14th Street Bridge, Washington DC

Sunday, December 5, 2010 |

One of the main commuter links between Washington, DC and Northern Virginia runs across the Potomac River at 14th Street, although the bridge itself is really Interstate 395. There are actually a set of bridges at the location, three for cars, and two for trains. They are collectively known as the 14th Street Bridge, but they really all have their own names. Fortunately for us, the northernmost of them, officially called the George Mason Memorial Bridge, contains a pedestrian and biking path. No one will write a song about the 14th Street Bridge, like with the 59th Street Bridge in New York City (really the Queensboro Bridge, with the song "Feeling Groovy", immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel, of course), but the lack of a song won't stop us from taking a walk across the bridge.

Bridges have been at that location since the early 1800s. The George Mason Memorial Bridge was built in 1962 to replace another bridge there that carried traffic southbound across the Potomac. It is a low, utilitarian bridge, getting the job done without any aesthetic fanfare. On the DC side of the Potomac, the bridge actually starts right across from the Jefferson Memorial, a very pretty location and a favorite especially during the spring cherry blossoms. We were able to park right below the bridge near the Jefferson Memorial and climb some steps up the side of the bridge and pop right onto the bridge's walkway. Right to the north, a little ways up the river, we could immediately see our old friend, the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

I hadn't planned for one thing about the walk yesterday morning across the bridge: a gusty wind turning a 35 degree temperature into a downright frigid trek. It sure wasn't windy on land, but out there in the middle of the Potomac, and suspended a mere 35 feet or so above the water, there was a nasty wind chill. Definitely no lounging around on this bridge. This one was all business.

On the scariness rating, removing the concern about frostbite, the bridge did have some challenges. A somewhat narrow sidewalk and very open sides were the biggest ones, but the bridge is very low, the railings are very high (about neck level), and the iron railings are close enough together that no wind gust will blow anyone off that bridge, no matter how cold it is. The bridge is about half a mile long at that point, making it a moderate length. So, we'll give it a 10.5 scariness rating, a 2 for height, 3 for length, and 5.5 for width (basically the openness of the sides and narrow sidewalk).

We survived the cold, but these winter bridge treks could be tough, and this bridge isn't even north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it's only December.

Bridges of Paris: Passerelle Leopold-Sedar-Senghor

Sunday, October 31, 2010 |

The final bridge of Paris we'll report on will be the Passerelle Leopold-Sedar-Senghor, which is a footbridge over the Seine just next door to Pont de la Concorde (see previous post). A passerelle, apparently, translates to a gateway or footbridge, which I guess differentiates it from a bridge ("pont" in french), but it qualifies as a bridge to me. The Passerelle was completed in 1999, so it's very modern by Paris standards. It links the Tuileries Gardens (Jardin de Tuileries) with the Musee d'Orsay on the left bank, which houses an amazing collection of Impressionist art. There are benches to sit on in the middle of the bridge, allowing it to be somewhat of a hangout for people. There's a great statue of good old Thomas Jefferson at the entrance on one end.

The bridge has a bit of an arc, and the sides are a bit on the open side, so this is actually one of the scarier bridges we crossed in Paris, though still rather tame. And we can actually see through to the water at one point in the bridge, not a good characteristic. We don't have a rating system, however, for the scariest part of the bridge. Apparently it is a host to one of the great scams in Paris. Yes, my wife and I were unprepared for the old, found gold ring trick. We were walking on the bridge and an old woman walking toward us looks down and picks up a ring, shows it to us, asks us if it is ours (I think that's what she was saying), showed us some engraving supposedly showing it was pure gold (it wasn't), implored us to keep it, left it with us, then walked away, only to return a few seconds later asking for money. Back down onto the bridge goes the ring, and away we walk. Amazingly, on the other half of the bridge, an older man we were approaching reaches down to pick up something shiny, but before he can even straighten up, we were out of there, and quickly off the bridge. Rings come out of nowhere on that bridge. But, we rate bridges only for their natural scariness. This one gets a 6.5 (2 for height, 4 for width, and 0.5 for length). I think I'd stay away at night.

Bridges of Paris: Pont de la Concorde


The Pont de la Concorde is an arch, stone bridge connecting the Place de la Concorde, one of the most important public squares in Paris, with the left bank of the Seine. The bridge was built in the late 1700s, completed in 1791, using at least in part stones from the destroyed Bastille; that was, of course, during the time of the French Revolution. The bridge was later widened, but it is apparently the same basic structure.

