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.

  • JK

    Thanks for this important piece, which I hope you expand on in the future. University campuses are obvious potential building blocks for making cities and towns more walkable and desirable places to live. In places like Upstate NY, the SUNY campuses could be anchors for renewing and strengthening inner cities, but they squander this potential by building huge, wasteful, parking lots which force more car use and sap the tax base.

  • weffie

    . It doesn’t follow logically that a badly built solution is indicative of a systemic failure.

  • And allow students to continue to be able to get to school. Living on campus can be expensive and something a lot of students elect to opt out of for obvious reasons.

  • Tooscrapps

    It also has unbuffered, unprotected bike lanes on a 45mph limit straightaway.

    Who would want to bike next to vehicles traveling at 55mph?

  • Vulcan Logic

    That was the first thing i noticed when i dropped myself down in VR-mode street view. I had to go all the way to the end of the superblock to find an actual speed limit sign and was mortified to see how high it was with that horribly narrow, unbuffered lane.

  • Vulcan Logic

    It does when you consider 14 million taxpayer dollars were used to create a flashy way to cross a street that already had a stoplight and crosswalk.

  • Vinstar

    Just looking at it would tell you that bridge was a walking death trap.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The bridge leads directly to two gigantic parking garages. The people who are walking over this bridge, if they ever rebuild it, also have to walk past those two hulks to get to the university part of the campus.

    Of course we’re making the exact same mistake right now in the Bay Area with the pedestrian bridge at Milpitas BART. The housing is north of Montague and the train station is south of it, and it’s way too dangerous to cross this 175-foot right-of-way so they put in a bridge … directly serving the parking garage.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The $14 million is going to look like nothing after the wrongful death suits are all settled.

  • Vooch

    Don‘t fret the local Police have issued hundreds of tickets at this intersection to suicidal jay walkers in a heroic safety campaign.

  • SD70MACMAN

    That station is a sprawling suburban cathedral to wasting precious TOD space.

  • Simon Phearson

    So it sounds like what you’re saying is that parking on campus is too cheap.

  • Joe Linton

    Imagine if all transportation infrastructure that killed 6+ people were investigated to the extent that this one will be

  • Two words: Transit service.
    One more word: Bikes.

  • Joe R.

    Putting aside the fact the bridge was shoddily constructed, I’d much rather at least have the option of an overpass at a crossing like that. Even if there’s a traffic signal, motorists don’t always stop for red lights. Also, there’s likely a very long wait for a walk signal, followed by a short walk cycle where you probably need to run across the street to make it in time. Given all that, I’d prefer an overpass. No waiting, and I cross at my own pace.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Especially since there is a twelve foot median in the middle at this intersection that could easily have been on the side.

    https://www.google.de/maps/place/Miami,+FL,+USA/@25.7611415,-80.3731699,125a,35y,342.79h/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x88d9b0a20ec8c111:0xff96f271ddad4f65!8m2!3d25.7616798!4d-80.1917902

  • AMH

    The context is very useful. From the headlines I’ve seen and heard, I had no idea that the bridge was brand-new nor that it constitutes a key connection for foot and bike traffic likely to be generated by the university. That intersection is just awful. If anyone needs safe streets for walking and biking, it’s students.

  • thielges

    That’s not how “walk” signal timing works. They are configured so that the slower of pedestrians (elderly, disabled, children) can cross without running.
    Pedestrian overcrossings should only be used as a last resort. Even safe, structurally sounds POCs require people to climb up and down about 20′ just to cross a street. It is much easier to just cross at a grade level crosswalk.
    Sounds like the root problem was unsafe motorist behavior. That problem should have been directly addressed rather than circumventing it with an expensive POC.

  • Joe R.

    Even if walk signal timing works that way, you still have to wait for the walk signal to cross the street. I don’t see how that’s preferable to using an overpass. It’s frankly more insulting to ask pedestrians to wait, often for long periods, to cross a street than to go up 20′. in reality what will happen is people will get tired of waiting, and cross whenever there are gaps in traffic. That poses its own set of problems.

