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What does a Complete Bridge look like?

What is a Complete Bridge?  Well, if you are familiar with transportation issues, you have probably heard of the phrase “Complete Street.”  A Complete Bridge takes this concept of a Complete Street and applies the same standards of safe accessibility for non-motorized transportation.

Complete Streets policies are an excellent way to ensure that our streetscapes reflect our social values, by giving designers a mandate for roadway user inclusion but not tying their hands with any mandated geometries.  It is also a satisfying vindication of basic rights for anyone who gets honked at or has snow plowed into their path just because they use the public right-of-way without an accelerator pedal.

This is 38th Street - a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy

This is 38th Street in Indianapolis where it joins I-65 – a design for only 1 type of user, and a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

People should be able to use a street safely whether they decide to walk, ride a bike, or drive a car. After all, we call it a “public right-of-way” instead of “private automobile right-of-way” for good reason.  This concept is the essence of public owned space in a democracy.  Our streets are “city property” as a legal convenience, but in reality they are public space – everyone has a right to safely access it using whatever travel modes we can accommodate.

When a Complete Streets bill came to a vote in the Indianapolis City Council, it was a slam dunk.  A policy can’t get more popular than unanimous. Our representatives agreed with public opinion that designing a road for automotive users should never be done at the expense of vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians.

But that policy has a loophole – if the costs are considered excessive then the policy could be ignored.  This is often an issue when it comes to bridges, because they are such expensive pieces of infrastructure.  While a complete street can usually be designed for a similar price, a Complete Bridge will always be much more expensive than one carrying a single type of traffic.

But bridges are where safe access is needed more than anywhere else, because there aren’t side streets or scenic alternatives.

The Ravenel Bridge is exercise path, nature trail, bike lane, and community link - but the design could have been more than merely functional

The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC functions as exercise path, nature trail, bike path, and community link – but the design did not address future growth of non-automobile use (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street (image:  National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street that includes bike/ped access and park space – if we want to actually link communities together, this is what our bridges should look like (image: National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

I find it interesting that even though we recognize our need for Complete Streets in spite of higher costs, we fail to apply the same principles for new bridges.  It seems like current practice for bridge planning is plan a bridge with forecasted traffic conditions of 25 years into the future but plan for ped/bike access with data from 25 years ago.  This is a false economy, because we already know that active transportation is growing by huge amounts every year, and bad bridge plans could restrict this growth and its beneficial consequences.

The Kessler bridge on Meridian St at Fall Creek

The renovated Kessler bridge in Indianapolis clearly prioritizes rush hour commuting over the comfort of vulnerable road users (image: Graeme Sharpe)

But we can choose to build better bridges.  If we did, what would a Complete Bridge look like?

  1. Follows Complete Street principles
  2. Meets current and anticipated long-range uses by alternative transportation modes
  3. Uses low-impact design and accounts for mitigation of harmful effects on local residents
  4. Provides for public engagement whenever appropriate with scenic viewpoint stations, history centers, or public parks

Our awareness of these issues will force us to redefine what makes a revolutionary bridge, just as the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate did for their eras.  But what about the smaller bridges – the ones that don’t demand special treatment or receive special funding?  These are bridges that people cross over every day without much notice, but it is the ones that carry people to local jobs and kids to local schools that might deserve our closest attention.

Portland is currently building a bridge that might be a good model for planning a bridge of this type, with their Sellwood Bridge project. They are addressing each of the issues listed above in appropriate ways for their community.

The existing 2-lane bridge is being moved to allow construction of a new bridge (image H. Simmons)

The existing 2-lane bridge is moved onto temporary piers to allow continued use until construction of the new bridge is finished (image H. Simmons)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image:  Multnomah County)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image: Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the new lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left - H. Simmons, right - Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left – H. Simmons, right – Multnomah County)

The public engagement process is critical, but often overlooked for small bridges.  The new bridge features a pretty good public website too.  Bridges are important in ways that streets aren’t, as they represent the physical location of a mental transition.  Communities rally around bridges and they can become powerful symbols.  Engaging the public early and often means that people begin to care about the bridge and understand the importance of tax money spent on its construction and maintenance.

Portland’s strategy was to create a festival celebrating the bridge closing and the start of new bridge construction.  This 1-time expense helps the local community learn to accept and take  ownership of the bridge building process.

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges and transportation agencies - we must learn to take advantage of this interest (image:  H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges – transportation agencies must learn to take advantage of this interest (image: H. Simmons)

The Sellwood Bridge project is notable because it used the principles of Complete Streets during the planning stage, and also because it planned ahead for the growth of alternative modes.  At the same time, it did not expand the number of automotive lanes because increasing traffic would have negative effects on the local communities that this bridge was meant to serve.  Finally, the planning agency worked hard to engage stakeholders and communicate the reasons for these decisions.

Here in Indianapolis, the citizens are making progress in their quest for Complete Streets.  But we shouldn’t forget that Complete Streets need Complete Bridges.

4 Responses to “ “What does a Complete Bridge look like?”

  1. Gene says:

    I’m going to sound like a crank but I do have a point, really !

    Read the info about the bridge and the community involvement activities, and it seems kind of creepy. Some of the stuff in grade schools, which is excerpted at the bottom of this post, sounds a bit North Korea-ish. This timeline of events/meetings shows how much selling went on: http://www.sellwoodbridge.org/?p=past-events

    In reality it’s likely the basic plans and costs for the bridge were set beforehand, and the massive social effort is to get people to swallow the cost. Adjusted for inflation, the old bridge cost $25 per Portland resident, but the new one costs $500/resident. I get that the old bridge might need replaced, and it would be nice to have a more complete bridge, but is there no consideration to the expense ? Buses don’t use it now, so that can’t be that big a deal.

    IMO this project looks like the Colts stadium, it’s a joint venture by three entities that have little interest in wise spending – government, construction companies, and labor unions. A similar new safe bridge would cost a small fraction of this new one. The remaining money would find much better uses. (Intestest on the bonds for the Colts stadium could have paid for a lot of medical care for poor people).

    Creating a Sense of Ownership
    The School-based Outreach Program has created a sense of connection to the Sellwood Bridge Project among the students with whom we have worked. Students have expressed excitement about the new bridge and are looking forward to the completion of the project and using the new structure, with its wide pedestrian and bike-paths. Furthermore, the program has engaged our young citizens in one of the largest public infrastructure investments currently taking place in our region. Encouraging students to learn about public projects taking place in their communities has been a great way to expand their understanding of civic processes and civic engagement and to teach them about the many interesting career paths available to them.

    • I can’t address your concerns about North Korea or the new stadium in Indianapolis, other than to say I think you are a bit confused about the bridge construction process.

      In this case, the bridge design process went exactly as I would hope Indy’s would in the future. The community identified its own needs and community goals, and then the planners designed a bridge to fit those needs and goals. The planners then spent time and effort to show the community how the bridge met their needs and their goals.

      The conventional design process, whereby community needs and goals are ignored in the quest to hit a magic budget number is a short-sighted approach and ends up costing our economy much more than it saves.

      Also, I can point out that a large amount of the costs are related to seismic design requirements and the associated geotechnical work. This will be the only bridge across the Willamette (to my knowledge) that will be rated to withstand the expected earthquake magnitudes along the Cascadia fault zone. This requires a very expensive design and construction process, so please be aware that a normal bridge would be similarly expensive.

  2. Kevin Osburn says:

    The new MLK bridge across the river in downtown Fort Wayne is another great example of a complete bridge. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

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