The Place de la Concorde is an extremely impressive central square, containing an obelisk from Egypt that dates back to about 1000 B.C., and was given to France by Egypt in the 1800s. The square is at the edge of the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs-Elysees. A number of people were guillotined in the square during the French revolution, most notably King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Today, there's a lot of vehicular traffic that goes through the square.

The bridge, which is just south of the Place de la Concorde, offers nice views of the area. It is pretty low bridge, and very short at about 0.1 miles. One can see the Eiffel Tower clearly to the west. The bridge has wide sidewalks for pedestrians. The sides of the bridge are a little open, and just above waist level, but very solid stone. As with Pont Neuf, Pont de la Concorde is not a scary bridge. I give it a scariness rating of just 5.5, equal to Pont Neuf (3 for width, 0.5 for length, and 2 for height). As with Pont Neuf, it is to be enjoyed for its views and location.

Bridges of Paris: Pont Neuf


Moving on from London, let's see what the bridges of Paris have to offer. The Seine is pretty narrow, so we won't be looking at long bridges. But, boy, the City of Light has some interesting bridges to explore.

First stop is Pont Neuf (pronounced something like PON-NUF). Despite its name (which translates to "New Bridge"), it's the oldest bridge in Paris, completed way back in 1607. We can't pass up the opportunity to cross that bridge. It connects the left and right banks of the Seine to the Île de la Cité, a small island that contains the gems of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the church of Sainte-Chapelle.

Pont Neuf is an arch bridge made out of stone, carrying both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Like much of the city, it is a bridge meant to be walked. It has beautiful views down the river as far as the Eiffel Tower and back towards Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame. It has little alcoves on it with seats carved out of the stone, always a sign of a good walking bridge. There was construction of some type on the road part of the bridge, but the pedestrian walkways were unaffected when we were there. The bridge is not high, but that doesn't stop the beauty of the views. A definite must during a visit to Paris.

Unless you're worried that a 400-year old bridge has reached the end of its useful lifetime (it was last renovated just a few years ago, so no worry there), it isn't a scary bridge at all: wide sidewalks, completely solid sides (though not overly high at just above waist level), very short in overall length (about 0.1 miles), not very high above the water (I can't find any official stats, so I estimate at 40 feet). A trek onto this bridge is for pure enjoyment. I give it a scariness rating of 5.5 (2 for height, 3 for width, and 0.5 for length).

Bridges of London: Millennium Bridge

Saturday, October 30, 2010 |

Bridge walking in London wouldn't be complete without a trek over the Millennium Bridge. It's a footbridge, no vehicle traffic, that was opened in, of course, 2000. It is located just south of St. Paul's Cathedral and crosses the Thames and connects to the Tate Modern art museum on the south bank. This bridge had a serious swaying problem immediately after opening in 2000, then was quickly closed for a couple of years while it was reinforced somehow. And I'm sure you didn't miss how it collapsed during one of the Harry Potter movies. Despite that checkered past, we were willing to give it a try and stroll across.

It is a short bridge, about 0.2 miles, like Tower Bridge and probably most bridges across the Thames in London. Millennium Bridge is pretty wide, at about 13 feet. The bridge is listed at about 35 feet above the water, so it's not all that high, either. Its great views, you might say, come from being exceptionally open on the sides. To me, the railing looked like little pieces of tight string horizontally. But, fortunately, upon closer inspection it was metal like the rest of the bridge. The sides are around chest high. So, the sides of the bridge make it a more challenging bridge to cross than, say, Tower Bridge. The bridge gets a scariness rating of 8 (5 for the sides--not for the width or height but for the openness, 2 for bridge height, and 1 for length).

The bridge allows a great view back at St. Paul's Cathedral, the great architectural achievement of Christopher Wren from the 17th Century. The Cathedral somehow survived the Blitz in 1940-41. And looking out into the water, other bridges of the Thames can easily be seen, including Tower Bridge to the east. All in all, definitely worth the trip, especially combining a trip to St. Paul's and then going over to the Tate Modern.

Bridges of London: Tower Bridge

Thursday, October 28, 2010 |

A trip to London enabled some nice walks over the Thames. First stop is Tower Bridge, which opened in 1894. It gets its name, you may know, because next door on land is the Tower of London, which goes way back to the Normans in the 11th Century. But we focus on the bridges. This is one of those iconic bridges that can't be missed. The Tower Bridge connects the City of London, near the financial district, with Southwark (pronounced something like "SUTH-erk").

