The Florida International Bridge Collapse Is About So Much More Than a Failed Structure

It's an indictment of the approach to transportation planning that opts for pedestrian bridges instead of making streets safe for people to cross on foot.

This is the crossing at Florida International University that authorities opted not to redesign. Instead they built a bridge over it, and the bridge failed. Photo:
This is the crossing at Florida International University that authorities opted not to redesign. Instead they built a bridge over it, and the bridge failed. Photo: Google Maps

Six people are dead after a recently-installed pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University in Miami yesterday. Eight cars were trapped under the rubble when the 950-ton structure, which was built using “accelerated bridge construction” techniques and completed just Saturday, gave way.

It’s an unspeakable tragedy, and for a day or two at least, it will focus the nation’s attention on “infrastructure” issues.

You can expect most coverage to treat this as a story about construction failure. But the situation begs reporters to step back and consider a broader perspective.

The pedestrian bridge was installed to give students a safe way to walk across Southwest 8th Street, an eight-lane road that divides the campus from the Sweetwater neighborhood, where about 4,200 university students live.

This highway-like road is very dangerous. A driver killed an 18-year-old student trying to cross the street in August, and students demanded action to improve safety.

The university, the city of Miami, or the state DOT could have tried to make the whole street safer. Southwest 8th Street is clearly too wide, and there are a number of ways to narrow crossing distances and reduce dangerous speeding, like adding concrete median islands, or replacing car lanes with wider sidewalks.

Instead, the state of Florida chose a solution that would not disrupt the configuration for motorized traffic in any way: a pedestrian bridge. The bridge cost $14 million and was funded by a federal TIGER grant.

Not only did the design solution prioritize fast-moving cars, so did the construction technique. The quick-build approach was chosen to “keep the inevitable disruption of traffic associated with bridge construction to a minimum,” according to the university.

While the bridge was going up, the university police were conducting their own “pedestrian safety program.” It started with handing out warnings to pedestrians and cyclists before ramping up with fines for people jaywalking or not using sidewalks. (The campaign also targets drivers who fail to yield, though most warnings went to pedestrians.) The bridge collapsed the day after police announced the blitz of $78 tickets.

Florida routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous states in the country for walking. And if you pan out on this environment, it’s easy to see why. The FIU campus is designed around the movement and storage of cars and is dominated by parking. Locals tell us that there is really no transit access to the university except for a couple of out-of-the-way bus stops.

Hat tip: Sean Meredith
Google Maps via Sean Meredith

In 2015, the Miami Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization released a study of the 8th Street corridor [PDF]. Though it mentioned the FIU campus, the report focuses almost exclusively on speeding up car traffic, not pedestrian safety. The planning agency rejected the addition of bus lanes and instead elected to make the road more like a highway, with grade separations at two intersections.

For its part, Florida International University has been making efforts to calm traffic within its campus. But regional and state planning officials clearly have other priorities.

The National Transportation Safety Board is headed down to Miami to investigate this case — like they do whenever there’s a high profile disaster. And they’re likely to examine the bridge construction process and point out defects — as they should.

But if history is a guide, they will probably ignore the wider context. And that’s a shame. An effective approach to traffic safety would consider the dangerous conditions for pedestrians that led to the construction of the bridge in the first place. If we don’t think critically about these systemic risks, our transportation networks will keep on failing at public safety.

  • Stephen Simac

    Motor vehicles kill more pedestrians every day than this tragic, but mostly preventable disaster. (by moving back area where cars were stopped for red light-as I read the stories, those cars crushed were stopped under the structure) The ongoing daily deaths of pedestrians (around 7,000 a year, last number I saw), don’t get the massive news coverage given this. I agree with Joe that I would rather use an overpass if available than try to cross an 8 lane highway, but believe this collapse will reduce the placement of future ones and possibly remove some aging ones.

  • Stephen Simac

    Rarely do they ticket drivers for speeding through crosswalks when pedestrians are entering or walking through them. When I revisit S. Florida, the casual violations of crosswalks astounds me.

  • Stephen Simac

    Florida DOT operates with a northern Fla cracker mentality. Dade County with a Cuban corruption one. Combine them and you get a bridge constructed by the cousin of Dade’s mayor over a high speed freeway through a residential neighborhood.

  • Vooch

    Marven,

    what percentage of commuter students are you describing ?0

  • Vooch

    obviously the drivers have important places to go to.

  • Angelmuso

    Not sure. FIU actually has plenty of land inside the campus to build housing, and in fact, there is continued development in the campus west of where all this happened. Might have been an economic development deal with Miami-Dade County and the City of Sweetwater. Sweetwater is basically a working class suburb bounded by highways west, and north and 8 Street south. And therefore divided from more affluent suburban cities adjacent to it. There’s little commercial development in the city besides strip malls along Flagler Street, the central street of the city. Continued widening of these expressways and 8 street makes it even more isolated. The bridge construction promotion letters mention connecting to adjacent neighborhoods as a “benefit.” So it might have been an economic development effort to get students to live and shop around Sweetwater. But that is a pipe dream. FIU is a typical self-contained suburban campus with the usual in-campus dining, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, pizzerias, Asian foods, Latin restaurants, etc. and FIU’s own School of Hospitality buffet restaurant and health menus. There’s also laundry, beauty salons, sports complexes and activity centers, and of course, plenty more in campus housing. Heck, living inside FIU is like living in a multi-complex resort development with parks, lakes, water fountains and tree-lined pedestrian walkways between buildings and housing. The strip mall restaurants around it have seen little development, as all student needs are satisfied in campus. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/856a940ea1bd844549e7d68ae272e053f429481d40173c5ad6e10e0613348cef.jpg See pics of FIU campus below. Drastic difference to the outside.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/17fe7681cfd74747d9cf0c30766b343b3a57d8322469e6c9d165e2545049995e.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/70ae4f78dad9de09d5a2626aa21a7267f6e1f83e689dc04ea00aa43a1b903fe5.jpg https://uploads.disqu https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ea8f91187f5a04d7496f37b0457e64042e0a17337169324004899b1e2fe26b7d.jpg scdn.com/images/a2f4b91979e23b51ce46464a384d97c67f85c98e4dd9caf7ecc6b3f032b82349.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ea8f91187f5a04d7496f37b0457e64042e0a17337169324004899b1e2fe26b7d.jpg

  • Javier

    Interesting article, which shows the car – person relationship, with the “car” in a clear dominant position.
    That is something in decline and contrary to friendlier cities.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/88558311c3fd86cbfdbd3e5aa97d1fce06051f79739c9aed668aaec25fe4e4d1.jpg Situation, which will end and the sooner, the better.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Pedestrian Overpasses: Hamster Tunnels for Walking and Biking

|
Skywalks, pedestrian overpasses, or, as our friends at Transit Miami like to call them, “hamster tunnels,” are an ugly symbol of the last century’s transportation sensibilities. In an effort to comfortably integrate pedestrians into the street fabric and boost sidewalk activity, some cities, including Cincinnati and Baltimore, have been tearing down their pedestrian bridges. But […]

The Most Dangerous Places to Walk in America

|
Walking should be the healthiest, most natural activity in the world. It is, after all, one of the first things humans learn to do. But in far too many places, walking can be fatal, thanks to roads designed for speeding cars. In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians lost their lives in traffic collisions in the U.S., and […]