Caruthers Crossing: a "car-free" bridge?

By Evan Manvel of Portland, Oregon. Evan is the former executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. He is currently a political and communications consultant.

In last week's Oregonian, this front-page story talked about a new bridge in Portland, commonly referred to as the Caruthers Crossing. The story emphasized how it would be "car-free," implying that every bridge should carry every mode, and that the plans were somehow anti-car.

As a reality check, here's the run-down of how many of the 11 bridges in Portland are accessible to various modes:

Cars10 of 11 (not the Burlington Northern)
Buses and large trucks9 of 11 (not the Sellwood or Burlington Northern)
Walkers8 of 11 (though many of these aren't pleasant)
Advanced and suicidal cyclists7 of 11 (disallowed on the Marquam, Morrison, Fremont, Burlington Northern)
Beginning and non-suicidal cyclists4 of 11 (the Hawthorne, Burnside, Steel, and Broadway)
Rail transit2 of 11 (Steel, Burlington Northern)

Next, let's recall another story from a few weeks ago, noting Portland bicycle trips saw double-digit percentage growth for the fourth straight year. This trend is showing no signs of flattening, driven by increased concerns about health, gas prices, and climate change, as well as improved bike lanes, signage, and safety.

Since average cyclists can only cross four Willamette River bridges today, and none south of the Hawthorne or north of the Broadway, it's amazing that ridership is as high, and growing as fast, as it is.

Were bicycling to follow trends and grow at 14% a year (starting at about 4% of all trips), bikes would account for 20% of all trips by 2021. And were trends of the last four years to continue, every single trip will be done by bike by mid-2035 (by 2028 if last year's 19% annual growth continued).

So rather than being shocked that the new Caruthers Bridge will be car-free, we need to be asking: should we make more of the existing bridges car-free? Or at least, what can we do to ensure that the quarter of Oregonians who can't drive, and those who choose not to, have as many choices as drivers?

The transformation for isn't too difficult. The St. Johns just needs restriping. The Morrison is planned for 2008. The Sellwood just needs time before it can't hold the weight of cars. The Marquam and Fremont have space and just need a 15 MPH speed limit. And we could cantilever something off the Ross Island and Burlington Northern, similar to what the Steel Bridge has.

Maybe, just maybe, we could let one bridge be bike-free. As long as we build the "car-free" Caruthers.

  • Bob R. (unverified)

    It's even more interesting when you look at lanes rather than just bridges.

    On just the Fremont and Marquam bridges, there are 16 lanes across the river, and both of these bridges are closed to pedestrians and bicyclists.

    As any regular MAX rider knows, MAX has to crawl across the Steel bridge (upgrading the bridge to support normal-speed transit operations is something I've been advocating for years.)

    The new bridge will support transit connections for inner SE Portland and Milwaukie to downtown, and will allow normal-speed operations, as well as providing a real bicycle and pedestrian connection at a point that's needed south of current crossings.

    I do support engineering the new bridge to be capable of supporting conventional vehicle traffic in an emergency. It's been decades since a new downtown bridge went online, and we know a lot more about the seismic risks our region faces. It is important that we have a crossing which has a chance of withstanding a major event so that emergency responders will have rapid access to both sides of the river.

    • Bob R.
  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    The Caruthers bridge is being built to support the regional transit network, specifically the Milwaukie MAX line. For the reasons Evan points out, it makes sense for it to also support bikes and pedestrians. The issue with motor vehicles is not simply whether there is room on the bridge, but whether there is capacity at each end to handle the traffic and whether it really provides a better alternative for some trips or just another source of traffic in the neighborhoods it connects through. The issue has received discussion because one option has the bridge landing in the South Waterfront area which has very little motor vehicle access. The question is then raised whether allowing motor vehicles on the bridge would improve access to the area or plug it with vehicles trying to get through to other destinations. I suspect the latter, but the idea should not be rejected out-of-hand.

  • Larry McD (unverified)

    I didn't see "car free" as negative. My take was that it ranks right up there with "pesticide free" or "odor free" or "pain free." And I don't even own a bicycle.

  • ws (unverified)

    The questions; 'A bridge just for bikes and walkers? Why?', has got to be on a lot of people's minds. Seriously, biking and walking might become more prevalent as a standard mode of transportation in Portland, but surely not to the level of representing all trips.