    Level crossings are fine for the vast majority of streets but they don’t work well for busy, wide arterials like that street. In an ideal world, such arterials wouldn’t even exist but for now we’re stuck with them. If money were no object, in lieu of a raised pedestrian overpass I would put the car intersection 20′ below grade so any pedestrian bridges wouldn’t require people to climb up or down. Unfortunately, that would cost orders of magnitude more than a pedestrian bridge.

  • Tooscrapps

    The lanes we’re clearly an afterthought during the design and construction. Just like safe pedestrian crossings.

  • Alan

    Spot on, I was so appalled when I read about the reasoning to use that technique. Safety first!

  • Dana

    Right on. This whole project should be reconsidered to design for reduced speed and a pleasant human environment. For people, walkability, and reduction of VMT. In honor of the people who died, perhaps.

  • thielges

    At grade intersections everybody has to wait sometimes: cars, pedestrians, bikes. It is just fair. Maybe what you are referring to are grade crossings where pedestrians have to wait many minutes to cross a street. That’s caused by granting preference to the cross traffic and can be fixed by reducing the green cycle for cross traffic. Of course that bites into throughput on the cross traffic direction and traffic engineers are often more concerned with speeding automobile traffic than accommodating all street users.

  • Joe R.

    The key words are wait sometimes. At grade intersections generally work fine when both pedestrian and motor traffic are relatively light. In that case, no need for traffic signals, only a yield sign or stop sign. In general, motorists will occasionally have slight delays when people are crossing but many times they won’t. In theory, if motorists yield to pedestrians as the law prescribes, pedestrians will almost never be delayed. The exception might be if they reach the crosswalk when vehicles in motion are almost near it. In that case, they may need to briefly wait for a a vehicle or two to pass, but that’s perfectly acceptable.

    When you have high levels of vehicle and/or pedestrian traffic things get suboptimal. If you reduce the green cycle for cross traffic, you reduce throughput. That in turn means more stopped vehicles, more pollution, more frustrated drivers likely to disobey basic right-of-way rules, etc. Not a great answer, particularly at night when you might be stopping vehicles and nobody is crossing.

    Therefore, you have a couple of potential solutions if here are lots of vehicles but not too many pedestrians. One is push to cross. If done right, the pedestrian should get a walk signal within seconds but it’s often not done right. That minimizes delay to the pedestrian, provided it’s done properly. Motor traffic is only delayed when someone is actually crossing.

    A second alternative is a pedestrian bridge or tunnel. No delay for either user but anyone crossing must go up and down.

    A third alternative is a long light cycle to preserve throughput (necessary if this is a busy main artery). The drawback is obviously unacceptably long waits to cross. That’s why I would dismiss this solution out of hand in favor of one of the others.

    When you have large numbers of both pedestrians and motor vehicles there really aren’t anything but suboptimal solutions. Traffic lights are one. Here in the interests of fairness you have to have roughly equal times for motorists and pedestrians to go. That means delays. In general it seems pedestrians come out far worse in this situation. In Manhattan for example a person walking at average speed might be stuck waiting a full red light cycle every block or two.

    The second solution for large numbers of both uses is a pedestrian bridge. Again, not a great solution for several reasons. One, lots of people are now forced to go up and down, not a few as in the case of lots of motor vehicles but few pedestrians. Two, bridges cost lots of money. The only advantage is nobody has delays.

    A third solution, which is the best one, is also the most costly. This is to put the street below grade level so any pedestrian bridges are at grade.

    When you look at all these solutions the one common denominator is that the best ones don’t require people to wait long or at all to cross a street. If we want a society where we want to encourage people to get around under their own power, that’s how it should be. If you’re on two feet or two wheels, you should seldom need to wait for motor vehicles.

  • Angelmuso

    There was no walk signal on 109 ave and 8 street that I recall. There was a light but it is nearly impossible to cross an 8 lane highway even for students. For some reason FIU decided to build dorms across 8 street and that’s where the problems began. 0n adjacent 107 ave and 16 street, a 6 lane blvd, there is a walk signal of 20 sec but that includes incoming traffic on 16 street making a right in front of you while you walk. Impossible for any older adult and I should say there is an elder housing building on 107. Anyways in Florida cars cross right in front of you. State has refused to change the Right Turn right of way for cars. In some cases cars are going into the university to avoid traffic on 8 street creating another hazard. The university has put in traffic calming strategies but outside traffic rarely obey the pedestrian right of way that students have inside the campus. I walk every day to work at FIU and see it all the time.