This is a bridge better suited for its majesty than for its bridge walking challenge. The base part of the bridge is very close to the water, perhaps 25 or 30 feet high. It is a draw bridge so most river traffic can pass. The bridge accommodates both vehicles and pedestrians. The bridge has a high part between the two towers, roughly 130 feet or so above the water, that can be traversed on foot. I figured at least that would give a height challenge, but I hadn't known that it was enclosed. Bridges are, of course, meant to be crossed in the open air. Otherwise, they are like bridge tunnels. The views are nice up there on the upper level, but being behind glass takes away much of the thrill. So, a low scariness rating for height. And the bridge is very short, maybe 0.2 miles long, as the Thames is never very wide in London. The side supports are nicely solid, though not overly high, somewhere between waist high and chest high. But overall not very scary at all, getting a combined scariness rating of 5.5 (1.5 for height, 3 for width, 1 for length).

Regardless, the views off the bridge are enjoyable. Looking towards the east, one can see down the river and to other bridges that cross the Thames.

As I said, this bridge should be enjoyed for its majesty. How many bridges make you feel like you're entering a castle? The bridge is getting something of a face-lift currently, as a major painting job is underway that is supposed to be finished around the time of the Olympics in 2012. There was a lot of scaffolding around. The bridge itself might be closed to all traffic for some time in 2011, so we got lucky to be able to cross at all.

Teddy Roosevelt Bridge

Sunday, August 15, 2010 |

In short, it was an ugly day for an ugly bridge. The Teddy Roosevelt Bridge carries Interstate 66 across the Potomac River between Rosslyn in Northern Virginia and Washington DC. The Roosevelt Bridge opened in 1964 and at one end goes just over the edge of Theodore Roosevelt Island, which is an underappreciated Washington park accessible only by a footbridge. The bridge itself is low enough that the trees from the island bounce up against the bridge near the Virginia side. The bridge looks like an iron structure, with signs of rust, far from picturesque. Some have noted the irony of Teddy Roosevelt's island, maintained by the National Park Service as a natural park, having such a bridge going over it.

The TR Bridge is a little over a half mile long, very low, and with pretty narrow pedestrian walkways on both sides. We went on the south side. The combination of a narrow walkway and a very low, thigh-level barrier separating the vehicles from the pedestrians does not make for a relaxing stroll. And the barriers on the water side aren't all that high either, about just above waist level. So, as far as scariness rating is concerned, what the bridge gives in height, it makes up in cramped, unprotected walkway. I give it a scariness rating of 2 (out of 10) for height, 3 for length, and 7 for width (solidity of side barriers, nearness to edge, etc), making a sum of 12 out of a possible 30. Not so bad, but not so great. Here's a case where others might agree with me, especially those who don't like cars driving just about right next to them at near highway speed.

And not all days can be nice ones for a bridge trek. The morning was overcast with a shower that went through town, and the forecast was for improving conditions, so we were off. The rain had stopped until we made it up to the bridge, when it started to sprinkle, and then by the time we were in the middle of the bridge, it was a steady rain, with some mild gusty winds, and who brings umbrellas onto a bridge trek? We started from the DC side, made it most of the way across, reaching Roosevelt Island, then turned around. The rain stopped as we exited the bridge. There were no other pedestrians or bikers on the bridge; they could not have been missed. That bridge is not made for pedestrians. It doesn't really seem to leave pedestrians off anywhere useful on the Virginia side anyway.

Well, maybe we can give that bridge another chance on a better day. And maybe during rush hour to slow down traffic.

Arlington Memorial Bridge

Sunday, July 11, 2010 |

If you're looking for a manageable walk over a beautiful bridge with a lot of history on both sides, the Arlington Memorial Bridge is a perfect choice. The bridge, which was completed in 1932, crosses the Potomac River and essentially connects Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia side with the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington, D.C. side. There are wide, 15 foot sidewalks on both sides of the bridge, very accommodating to walkers; there are even seats built into the marble railings. It's not a long bridge, coming in at around 0.4 miles. And it's a rather low bridge, yet with a nice view of the surrounding area.

