2017/12 – What Would Othmar Do?

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. 

Original Design

While budget constraints may have limited the GWB path width to 8 foot, original drawings showed 15 foot promenades, anticipating contemporary standards.3

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 8.32.14 AM NJ approach looking west with 15 foot portals. Rendering Cass Gilbert.  

GWB ASCE 19331933 drawing with 15 foot promenades.  American Society of Engineers and PANYNJ.

Use Projections

In 1931, the Port Authority projected future use, broken out by mode. Notably, pedestrian trips were projected to grow faster than car—3% per year vs. 2.5%.4

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

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 15 foot wide paths makes more sense that increasingly crowded roadways.

Linear Park

A more compelling rationale can be had by standing on the paths and looking out.  Paths extending beyond the cables would result in mile-long belvederes with panoramic views.

Sunset over NJ 2560 copyFrom GWB South Path, Neile Weissman.

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

129.jpgGeorge 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 GWB would attract 290,000 tourists per year, spending $42 million and sustaining 675 jobs.8 9

Precedent Architecture

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.

Williamsburg Naked City.jpgWilliamsburg Bridge opened in 1903 with two 20 foot paths and comfort stations in the main towers.  Image Naked City, 1948.

So 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 of:

  • 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 support for wider paths from across the Port District, including 50 North Jersey municipalities who Mr. Ammann personally lobbied to build 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)

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

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 Quality of Life Impact Studies, 2007-2011, Camoin Associates for Walkway Over the Hudson, p. 13, https://tinyurl.com/y98va88m

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, https://tinyurl.com/y27u8m8s

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.

Also see:

Nine Ways “Restore the George” Gets it Wrong

GWB Reconstruction Misses Mark on Sustainability – Regional Plan Association