  • Angelmuso

    Yes this is correct these are university garages. Although the university side is more pleasant to walk because it’s a shorter block and FIU has introduced traffic calming features and wider sidewalks with trees etc. I did hear initially the university wanted traffic calming on 8 street but 8 street is a state road so FDOT has final say.

  • Angelmuso

    Actually presently it has sharrows and no one bikes there; they’ll get killed as no one in Miami obeys signals and actually use bike lanes as another way to speed through traffic on 8 street.

  • Angelmuso

    There used to be a raised median. They took it off when they expanded 8 street just recently, making it worse. Basically FDOT used the TIGER money not only to build the bridge but to expand 107 ave and 8 street lanes at the same time they were building the bridge. As they expand lanes west they are taking out the raised medians. Perfect example of how NOT to do urban planning in one of the densest suburbs in Miami Dade County.

  • Angelmuso

    All good points. The only people that cross here are students. FIU built two 20 floor towers of dorms across 8 street. So we are talking about students on their cell phones late for class. Already an 18 year old girl got killed last year I believe, leading to the hastily arrived at solution of the bridge.

  • Joe R.

    I read more about it and it turns out the students asked for the bridge. I know pedestrian bridges aren’t held in high regard by most Streetsblog readers but there are times when they represent the best possible solution. This seems to be one of them. Your description above of the crossing situation makes it sound like a real shit show. It would take major changes to the intersection and continued heavy enforcement to even make crossing there remotely comfortable. Even then, I’m sure there would be “accidents”. Unfortunately, sometimes you just have to work around the built environment. As much as we wish otherwise, for the present car sewers aren’t going away. They may in a generation or two, but for now they limit our solutions.

    Of course, the way the bridge failed was totally unacceptable. If you need to temporarily delay car traffic for longer to ensure a safe bridge, then you should do so. I doubt they would have taken such shortcuts if this was a motor vehicle bridge.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m more tolerant of the idea that cities need arterials than many here, so I took a look at the broader context. Does this area need this road as a vehicle-first highway, or do the vehicles have their own restricted space nearby?

    SW 8th Street was, in fact, a highway before the area developed — Route 41. It is typical of many highways built before the interstate era — with intersections and commercial lots directly off it. Think Route 17 in Paramus.

    But now, there are north-south and east-west limited access highways right nearby. So Route 41 no longer needs to serve its original purpose of long-distance, high-speed vehicular travel. It is not the middle of the city, and there are limited access highways nearby.

    BUT THOSE HAVE TOLLS.

  • thielges

    Joe – Most POCs introduce delay, not from the climbing required but from detours required to and from the ADA ramp touchdown points. Only in very rare cases where pedestrian traffic is already channelized at both ends of the ramps there is no detour. Some POCs even force a detour for everybody using the ramp. See the “U” shaped POC attached below, it forces a 1/4 mile detour for every person crossing. It crosses a freeway but the same style can be used over stroads like 8th. That ~5 minute delay is comparable to the grade crossing time waiting for even the worst signalized intersection.

    After reading Angelmuso’s description of the area it sounds like there is a lot that Florida and Miami could do to make the grade intersection better. Amazing that there was not even a “Walk” signal at an intersection with heavy pedestrian traffic. They should:
    – lower the speed limit
    – add a “walk” signal cycle
    – disallow cars entering the crosswalk while people are crossing

    https://www.google.com/maps/@37.3977225,-122.0219123,137m/data=!3m1!1e3

  • Which is great in small towns, but not in a lot of places. When I was in college, I had classmates who were driving 50 miles each way to get to class and there’s no transit service available that is even worth thinking about.

  • Raising parking prices does nothing beyond making it even harder for people to attend school. Parking prices jumped more than 50% at my school from when I started to when I left, yet almost everyone still drove because there’s no viable alternative for getting to or from class on time when one lives 40 miles away. Which is the situation at a number of schools.

  • Joe R.

    Obviously overpasses which require a long detour are totally unacceptable. I would never advocate for such a “solution”. As far as ramps go, you can always build stairs to avoid a detour to the ramps.