The railings on this bridge are about as solid as they come, a very important attribute. They are made of thick stone, and reach to about shoulder level. That seems to be just about the perfect combination to allow good viewing and yet provide a sense of security to the wary walker. This is the first bridge I've walked across where it almost seemed better to be near the edge -- there is no barrier whatsoever between the road and the sidewalk. Nonetheless, it is an urban bridge with relatively slow traffic.

For July in Washington, the weather was great for today's trek over the bridge, with a break in the recent east coast heat wave. We walked from the Virginia side to the D.C. side, with a the Lincoln Memorial in front of us. And turning around, we could see the Lee Mansion in the cemetery sticking out of the hills. They say the bridge is symbolic in that it connects the old North and South; apparently Robert E. Lee wrote his letter resigning from the U.S. Army in April 1841 from the family mansion.

The following link from the National Park Service web site provides some interesting notes about the bridge.


After crossing the river, we could get nice views of the bridge from the side, above the roadway below that runs between the river and the Lincoln Memorial. So, it was a very enjoyable, and not at all scary walk. On the scary rating, a 2 for height, 2 for width, and 2 for length. That adds up to 6, the lowest rating yet given. I guess they can't all be scary.

Key Bridge, Washington, DC (south walkway)

Sunday, June 27, 2010 |

Yesterday was a lazy late June day in Washington, D.C, about 90 degrees and only moderately humid. For Washington in late June, that made it a perfect day for a bridge trek.

Key Bridge crosses the Potomac River and connects Arlington, Virginia, with Georgetown in Washington, D.C. It was named after Francis Scott Key, who lived in Georgetown for a time and wrote what would become the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner after watching (while held on a British ship) the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812--yes in the morning, looking at the fort, he did see that the "star-spangled banner yet wave." The Potomac River bridge bearing his name was completed in 1923, making it the oldest of a series of bridges that cross the Potomac in the Washington, D.C. area. It's a short bridge, about one-third of a mile long, with 5 lanes of traffic in all. It has sidewalks on both sides for pedestrians and bikers, with barricades to separate the sidewalk users from cars, and neck-high metal railings to separate the sidewalk users from the river below. The bridge is very popular with both pedestrians (especially joggers) and bikers. We walked on the south side of the bridge, nearest to the major parts of Washington. We started from the Virginia side, walked across to Georgetown, then recrossed.

For full disclosure, I've walked this bridge before. It's a quite manageable walk. The bridge is much lower and with much more modest views than the George Washington and Brooklyn Bridges in NYC, our recent bridge treks. But in Washington, where nothing other than the Washington Monument gets very high off the ground, you still can get a great view of the area off of the Key Bridge. We could easily see (though difficult to see in the photo below) the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Watergate Hotel (scene of the burglary in 1972 that started the whole Watergate Affair, of course, that brought down President Nixon). In the other direction is a nice view of the spires of Georgetown University.

I don't know exactly how high the bridge is above the river; I'm guessing 80 feet or so. Aren't there maps that boaters must have in order to know the clearance for various structures, depending on the tides and river flow? Well, I'm not a boater, and if the internet doesn't provide reliable estimates, I can estimate the height myself.

So, walking Key Bridge is a great way to get a different perspective on Washington. And it provides a great way to get up close to the edge of a bridge. Those neck-high metal railings are solid and there is no way to fall over them, although they do shake a bit when you actually hold onto them (what a complainer). Overall scariness rating is a 10, with a 3.5 for height, 1.5 for length, and 5 for width (yes, fractions are allowed).

George Washington Bridge, lower deck

Monday, June 14, 2010 |

The George Washington Bridge is one of the busiest suspension bridges in the world, connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey with Upper Manhattan in New York City. The bridge is about a mile long and has 2 decks, an upper one completed in 1931 and a lower one added in 1962. Once a year they close the lower deck for a few hours early on a Sunday morning for a walk/run/bike across, starting from the NJ side, as part of a fundraising effort for the American Cancer Society. A perfect opportunity to support the effort and, yes, try out a bridge walk.

I, my wife, and reportedly another 700 or so people participated yesterday in the walk part. We may not have looked, in general, in as good physical condition as the bikers and runners (who started and finished earlier), but we were a quite determined group nonetheless. We walked right by the toll booths and onto the road for cars that went down through a short tunnel that exited right onto the lower level of the bridge. The top level was just above us, enclosing the lower level a lot and making it less bridge-like. I could hear the cars rolling over on the top level, just above us. In fact, when I stopped, I could feel the bridge moving some as it seemed to adjust to bumps from the cars overhead. A little disconcerting, and definite incentive to keep moving.

