Hawthorne Bridge discussion gets thorny

Riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is rarely a better choice than riding in the street, but it is better on the Hawthorne bridge in Portland, Oregon, which has a narrow roadway with a treacherous steel-grid deck.

I first rode across this bridge in 1987. As of my more recent exploration of the bridge in September, 2008, the sidewalks have been widened significantly, and the routes to and from them greatly improved.

My friend Kat Iverson rode behind me with her helmet camera and shot the 5-minute video which you may view here.

More recently yet, I have read a blog posting by Mark Stosberg about the bridge. He and I agree that riding on the sidewalk is a necessary evil in this situation. He even links to my Web site as a reference. He states correctly that there are “no roads or driveways to cross on the bridge while traveling westbound.”

But just about there, my agreement with him begins to fade.

He says that “[o]n the Hawthorne bridge sidepath there are zero conflict points between bikes and cars.” That’s only so when traveling westbound or when connecting to riverfront paths. Still, despite the conflict points for eastbound travelers, I regard the hazards from crossing and turning traffic as much fewer and less serious here than in more typical sidepath installations.

Mr. Stosberg also says that “the curb physically separates the bike traffic from the cars, providing extra safety and security compared to a painted stripe on the road.” What’s the point of this comparison? There was no such choice to make, with the limited roadway width and grid deck. Beyond the ends of the grid deck, however, bicyclists are directed to the roadway, where there is a painted stripe. Apparently, the Portland authorities’ judgment of security and safety put bicyclists on the sidewalks only where unavoidable.

The words “physically separated” sound comforting. But they can be deceptively so. Let’s not just repeat comforting words — let’s instead examine the separation on the Hawthorne Bridge, and the security and safety it provides.

Only very rarely, in a crash, would a motor vehicle mount the bridge’s unusually-high curb onto the sidewalk. But on the other hand, a bicyclist straying off the sidewalk and down the curb would be very unlikely to stay upright, and would be at risk of being run over by a motor vehicle. The riskiness of riding on the sidewalk is increased by the presence of pedestrians, whose movements are unpredictable, and by bicyclists’ designated line of travel close to the curb.

Mr. Stosberg’s blog posting does not mention these hazards. And the photo with the posting shows, not the bridge roadway and sidewalk, but instead, a location just beyond its end, where the roadway is wider and paved with asphalt, and the curb is much lower.

Despite the many improvements that have been made to the Hawthorne Bridge, it shows some major compromises to safe design, mostly due to pre-existing conditions. People contemplating using the bridge, government officials charged with building facilities, and the public which elects the officials and pays for the projects benefit from frank and open discussion of the hazards..

Possible safety improvements would include making pedestrian traffic one-way opposite the direction of bicyclists on each sidewalk — if that could be enforced; or installing a barrier between the sidewalk and the roadway — but that would be expensive.

For more information about the Hawthorne Bridge, I commend readers to photos and additional comments which I have posted, and to this video of a ride across the bridge.

Mr. Stosberg is welcome to post a response to this posting. So are you.

3 responses to “Hawthorne Bridge discussion gets thorny

  1. Atfer I wrote the article above and posted the video, a bicyclist did go off the curb onto the bridge deck, as I expected would happen. Very fortunately, the first car approaching was able to stop in time to avoid crushing the bicyclist. See the report on the bikeportland blog.

    Some other videos of riding across the Hawthorne Bridge

    In the snow — realistic, no commentary.

    Motorist’s view

    Streetfilms, shows rush hour traffic but is typically gimmicky, promotional and emotional in tone; only one comment addresses safety issue — “we need more space.”

    Watch bicyclists and listen to Edith Piaf sing La Vie en Rose

    Westbound ride, no music, no commentary, actual sounds of the ride

  2. It is odd to me they didn’t include a nice buffer to keep someone off the bridge deck. It’s a big drop and hard to get back up. Why not put in a barrier? Oh well…

    Sort of Portland though. Why go 100% of the way when you can go 95%?

    • Problem with a buffer is that the 100-year-old bridge has only so much width to work with. Any fence would decrease the usable width of shared bicycle/pedestrian way. I’m sure that Portland would like to avoid these hazards but that would require replacing the bridge. at some time, it will have to be replaced. In the mean time, safety is compromised. What I find most disconcerting about this is people who dismiss the problem rather than acknowledging it, as in the Streetfilms video I linked to in my earlier message.

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