You might imagine, at first glance, that the new Western Gateway Bridge between Schenetady and Scotia had been designed by a bunch of kids using old wooden blocks they found in the attic. Solid. Severe. Practically featureless. Flat, gray, unyielding — sort of like the inner walls of a maximum-security prison.
Disappointed that there’s no river view? Maybe you can convince yourself that it’s not really a very scenic river upstream. (And anyway, they’re now promising you’ll be able to see downstream on the other side.)
But while a drive across the bridge may remind you eerily of that basement tunnel leading to the men’s room, it isn’t so much aesthetics that worry me. It’s a quick ride, often busy; might as well pay attention to the traffic and save the view for later.
No, what worries me is something more basic.
Did no one, anywhere along the line in planning, think seriously about the situation of pedestrians, or bicyclists who choose to ride on what, at first glance, might seem to be a sidewalk?
Look at the slope of the walkway, and the slope of the roadway as you drive over the bridge. See how they tilt toward each other?
No doubt the engineers — assuming anyone claiming to be an engineer was involved in designing this thing — had inclement weather in mind as they made their drawings and did their research and built their models.
Yes, they tilt toward each other, roadway and walkway. When it rains, or sleets, or snows, that precipitation will pour off the roadway and into the storm drains which line the gutter. Precisely what we would hope for.
That rain or snow or sleet also will fall on the walkway, where it also will find its way into the storm drains. It will get there by flowing down the slope. That is, it will drain across the direction of foot traffic. Slush and ice will form intricate patterns on the pavement, no doubt lovely to contemplate but menacing to traverse.
What happens if a pedestrian slips, as might happen in rain or sleet or dark of night, slips and falls and, thanks to the slope of the walkway and the absence of a protective railing, tumbles into the roadway?
Letting walkers by
Or, ignore the rain and hail and sleet and dark of night. It’s a nice, clear, dry day. Suppose, in the middle of the bridge, two or three people walking together in one direction meet two or three walking in the other. A few will lean in toward the solid, husky, unyielding, opaque side wall; the others will have to lean out toward the roadway, where, not unusually, cars will be streaming by at a legal 40 mph or perhaps an illegal but not uncommon 50 mph.
But wait, you may say. That walkway is at least as wide as village sidewalks, and no one challenges their safety. And you would be right. A village sidewalk. With a barrier strip between the sidewalk and the street. Often a row of parked cars for insulation. Where 30 mph is the limit. Where traffic is block-by-block, with frequent stops and slow-downs.
On the bridge, however, there is no buffer zone, no row of parked cars. On the road, it’s through traffic. No one slowing down, no one stopping, no one looking aside at the view — what is there to see? — everyone in a hurry to get home or to work or to the store.
Cars zipping past pedestrians, only a couple of feet away, at 40 and 50 mph. In bad weather, I’ll be extra cautious even driving across such a bridge.
Walk across it in heavy rain, or a snowstorm? Back when I was young and nimble and adventuresome, and knew I was inoculated against all mishap, I probably would have.
Now I’m older and, if not wiser, at least more experienced in the risks of everyday life. I’ll walk across, on a clear dry day, if it’s necessary and there’s no better way to get there. But if the weather is bad, and it’s anything less than an emergency, I’ll call a cab, or look for a bus.
For contrast, look at the I-890 bridge in Glenville. I’ve driven, walked, and biked over it many times, in all kinds of weather, and never once worried about hitting or being hit by someone else.
And you can see the river on both sides.
Phil Sheehan lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.