New LA bridge getting all the (wrong) attention

A bridge recently opened in Los Angeles was closed earlier this week after too much of the wrong kind of attention:

Photo by Travis Saylor on Pexels.com

The bridge opened to the public back on July 10, just over two weeks ago, but in that brief time, it’s been the center of attention in Los Angeles for all the wrong reasons. Street takeovers, graffiti, and crashes have plagued the bridge since its reopening. The LAPD has given out 57 citations on the bridge over the last four days, according to LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

“The 6th Street Bridge will be closed until further notice due to illegal activity and public safety concerns,” the LAPD posted on Twitter Tuesday night.

The construction of the bridge took six years and cost nearly $600 million. Ahead of its grand reopening, LA city Councilmember Kevin de León said the bridge would “rival the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Park as iconic images of our city.”

The bridge has been closed multiple times, most recently every night this past weekend for what LAPD called “questionable activity.” On Tuesday, Moore announced that speed bumps were being installed on the bridge to deter street takeovers and that a center median and fencing to discourage people from scaling the archways could also be installed soon on a temporary basis.

I imagine the city will want to channel the attention for the new bridge in positive directions. They can highlight the new infrastructure, road, and design. Here is a city getting things done and in style. How about harnessing that energy for exciting yet legal TikTok and social media videos?

With the role of Los Angeles bridges in car commercials, how long until we see this bridge all over screens?

The reasons there are no bridges over the Amazon River

Even though the Amazon River is over 4,000 miles long, there are good reasons why there are no bridges spanning it:

Photo by Jeff Stapleton on Pexels.com

The Amazon, for much of its 4,300-mile (6,920 kilometers) length, meanders through areas that are sparsely populated, meaning there are very few major roads for any bridge to connect to. And in the cities and towns that border the river, boats and ferries are an established means of moving goods and people from bank to bank, meaning there is no real need for bridges to be built, other than to make trips slightly quicker…

For example, its extensive marshes and soft soils would necessitate “very long access viaducts [a multi-span bridge crossing extended lower areas] and very deep foundations,” and this would require hefty financial investment, Kaufmann said. Additionally, the changing positions of the river’s course across the seasons, with “pronounced differences” in water depth, would make construction “extremely demanding.” This is due, in part, to the river’s water level rising and falling throughout the year and the soft sediment of the riverbanks eroding and shifting seasonally, according to the Amazon Waters initiative (opens in new tab)

Pontoons, or floating structures, are not a solution that would work in most parts of the Amazon, Kaufmann said, because the river is hugely impacted by seasonal variances, which adds an additional layer of complexity. For instance, during the dry season — between June and November — the Amazon averages a width of between 2 and 6 miles (3.2 and 9.7 km), while in the wet season — December through April — the river can be as wide as 30 miles (48 km), and the water level can be 50 feet (15 meters) higher than it is during the dry season, according to Britannica (opens in new tab)

“I think a bridge would only be built if the need dominates over the difficulties and cost,” Kaufmann said. “Personally, I doubt that this will happen soon, unless there are unforeseen economic developments in the region.”

These are significant challenges, including engineering concerns and the lack of economic justification. Money always matters in big infrastructure projects as the costs can add up and the current system can be deemed okay and more cost-efficient.

So how might this change? I can imagine two scenarios:

  1. A leader, political or otherwise, wants to make a big splash and attach their name to a significant civic project. Government officials often like this as infrastructure lasts a long time and is viewed as furthering the public good. Additionally, attaching their name to a significant structure means they can be recognized longer.
  2. An architect or engineer or related firm wants to make a big splash. Perhaps the bridge is a unique design for the particular environmental conditions or perhaps it is especially green, particularly if there are fears that a bridge would negatively impact the environment.

In either case, to be part of the first bridge over the Amazon would be a notable achievement.

The same LA bridges in many car commercials

One interesting set of locations is fairly common in car commercials: bridges in Los Angeles. This is not what you might expect: how many people know that bridges are even necessary in Los Angeles? (The Los Angeles River does exist.) This has a long history: a 2004 New York Times story suggests the presence of production companies in southern California plus good weather leads to many shoots in Los Angeles.

One of the past bridge locations was the Sixth Street Viaduct which closed in 2016:

According to Film L.A., the organization that helps the film industry book municipal locations, over 80 movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials are shot on or underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct each year. That’s partially because of the bridge’s swooping metal arches, perched on an art-deco concrete platform; and partially because of the river underneath and that access tunnel: if you want to film something set in Los Angeles that makes reference to the city’s automotive culture, or if you’re just looking for a place to shoot a car chase that’s cheaper and more available than a clogged freeway, the channelized, concretized bed of the Los Angeles River is your best choice.

