To ascertain how GWB Chief Engineer Othmar Ammann might advise the PA on their plans to “Restore the George,”1 2 we look at contemporaneous design drawings, use projections and precedent architecture.
While budget constraints may have limited the GWB path width to 8 foot, contemporaneous drawings show 15 foot wide promenades, anticipating modern standards.3
In 1931, the Port Authority projected future use, broken out by mode of travel. Notably, pedestrian trips were projected to grow 3% per year vs. cars at 2.5%.4
Both design drawings and use projections use indicates that the PA foresaw need for greater path capacity – but it does not explain the rationale.
In 1931, bicycles were tolled 25¢, the same as motorcycles, so they would have been viewed as a source of revenue. And from a safety and traffic management perspective, routing them onto 16 foot paths makes more sense that increasingly crowded roadways.
The Bridge as Destination?
A more compelling rationale can be had by standing on the paths and looking out. Extending paths beyond the cables would have created mile-long belvederes with panoramic views.
From the 1939 New York City Guide, developed by the Federal Writer’s Project:
“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 as a site of grand celebrations6 and source of revenue is demonstrated by their reporting of toll revenue 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.
The concept of the GWB as a tourist draw is validated by Walkway Over the Hudson. Models projects that a “linear park” across the span would attract 290,000 tourists per year, spending $42 million and sustaining 675 jobs.8 9
Walking around NYC in the 1920’s, Chief Engineer Ammann would have been influenced by the promenade across the Brooklyn Bridge – and the two 20 foot paths across the Williamsburg Bridge.
What Would Othmar Do?
- Cycling’s current growth rate exceeding other travel modes,12 even before the coronavirus depressed demand for mass transit
- Active transportation’s contributions to public health, affordability, sustainability and resilience.13
- The GWB’s potential as a tourist draw to surge economic activity to the surrounding area and GW Bus Terminal.
- Precedent architecture – state-of-the-art bikeways across the Mario M. Cuomo, Goethals, Bayonne, Kosciuszko and East River Bridges; as well as Complete Streets and Vision Zero initiatives across the region.
- Of the bi-state calling for wider paths – including fifty North Jersey municipalities who Mr. Ammann personally lobbied to build regional consensus for the “Great Hudson Bridge.”15 16
All factors considered, I’m confident the politically astute Chief Engineer would advise today’s Port Authority to implement provisions of his original design calling for wider paths. Also, to configure the safety barriers in a manner that would preserve the magnificent views for new generations of path users.
Neile Weissman, 2017 (updated 2020)
4 GWB use projections 1932-1960, Port of New York Authority (PANYNJ).
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.
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, https://tinyurl.com/y27u8m8s
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