Portland Geography: Navigating Downtown

For my ongoing Portland Geography series, a reader suggested a post about navigating downtown.  Seeing how that was a great idea, here you go.

I often times forget how confusing downtown can be for out of towners.  For us locals especially those of us who work downtown, driving around is second nature.  You can do it without thinking.  For others, downtown must feel like a maze, because it sort of is. Nearly every road is a one way street, which wouldn’t be too bad but some of them only allow left turns, other streets are two way streets but only allow right turns.  Make the wrong turn and suddenly you find yourself going over a bridge and you are on the other side of the river.

Technically, downtown is the area shaded below.  The boundaries are defined by the Willamette River to the east, I-405 to the west, Burnside St to the north, and Market St. to the south.


Downtown Proper

However, for purposes of this post when I talk about downtown I am including the Pearl, and Old Town.  Basically, the three main areas between I-405 and the river.

Old Town

Old Town / Chinatown

The Pearl

The Pearl

One Way Streets

The most difficult/annoying/confusing thing about driving around downtown are all the damn one way streets.  The one way streets are actually relatively easy to deal with if you remember a few things.  First, generally speaking all odd numbered streets are one ways going south and all even numbered streets go north.  Second, you only need to remember a few main streets to get to where you want to go.

For north/south travel:

  1. Naito Parkway:  Naito Parkway is the road that runs parallel to Waterfront Park. Naito parkway is handy for accessing neighborhoods south of downtown.  Naito will also take you into the NW industrial area going north.
  2. 3rd and 4th Avenues:  I like to use 3rd and 4th avenues for getting around downtown proper and and Old Town.  3rd runs south and 4th runs north.
  3. Broadway:  Broadway runs north/south through the middle of downtown. Broadway is the equivalent of 7th avenue.  North of Burnside it is a two way street.  South of Burnside it is a one way street heading south.  It is another useful road for getting around downtown and Old Town.  Broadway is also useful for accessing the SW neighborhoods that are on the hill around OHSU.  Careful with Broadway when it is a two way street, if traveling north it eventually turns into the Broadway Bridge and will force you across the river.
  4. 10th and 11th:  I like to use 10th and 11th to access the Pearl.

For east/west travel:  Almost any road running east/west will do.  Some roads will put you on a bridge if you are not careful which I will discuss below.  I generally avoid Burnside because I don’t like the traffic and you can’t take a left turn.

Crossing the river

I’ve heard more than one person complain about driving around downtown, lost, and ending up on a bridge before they know it.  So here are the steets that turn into bridges:

  1. Madison Street: Hawthorne Bridge
  2. Alder Street: Morrison Street Bridge
  3. Burnside: Burnside Bridge
  4. Everett: Steel Bridge
  5. Broadway: Broadway Bridge

Getting to I-5

I-5 North:  If you are anywhere in the downtown core, the easiest way to access I-5 north is via the Morrison Bridge.  If you are in the Pearl or Old Town take Couch or Glisan west to I-405 north on ramp.  I-405 will cross the river and meet up with I-5.

I-5 South:  If you are in the downtown core get on Naito Parkway and head south.  Take a left at Market Street which becomes SW Harbor Drive.  Keep driving straight, it turns into an onramp for I-5 south.  If you are in the Pearl or Old Town take I-405 south which can be accessed by driving west on Glisan.

Getting to Highway 26 (to the beach)

If you are in the downtown core take SW Jefferson Street west and it will turn into an onramp for Hwy 26.  If you are in the Pearl or Old Town use I-405 south.

Getting to I-84 (to the Gorge)

If you are in the downtown core I-84 can be accessed via the Morrison Bridge.  If you are in the Pearl or Old Town I still prefer to drive to Alder street and take the Morrison Bridge (habit I guess) but it can also be accessed by either I-405 south or north, north being the quickest.

Common Pitfalls

  1. 5th and 6th avenues:  Avoid these two roads like the plague.  5th and 6th compromise the downtown bus mall.  Both the bus and the Max use 5th and 6th for north/south travel.  Cars can only use the left lane and can only take left turns. Nearly every day waiting for the bus I see some Trimet employee yelling at a car to get in the left lane.  Take 4th or Broadway instead.
  2. Burnside:  Burnside is fine but traffic sort of sucks and beware that you can only take right turns.
  3. Not knowing how Portland is laid out.  For details read my first post in this series.
  4. Know which streets turn into the bridges, this way you don’t end up on the east side, see above.

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2 thoughts on “Portland Geography: Navigating Downtown

  1. RE: “to the beach”. Ha! Are you originally from Oregon? Most of us would say “to the coast”. 🙂

    But I like “beach” better, as it implies warmth.

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