#2 – A Tale of Portland Bridges

Portland, Oregon

Mia Birk, Principal, Alta Planning + Design
With assistance from Jeff Smith, City of Portland Transportation Options


Figure 1: Key Portland Bridges. Blue: bike lanes. Purple: shared use paths. Green: shared roadways.

Broadway Bridge, 1992: Westside, westbound. Bike signal, no bike lanes.

Broadway Bridge, 2002: Westside, westbound. New bike signal splits bike movements.

Bike lanes on approaches and connecting streets.

Before: Steel Bridge, upper deck. Bicyclists and pedestrians sharing one 1.5-m (5-ft) sidewalk with guardrail.

There are 10 bridges spanning Portland’s Willamette River, which cuts through the heart of Portland and provides social, economic, and recreational benefits. The Willamette River bridges connect the city’s east and west sides — on the west side is Portland’s vibrant and economically critical downtown and on the east side are light industries, emerging business districts and pedestrian and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods. The bridges simply are critical for mobility (see map, figure 1). They include five local bridges providing downtown access (Hawthorne, Morrison, Burnside, Steel and Broadway), three other local bridges (Ross Island, Sellwood, and St. Johns), and two limited-access freeways (Fremont and Marquam). Multnomah County is responsible for five of the bridges, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) for four, and the Union Pacific Railroad for one. The city of Portland is responsible for installing signs, striping, and facilitating access to all bridges.

Eight bridges (all but the limited-access freeways) provide some level of pedestrian and bicycle access (see table 1). In the early 1990s, a year-long partial closure of the Hawthorne Bridge galvanized cycle advocates to press for access during the closure. At the same time, the city embarked upon a major program to engage cyclists and potential cyclists in a dialogue about ways to increase cycling as a means of transportation. Overwhelmingly, improvements to the bridges’ approaches and spans were seen as the highest priority because of the poor bicycle and pedestrian conditions.

At the time, the eight non-freeway bridges were a major barrier for pedestrian and bicycle travel. Bicyclists and pedestrians shared narrow sidewalks, and all bridges had access problems, such as the following:

On two bridges (Sellwood and Steel), the sidewalks were so narrow that bicyclists were supposed 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 3 m (10 ft)–wide outside travel lanes on a six-lane span. On three other downtown bridges, sharing the travel lanes was (and still is) a dangerous undertaking given the narrow lane widths, traffic volume and speeds and sight distance. On three non-downtown bridges, sharing lanes meant bicycling on slippery grating (not a good option in rainy Portland).

These problems translated to low bicycle and pedestrian use of the bridge. Surveys of cyclists 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 ISTEA-funded study called the Willamette River Bridges Access Project (WRBAP). Consultants CH2MHill identified over $15 million in potential bicycle, pedestrian, and ADA improvements. The city and county subsequently implemented many of these via grants from ODOT, ISTEA, and through routine city of Portland, Multnomah County, and ODOT bridge and approach maintenance work.


Over $12 million worth of improvements have been implemented, primarily on four of the downtown bridges — Hawthorne, Burnside, Steel, and Broadway. Preliminary design for improvements on the fifth downtown bridge — Morrison — is underway as of fall 2002. Limited improvements were suggested for the Sellwood, St. Johns, and Ross Island bridges; no major improvements have resulted. The measures implemented on the four main bridges are shown in the photos below and described for each bridge in table 1.

The measures include:

It should be noted that many of the improvements were made in conjunction with other bridge upgrade or reconstruction projects; thus costs for specific bike and pedestrian improvements are not always available. Also note that the City used blue pavement areas in bike and motor vehicle conflict areas on the approaches from the eastside for two bridges (Broadway and Hawthorne). Blue bike lanes as a safety technique are discussed in the City of Portland publication, Blue Bike Lanes for Cycling Safety (City of Portland, 1997).

Table 1: Bridge countermeasures, costs, funding sources
Bridge Owner2 Status Before Measures Implemented Cost Funding Source
Hawthorne* Multnomah County Cyclists and pedestrians sharing 1.8 m (6 ft)–wide sidewalks. No bike lanes and minimal sidewalks on approaches. Bicyclists shared roadway or used sidewalks to access. Problematic interaction between cyclists and motor vehicles in several areas.
Sidewalks widened to 3 m (10 ft) on each side. Bike lanes striped on all approaches. Sidewalk in-fill on approaches. Curb ramps rebuilt to meet ADA. Eastbound approach, Westside: First ramp from Naito Parkway closed, eliminating conflict area. Second ramp reconfigured to force motorists to stop and give cyclists and pedestrians priority, separate bike and pedestrian crossing areas. Blue bike lanes introduced in conflict zones on east side.

