Friday, May 23, 2008

How to walk the Ross Island Bridge and not die, if you're lucky

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Fresh off my semi-exciting semi-adventures walking across the Morrison Bridge, I thought I'd take a crack at bigger game. Thus it was time to walk across the Ross Island Bridge, once again without dying at any point in the process, and also taking a few photos (the full Flickr photoset is here) and trying to have interesting impressions of the experience to share on the Interwebs. And for some reason this seemed like a really great plan.

ross island bridge

There isn't a lot of info out on the Interwebs about walking across the Ross Island, primarily because it's a bad idea and an unattractive prospect. This bit at The Deuce of Clubs has a bunch of photos, plus a battered bust of Wagner. You know, the opera guy. So if, in the course of this post, you find yourself craving a fix of fancy 19th century Germanness and wondering why there isn't any here, you know exactly where to go. Or whatever.

ross island bridge

I'd actually walked the bridge once before, around 15 years ago. I lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood at the time, a few blocks south of Powell. For the life of me I can't recall why I tried it. It wasn't so I could blog about it; I know that much at least. I did actually have net access way back then, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to post about such a mundane thing. No, the Internet was for serious, important stuff, like the previous week's Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. But I digress. I think I just wanted to go to Powell's or something, and it was a nice sunny day, and I thought I'd walk instead of taking the bus, or trying to find a parking place in the then-dodgy industrial neighborhood around the store, better known as today's glitzy Pearl District. What I remember of the experience was that it was hot, loud, windy, and dusty, with cars, trucks, buses, semis, cement mixers, etc., whizzing by just inches away. It wasn't fun. The return trip was by bus, if that tells you anything.

So with that in mind, I set out to do it again. I'm not sure what that says about me, really.

I'm not sure it would've occurred to me to do it if I hadn't just done a post about the Morrison Bridge. Walking across the Ross Island is not an idea that readily suggests itself. The areas around both ends of the bridge are not pedestrian-friendly, by any stretch of the imagination. Just cars. The surprising bit about this is that the bridge was built way back in 1926, and the present-day approaches to the bridge date to the 1940's. That's quite early to be planning for a car-only future, and I'd be intrigued to know why they did. On the other hand, the fact kind of cramps my style a bit, since I can't blame it on the 60s and riff (semi)amusingly about monorails and jetpacks and whatnot, like I did with the Morrison. Oh, well.

Regarding the pedestrian situation, unlike the Morrison I also can't say, well, thank goodness they're going to fix it in a month or two. ODOT worked on the bridge a few years ago, and among the improvements they added a metal guardrail to keep today's humongous SUVs and so forth from crashing through the old concrete railing. But crucially, they decided to put the guardrail just on the inside of the existing railing. Which not only fails to protect pedestrians from cars, it also makes the existing sidewalk even narrower. Contrast this with the walkway on the upper deck of the Steel Bridge, for example, which places the guardrail where it should be, between vehicles and pedestrians. There's probably some traffic-engineering reason why they did it this way -- perhaps the steel bridge style makes it more likely a vehicle will rebound into traffic, other lanes, other vehicles. And if they were basing the choice on existing conditions, not too many people would've been walking the bridge at the time, so no sense in going to extra trouble to protect pedestrians who aren't even there anyway. I guess. Or it was just cheaper to do it this way. Either way, it's a choice that probably won't be revisited for a long, long time.

ross island bridge

The bridge is fairly photogenic, but that's all it has going for it. It's scary to walk across, and scary to drive across, and I cannot even imagine how scary it must be to ride a bike across it. The bridge ranks #7 at ThingsAboutPortlandThatSuck. It also figures in a funny rant at PSU's Daily Vanguard -- although I don't understand the Eminem and Insane Clown Posse references. (Kids these days...) Elsewhere, the short description at PortlandBridges gives some idea of the traffic weirdness and complexity surrounding the bridge. An even shorter description at Home & Abroad does mention one positive thing about the bridge: "Price: Free". So there's that, at least. There's also a photo of the Ross Island on a "Portland's Bridges" post over on JGaiser's blog.

