The battle on the bridge

The Hawthorne Bridge is the most popular way of getting across the Willamette River for bicyclists and walkers. Some 2,500 cyclists cross it every day and similar numbers of pedestrians do the same. On the bridge, it seems like either bicyclists are prevented from getting to the other side by a blockade of walkers, or a spandex-clad bicyclist swoops within six inches of a walker at breakneck speeds.

So when fresh lines marking separate sides for bike riders and walkers went in around Thanksgiving, many thought a solution had been found.

“It’s a solution, but it’s not a perfect solution,” said Elicia Cardenas. Cardenas is the vice chair of the Bicycle Advisory Committee and a bicycle and pedestrian safety teacher for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Sitting on the BAC gives her a good perspective on these sorts of things as the group advises the city in all matters relating to bikes. The problem: the bridge is in the county’s charge.

Last summer, Multnomah County formed a committee made up of various pedestrian and cyclist groups from around the city to review the situation on the Hawthorne Bridge. The group approved the county’s plan to remove the pre-existing speed bumps and also the planned installation of a clearly marked bike lane, separating bicyclists from pedestrians.

“The changes were done in part to slow bicyclists down,” said Matt Larsen, transportation planning specialist for the county.

The problems between cyclists and pedestrians on the Hawthorne Bridge go back to 1999, when the bridge reopened after a major 13-month renovation. The bridge experienced a widening of its sidewalks and “modifications to the approaches to improve bike/ped accessibility,” according to David Evan and Associates, the company that did the engineering.

Before this, “cyclists were dominant,” Larsen said.

In 2001, the sidewalks on the bridge were connected to the Eastbank Esplanade, near the pillars of the Marquam Bridge. This action created greater accessibility for bicyclists and walkers, but the access was on a blind corner.

“Speed, congestion and limited sight distance” were the three factors making a dangerous intersection and the complaints started pouring in, Larsen said.

In 2003, rumble strips were put in. These bike-sized speed bumps made of triple-height thermo-plastic were put in to stem the problem of bike speed.

“Everyone hated the speed bumps,” said Cardenas. She said that no data was gathered on bike speed. “All they had was anecdotal evidence.”

According to Eben Saling, the alternative transportation coordinator at Portland State and an alternate member on the BAC, Larsen got complaints from the bike community about the rumble strips, “but his answer was, ‘I’m not going to pick them up.’ Basically, he put people off for a couple of years.”

When the county decided to pull up the speed bumps and lay down the new bike lane markings, the reactions were mixed among the bike community.

“It’s too skinny,” Cardenas said. She said that a bike trailer or trike would definitely not fit in the lane and it is simply a bad design. “It’s never been reviewed by an engineer.”

But, according to Larsen, that was the point. The lane is thin and painted in a way to give the appearance of a dangerous curve, slowing cyclists down before the intersection of the esplanade and the bridge.

Before the bridge crosses the river and the esplanade, the bike lane ramps cyclists on to the sidewalk. Before the new modifications, bikes could ride anywhere on the bridge’s sidewalk. Now the ramp feeds bikes directly into a clearly marked bike lane that continues past the intersection where the esplanade meets. Right before crossing the river, the bike lane disappears and icons appear on the sidewalk, instructing cyclists to stay on the road side of the walk and pedestrians to keep to the river side.

Aside from the bike lane, cyclists are in agreement that the separation of walkers and riders is a good thing. “I like the separation everywhere else,” Cardenas said.

When asked what she would do to fix what in her mind is an imperfect design, Cardenas said she would widen it and get rid of the thermo-plastic border, which she says is too slick, and replace it with reflective paint. But she’s doubtful that any further changes will be made.

“It’s not the end of it, there will be a review,” Larsen said. “But I don’t see anything happening right away.”