    Yes, you can do all those things you mentioned BUT without constant 24/7 enforcement drivers won’t yield to pedestrians, obey the speed limit, or stop at red lights. When you think of solutions the general pyramid is infrastructure, education, enforcement. You don’t want a solution which depends primarily upon enforcement to work. Also, from a personal standpoint I wouldn’t want to cross that road even with all those things. As an example, look at this crossing here:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7218663,-73.8438834,3a,75y,176.86h,87.99t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sJKZftbG4yEv5D4c_5kG_og!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    It has ALL the things you want at the FIU crossing—fairly long walk signal, low (i.e. 30 mph) speed limit, cars not allowed to enter crosswalk while turning, and pedestrian islands midcrossing. Despite all that, whenever I need to cross that street I invariably use the subway station as a defacto underpass. I’d much rather deal with climbing about 10 feet up and down than waiting for turning cars which don’t yield, getting stuck midcrossing when the light changes (hence requiring ~3 minutes total to cross), and in general running the gauntlet just to cross a street. While we don’t need an overpass on this street because we have the subway station, if the subway station didn’t exist I think lots of people would be asking for one.

    Maybe the best answer is to not build overpasses in lieu of level crossings on stroads, but to build them as an option for those who would rather use them instead of an existing level crossing, even if all the pedestrian treatments you mention exist.

  • The city of Miami had no role as it’s outside city limits. Miami Dade County has jurisdiction, as the bridge is in an unincorporated part of the county. This is actually part of the issue: most of the unincorporated parts of the county are car-dependent western suburbs and they apply ideas for those suburbs to everything they do. Most of the efforts to improve walkability have been made by cities on the east side.

  • Vooch

    protected bike lanes solve 80% of the challenge for commuter students at nil cost

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Why didn’t they just swap the position of the parking garages and the student housing?

  • The point being made here is that such transit services are feasible, and should exist. There are people who commute to and from New York City by bus from eastern Pennsylvania, a distance of about 75 miles. A guy in my office lives in Easton.

  • Stuart

    “Of course that bites into throughput on the cross traffic direction and traffic engineers are often more concerned with speeding automobile traffic than accommodating all street users.”

    That is the imperative that traffic engineers are given by their political masters, who in turn get that from the voters. So you can’t blame the engineers – only the voters.

  • For people who live two miles away, sure. But many students live many multiples of that distance away and have schedule constraints.

  • wklis

    But I want to be an expressway.

  • Joe R.

    The logical answer here is VMT tolling. You’ll be tolled regardless of which road you use, so you’ll be incentized to take faster routes instead of free but slower ones.

  • Vooch

    I‘d argue it’s a solution for 3-4 miles away. Draw a circle 4 miles around campus and you will see for pennies you have solved the challenge for a majority of people.

    no solution will work for 100% of people.

  • Yes, students are famously poor, so we could perhaps assume that they’ll bike four miles. But that still does nothing for the thousands of commuter students who drive 35 miles each way and have work right after class. There’s no way they’re making that by bike.

  • Guy Ross

    The ‘solution’ itself is bad and is indicative of a systemic failure. The quality of construction is only an issue in that it shines a light on this failure because it itself failed. I feel it’s pretty spot on.

  • Guy Ross

    If you subsidize it, they will come. And from your anecdote, if you subsidize it enough, the will come from VERY far.

  • Simon Phearson

    First of all, the 40-mile commuter is unlikely to be the typical case, so we shouldn’t design university campuses to cater to them, much less subsidize that kind of commute to the extent that other students find it economical.

    Second, you should think about all the ways we already subsidize the 40-mile commmuter. Free highways? Ample free parking at home and at most destinations? Tax breaks and public grants to make those far-flung exurbs economically viable? Zero charge for the health and safety risks such driving imposes on the communities through which they drive? No one chooses to drive 80 miles a day unless we’ve already done a whole lot to make that kind of commute bearable and cheap. That doesn’t mean we should double down on that poor planning.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    All ped overpasses must be ADA-compliant, so there must be either an elevator, or long ramps that make for a long, circuitous path. Ped bridges are often not used by peds specifically because they are inconvenient.

  • Joe R.

    Nothing is stopping anyone from putting in stairs, in addition to the ramps, so anyone able to climb steps avoids a long detour.

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