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 current plans to Restore the George.2
1931 budget constraints may have limited path width to 8 foot, but early drawings called for 16 foot.3
Prior to its opening, the PA projected 30 years of GWB traffic volume, broken out by mode. Notably, foot travel was expected to grow faster than by car (3% vs. 2.5%).4
This too indicates the need for greater path capacity, but does not explain why. On what basis did the PA arrive at that projection?
An argument can be made that the added width was intended to accommodate bicycles, which were tolled as motorcycles. In support, their catchment far exceeds pedestrians. And from a traffic management standpoint, 16 foot paths make 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
George Washington Bridge on opening day. Image Flickr.
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.
What Would Othmar Do?
- 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.
 “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
 GWB use projections 1932-1960, Port of New York Authority (PANYNJ).
 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.
 “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
 “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