Except that the bridge officially no longer functions that way, as of last week. It’s going away completely. And the river? It’s on its way to becoming a river again.

Here is a short montage of the bridge being taken down alongside iconic images from films.

The Fourth Street Bridge is also home to a number of shoots and features Art Deco columns as well as views of the downtown skyline. Here is a Google Street View image:

FourthStreetLosAngeles

Are viewers of car commercials more likely to purchase a vehicle if it is shown in Los Angeles compared to other settings? Los Angeles has its own aesthetic which may or may not match with many other places. (In urban sociology, Los Angeles is often held up as the prime example of decentralization. Yet, it also does have a downtown as well as numerous other scenic sites such as the hills behind the city.) In the Chicago television market, we see some car commercials shot in Chicago. Might this help viewers envision themselves driving a new car when they see it in a familiar location? It would be more difficult to do this for all of the metropolitan markets in the United States.

Here are some other common car commercial locations with several more in the Los Angeles area.

Three tips for avoiding turning a $250 million bridge into a $13 billion one

A new book chronicling the long saga of the new Bay Bridge offers these lessons for avoiding massive cost changes/overruns:

Reference other projects. Frick points to a couple ideas for controlling mega-project costs. Scholar Bent Flyvbjerg, who has studied infrastructure cost overruns around the world—and who often boils them down to political deception—has promoted the idea of basing costs on a “reference class” of similar projects already completed. The fear with that is project leaders won’t bother to keep costs down if they know they can hit a certain number, but Frick says that possibility bothers her less than the uncertainty surrounding costs that goes on right now.

Widen early cost ranges. Giving a precise cost number out to multiple decimals, as the state legislature did with its $1.285 billion estimate in 1997, makes the figure seem more scientific and precise than it really is, and creates that much more public frustration when the costs keep rising in the future. “In the early planning stages, ranges in the projects would be really important to provide,” she says.

Track progress more closely. Frick also suggests that officials pay more attention to “transaction cost economics”—an approach that “analyzes project development over time,” she writes, in an effort to identify the precise “political and economic origins” of new costs. This fuller accounting also considers costs that often go overlooked, such as the time and energy that go into public participation. Without better cost estimates, projects will continue to suffer from the type of strategy described to Frick by one senior engineer:

“Basically at the onset of a project I think the higher ups prefer a dollar amount and schedule that doesn’t shock the public.”

Which, as the Bay Area knows, only makes the shock that much worse when it finally arrives.

The typical resident is going to look at this and ask how in the world this was allowed to happen. Large infrastructure projects have a lot of moving pieces but the change in price is still hard to understand. Of course, there may be a political penalty for adhering to this advice – a higher projected cost upfront is likely to limit support. Yet, going with an unreasonably low projection with no cost range borders on dishonesty.

Building a 2,100 foot bridge while it carries 80,000 vehicles a day

Drivers tend to complain about highway construction but it can be quite complex, particularly when a long span and lots of cars are involved:

Bridges are particularly challenging because they require intricate, and potentially dangerous, work to be done while cars whiz past below, officials said.

Think about those girders, for instance. Work crews use two cranes to lift each girder into the air and then lower it onto the frame of the bridge. The cranes don’t release the girder until it has been bolted into place, officials said.

After the girders are in place, protective plywood shielding is installed between them. The shielding supports workers as they pour the concrete “floor” of the bridge.

The whole process requires only short, intermittent lane closures, Lafleur said.

“We do most of the work overnight to keep traffic interruption at a minimum,” she said. “But of course, night work presents its own challenges, with lighting and visibility especially.”

The average driver won’t even think about any of this when making their way over the bridge. But, if the predictions in the article are correct, they will enjoy the 35% reduction in travel time through the area.

The “Pont Neuf” helped make Paris

A new book about the history of Paris suggests one bridge played a critical role:

The construction of a new bridge over the Seine was initiated by Henri IV’s predecessor, the last king of the Valois dynasty, Henri III, who laid the first stone in May 1578. Some early projects conceived of a very different bridge, most notably, with shops and houses lining each side. In 1587, construction was just becoming visible above the water line when life in Paris was upended by religious violence. With the city in chaos, work on the bridge ceased for more than a decade.

