February 29, 2024

Pedestrian Bridges Make Cities Less Walkable. Why Do Cities Keep Building Them?

Pedestrian bridges do not encourage walkable, livable communities, nor do they improve road safety for drivers or cyclists. Separating people from the street reinforces the prioritization of motor vehicles, while encouraging speeding, driver negligence, and traffic fatalities.

This article was updated from a previous version published in 2019.

What Are Pedestrian Bridges?

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 exacerbates poor road safety for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. Separating people from the street reinforces the prioritization of personal motor vehicles, while encouraging speeding, driver negligence, and traffic fatalities.

This type of bridge exemplifies some of the major problems with pedestrian bridges: it includes a steep, inaccessible staircase with high-emission cars passing quickly beneath it.

Prioritizing Cars, Not People

One of the primary problems with pedestrian bridges is that they are not designed in a manner that prioritizes the ease of crossing for people. Pedestrian bridges are, on average, much longer than at-grade crosswalks. Compared to an average street crossing of 11 meters, the typical pedestrian bridge spans 103 meters due to ramps or stairways needed to elevate bridges above street level. These bridges are typically built with steep stairs or steep sloped ramps which are particularly challenging for people with disabilities, children, the elderly, and anyone carrying goods.

Forcing people to climb high stairs discourages passage and when these areas are poorly lit, as is often the case, women and gender non-conforming people in particular may feel even more unsafe and vulnerable. These structures, are designed in a manner that is inconvenient for pedestrians, placing them above speeding cars and subject to vehicle emissions, reinforcing a mentality that drivers can drive as quickly as they would like. Additionally, when traffic incidents involving pedestrian bridges occur near or beneath pedestrian bridges, the drivers are often absolved of responsibility as the bridges send the message that pedestrians should not be on the street at all.

People walk beneath pedestrian bridge
People in Erode, India pass underneath an unstable and steep pedestrian bridge, essentially negating the supposed benefits of such 'pedestrian infrastructure'.

Due to the hostile design of many of these bridges, pedestrians often forego using them and instead choose to cross the roads underneath them. Pedestrians make decisions based on their environment: if their behavior is risky, it is often the result of inconvenient or inadequate infrastructure, rather than poor personal decision-making. The added distance presented by pedestrian bridges not only creates a physical barrier for those unable to climb stairs or steep ramps, but it also adds extra time and effort that pedestrians will try to avoid by simply crossing at-grade. For example, a study by ITDP India observed two locations in Pune and Erode and found that 85% to 95% of pedestrians continue to cross at-grade even when pedestrian bridges are available.

Furthermore, by keeping people farther away from cars, many motorists are given ‘permission’ to drive faster and more recklessly as a result of these infrastructure decisions. High vehicle speeds can be fatal for pedestrians. Even a speed increase from 50 km/h to 60 km/h, decreases the pedestrian survival rate from 50% to just 10%. Pedestrian bridges are not associated with increased safety for pedestrians. For instance, in Mexico City, the boroughs (delegaciones) with the most pedestrian bridges have the highest rates of traffic crashes involving pedestrians and hit-and-runs, 27% of which occur within 300 meters of a pedestrian bridge. In Nairobi, 43% of crashes involving a pedestrian happen within 500 meters of a pedestrian bridge. Statistically, pedestrian bridges are demonstrably not safer for pedestrians. Because the bridges give drivers a sense or perception of exclusive and unbridled access to the road, they are less likely to be mindful of pedestrians or cyclists.

Rather than building more pedestrian bridges, cities should improve existing intersections and add more mid-block crossings to make streets safer and more comfortable for all.

Better Options Do Exist

To make streets passable and safe for people, cities should put pedestrians first by improving existing crosswalks and intersections and not building difficult-to-pass bridges. Crossings must be made convenient, safe, and direct for pedestrians, cyclists, and others to actually use and benefit from their protection. City streets should have frequent crossings for pedestrians that are clearly marked, timed for a diversity of users, and at the same level as adjoining footpaths or sidewalks. Improvements to existing intersections and the installation of infrastructure like speed bumps or mid-cross refuge islands is often less costly than building and maintaining off-street pedestrian bridges.

For example, in Mexico City, a simple pedestrian bridge can cost about 1.5 million pesos (or upwards of $85,000 USD) while the cost of traffic control mechanisms relating to crosswalks averages less than 800,000 pesos (or around $45,000 USD). In Kenya, the recent development of large-scale pedestrian bridges over arterial streets have cost nearly $2 million USD. On average, maintenance over time for pedestrian bridges is more than double that of at-grade crossings. Investing in on-street pedestrian infrastructure ensures significant short and long term returns. Major cities in the Vision Zero network (such as New York City and Boston in the US) as well as cities leading in pedestrian-first designs (such as Guangzhou, China and Mexico City) are constructing relatively low-cost pedestrian infrastructure projects.

Curb extensions, protected intersections, automatic walk signals, and pedestrian head starts are being implemented in place of pedestrian bridges as a means of reducing traffic fatalities. These cities have seen the benefits of building for people first: increased foot traffic drives local economies and improves public safety. In Auckland, New Zealand, pedestrian delays at just two city center crossings were found to have a combined annual economic cost of nearly $3 million NZ. In Zhaitang Town, China, a targeted pilot of traffic-calming infrastructure including pedestrian refuge islands, raised intersections, and speed bumps resulted in increased usage of crossings and decreased road traffic injuries.

At-grade crosswalks benefit pedestrians by making their passing a priority on the streets. Download the infographic here.

To prioritize people, streets need to be designed first with pedestrians in mind. Moving people out of the way of cars, rather than the other way around, sends a detrimental message that streets exist not for people but for vehicles.


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