Before we get to the practical bit, a quick word on what not to do: Do not place any faith whatsoever in walking instructions from the TriMet website. It's a recipe for disaster. Here, for example, are the walking instructions from an eastbound bus stop simply known as "Ross Island Bridge" to the westbound one at SW Kelly & Corbett, which you'll pass on your way to the bridge. Here are TriMet's official government-approved instructions, which are almost poetic in their terseness:

Walk a short distance west on SW Ross Island Brg-naito Pkwy Ramp.
Turn right on SW Water Ave.

Walk a short distance north on SW Water Ave.
Turn right on SW Woods St.
Walk a short distance east on SW Woods St.
Bear left on SW Corbett Ave.
Walk a short distance north on SW Corbett Ave.
Turn right on SW Porter St.
Walk a short distance east on SW Porter St.
Turn left on SW Ross Island Brg-kelly Ave Ramp.
Walk a short distance north on SW Ross Island Brg-kelly Ave Ramp.
Total walking is 0.23 miles.

Sounds reasonably straightforward, except that the underlined bits involve darting through traffic, and probably dying. You really, really, really don't want to do this. Ah, the danger and menace lurking in such innocuous words.

Anyway, let's get to walking. The problems with walking the bridge are threefold: The western approach to the bridge, the bridge itself, and the eastern approach to the bridge. In other words, the whole damn thing. I walked west to east this time, so we'll go that way. Before you can experience the wind, dust, noise, and grime that is the Ross Island Experience, you first have to get to the damn bridge. Let's start around SW 1st & Arthur. That's about the last point you can get to easily, and by following the normal city street grid. If you were in a car and wanted to go east, you'd follow the "Ross Island Bridge" signs -- the ramp up on to (or sorta on to) Naito for a couple of blocks heading south, then a tight curve through an underpass (sorta on Grover St., but not really), and finally a straight shot onto the bridge, albeit with traffic merging on from all directions. If you're walking, ignore the "Ross Island Bridge" signs. You can't go that way. It'd work out if there was a sidewalk on the south side of the bridge, but there isn't. There just isn't. So you basically need to go the way westbound traffic is coming from. If at any point the traffic closest to you is heading the same way you are, you're going the wrong way.

So at 1st and Arthur, you want to be on the corner with the LaGrand Industrial Supply building. Walk east, under the Naito overpass. Just past the overpass there's a corner with a ramp that lets westbound traffic from the bridge get onto Naito going north. Be careful. People who use this are going full speed coming off the bridge, and are expecting to keep going full speed for a while on Naito, and they aren't expecting you to be there. Wait for a nice big gap, and cross when it's "safe". If it's anywhere near rush hour, this may take a while.

Once you're across, you'll see the ominous north entrance to the Arthur St. Tunnel, which is a blog post in itself. Ignore it, unless you're up for an alarming side trip. Arthur becomes Kelly Avenue and makes a clean break with the city street grid, heading sorta-diagonally toward the bridge. So you head SE for a few blocks, crossing a few not-very-busy streets. Then you get to the next obstacle, the ramp where northbound traffic from Macadam merges onto Kelly. Again, watch out. Drivers aren't expecting you to be there, and the fact that you are is liable to make them surly. Once you've crossed that, eventually, you've entered the bridge interchange proper. Here you'll find the "SW Kelly & Corbett" bus stop I mentioned, the purpose of which I can't fathom. It's not exactly easy to get to, and doesn't really connect to anything. I have actually seen people waiting for a bus here, but I don't know where they came from or why. Possibly they were on a previous bus and got off here by mistake, and could only stand around and wait to be rescued by the next bus.

ross island bridge

There's one more street to cross before the bridge, this time a curving ramp where westbound bridge traffic whips around and heads south on Hood Avenue, which eventually becomes the southbound lanes of Macadam. If it's close to rush hour at all, you can probably just give up and come back some other time, because there isn't going to be a safe gap in traffic. Note that due to the way the ramp's situated, drivers won't be able to see you very well until they're almost on top of you, and again, they won't be expecting pedestrians here. So be careful! There's no shame in deciding it's simply not worth it. I kept going, and I'm still not convinced it was worth it.