    I don't see anything particularly wrong with a modest volume of regular, moderately paced motor vehicle traffic on a bridge balanced in favor of pedestrian/bicycling use. It's the huge volume of motor vehicle traffic and excessive numbers of them that make bridges hostile environments for any but them. Devising reasonable ways to regulate those factors is a challenge.

    The argument that a motor vehicle as dominant form of transportation proponent is most likely to accept, is that bike/walk exclusive infrastructure will relieve the pressure from motor vehicle infrastructure, extending the life, ease and convenience of motor vehicle travel.

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    when i had a car, i avoided the Marquam; it's got a nice view at night but it's #1 on my list of places not be in an earthquake (and the driving sucks). i would not want to bike on it or the Fremont; those are freeways, kids, not good places for bikes to be. we need a southern bike bridge, but given how many bicyclists are in N, NE & SE, the present bridges could do with more bike access.

  • djk (unverified)

    Depending on clearance requirements for river traffic, it might be possible to add hanging pedestrian/bicycle decks underneath the Marquam and Fremont Bridges. Shorter climb, safer trip.

    There's no reason not to put bike lanes on the St. Johns Bridge. There's one lane of access at the east end, and a pair of single-lane approaches controlled by a signal at the west end. One (wide) traffic lane each way is more than sufficient, given the bottlenecks at each end of the bridge.

  • verasoie (unverified)

    I have to say that I like the idea of having a "passerelle," or "pedestrian bridge," in Portland.

    Many cities with rivers have them (see below for links to Lyon, France), acknowledging that riverfront areas are highly conducive to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and using a different word than just "bridge" may help further the idea of Portland being an innovator in terms of transportation planning.

    Vive la "Portland Passerelle"!

  • (Show?)

    It's not just a "bridge just for bikes and walkers." It would also carry the new MAX line, which would be able to operate at regular speed instead of crawling across the river like the current MAX train does.

  • (Show?)

    As a bike commuter and mom, I'm looking forward to a bridge crossing where I don't have to worry about the safety of my small children in a trailer. If this bridge were combined with a network of "bike boulevards" open to local traffic only, I think you'd see a lot more families biking for transportation.

    Maybe I could finally sell my hated minivan for good...

  • Terry Parker (unverified)

    Any so-called car free bridge of this type must also have a financing plan that is free from any and all taxes paid out by motorists. In other words, the bridge needs to be paid for by the users, tolls if necessary on bicyclists and with bridge taxes applied to transit fares.

    Furthermore, if this bridge in not paid for by the users, then neither should any of motor vehicle bridge options for the Sellwood Bridge and the Columbia Crossing. As an example, motorist tolls for the Columbia Crossing or possible charges applied to any of the roadways leading to it would be equally non-existent. Additionally, both the Columbia Crossing and the Sellwood Crossing projects need to receive the same percentage of Oregon lottery dollar financing that is being applied to the Caruthers Crossing. Since the costs for the Columbia Crossing are much higher, the actual dollar amount from the Oregon Lottery would also be much higher. Tax fairness principles must apply equally to and across all modes of transport. If the users do not pay for the Caruthers Crossing, then motorist users must also NOT pay for the Columbia and Sellwood crossings.

  • verasoie (unverified)


    The argument you are advancing has been debunked manifold by people much smarter than myself. Cars receive a tremendous subsidy from the public, be it from gargantuan indirect costs like the protection afforded oil (by no less than war) to the very direct costs of the trillion dollar transportation omnibus bill paid for by everyone's taxes. And that isn't even talking about the other tremendous costs that we bear because of motor vehicles, including pollution, increased healthcare costs, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. Heck, that's why my employer actually pays me not to drive to work!

    Alternative (i.e. non-motor vehicle) transportation modes benefit us all by reducing our dependence on the costly motor vehicles, and we will recoup our investment exponentially by promoting them.

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    Economic fairness demands that we collect the costs of environmental damage, global warming, heat island effects, deaths and injuries, and so forth from drivers. We don't.

    We also don't pay bicyclists $1000 a year for being active, which is what they save us in health care costs by being active.

    We also don't tax kids for riding their bikes. And we're not chasing down the homeless folks who have no other transportation option.

    We balance a lot of items when making transportation investments. In terms of equity, in terms of internalizing costs, and so forth, as a driver I feel like I'm getting a screaming deal.