Sidewalk widening: $1.2 million

Other changes: $200,000

ODOT Bike/Ped Grants, TEA-21 STP funding
Burnside* Multnomah County Bikes and pedestrians on 3 m (10 ft)–wide sidewalks. Bike access via surface street without bike lanes. Deck restriped with bike lanes by removing one travel lane in non-peak direction $20,000 Local transportation funding
Steel* Upper Deck: Multnomah County.
Lower Deck: Union Pacific Railroad
Bikes and pedestrians sharing about 1.5 m (5 ft) sidewalk on south side, upper deck. Some cyclists on roadway. New 3.7 m (12 ft) bike and pedestrian path added to lower deck, along with new shared-use path (Eastbank Esplanade) and bike lanes on eastside approaches. “Bikes on roadway” signs on upper deck. $10 million ISTEA & TEA-21 Enhancements, local tax increment financing
Broadway* Multnomah County Bikes and pedestrians on 3 m (10 ft)–wide sidewalks with slippery surface. No bike lanes on connecting surface streets. Approaches with numerous ill-defined conflict areas.
Sidewalk surface replaced (sidewalk width same). Bike lanes added to all connecting surface streets and ramps. Conflict areas on approaches modified and defined (by blue bike areas in two cases).
$300,000 Multnomah County & Portland transportation funding
Sellwood Multnomah County Bikes and pedestrians on 1.2 m (4 ft)–wide sidewalk on one side. Very constrained. Access from eastside via surface street without bike lanes. Access from Westside via shared use path.
None. Bridge to be rebuilt within 20 years    
St. Johns ODOT Bikes and pedestrians on narrow 1.2 m (4 ft)–wide sidewalks.Access horrible via major highway. None. ODOT studying restriping potential.    
Ross Island ODOT Bikes and pedestrians on 1.2 m (4 ft)–wide sidewalk on one side. Very constrained. Access from westside near impossible. Access from eastside via crowded surface streets without bike lanes.
Bridge rebuilt, but bikes & pedestrians still share narrow sidewalk. No improvements made.
Morrison* Multnomah County Bikes and pedestrians on narrow sidewalks. Very constrained. Dangerous conflict areas at highway ramps.
Preliminary design study underway as of fall 2002 $250,000 TEA-21
2 On all bridges, approaches, signing, and striping controlled by the city of Portland
* Connects eastside to downtown Portland.

After: Steel Bridge Riverwalk on lower deck. It's a cantilevered 3-m (10-ft) shared use path connecting to paths on either side.

Hawthorne Bridge westside, eastbound, before improvements made.

Evaluation and Results

The city of Portland collected bicycle counts on the bridges over time, as shown in figure 2 and table 2. These counts are based on the daily peak two-hour period, and thus primarily reflect commute trips. The counts show an enormous increase over time in bicycle use on the four main bridges, while in comparison, counts for the bridges without bicycle access improvements remain extremely low. Recreational trips have increased enormously as well. Joggers and cyclists frequently use the Hawthorne and Steel bridges and their connecting paths as a downtown exercise loop during the day and on weekends.

A clear link can be made between the increased bike use and improved facilities on the four bridges discussed. 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:

Figure 2: Bridge Bicycle Traffic


Table 2: Bridge Bicycle Traffic
  before 1990 1990-92 1993-94 1995-96 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
Hawthorne Bridge 830 1445 1920 2040 2025 24713 31544 3125 3675
Burnside Bridge 3001 6001 9952 1065 1375 905 920 1075 965
Broadway Bridge 495 755 715 950 1205 18545 14766 14057 16257
Steel Bridge 215 220 350 475 350 360 410 13128
Totals 1825 3015 3850 4405 5080 5580 5910 6015 7577
Ross Island Bridge* 100 90
Morrison Bridge* 100 100
Sellwood* 260 315

Notes: counts are either from 24-hour hose counts, or from extrapolated 4 to 6 PM manual counts (estimated at 20 percent of total daily bicycle volume based on 24-hour video and manual verification). Where more than one count is available in a given year, counts are averaged. All counts taken in the summer months, on good weather weekdays.

* No significant bike and pedestrian improvements made

  1. Burnside Bridge counts pre-1993 are estimates based on 7-9am counts
  2. Burnside Bridge is restriped with bike lanes on-street.
  3. Hawthorne Bridge 1998 count was conducted on the Morrison Bridge Detour, as the Hawthorne was closed
  4. Hawthorne Bridge reopens with widened sidewalks and access improvements
  5. Broadway Bridge sidewalks resurfaced, eastside approaches improved, westbound bike lanes added to Lovejoy Ramp
  6. Broadway Bridge 1999 count conducted during Lovejoy ramp demolition
  7. Lovejoy Ramp not yet open
  8. Steel Bridge Riverwalk opens

Hawthorne Bridge westside, eastbound, after improvements made.

Before: Eastbound Hawthorne Bridge access to sidewalks — bicyclists make sharp turn, yield to motorists. Note 1.8-m (6-ft)-wide sidewalks.

After: Eastbound Hawthorne Bridge access to sidewalks — bicyclists proceed straight, motorists yield, Note 3.2-m (10.5-ft)-wide sidewalks.

Hawthorne Bridge: Bike lanes added on all approaches. Bike lanes added to all connecting streets: SW Main, SW Madison, SE Hawthorne, SE Madison. Blue bike area used at areas where motorists cross bicycle lane.

Blue area on eastbound viaduct at off-ramp.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This decade-long effort has been a major factor in Portland’s increasing bicycle use because of the crucial links these bridges provide into downtown. It also has been positive for pedestrians and people with disabilities, for several reasons: :

The most dramatic and expensive improvements have had the most significant impact. Relatively low-cost improvements such as the blue bike markings in conflict zones, bike lanes on certain approaches, and signs were not as significant to increasing bike use as were the major cost items, such as providing a new shared-use path, widening the sidewalk, and replacing sidewalk surfaces and approaches. For example, bike use on the Burnside Bridge tripled when bike lanes were installed in 1993 (at a cost of $20,000), but has remained flat since that time at less than 1,000 daily cyclists. In comparison, bike use on the Hawthorne Bridge tripled to more than 3,000 daily cyclists because of the much-improved sidewalks and access improvements (at a cost of more than $1.3 million). Similar increases were seen on Broadway Bridge (a cost of $300,000) and Steel Bridge (a cost of more than $10 million) following improvements.

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. And, there are no connecting bike lanes on the approaches or connecting streets.

Costs and Funding

The total cost of bridge improvements to date is over $12 million, funded through a variety of sources (see table 1 above).


Mia Birk
Principal, Alta Planning + Design
3604 SE Lincoln St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 230-9862

1 Mia Birk was the Bicycle Program Manager for the City of Portland from 1993–1999.