ross island bridge

Still with me? Ok. Once you're safely across, you might notice there's a stretch of new sidewalk between the "crosswalk" and the bridge proper. I think this is due to Big Pipe construction a year or two ago. One peculiar thing about it is that the new sidewalk includes a ADA-compliant curb cut, to accomodate wheelchairs and vision-impaired pedestrians (see the yellow bit in the above photo). I realize it's required by law and everything, but getting to this spot is kind of scary even with 20/20 vision and running shoes. Putting it out there as a sort of invitation almost seems sort of cruel. The sidewalk project ended at the curb cut, so I suppose whether people could actually get across the street safely was outside the scope of the project.

ross island bridge

In any case, you're past the last traffic barrier now, and now it's time for the bridge itself. As I mentioned earlier, it's a long, long way across the bridge, it's uncomfortably narrow, and there's no barrier between you and the traffic whizzing by a few feet away. It's pretty noisy and windy too, also due to the traffic. You'll get used to all of that eventually, but you'll probably also start feeling a bit impatient, in an "are we there yet?" sort of way. I know I did, at any rate. At least there's an unusual view, so you can stop and look at that when you need a break from all the monotony and trudging.

view from ross island bridge

The bridge is quite high up, to accomodate shipping traffic on the river (which for the most part no longer exists). So you'd think there'd be a pretty picture-postcard view of downtown from here, but the land below and just to the north of the bridge is derelict brownfield land, at least for the time being. Directly across the river is a riverfront cement plant. It's Portland, but not picture-postcard Portland. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advancing the usual PDX argument that industrial land, vacant areas, warehouses, and so forth all need to be turned into condo towers for the idle rich, just because I find the existing uses visually unappealing. I'm just telling you what to expect, that's all.

derelict dock, from ross island bridge

One interesting(?) thing along the west riverbank is a stretch of old pilings and planks, all that's left of a long-ago wooden dock along the river. Ok, it's not much to look at, but it's a rare remnant of the era when the Willamette was a working river this far upstream. When the powers that be get around to redeveloping the vacant land between the Ross Island and Marquam bridges, I'm sure they'll tear it all out, and put in some sort of overpriced public artwork that makes ironic reference to it. I know this because it's what always happens. So take a good look, and then get back to trudging.

ross island, from ross island bridge

One thing you won't get a good look at is Ross Island itself, because it's south of the bridge, and there's no sidewalk on that side. The photo above is about the best look you'll get. Unless, I suppose, you're in an eastbound vehicle, and you're stuck in traffic.

detail, ross island bridge

detail, ross island bridge

Here are a couple photos of the detailing on the bridge railing. You can't get that good of a look at it due to the new-ish guardrail. But hey, there's not all that much else to look at on the way across, so you might as well take a peek.

ross island bridge

This is the "summit" of the bridge. It's all downhill from here.

ross island bridge

Looking west from the "summit". You've come a long way, baby.

> tugboat & barges, ross island cement plant

As you get closer to the east bank, you'll get a closer look at that cement plant I mentioned. I realize that the fashionable Portland thing is to insist that everything vaguely industrial is horrible and icky. But admit it: If you were ever a 3-8 year old boy, at some point this was your dream job. Or at the very least you wanted a playset just like it for Christmas.

ross island cement plant

It looks straightforward enough: Gravel arrives by barge, pushed by a bright yellow tugboat. Then something industrial happens to it, and then cement leaves in bright yellow trucks.

dedication, ross island bridge

Eventually you'll get to the other side. No, really, you will. Seriously. At the east end of the bridge there's a dedication plaque to one Sherry Ross, a pioneer who settled on -- you guessed it -- Ross Island.

cherry blossoms, ross island bridge

Ooh, look! Flowers!

ross island bridge

When you get to the other side, you'll be hot, dirty, and sick and tired of trudging along six inches away from careening tractor trailers. It's time for a beer. Way past time for a beer. And since you're now on SE Powell, it turns out the first OLCC-licensed establishment you'll encounter on the east side, in fact the first structure of any kind, is the Lucky Devil strip club, recently famous (as of 2022) for the drive-thru and food delivery versions of itself during the long COVID-19 lockdown. and before that for multiple incidents of SUVs hopping the curb and smacking into the building. So while you may be off the bridge, you aren't quite out of the woods yet when it comes to vehicular peril. Continuing east the very next building, right across SE 7th, is a weed store, housed in a historic 1949 aluminum shingle warehouse (but that's a whole other blog post I haven't finished yet). So if you have out-of-town visitors who want to check off as many Portlandy tourist checkboxes as possible while they're here, you can check off two of them right here.