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    Most of the time it feels to me as if the entire United States (except for the Borough of Manhattan) has been organized primarily for the benefit of automobile traffic. Gasoline taxes do not begin to support the entire cost of this infrastructure. We are all subsidizing it.

    I have never owned a car in my life. I am 51 years old and have paid a lot of taxes during that time. I wish a slightly greater proportion of those taxes would go to support alternative modes of travel.

  • ws (unverified)

    Sorry Ms Simonis, the bit about the Caruthers bridge being proposed to carry the new light rail line at regular speed slipped my mind. I still think that a bridge largely prohibiting motor vehicle access is going to take some doing. It's still very much a motor vehicle world out there, but one that's rapidly reaching capacity as I see it.

    That's why intelligent motor vehicle owner operators should be rushing to support the idea of a river crossing that supports and expands the potential for increased biking, walking and taking light rail. They should be happy to pay for it too. Every additional person utilizing one of those modes of transportation effectively means one less car clogging up streets and roads; more room for the people obliged or determined to keep running their motor vehicles.

  • verasoie (unverified)

    Not to dither over trivial matters, but it seems impossible that the MAX will go over the "Passerelle" at anything close to top speed because it will have a stop at each side of it, along with some pretty severe turns.

    And just to be accurate, the last transportation bill was $286 billion dollars, of which over 80% went to motor vehicle-based transportation modes.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    You know, whatever you do in Portland is fine with me. If you want a bike bridge, great! Portland has way too much air pollution - I smell it everytime I visit that town.

    But, please don't go taking away money from the rest of us for this social experiment. Find a new funding source or use your local money.

    The rest of the State already pays too much for MAX. Having been on MAX exactly twice in my life, I know I haven't gotten my money's worth.

    Bridges are expensive. Money spent on them comes from someplace. If that place takes away funds from other places, we have to consider what else will suffer.

    So, go ahead with that bike bridge, they built one in Eugene after all, just don't spend my money doing it.

  • (Show?)
    Posted by: Steve Bucknum | Oct 9, 2007 5:26:28 PM The rest of the State already pays too much for MAX. Having been on MAX exactly twice in my life, I know I haven't gotten my money's worth.

    The rest of the State already pays too much for Highway 20 out near Burns. Having been on Highway 20 exactly twice in my life, I know I haven't gotten my money's worth.

    The rest of the State already pays too much for Highway 58 out near Oakridge. Having been on Highway 58 exactly zero in my life, I know I haven't gotten my money's worth.

    The rest of the State already pays too much for Highway 38 heading out towards Reedsport from Cottage Grove. Having been on Highway 38 exactly zero in my life, I know I haven't gotten my money's worth.

    There are dozens more in that vein if you like.

    I know far more Portland metro area folks pay for those rural highways than rural people do, even though we urban folk never use them. The ppoint is that I don't begrudge them that and think it is vitally important that we use the socialized building of our roads and highways which allow our entire economy to function. So why do you embrace the counter productive "I got mine, screw you" mind-set?

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    If I'm not mistaken, the Morrison is not off-limits to cyclists, they are just supposed to use the (narrow) sidewalk.

    This ain't just a minor quibble -- I actually had an unpleasant encounter one time with a drunken pedestrian who wanted to block me from walking my bike around him (to impress his girlfriend, I think.)

    The "no bikes" sign is in the car lane, not on the bike/pedestrian entrances to the bridge. If bikes truly aren't allowed (which would be a big problem in my view), the signs should be updated.

  • Steve (unverified)

    This is so wonderful to construct an aesthetically pleasing bridge to ride our bikes on so we can watch the Sellwood Bridge collapse. Maybe if we are lucky when we get the school year down to 50 days, we can have them ride bikes across the bridge also when they can't find work and can't afford cars.

    People, we need some priorities in this town - we can dig up all sorts of money for light rail, streetcars, trams and now bridges, but none for schools or potholes? Is this screwed up or what?

    Don't give me the dedicated money argument either, because it all comes from the same place - the taxpayer.

