Monday, August 13, 2007

The Bridge Pedal hits its tipping point

Yesterday was the Providence Bridge Pedal, the annual charity ride over all ten bridges over the Willamette River with 20,000 of your closest friends.

This was the year that the Bridge Pedal reached the point where it's less fun than hassle. I get no joy in saying that, because I've had a great time with the ride over the last several years.

Organizers have done their best to tackle the congestion problems, most notably by scattering the starting lines to different points along the ride for the different rides (6, 8, and 10 bridges). They've also gone for wider access ways when possible--like replacing the scenic bottleneck of the Springwater path with the 99E viaduct as the link to the Sellwood bridge.

The volunteers were everywhere you'd want them to be on the route, and the police were out in force with their trademark politely wry grins to keep the dodgier intersections safe.

Drivers seemed a bit more courteous and forgiving this year. Even the riders seemed to be a little more careful this year--I saw far fewer cases of riders passing slower riders by darting left into the oncoming traffic lanes, etc.

Nevertheless, it was a disappointment for many, and I think the reason is clear: Twenty thousand riders--the population of Ashland, OR--in one morning is simply too many. No amount of logistical planning can get that many people through that course in that amount of time. The Bridge Pedal is a victim of its own success.

You can forgive the fact that many riders were still having to walk their bikes over the Hawthorne Bridge, the first bridge on the route--it naturally takes a long time to get that many riders, going off the line at two-minute intervals, up to road speed.

You might be able to forgive the 5-10 minute tie-up to get onto 99E from the Caruthers Landing area.

But the wait at the east end of the Ross Island Bridge was about 45 minutes at some points during the morning. Riders were good sports about it for the most part--I watched them organize The Wave, winding back along the course from Powell back toward Division. But nobody gets up at that hour just to stand around in full biking kit with a thousand other riders while daylight burns.

(It didn't help that it never got very warm Sunday morning, so just about the time you'd get warmed up on the bike, you'd stop and stand and duck shuffle along for a while, so that you could actually hear your muscles tightening up again.)

And then, to ice the cake, by the time we got across the 8th bridge, the Fremont, ODOT was already turning riders back to the finish line. The long loop up to the St. John's Bridge was closed so that traffic lanes could start opening up again. That was at around 11:30am (our team had a 7:30am start time, although we were a little late). That was doubly ironic, since that loop is where the 6- and 8-bridge riders turn back, so it tends to be stronger riders, with a lot of straight stretches in which to spread out and finally get rid of a lot of the congestion. And the ride along the bluffs on Willamette Boulevard is one of the high points of the ride.

I heard a lot of suggestions--everyone had enough free time to formulate several theories. None of them, though, seems very practical:

Many suggested lengthening the time for the event, so riders can more easily spread out along the route. I'm not sure what would induce ODOT (or Portland drivers) to put up with more than the half-day of restricted traffic flow we already have.

Same with claiming all lanes of the bridges where bikes now get half, such as the Ross Island, where east-bound auto traffic continued. Shutting down those bridges both directions, even for a Saturday morning, is a recipe for riot.

We can't limit, exclude, separate riders by skill or speed level--the whole point is that this is a family event. Besides, even 20,000 Alberto Contadors would still be stuck at the east end of the Ross Island Bridge; they'd just get there sooner.

The bottom line is that you really can't get 20,000 riders through that course in the available time. It's no one's fault.


Jim said...

My wife and I had a family thing to do so we weren't planning on going this year. We are (were) planning on next year.

Sounds like they're going to have to have a cut-off a week or two in advance. Or raise the price but it seems more reasonable to have a cut-off.

Nice post. Found it via

carla said...

How about just accepting only the first 10,000 applications?

Nothstine said...

Capping the number of riders strikes me as probably the least undesirable option. [Of course, this year I registered at 5 minutes before registration closed, so I'd have been toast under the new system.]

Capping registration would also cap the amount of money that Providence and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance would be able to raise from the event.

On the other hand: In the Oregonian article about it today [I talked to the reporter, but she couldn't track me down until after deadline--bummer], event director Rick Bauman was quoted:

Bauman said organizers and state
and local authorities will meet
to discuss ways to improve the
event, and may consider a cap on

Bauman is personally against the
idea, saying that he thinks it
would create an "exclusiveness"
that he doesn't like.

So we'll just have to see what they come up with. Could be a registration cap, could be keeping a limited number of traffic lanes open for a longer time, could be making a larger number of traffic lanes available for the usual time. Or it could be something else I haven't thought of.

Stay tuned.