Or maybe three, if doing stuff they read about here (an obscure Portlandy blog you probably haven't heard of) ever becomes a big tourist thing, stuff like walking across the Ross Island Bridge. I mean, it could happen, you never know. Like, who would have ever guessed we'd become world-famous for donuts, of all things? And the best part is that you can go ahead and do it now, before it's cool. Possibly years or even decades before.


Anonymous said...

Walk across the Ross Island Bridge? Are you #%&!# crazy? I don't even like to drive across it... it's where you'll find Portland's craziest and most aggressive drivers! (especially at rush hour)

brx0 said...

Am I #%&!# crazy? Yes, most likely. After the Ross Island, I had a go at the Sellwood. Which actually wasn't so bad, since large trucks are no longer allowed over the thing and all.

Next up is the St. Johns. The post isn't done yet, but I've got some of the photos up on Flickr here.

dan said...

Last winter we found ourselves in the parking lot at SE 6th and Brooklyn on the south side of Powell. We decided to walk part of the bridge to take some photos. I thought we'd both die crossing the street before we even got to the scary part of the bridge, i.e., the sidewalk. So a relaxing stroll over the river it was not.

Anonymous said...

I once worked at the top of the Corbett ridge, and live in far SE Portland, so biking this bridge was a semi-regular occurence for me as part of my commute.

When we opened this office on Corbett about six years ago, local dignitaries including a current city council member came, and he asked me if anyone used the very nice bike facilities at our office. I said, "um, well, I do, but not to many others do yet. It's partly because biking the Ross Island bridge is so scary and the access for bikes isn't good." He turned to me and said, "so, then what did we spend all that money for to fix up the Ross Island Bridge?"

I just shrugged -- I couldn't figure it out either. Pedestrian and bike safety certainly wasn't in the budget. But that's what you get when ODOT (and not the city or county) manages road improvement projects, as I believe they did with the RIB (US 26).

John Reinhold said...

This has to be the worlds longest blog entry about a simple walk across a bridge.

Is the Ross Island Bridge a crappy walk? Yes. It is loud and dirty and windy.

Is it particularly unsafe? Not really. Not any more unsafe than any other sidewalk next to a busy street with a 45mph speed limit (of which there are hundreds in the metro area). In fact 82nd ave is the least safe place to walk in the whole city.

Are the establishments and the businesses on the east side not "civiliztion"? Brooklyn is one of the best neighborhoods in the city. Maybe not the most "posh" but a very good, quiet, normal neighborhood.

Dan - there is a reason why there is no pedestrian crossing in that spot (at 6th). The place to cross is the pedestrian bridge at SE 9th.

And it is NOT where you'll find Portland's most aggressive drivers. In fact, it is one of the only places of the city that I know of where drivers in 4 lanes of merging traffic happily "take turns" (the west side of the bridge). SE 82nd, and any of the freeway on ramps (heading to the burbs) are where you will find the aggressive drivers.

The Ross Island is not a pleasant walk or bike ride at all. But you guys sound completely like you are scared of life itself... My 7 year old is braver than you guys.


And yes, ODOT does manage the bridge, and I would agree that Pedestrian and Bike facilities are not their strong suit - but their plans for the 99E viaduct are pretty nice though... ODOT is getting better...

Sellwood is a much more pleasant bridge to walk across - traffic is slower mainly. But the incredibly tiny sidewalk with light poles and high railings makes biking across a freaking nightmare unless you ride in traffic, which presents its own issues.

Adron said...

Better idea for ya.

Board any of the quarter of a dozen buses (#9, #17, #19...) and ride across in about 2 minutes. There, all done, no freakiness, and no annoying headache from all the damnable cars. :)

brx0 said...