  • (Show?)
    But, please don't go taking away money from the rest of us for this social experiment. Find a new funding source or use your local money.

    if this is a social experiment, then the results are long in and it's a big success. nothing really left to figure out except when more of the dummies sitting in their cars, crawling and paying more and more for the privilege will realize they're losing much more than they gain.

    and as far as local money goes, thanks to M5 a lot of local money now travels around the state to finance schools at the expense of local schools. when did this become an "us vs. them" thing? that's what the neocon do, set groups that should be allies against each other. different parts of the state have different needs, but nobody gets very far if we start getting selfish. the remote areas of Oregon need schools, roads, utilities, etc just as much as Portland needs alternative transportation. doing the "me me me" thing only undermines the effort to make a better life for all Oregonians.

  • (Show?)

    I have a sneaking suspicion that all the stuff that travels to the outlaying areas of Oregon through Portland, uses the roads. Roads paid for by all. I even heard that stuff from China that you buy at Wal-Mart is brought to the store by trucks travelling on roads. Amazing! Some folks may never see all these roads, but we all benefit from them just the same. Next time you buy something at a store, ask yourself how did it get there, was it delivered by helicopter or did it come on a truck? Was your desperately needed Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition delayed because there are so darn many cars on the road, or did it arrive on time because the bridges were less congested because some folks rode their bikes and left the car in the garage? Support you local airports too!

  • (Show?)

    I support the idea of a car free bridge. But I think the stats on bike-commuting as presented are misleading.

    High percentage annual growth rates are easiest when starting from a small absolute base and when measured as a proportion within the phenomenon. The newspaper reporting on the double digit growth within bike commuting also pointed out that bike commuting was some very small percentage of all commuting. Has that proportion of all commuting changed?

    Hypothetically bike commuting could grow at double digits within itself but represent a shrinking proportion of commuting. Let's say 12,000 bike commuters are 3% of all commutes, i.e. 400,000 commuters. Let's say the next year bikers grow by 20% = 14,400. Let's say total commuters grows by 5% = 480,000. 14,400 is 3% of 480,000 = no change in proportion. If total commuters rise 6%, proportion of bike commuters of total actually shrinks.

    Probably the real total number of commuters rises at a considerably slower rate & the double digit rises in bike commuters is also an increase from a very small proportion of all commuters to a slightly larger very small proportion.

    I think the propose Carruthers bridge could increase bike commuting from relatively inner SE to downtown. Right now from where I live driving across the Ross Island makes reasonable geometric sense, but to bike to relatively southerly parts of downtown (e.g. PSU, or Marquam Hill) I have to make a large loop to cross at Hawthorne, riding considerably north of where I want to be on the other side, crossing, then riding south again. If I were going to central or more northerly parts of downtown that's not so much of an issue.

    But I suppose the end-feeder question someone raised actually applies to bikes as well as cars -- how would a bike & walker friendly bridge connect to the road systems at either end would those connections also be bike & walker friendly?

  • (Show?)

    More specifically to my last comment, my impression is that current bike access between South Waterfront & downtown is not too friendly, though I'd be glad to be corrected if that's wrong.

  • Paul Johnson (unverified)

    Instead of building more bridges to make a car-free one, why not convert one of the existing bridges whose only times of operation they're not over weight limits are when they're empty: Marquam or Ross Island...

  • (Show?)

    No money for schools or potholes?

    Wow, I guess more than half of the state budget and 80% of our transportation budgets have magically disappeared.

    As far as the math, thanks for noting it! Yes, it's back of the envelope. But the bike growth will catch up over time, even to a growing commute population (the one-year example is misleading). The overall number of trips taken by the average household have fallen a bit over time, while population has grown slightly year over year. I would guess total commuts grow at about 2%, not the 5% you suggest (on the four bike bridges, total car trips have been flat...)

    The social experiment with cars has failed, caused global warming, and made us less able to access the things we want. Time to stick a fork in it.

  • urban planning overlord (unverified)

    Thanks for a great post, Evan. It's amazing how much bicycle use is growing despite the danger of many bike routes in this city. I can only imagine the increase if we start providing truly safe routes such as on a new Caruthers bridge with no cars.

    Frankly, I think several of the bridges, instead of getting an expensive retrofit, should be abandoned to cars, and bicycles should be routed onto the safe bridges, which should be made truly safe by getting exclusive bicycle paths on them.

  • anonymous (unverified)

    Yeah, those bike commuters are thick as fleas in January.

