2017/12 – What Would Othmar Do?

GWB Reconstruction Misses Mark on Sustainability – Regional Plan Association

Ways the PA’s GWB Plan Gets it Wrong


As a thought experiment, we review early design drawings, use projections and precedent architecture1 to consider how GWB Chief Engineer Othmar Ammann might advise today’s Port Authority on its plans to Restore the George.2 

Original Design

While 1931 budget constraints may have limited path width to 8 foot, early drawings called for 16 foot, fully anticipating contemporary standards.3

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 8.32.14 AM NJ approach to GWB with 16 foot wide pedestrian portals. Rendering Cass Gilbert.  

Use Projections

In 1931, the PA projected 30 years growth of use, broken out by mode of travel. Notably, foot travel was expected to grow faster than by car (3% vs. 2.5%).4  

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-8-53-14-pm-e1483746159859.pngGWB use projections 1932-1960. Source PANYNJ.

Both design and projected use indicates that the PA foresaw need for greater path capacity, but it does not explain the rationale for that assumption.

Cyclists?

Per haps it was to accommodate bicycles.  They were tolled as motorcycles. Their catchment far exceeds that of pedestrians.  And, from a traffic management perspective, 16 foot paths make far more sense that increasingly crowded roadways.

The Bridge as Destination?

A complementary reason can be had by standing on the paths and looking out.  Extending the paths beyond the cables creates a continuous belvedere with views like no other in the region.

“The George Washington is the most splendid of all Manhattan bridges. The view east features Riverside Drive and the Henry Hudson Parkway with their constant stream of cars. To the south, the ribbons of Manhattan’s highways are lost in the thickening cluster of roofs, but on a clear day, the play of the sun through its Himalayan towers, the funnels of great ocean-going liners in the Hudson River docks, and the smoking chimneys of New Jersey industrial towns are easily discernible.”5

That notion that the Agency envisioned the George itself as a destination and site of grand celebrations,6 is supported by their reporting of pedestrian tolls from opening day.

“20,000 pedestrians paid 10 cents per person to walk across the George Washington Bridge on its first full day of operation.”7

129.jpgGeorge Washington Bridge on opening day. Image Flickr.

Also by a contemporary study, modeled on Walkway Over the Hudson,8 which projects that a linear park across the GWB would attract annually 300,000 tourists spending $42 million and sustain 675 jobs.9

Precedent Architecture

Supporting the idea of the George as a public space, Mr. Ammann would certainly have been influenced by precedent architecture on the Williamsburg Bridge.  Opened in 1903, it connected Brooklyn to Manhattan by a pair of 20-foot paths and comfort stations in the main towers.

Williamsburg Naked City.jpgWilliamsburg Bridge with (2) 20 foot paths.  Image Naked City, 1948.

What Would Othmar Do?

How might the Chief Engineer advise on Agency’s plans to restore the George paths to 7 foot10 and erect an 11 foot high safety barrier?11   He would certainly be aware:

  • That cycling’s current rate of growth far exceeds that of other modes of travel, today and in 1931.12
  • Of enhancements to public health, affordability, sustainability and resilience resulting for a commitment to active transportation.13
  • Realizing the George as a tourist mecca would drive foot traffic and commercial revenue in the GW Bus Terminal and its environs.
  • Precedent cycling facilities on the Cuomo/Tappan Zee, Goethals, Bayonne, Kosciuszko and East River bridges.
  • That 230 organizations, businesses, communities and public officials calling for wider paths, including fifty North Jersey municipalities – the same towns Mr. Ammann lobbied in the 1920s to get the Bridge built.15 16

Taking all these factors together, I’m confident the politically astute Chief Engineer would advise today’s PA that it was time to implement the wider paths specified in his original design.

Also, to allocate a portion of the GWB’s lower level to mitigate the visual disruption of the proposed safety barriers, in order to preserve the magnificent views for the generations to come.

Neile Weissman, 2017

gwb-enhanced-1Complete George. (2) 10′ paths for bicycles.  (2) 7′ paths for pedestrians and runners.  9 foot high safety barrier set below pedestrian path sightlines.


[1] “Precedent architecture is said or done that may serve as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of an analogous kind.”, First in Architecture UK, https://tinyurl.com/ycumcrez

[2] Restoring the George, Bicycle and Pedestrian Access, PANYNJ, https://tinyurl.com/y8evmac6

[3]  National Standards, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/y7p25wlj

bridge_cross_section_detail_01.pngGWB plans with 16 foot paths extending beyond cables.  Image PANYNJ, Joseph Lertola.

[4] GWB use projections 1932-1960, Port of New York Authority (PANYNJ).

[5] New York City Guide, a comprehensive guide to the five boroughs, Federal Writer’s Project, 1939, P. 400, https://tinyurl.com/yawjyk5g

[6] Ten greatest fireworks displays in NYC History, Bowery Boys History, https://tinyurl.com/y8gnacmcbrooklyn-bridge-fireworks-bw16-scott-kelley (1).jpgImage Scott Kelley, https://tinyurl.com/ycqyagsa

[7] GWB 80th Anniversary Trivia, PANYNJ, https://tinyurl.com/ya6qmccf

[8] Walkway Over the Hudson Final Report, Camoin Associates, https://tinyurl.com/y8vqfqfe

walkway-opening-day-rocco_760.jpgImage Walkway Over the Hudson.

[9] Linear Park, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/y9ehkmvm

[10] Following 9/11, the Agency added protective shielding to the suspender cables, narrowing path width between sets of cables from 8 foot to 6.75 foot.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 9.33.44 AMGWB suspender cables with and without shielding.  Images Wikipedia and Hassan Diop.

[11] Restore the George, Supplemental Information on Bicycle Pedestrian Access, PANYNJ, https://tinyurl.com/y8evmac6

[12] Capacity and Demand, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/jpcfphq

[13] Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/zt3pnc9

[14] “Creating an effective network also means improving existing trails and connections. In particular, the connections between the greater region and New York City include major bridge crossings, such as the Brooklyn and George Washington Bridges, that are likely to be in high demand by many users.”; RPA Proposes Extending and Connecting Regional Trails to Form a Unified Network, Regional Plan Association, http://tinyurl.com/ydba4gk5

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 2.41.38 PM.pngGWB as linchpin of regional cycling grid.  Image Regional Plan Association.

[15] Mayor & Council, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/y8mvgvs7

[16] “Ammann would need to develop local interest in his Fort Lee bridge within the communities of Bergen and Passaic that it was the best solution for their communities and the economic growth of the region.”, Empire on the Hudson, Jameson W. Doig, P. 130-131,  https://tinyurl.com/y993epvc

127 (1)GWB Chief Engineer Othmar Ammann.