Mr. Reinhold:

* Yes, I realize the Ross Island isn't the only road in town that's unfriendly to pedestrians. It isn't even the only bridge in town that's hostile to pedestrians.

* If you're walking along 82nd and aren't enjoying it, you can always go a block in either direction and be on a much quieter street instead. You can't do that with the Ross Island. There are other bridges, sure, but you have to go well out of your way to use them.

* As I mentioned in the post, I used to live in Brooklyn some years ago, and I agree it's generally a nice neighborhood, despite what a few of the businesses along Powell might lead one to believe.

* The pedestrian skybridge on 9th was part of my daily walk/bike commute back then. In fact, the last photo in the post was taken from the skybridge.

* "Scared of life itself"? I don't know how to respond to that, other than, no, I'm not "scared of life itself". That's just silly.


* I rode the #9 on the way back. It's easier, unquestionably. But if I wanted easy, driving's even easier than that. Either way, though, taking photos is kind of difficult, and riding the bus across the Ross Island wouldn't make for much of a post, would it?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm attending a class tomorrow morning in SW Lincoln/3rd Ave area and I thought I'd just take a nice morning stroll across Ross Island Bridge (I've never done it before). Your post gave me a more realistic idea. Thank goodness for the internet in the post-Star Trek era! Ela

Ed H. said...

Try bicycling across the Sellwood. Really skinny lanes, and a walkway that is too skinny to start with combined with light poles taking up half the width every so often!

Alexis said...

This is a great post, not just for the description of the trek but for the quality snark and nice photos.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Sellwood comments. I've walked across the RIB without much fuss (the sidewalk is pretty wide). If you're coming from the southern part of SE portland, you either need a car to cross the river or to fight your way to the rich people's bridges

brx0 said...

I agree the Sellwood isn't exactly a pleasure to cross, and it's probably a lot worse for bikes (which is something I haven't attempted).

Walking across the Interstate Bridge is a bit of an adventure as well. At least the view's kind of interesting. And I really ought to hurry up and finish my post about walking the Glenn Jackson Bridge. Most people don't even know that's possible. I certainly didn't before I got onto this silly bridge project.

Chris Freeman said...

I found your blog through the Mercury's blog site... I live right at the end of the Ross Island bridge on the west side. I've walked and biked it a few times and regretted it each time. This post is spot-on, even two years later.

Den Mother said...

I enjoyed this post. Thanks! My experiences are similar.

I walked from downtown across the Hawthorne to my home in Sellwood a couple of years ago. Stopping at the then Sock Dreams location was a pleasant surprise, an oasis of dimly lit, muffled artyness in the midst of a hellish windy gritty trudge. I'd known Sock Dreams was there from the billboard visible from westbound lanes, but even by car I had felt too scared and confused by traffic to ever try to go in. Luckily, Sock Dreams has moved its retail store to Sellwood since then!

Getting to Powell from the Hawthorne Bridge was bad even then, before all the 99E construction began, sidewalks suddenly disappearing completely, and long long detours around industrial complexes. Also, I knew there was a pedestrian bridge, but I didn't know how to get there, which was also sketchy if memory serves. The whole experience in that general vicinity is scary as hell. Those who say you're crazy to even try must have never enjoyed walking that much or have never had the urge to see things you can't see by motorized vehicle.

Den Mother said...

p.s. I found you through!

Leila said...

Thank you for a great read. I am 71 and planning to walk each of Portland's bridges that have pedestrian access. So,thank you for the very sober heads up! I'll take it in atride when I get ready for the Ross Island trek

Legalize Swimming said...

Great read. I rode the Holgate bus across the Ross Island Bridge from the east side to my high school downtown and always was standing on a crowded bus over the Willamette and I used to worry we would fall into the river. Later, I was always nervous driving over the bridge as it was so high and going 55 mph on a narrow bridge so close to oncoming traffic scared me. I always wondered about the teeny sidewalk on just one side of the bridge, and your story really showed me why I always chose to walk or ride my bike over the Hawthorne bridge instead.
Maureen Sorrell