April 30, 2012

St. Johns Bridge – Portland, How About A Warning?

by Peter Herreid

During our stay in Portland, one day we had biked a nice tour of the NE bike boulevards, or “neighborhood greenways” as they are referred to locally, and wanted to cross the Willamette River to get to Forest Park. The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s bike map, which had till then faithfully served us, showed St. Johns Bridge as having a “multi-use path closed to motor vehicles.” Fortunate for us we thought, because it was the only bridge up and down the river for miles, so off we went. 

Approaching the bridge, the sidewalk didn’t exactly look like a multi-use path, but the road looked too dangerous to bike, so we stuck to the sidewalk. Now, you should know that heights make me nervous. I wasn’t sitting upright on my rented Dutch bike anymore. I was tucked low, nearly into a road cyclist’s racing position. 

Before the first tower, I was walking it up the sidewalk. Although the railing was high enough above my waist that it would take a conscious decision to jump over, it was not reassuringly high above my waist. Looking down to my right, through the bars of the bridge railing I could see warehouses, docks, and boats on the Willamette, all toy-like in the distance, yet all too real. To my left I couldn’t see much, but could feel the swoosh of each passing truck and then the heavy mist of rain droplets and road wash left in its wake. I couldn’t tell if or how far the passenger side mirrors were hanging over the sidewalk, but imagined them as baseball bats swinging through the air, just feet from my head.  

Granted, I was safe walking straight ahead as I normally do, but the inescapable reminders of my own mortality to my left and to my right acted as blinders so that I walked most of the bridge looking down at the pavement immediately in front of me, taking deep breaths. The enclosed passages within the bridge towers did each provide a respite. I took the time to read all of the crude teenage graffiti lining the walls. 

St. Johns Bridge was surprisingly out of character for the bikeways we encountered in Portland. The beauty of this historic bridge would be enhanced by some decent bike accommodations. According to bikeportland.org, Portland lost out on an opportunity to rehab the bridge with decent bike and pedestrian facilities in 2005.  Hope another opportunity soon arises! In the meantime, the PBOT should put a “Scary!” warning on its bike map.  

Fortunately, Forest Park made up for the experience on St. Johns Bridge. After pushing our bikes up and up Springville Road to the park’s entrance, it was a wonderful ride through the forest with glimpses far down into the river valley. Then it was St. Johns Bridge that looked toy-like in the distance.

St. Johns Bridge in the background

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