In April 1598, Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes: the Wars of Religion were officially over. A month earlier, the new king had already registered documents announcing his intention to complete the bridge. Henri III had offered no justification for the project; his successor, characteristically, laid out clear goals for it. He presented the bridge as a “convenience” for the inhabitants of Paris. He also characterized it as a necessary modernization of the city’s infrastructure—Paris’ most recent bridge, the Notre-Dame bridge, was by then badly outdated and far “too narrow,” as the king remarked, to deal with traffic over the Seine, which Henri IV described as rapidly expanding because new kinds of vehicles were now sharing the bridge with those who crossed on horseback and on foot. The new bridge would be financed in a previously untested manner: The king levied a tax on every cask of wine brought into Paris. Thus, as city historian Henri Sauval, writing in the 1660s, phrased it, “the rich and drunkards” paid for this urban work.

No prior bridge had had to deal with anything like the load the New Bridge was intended to bear—most significantly, a kind of weight that in 1600 was just becoming a serious consideration: vehicular transport. Earlier cities had only had to contend with transport that was relatively small and light: carts and wagons. In the final decades of the sixteenth century, personal carriages were just beginning to be seen in cities such as London and Paris. Nevertheless, with great foresight, each of Henri IV’s documents on the Pont Neuf adds new kinds of vehicles to the list of those to be accommodated. He was thus the first ruler to struggle with what would become a perennial concern for modern urban planning: the necessity of maintaining an infrastructure capable of handling an ever greater mass of vehicles.

The New Bridge became the first celebrity monument in the history of the modern city because it was so strikingly different from earlier bridges. It was built not of wood, but of stone; it was fireproof and meant to endure—it is now in fact the oldest bridge in Paris. The Pont Neuf was the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span. It was, moreover, most unusually long—160 toises or nearly 1,000 feet—and most unusually wide—12 toises or nearly 75 feet—far wider than any known city street.

This seems appropriate given how the word bridge is often used: it isn’t just “a structure carrying a road, path, railroad, or canal across a river, ravine, road, railroad, or other obstacle” but is often used as a verb to generally refer to connecting things. I’m thinking of the term “bridging ties” in the social networks literature referring to building relationships across networks or groups that is contrasted with “bonding ties” that tend to build up in-group connections. In this case, a bridge helped bring Paris together.

This is also a good example of the enduring effect infrastructure can have. Done well, something like a bridge can help people travel, encourage commerce, and become a landmark and gathering place. Done poorly, the project may snarl traffic, repel rather than attract people, and fall apart or be demolished to try again.

Eleven years to complete Bay Bridge, 4 minutes to watch time-lapse video of its construction

The Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland is a key traffic artery. The bridge opened recently and you can watch a time-lapse video of its long and expensive construction here. Quick thoughts:

1. This is an impressive undertaking. San Francisco Bay is a large body of water with lots of shipping. But, I’m usually impressed by big infrastructure projects.

2. This illustrates the problems that arise when so much traffic is dependent on one bridge. While there are other bridge options to get over the bay, they are out of the way to the north or the south for reaching much of San Francisco.

3. The new span is much better aesthetically. The old bridge was a truss structure that didn’t look very impressive. The new bridge has cable towers and the more minimalistic look is good. I look forward to seeing it from the waterside on my next trip to San Francisco.

3. The music on this official time-lapse video could be better. As an official video, it is likely that the music is licensed from some provider. However, it is rather bland rather than inspirational.

Infrastructure improvements needed but the will is lacking

The hidden backbone of any community is its infrastructure: the roads, sewers, electricity lines, and more that make the basics of life possible. But it appears that there might be a perception issue among Americans: even though there are a number of experts calling for infrastructure improvements (read The Infrastructurist for more information), Americans either don’t see it is a priority or don’t want to commit extra money to projects (I’ve moved around some of the text from the article):

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – half what it was in 1960 — compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, according to the government report.

“During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects — such as building schools, roads and parks — in order to meet balanced budget requirements,” the report concluded. “However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom.”

“My sense is things have changed,” said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and an expert on transportation policy. “People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that’s just wrong.”

“I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome,” he added. “High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that’s out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge.”

So how can the negative perception of infrastructure be changed? I don’t think many people would argue that it is unnecessary (particularly if it affects their personal travel or services) but there are stories of cost overruns, delays, and projects that seem unnecessary. This should be thought of as a social problem – and the American public needs some convincing, particularly in lean economic times.