multnomah County. Morrison Bridge Bicycle and Pedestrian Improvement Project. 2013. Available: http://web.multco.us/bridges/morrison-bridge-bicycle-and-pedestrian-improvement-project
Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project. Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge to bring new options for transit, cyclists, and pedestrians. 2013. Available: http://trimet.org/pdfs/pm/Fact-sheets-timelines/PMLR_Bridge_Fact_Sheet_Aug2013.pdf
Wolfe, M., J. Fischer, C. Deslauriers, S. Ngai, and M. Bullard. Final Report: Bike Scramble Signal at N. Interstate & Oregon. November 2006. Available: http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~monserec/courses/urbantrans/projects/ce454_bikescram_rpt.pdf