  • verasoie (unverified)


    The commute to downtown from South Waterfront is a piece of cake, you just breeze down Moody, which has very little traffic and wide bike lands, through Riverplace on wide, low-traffic and low speed roads and land right at the base of the Hawthorne bridge.

    And bike traffic constitutes 4% of commute traffic, with a vast majority (>50%) saying that the barrier keeping them from biking more is unsafe streets, which this car-free "passerelle" would eliminate (especially from the SE, as biking over the Ross Island is quasi-suicidal and the Hawthorne is a detour for many, like you said).

  • (Show?)


    With all due respect, I posted precisely the same analysis on Sam Adams's website a month ago.

    To post something like "the social experiment with cars has failed" is utterly uninformed and misleading.

    I would not necessarily oppose bridge closed to cars. But to build one today assuming ANY current trends will be fixed for the next fifty years is foolish.

  • Terry Parker (unverified)

    Bicyclists can come up with excuse after excuse why they should not directly pay taxes, tolls and directly contribute financially to paying for the infrastructure they use and want including the proposed Caruthers Bridge. The latest comical one “We also don't pay bicyclists $1000 a year for being active, which is what they save us in health care costs by being active” is pure bicycle babble propaganda and poppycock, particularly when there are diverse ways to maintain personal health that varies from individual to individual. It is not like bicyclists don’t have heart attacks, other ailments and don’t use health care systems.

    How many jobs are related to the bicycle industry compared to the auto industry? The average new car dealership in Oregon employs 60 people. How does that compare to the number of people (probably far less) at an average bicycle shop? And how many new car dealerships are there compared to an undoubtedly lesser number of bicycle shops? One of the statistics that came to my attention when attending Portland Community College a number of years ago was that one in every seven jobs in the US was tied to the auto industry. In Portland alone there are a considerable number of longshoreman jobs at the Port of Portland and many other jobs related to just the transportation of new cars. Can bicycle related jobs come anywhere near close to the same numbers of jobs related to the auto industry? Additionally, how does the pay compare? Most auto related jobs are in the private sector, the companies pay taxes, and the jobs pay good family wages.

    If the questions I asked are answered without bias, it will demonstrate that auto industry jobs and jobs related to the auto industry have a far greater economic factor in keeping the economy moving than does the two wheel pedal pusher industry. A decline in new car sales always has had a measurable negative impact on the economy. A spike in new car sales usually improves the economy. Shortly after 9-11 when low consumer confidence caused a decline for just about every sector of the economy, it was only the auto industry providing zero percent financing that kept economic factors on the positive side. Furthermore, Portland often gives various forms tax breaks and incentives to companies willing to locate here and provide jobs. The auto industry is already doing that. Therefore, if anybody receives a $1000 a year refund, it should the motorists for the huge contributions motor vehicle usage has on maintaining a vibrant economy.

    It should be bicyclists and transit users that pay for the Caruthers Crossing. If they don’t, a precedence has been set with a non-user financing plan established. Motorists then should NOT be required to pay for any portions of the Columbia and Sellwood Crossings.

  • peejay (unverified)


    Agan and again: motorists DO NOT PAY FOR THEIR INFRASTRUCTURE! Gas taxes and other motorist fees pay for less than half of roadway costs in this state. That means that we pay for our roads through the general fund of both federal and state income taxes.

    While it is true that I may benefit in some way by having goods and services delivered on roads I personally don't use, I also suffer from those same roads, as the poor 19-year old Salem girl did last night when she was crushed to death in fromt of the Crystal Ballroom by a cement truck. I suffer from the traffic, noise, pollution, etc. So, how would a car driver benefit from a car-free bridge? Well, what if the double-digit gains in bike commuting went up even higher because some infrastructure was actually added to make it safer? Think of all the cars taken off the roads because more people are biking! More room for you, and more room for the trucks delivering Chinese-made toys to the Wallmarts in the state.

    <h2>There aren't two kinds of citizens in Oregon: motorists and bikers. There's one population of people looking for the best way to get around. If we spend all of our money on roads, with a couple of bucks thrown in for bike-lane striping, we're (almost) all gonna drive. If we invest a little bit in a bike-based transport system, more of us will ride. In Portland, it's been shown again and again, a little money spent on bike facilities leads to a lot more motorists leaving their cars at home and becoming bikers. It's pretty basic math.</h2>
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