Walking Report: The Pedestrian Obstacle Course, aka the Morrison Bridge

Back when I first moved here in March of 2000, I quickly learned that the Morrison Bridge is the least pedestrian-friendly bridge of all the spans over the Willamette. I quickly learned to avoid it if at all possible. Now that the Burnside Bridge is closed for construction and I’ve returned to using the Morrison Bridge for my work commute, I will go a step further and say that the Morrison Bridge is a specifically pedestrian-unfriendly bridge. To-day I brought my camera along for the obstacle course of the bridge’s north side.

Here’s the starting gate for the trip, the foot of the bridge looking West from the corner of Grand and Morrison. Note the narrow width of the sidewalk; I measured it this evening, and it’s only five feet wide. That sounds like plenty of space, but keep in mind that most sidewalks around the neighborhood are twelve feet wide. Five feet doesn’t allow for much passing room between pedestrians.

The true bane of this bridge are the two pedestrian underpasses that bypass, respectively, an on-ramp and off-ramp, both of which are attached to I-5. Most people, like the older woman pictured in the lower photograph, choose to simply walk across the on-ramp rather than deal with the underpass.

There’s a good reason why people like to avoid the underpasses, especially this one. In the first of these pictures, the one looking down the stairwell, I was getting wafting breezes of stale urine steadily coming up at me. Once you’re down there, the smell’s pretty over-powering. To-day the bottom was empty, but it’s not uncommon to find a few bums drinking down here. I once made the unfortunate choice of walking down into this underpass at night and stumbled onto a rather hostile bum encampment.  Um, as you can see, it’s not very well-maintained.

After crossing the first underpass and walking the equivalent of two and a half blocks, you reach the second underpass. In the first picture, if you look past the car, you can see the guardrail, and might even be able to make out the handrail on the opposite side of the underpass. The distance to cross the off-ramp is much shorter than the on-ramp, with less physical barriers in place to stop you from doing it. The only problem is that most of the cars coming off the 5 (as shown in the second photograph) are still doing around fifty miles an hour. It’s worth noting that no one drives the posted 35 mph speed limit on the Morrison. I think that 45 to 50 is a bit more the norm.

I’m not going to play it up as if it’s a common occurence, but pedestrians get killed on this bridge (it’s that combo of narrow sidewalks and high automobile speeds). The last death I specifically remember was when a car hopped the sidewalk and took out a guy walking his dog. And then of course there was the woman who famously sailed her SUV off the side of the bridge while she was talking on her cell phone and swerving on the metal drawbridge grating in rainy weather. Anyway, the above picture is from a fairly recent accident. I’m not sure what happened, but this photo does not do justice to the amount of damage caused here. I could have gotten a better photo, but I would have had to step out into traffic.

Did I forget to mention that the bridge hates bicyclists, too? If anything, I think that the bridge might actually hate bicyclists even more than it hates pedestrians.

Anyway, here we are coming to the end of the bridge. That stairwell in the first picture leads to the sketchy chain-link tunnel in the second picture. The chain-link tunnel is actually a huge improvement, because that area used to be another camping spot for homeless people. Now, please don’t get me wrong about bums: I am not some PDC-style bizniz man who hates the homeless when I say this sort of thing. I’m talking about home to troll-under-the-bridge, been-drinkin’-and-fightin’-since-10am, scary, surly bums. I walk around at night all over town and see street people of all types, but these guys always gave me the heebie-jeebies, especially since it was in such a concealed location. Anyway, now the only thing around here at night are hordes of rats.

Oh, but wait! You’re not done yet! The chain-link tunnel dumps you out into this weird little depression that should be First Avenue, but is actually just home to MAX tracks. Like they say, the MAX don’t stop for but nobody, so look both ways. After crossing the MAX tracks, climbing a small flight of stairs, and then walking for a block where a two foot ledge theoretically functions as a sidewalk, you’ve finally made it to Second Avenue! I’ve timed my walks from Grand to Second on the Burnside and on the Morrison; the average times are six minutes versus fifteen minutes.

In closing, this route would make for a very good do-or-die foot race. We could call it something awesome like Death Match 5000, and all the survivors at the end of the race would get trophies.

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  • I hate crossing that bridge and have only done so a few times in all the years I’ve lived here. I realize it ads a mile or two to your walk but, why don’t you just take the nice esplanad and go down to the Hawthorne bridge? The pleasure of that walk makes up for the time it takes to walk it.
    Also, could you point out to me where these 12ft wide sidewalks are? I’m no physisist but
    12 feet wide sidewalks seems a little excessive. I guess I’m not calling the grassy or garden area between the street and the sidewalk a sidewalk. What is that area called?
    Brilliant artice, you should pass it to some city officials. Perhaps fairless square could start at the first stop on the Morrison bridge, then people could just hop on a bus instead of risking life and limb.

  • Sounds like a good place for a chairlift. But a horizontal one. Not much extra infrastructure, good view all around., scary as hell. You’d be totally safe during the whole trip, unless a bum grabs on at departure time.

    • Reply

    I crossed that bridge weekly for awhile and found the same things you did. The wafting of urine, the scary choice of getting hit by a car or rolled by a thug. It _is_ the least fun bridge to walk on. But what I did love was nearing the East side and looking down on the recycling facility that lives under the bridge. All that sorted material’s shades and textures struck me as incredibly beautiful.

  • Back in the late 80s-early 90s, I used to have to go a good way out of my way to take the Hawthorne bridge instead. Even so, I occasionally had to bike or walk across the Morrison bridge. That did wonders for my prayer life, let me tell you. Thanks for dredging up a mercifully-buried memory. 🙂

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