New Bay Bridge, Some Thoughts

I posted a shorter version of this on my micro blog the other day, but I am feeling like there is more to say.

The Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge is actually two bridges, an Eastern and a Western span connected in the middle by a tunnel on Yerba Buena Island.

An aside: Yerba Buena translates from the Spanish as “Good Herb” and was San Francisco’s original name, changed when the US seized it in the Mexican American War (1846). With SF’s role as the genesis of the modern marijuana movement, I am surprised there is not an effort to restore its original name.

The Eastern span of the bridge was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 which resulted in part of the upper deck collapsing onto the lower deck. After hasty repairs, it was decided that the old bridge could not be made safe against future quakes and it was decided a new one should be built. Initial designs called for an economical causeway, but Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, fought for a better bridge…and delays ensued…and costs went up. Finally, early this month, after nearly 25 years, the new 6.5 billion dollar span officially opened.

The new span includes a (still incomplete) pedestrian/bicycle walkway which someday will reach halfway across the Bay. With the opening of the bridge the 90% complete pedestrian walkway was also opened. Earlier this week I decided to walk it with my dogs.  Having to park 3 miles from the bridge made the round trip a 10 mile hike, this is near the dog’s limit.

Bay Bridge West
Looking West from the half way point.

The bridge design has been much criticized, but I like its open modern aesthetic. With 5 lanes each way, breakdown lanes, and the pedestrian walkway the bridge is billed as the widest in the world. The old bridge still stands beside the new, waiting to be torn down.  As of now it blocks the view from the pedestrian walkway.

This touches close to some of my criticisms of the new structure. The walkway is on the South side of the bridge, this offers only views of Oakland’s industrialized ports.  Had it been on the North side the views would have been much grander, with the Golden Gate off to the Northeast, Alcatraz Island below and to the West, and the Richmond bridge to the North. Also the new bridge sweeps in a wide arc with the walkway inside the curve. This creates a scene where you only see the bridge as you walk. Had the walkway been on the outside of the arc, the view would have been far grander. Finally, it would have been better had the walkway been above or below the traffic lanes. Strolling along with 10 lanes of traffic backed up beside you is not as nice as it could have been. However, these are quibbles, and the new bridge livens up the bayscape.

The new bay bridge looking East
Looking East from the halfway point

The regional transit agency is trying to come up with funding ideas for the billion dollars needed to retro-fit the Western span for pedestrian traffic. But as of now there are no definite plans to do so, for the foreseeable future the new span will be a pedestrian bridge to no where. Once the newness wears off, it is doubtful that many people will walk the bridge. On my 4 hour walk I saw maybe a hundred people using the bridge walking and bicycling. Most of these, like myself, just came for a look at the new structure. Forcing folks to walk three miles from the trail head to the bridge also dissuades use.

Tired dogs at the halfway point.
Tired dogs at the halfway point.

When I walked the bridge it was sunny, windy and hot warm (well…hot by our standards). It is tough to measure wind velocity, but earlier in the day they had cancelled the America’s Cup race due to wind which means it was at least 20 knots. I carried a quart of water for me and another for the dogs, I probably should have taken one each for the dogs.

Overall, the new bridge, a combination causeway/self anchored suspension bridge, is a huge improvement over the cantilever (erector set looking) bridge that it replaces. To those who say that America can’t do grand things any more, I respond, that we did manage to order this bridge pre-fabbed from China.


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