A bridge too confusing

3 07 2010

For the urban roadie,  a ride in the country can be good for the soul.

The air is cleaner, though not necessarily better smelling especially in the spring when farmers are fertilizing their fields.

There’s new things to see, like billy goats and giant marshmallow farms and mailboxes disguised as livestock.

There's all kinds of livestock to be seen in the country, including cows and pigs.

Traffic is lighter. There’s no peds who activate the walk button at crossings then jaywalk anyway, leaving you stopped at the light for no apparent reason. There’s minimal lights and four-way stops to disrupt your pace.

But to ride in the country, first you have to get to the country.

And around here, that means crossing a bridge. Or two.

I’m not keen on bridges.

I’ve no problem driving over them. Traversing a bridge on foot can make me a bit uneasy. But going over a big bridge on the bike can freak me out.

Maybe it’s the cars and trucks zooming right past your ears because the lanes are so narrow. Maybe it’s the sense of being confined, hemmed in on both sides with no margin for escape. Maybe it’s the irrational fear of losing traction and slipping out through that gap between the lowest railing and bridge deck.

Or maybe it’s the mysterious and confusing labyrinthian route cyclists are often forced to take to access a crossing designed, engineered and built for motor vehicles.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m riding on the road, I expect to be able to follow the road to reach my destination. But throw a bridge into the route, and the rules change.

Sometimes we’re instructed to use the sidewalk, contrary to our cyclist’s instincts.

Sometimes we’re directed to dedicated bike lanes which don’t necessarily access the bridge right beside the road.

Sometimes we’re sent to the opposite side of the road, forced to ride against the flow of traffic for a stretch.

Friday I decided to ride out to Fort Langley, in the Fraser Valley, where Katie would meet me in the car, we’d have lunch in the pretty little town, then check out a new bike shop that recently opened there as we’re both mulling the notion of new bikes.

But to get there, I’d need to cross two bridges, both of them new, both of them allegedly designed to accommodate cyclists.

The Pitt River Bridge is a six-lane cable-stayed span that connects Port Coquitlam with Pitt Meadows, the gateway to the northwest corner of the Fraser Valley. When it opened last October, it replaced a four-lane swing bridge that was too old and too narrow for the ever-increasing traffic volumes.

If a boat was chugging up or down the Pitt River below, the bridge would have to close to swing aside, backing up traffic. Sometimes the bridge stuck open, creating chaos.

As the suburbs sprawled east, a bandaid solution to ease traffic pressure at rush hours by alternating one lane in each direction created a confusing array of lane markings and signage at each end, and didn’t have much of an effect for very long anyway.

Crossing the old swing bridge was heart-gripping at the best of times, downright terrifying most of the time.

The steel joints where the bridge would swing could wreak havoc on your wheels if you didn’t hit them right. The shoulder was narrow and strewn with rocks, glass and other tire-shredding debris. And the pylons between the already-narrow lanes erected to accommodate the alternating travel meant cars and trucks couldn’t drift aside to give cyclists breathing room.

Riding over it meant long frequent shoulder checks as you approached it to gauge the traffic coming up behind you, and when it looked like no big trucks were coming, booking it over as fast as possible hoping you survive.

The new bridge is supposed to be easier and safer for cyclists, with a dedicated lane for bikes and peds, protected from the passing cars and trucks by a barrier. But that lane is on the westbound side, and the signage directing eastbound cyclists to it is sadly lacking, and what does exist is confusing.

About a kilometer before the bridge, a small sign alongside the highway seemed to indicate I had to take a side road to get to the bridge. But that sign doesn’t appear until after I can get to the separated left turn lane to get to that side road. So I was forced to use the pedestrian crossing, which, as any self-respecting roadie will attest, is demeaning and humiliating. Plus, the only crossing option spit me out into oncoming traffic.

Having launched a few choice expletives, none of which used the words “delightful” or “joyous” and overcome my humiliation to get to the other side of the road, I was then left hanging. No more signs telling me where to go next.

Eventually I found a marked bike lane. And while it seemed to head in the same direction I needed to go, it was taking me ever-further away from the bridge. The lane led to a gravel trail. I wasn’t about to go all Paris-Roubaix on my 23c tires to get to this bridge.

So I doubled back; screw this, I’m sticking with the car route.

Not the best idea. Before I could access the bridge, the shoulder spit me out into a no-man’s land from which I had to cross two lanes of non-stop traffic. The shoulder of the actual bridge was strewn with debris, the expansion joints were massive, and trucks and cars whizzed by a good 40 kmh over the posted 60 kmh speed limit. The experience was just as stressful as the old bridge, and only slightly less dangerous.

I'm not sure what this sign is warning me about, but it doesn't look pleasant.

But I survived.

My next bridge, the Golden Ears, was only slightly less harrowing.

A sprawling structure that crosses the Fraser River, the Golden Ears is a toll highway for which motorists are billed automatically when they drive through cameras at each end that record license plates. The roadway is flanked on each side by wide enclosed sidewalks that are shared by cyclists and pedestrians, who cross for free. So the bridge itself is safe, and friendly to use.

Safely protected in the bike lane of the Golden Ears Bridge.

But again, the problem is the approaches, especially from the north end, which aren’t obviously marked, and send you on a couple of dead-end runs to no-go zones before you have to figure things out for yourself to find the access path.

The path to the Golden Ears Bridge is paved with good intentions, but the execution is lacking.

The frustration is rewarded, though, with expansive views up and down the Fraser River, eye-level looks at circling eagles and herons, and a fun spiral egressoff the bridge.

The view down the Fraser River.

The roads to these bridges are paved with good intentions, the execution is wanting. Maybe the engineers need to spend a little time on bikes to better understand how cyclists think when approaching these structures.