Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most of whom are not down on the real road where I ride. They seem to prefer the elevated sidewalks (one on each side of the bridge) that separate the main roadway from the ornate metalwork that otherwise would be the only deterrent to plunging over the side if a vehicle were to careen out of control.

Maybe the sidewalk’s the better place to make the crossing, I have sometimes thought. On this week’s training ride, I decided to give it a try.

The approaches at both ends are well engineered for easy entering and leaving. The sidewalk is about the width of older style bike lanes, perhaps five or six feet wide. It is smooth concrete. At the two towers, however, cyclists have to dismount to follow the sidewalk that twists around on the river side and then get back on their bikes and regain their momentum.

Out of the corner of one eye, I glimpsed the river far below. On foot, it might have been OK, but on my bike 205 feet above the navigation channel I felt squeamish.

On the highway side of the pedestrian walkway, there is no screen or barricade; instead, a sheer drop of about a foot to the traffic lanes, with virtually no shoulder or buffer. Even the slightest loss of concentration or control and cyclists would ride off the edge and sprawl across the roadway. There’s no way for drivers to anticipate such an event and make allowances. The inevitable result is not pleasant to think about.

When I’m down on the real road, mixing it up with the big guys, they can see me up ahead and drift over a little to go around. If the next lane is occupied, drivers—even of the eighteen-wheelers—can slow down until the way is clear to maneuver around me.

On the roadway, I’m anxious. On the sidewalk, I’m scared to death. Where do you think I’ll ride from now on when I cross the St. Johns Bridge?

Note: Although its gestation was longer than mine, the St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year. For a brief account of its beginning, click here. During a three-year period, beginning in March 2003, the bridge was substantially restored and improved. An interesting account of that project can be accessed by clicking here.

6 Responses to Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

  1. Steve says:

    Wow. My hat is off to you for attempting ANY crossing of that bridge. I can only imagine how much dicier it gets when there is a strong breeze blowing!

  2. Steve, the bridge’s location helps to keep the traffic tamed. On both sides the road comes to the bridge with a 90 degree turn and there are traffic lights, which means that most drivers start onto the bridge from a stopped or very slow position. From both ends it’s up hill a little. Of course the rise in the road affects cyclists, too. This is one trip I only make in broad daylight.

  3. Liisa Fagerlund says:

    Hi Keith–I rode my bike across the St. Johns Bridge a time or two when I was working in N. Portland (Columbia Blvd.). I rode the sidewalk and it was as harry as you describe. I tried to ride around the stanchions and made the first one but fell on the second. It wasn’t until I started up the hill towards Monkey Wards that I realized that my gears were fouled up and I couldn’t shift down. It didn’t encourage me to make that commute a frequent occurance. Liisa

  4. Bob Cornwall says:

    I’ve not tried to bike that bridge, but have been across it a couple of times — when my brother lived in the St. John’s neighborhood. All I can say is it’s a long drop to the river!

  5. Reblogged this on Keith Watkins Historian and commented:

    The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it bout twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchel Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

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