Monday, August 11, 2008

Bridge Pedal: Credit where it's due

I'll admit it freely: I was wrong.

Last year, I thought the signature Portland charity cycling event had hit its tipping point:

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.

I was wrong not because I thought the problem had gotten out of hand--no, it pretty clearly had become a mess--but because I really didn't think that the planners could do anything much about it. Every proposed solution seemed either logistically unworkable (close off even more traffic lanes, or let the event run longer) or contrary to the spirit of the event (limit the event to strong riders, or raise the entry fee to decrease attendance).

Here's what the planners set out to do to make it work this year without giving up the all-levels nature of the event, or making unreasonable demands on ODOT, TriMet, Portland police, and city drivers:

  • More room on the road, including two full lanes for biking on the Ross Island Bridge
  • Adjusted start times to avoid merging of multiple cyclist groups
  • A more challenging option: The 11-Bridge Ride starting on the east end of the Fremont Bridge.
  • A new, family-friendly registration fee for the 6-Bridge Family Ride: four riders for $50

  • I did the 11-bridge ride ("more challenging"--hah! More on that little euphemism in a minute.), and although it felt odd starting off at NE Cook and Kirby instead of Naito as in years past, the long route had one advantage that showed itself almost immediately: By beginning the route with the Fremont Bridge, then a long multi-lane stretch down the West Side on 405, then over the Marquam Bridge, then another fairly long straight stretch down 99 to the Sellwood Bridge, organizers gave the thousands of riders plenty of opportunity to thin out: The riders who, after all these years, still think the object of the Bridge Pedal is to win could move ahead, and the people who had to gear 'way down for the two 405 bridges could go at their own pace. The result was less congestion, beginning early in the ride, compared to previous years when the pack was immediately thrown onto side streets and downtown bridge crossings for the first several miles, giving them little chance to thin out.

    As a result, Portland got to have its cake and eat it too: It was still a big, honking, inclusive event, but it was pretty much free from the congestion and delay that had begun to rain on the parade in recent years.

    So: Thanks to all the planners, especially the volunteers and staff at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (of which I'm proud to be a member), and the event sponsors, and all the city and Metro agencies that made this thing work. The praise from participants has been fulsome, and the complaints few and far between. I didn't think it could be done, but I was wrong.

    Oh yeah. About that "challenging" thing: Since the Steel Bridge was closed for repair, and the route planners felt some responsibility to give those on the long ride their money's worth while still making the route end up downtown rather than at, say, Skappoose, the route went over the Fremont and Marquam bridges each twice. Congratulations, guys; you managed to make it a challenge.

    Helmets off to the BTA and its volunteers--especially the ones who clap and cheer at the finish line. It's got to take some stamina to yell "woo-hoo!" as the 20,000th rider comes in, and still make it sound just as sincere as when the first riders come in.

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