A new pedestrian bridge proposed to go over a highway in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is different from most: It looks like it might actually be pleasant. According to the designers at Moscow-based global architectural studio Atrium, it "reinvents the typology of the bridge as both transitional and recreational spaces."1
It's a fascinating subject for Treehugger, as we have to make our cities safe and attractive for pedestrians and cyclists if we are going to encourage people to get out of cars. And pedestrian highway overpasses are usually unpleasant and unfriendly.
The challenge of pedestrian bridges over highways is they are not there for the benefit of pedestrians but for drivers of cars to keep those pesky pedestrians from slowing them down. Joe Cortright explained in City Observatory: "When we build a sidewalk along a busy arterial, or put in a traffic signal or build a pedestrian overpass, we may call it “pedestrian” infrastructure, but the only reason it’s actually needed is because of the presence and primacy of cars. And its purpose is primarily to benefit cars, speeding car travel, by freeing them from the need to pay attention to or yield to pedestrians."
Pedestrian bridges are particularly awful because you have to climb stairs or long ramps to get high over the roadway. There is usually fencing down either side of the road because nobody wants to climb up the stairs or ramps, and instead, try to run across the road.
One person noted the main purpose of these bridges is to provide shade for pedestrians as they dash across the street. Cortright explained in greater detail:
"Much of what purports to be “pedestrian” infrastructure, is really car infrastructure, and is only necessary in a world that’s dominated by car travel, in places that are laid out to privilege cars. It’s telling that the “level of service” provided to pedestrians (nominally for their safety) would never be tolerated in any freshly built or “improved” highway project: The the ramps to reach overpasses double, triple or quadruple the distance a pedestrian must travel to cross a roadway, and require them to ascend and descend a substantial grade. No highway engineer would build a bypass that doubled or tripled travel times for cars, but they regularly do this for people on foot."
A spiral ramp up with a 5-degree incline takes pedestrians to the bridge. Atrium Studio
The Almaty bridge might be different; it looks like it might actually be a nice place to be. The 1,250-foot-long bridge links two pedestrian-friendly spots, a botanical garden, and a park, and has giant planters built into the columns holding it up.
"The project involves minimal interference with the landscape. This principle not only allows the bridge to be delicately integrated into green areas but also makes its implementation more practical. The supports are used as a tub for plants, and together they imitate various natural zones of Kazakhstan. The depth of the soil allows for the planting of trees with extensive root systems. Due to the vegetation, in combination with the observation platforms, the bridge acquires an expressive silhouette and is transformed into a symbolic place."1
Anyone who has walked The High Line in New York City knows what it is like to get trapped in a slow-moving line of gawkers when you actually want to move. This bridge has a wonderful feature: a fast lane. It's unfortunately blocked in the image above by a selfie-snapping couple, who should be on the meandering section to the right. "Along with a direct and utilitarian route, a winding path has been laid along the bridge—a variability allowing pedestrians to diversify their spatial experiences."1
They do make it sound lovely: "On both sides, in front of the bridge, landscaping is planned as a transition from one green zone to another. From the botanical garden, visitors enter a hill with an observation deck and event spaces. This is a multi-level spatial composition, carefully integrated into the relief."
Of course, it is still going over eight lanes of the noisy polluted highway and assorted parking lots, which are not exactly bucolic. The air quality in Almaty is among the worst in the world. According to one assessment, "Major reasons for the low air quality in Almaty can be ascribed to constantly increasing number of cars, part of which are aging private cars, a high percentage of heavy four-wheal trucks and worn- out busses in combination with a low quality of fuel. Thus, the transport component accounts for close to 80% of the air pollution in the city."
Cortright is not alone in his criticism of pedestrian bridges. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy notes:
"Pedestrian bridges are structures built over roads that require people to take longer, often inaccessible routes up and over many lanes of car traffic, without impeding the speed or movement of vehicular traffic. Proponents of these structures argue that these bridges are made for the safety of pedestrians, by moving pedestrians out of the way of speeding cars. In reality, by displacing people, pedestrian bridges simply reinforce the dominion of vehicles over people on the streets. Pedestrian bridges discourage walking and cycling and worsen road safety for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Separating people from the street reinforces the prioritization of personal motor vehicles, while encouraging speeding, driver negligence, and traffic fatalities."
Is this one from Atrium any different? While the two curvy ramps for people just trying to cross the highway are lovely to look at, they are very long. So in the end, is it a place you might want to linger and take a selfie? Or is this just car infrastructure as Cortright and the ITDP define it, a way to avoid having to stop for pedestrians by making them climb for their lives? Perhaps it is a bit of both.