Home View from Underground The swaying Manhattan Bridge

The swaying Manhattan Bridge

by Benjamin Kabak

For nearly twenty years between the 1980s and the early 2000s, various sides of the Manhattan Bridge were closed to train traffic. While I take my Q and B trips over the bridge for granted, Brooklyn residents know the pain of a closed bridge. What many do not realize is why the bridge was closed.

When the Manhattan Bridge was first built, it contained a huge engineering flaw. Because the four subway tracks — two on the south side and two on the north — were built on the outside of the bridge as opposed to the center, the bridge would sway as the heavy trains drove back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan. As trains — and people — grew heavier, so did the stress on the bridge.

In the early 1980s, as New York City Transit was busy restoring its degraded system to a state of good repair, an examination of the Manhattan Bridge revealed some serious structural damage. In 1985, the north tracks were shuttered for three years. In 1988 through the summer of 2001, the south tracks were closed. From 2001 through early 2004, the north tracks were closed again. Finally, in February 2004, nearly two decades after repairs started the bridge reopened.

We are still feeling the effects of this design flaw. Every few months, the MTA closes the bridge to train traffic and examines the structural integrity of the nearly 100-year-old bridge. The above video underscores the problem. It is a stop-motion video shot from the Brooklyn side of the bridge, and it underscores just how much the bridge sways as trains go across it.

So the next time you find yourself on a B or Q making the scenic trip across the East River, don’t think too much about the bridge beneath. You might find yourself swaying along with it.

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12 comments

Lawrence Velazquez July 28, 2009 - 5:38 am

The swaying is not a problem per se; after all, suspension bridges are built to sway. I recall reading somewhere that it was the unevenness of the swaying that’s been the real problem over time. That is, the north side of the bridge has always had heavier rail traffic than the south side, so the bridge experiences a sort of net torque in that direction.

Don’t quote me on that, though, or take anything I say as technical expertise. I’m a computer science major, not a civil engineer.

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Makes You NOT Want To Go Across The Manhatten Bridge « Being Grown and Sexy July 28, 2009 - 7:38 am

[…] And I quote: When the Manhattan Bridge was first built, it contained a huge engineering flaw. Because the four subway tracks — two on the south side and two on the north — were built on the outside of the bridge as opposed to the center, the bridge would sway as the heavy trains drove back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan. As trains — and people — grew heavier, so did the stress on the bridge. […]

Reply
kathleen croaker August 10, 2009 - 2:42 pm

We rode across the bridge on 8/8/09 on one of the open-top tour buses, and looking down, I was very alarmed by being able to see down 2 to 3 stories of streets, buildings, cars, people, water, and NO railings(except concrete bumpers that looked 2 feet high!), NO barricade along the sides of the bridge, and creepy space below with narrow lanes to drive on. I am scared of heights, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better protective barriers. Am I missing something? From Minnesota, land of the 35W Bridge collapse of 2008…

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Peter July 28, 2009 - 8:29 am

Galloping Gertie (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge) it aint, but still a very interesting view. Too many people take complicated engineering & construction for granted.

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@epc July 28, 2009 - 9:44 am

“For reasons that are now unexplainable, Moisseiff decided to run the subway train tracks along the outer edges of the roadway, instead of running them down the middle. As a result, the subway cars exerted incredible torque on the structure. The workhorse, it turns out, was a bucking bronco—its deck tilting as much as eight feet under the weight of a loaded train, forcing suspension cables to shift relative to and abrade against the steel trusses.”

From: http://www.siny.org/media/projects/mbr.pdf

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paulb July 29, 2009 - 10:30 am

Two possible reasons for putting the tracks toward the outside??, the first one pretty bizarre: Moisieff’s deflection theory seems to suggest that higher moments at different parts of the bridge could balance each other and somehow make the structure deflect less.

Or, that the tracks are placed at strong points with respect to the columns of the towers, and Moisieff thought this would compensate for the greater moment that positioning caused on the deck.

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paulb July 28, 2009 - 6:02 pm

This is awesome footage! But I don’t think it’s a problem anymore. As posted above, suspension bridges are supposed to flex, and this must be much less than the huge, problematic displacements that were observed before the “torque tube” was added to the bridge during the reconstruction.

Blame, according to Sharon Reier in “The Bridges of New York,” Tammany Hall. Its mayor, McClellan, vetoed an innovative steel eye-bar design by reform-appointee bridge commissioner Gustav Lindenthal in favor of the Moisieff bridge (the one that was built) which sent business for conventional steel wire cables the way of the Roebling Company. Moisieff did not adequately adapt Lindenthal’s work for the different cabling, and the Flxible Flyer bridge that caused trouble for so many years was the result. As Lindenthal’s other bridges were successes, it seems likely to me his original design, albeit unconventional, would have been a success as well.

One thing I’ve wondered about the torque tube: Didn’t all the new steel add a lot of weight to the bridge? You’d think that would be a problem. (You can easily see the new steel of the torque tube when you are crossing the bridge.)

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Eric July 28, 2009 - 6:32 pm

The footage is awesome. The bridge jumping isn’t.

The jumping of the Manhattan Bridge has always creeped me out. The worst is when the train is stuck from delays and then see what feels like an overweight speeding truck zipping through the middle lanes.

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Andrew July 28, 2009 - 9:41 pm

The bridge is owned, inspected, and maintained by NYCDOT, not NYCT. Only the tracks (and the signals and the trains) are NYCT’s.

And what do you have against the D and N?

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W. K. Lis July 29, 2009 - 10:02 am

Another reason why an army must not march across any bridge, for fear of causing the bridge to collapse. They should break stride.

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(RE)New York City | PlaNYourCity November 20, 2015 - 11:02 am

[…] have, historically, not had enough funding for maintenance; the Manhattan Bridge was about to collapse in the 1980s due to inherent flaws in its design (subways on the sides, causing excessive swaying) […]

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Bridge the Gap | PlaNYourCity January 9, 2016 - 1:36 pm

[…] have, historically, not had enough funding for maintenance; the Manhattan Bridge was about to collapse in the 1980s due to inherent flaws in its design (subways on the sides, causing excessive swaying) […]

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