Walking on the lower deck roadway of the George Washington Bridge, with 3 lanes for traffic in our direction, meant you didn't have to get all that close to the edge. That was fortunate because the barriers on the side were rather low and somewhat open, and we were quite high off the ground from the get go. The roadway height above the water is officially listed at 212 feet, but that's from the upper level. So, subtracting, say, 20 feet for being on the lower level, puts the height at maybe 190 feet or so, and no time for acclimating whatsoever. The views were actually quite spectacular, with a sweeping view of downtown NYC. The views were obstructed somewhat by the upper deck, but were so spectacular nonetheless that I don't think I've held my wife's hand for so long since maybe our 5th year of marriage. (Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge walk, some of my fellow walkers might have guessed the reason this time, like the family that, from my perspective, went around me to ask my wife to take their picture). The spectacular views did not include the beautiful, signature bridge towers. I could see them from land.

So we pushed on. The course didn't actually allow participants to enter New York City and exit the bridge, but rather the course went to one end and then just reversed, retracing the steps on the same part of the bridge. This was an untimed, non-competitive race (though we did get numbered bibs), and so we were allowed to just go halfway over the bridge and turn right around in order to keep the distance manageable. Thus, we made it to the goal of halfway over the bridge, at just about the sign announcing the New York line, and turned around. It now officially counts as a full bridge walk if you do the same half of the bridge twice in the same walk.

For scariness rating (height/length/width, like the old volume formula), I have to give the lower level Geo Washington an 8 for height, 5 for length, and 5 for width (nearness to solid side supports), for a total score of 18.

It's time for some shorter bridge treks, closer to home, to focus on some less high Washington DC bridges and actually get up to the edge.

Brooklyn Bridge

Saturday, May 29, 2010 |

Under the theory that if you can walk panic-free over a bridge, then you can drive over it comfortably as well, I have started a progressive program of walking over scary bridges. The more people I speak with about my big discomfort about driving over major bridges, the more I find others who are also uncomfortable, but, unlike me, most of them will at least do it. (Of course, maybe they're just trying to make me feel better and say they're uncomfortable.) Anyway, it's time to put my walking theory to the test. Although I've done some preliminaries on Washington, DC bridges, where I live, there's nothing like New York City for lots of high, long bridge choices, and the first step in the program is a trek to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Last Sunday, May 23, was a cloudy day, but at 70 degrees pretty much perfect for a good bridge walk. With me were family who live right on the Manhattan side of the bridge, perfect guides, and my wife. The Brooklyn Bridge, if you haven't seen it, is a beautiful structure built in the 1870s and early 1880s, with the towers (for the suspension cables) built of stone. The bridge, of course, goes between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Solid as a rock. John and Washington Roebling knew what they were doing when they designed and built that bridge. But it is rather high. Fortunately the pedestrian path goes above the road, right in the center of the bridge, so while walking over it I was far from the bridge edge; no way a rogue gust of wind could do any damage, except maybe to my hat. And I guess if you fell, it would be 15 feet or so into traffic, and there were lots of cabs down there who could pick you up. And there were lots of people, lots and lots of people to keep you company. And benches to rest on. That bridge was built for walking. (Well, it actually was built before automobiles, so maybe it was built for horses, too.)

Back to the bridge walk. The bridge was about a mile long including all the approaches, and walking over it was moderately anxiety inducing, at least at first. You have to climb upgrade somewhat, and that doesn't help. And it does get pretty high up, I'll say again. But with my cool, young niece there to point out the sights and provide real perspective, and my wife to hold hands with at one point (an affectionate couple, everybody figures), and other family encouragement, it was quite manageable. A challenge, but not overwhelming so, thus a perfect start to the bridge walking experience.

The scariness of bridges can be rated, I believe, by three factors: height, length, and width (think of the mathematical formula for volume). With each of the factors getting a score of up to 10 (with higher numbers being worse), I give the Brooklyn Bridge a scary score of 13: 6 for height (135 feet in the air according to wiki), 5 for length, and 2 for width (nearness to edge, openness of bridge, solidity of side supports). No intangibles to add to or subtract from that score. 13 out of 30 leaves lots of room for bigger challenges.

Next stop may be the George Washington Bridge in a couple of weeks. We'll see.