The Ben Franklin Bridge pedestrian walkways are many things. They are among the Delaware Valley’s greatest public spaces. They are vital non-motorized transport conduits between New Jersey and central Philadelphia. They are truly unique, beautifully-designed, robust gifts from our great grandparents’ generation.
And yes, there are two of them.
Public space in the sky
Above a seven-lane highway and two subway tracks, both sides of the iconic Ben Franklin Bridge feature multi-use pathways. These walkways – elevated over the road and railways – offer a more peaceful experience, with fresher air and better views, than do most major bridges in the United States.
Measuring 10 feet wide and 1 1/2 miles long, they comfortably accommodate walkers, runners, bicyclists, sightseers, and photographers. Unlike Pittsburgh’s dramatic hills, Phila’s topography rarely affords vantage points from which to take in wider, more distant views. But from the south walkway, as colossal container ships pass underfoot, one can gaze upon the Phila and Camden skylines, both riverfronts, the Walt Whitman Bridge, Phila’s sports complexes and petroleum refineries.
Non-motorized transport lifelines
Also mixed in the walkway traffic are hundreds of daily commuters – those who walk or bicycle across the bridge for transportation – either by choice or out of necessity. For many (including myself) the bridge walkways make possible a lifestyle with built-in opportunities for exercise and meditation, music or podcast consumption, and hands-free phone calls. For many with less privilege, the walkways are essential, toll-free pathways to employment, services, family and friends. As such, the walkways support the basic human right to non-motorized transportation.
Past gifts, future assets
The Ben Franklin is one of three suspension bridges in the United States to carry railroad tracks. (The other two are the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges over the East River in New York City.) Adding in the fact that its walkways are elevated above heavier traffic, the bridge is truly unique. This configuration, along with beautifully-designed fixtures and cast-iron guard rails, is an invaluable gift from the bridge’s designers. It is a product of our great grandparents’ generation, which took pride in planning, designing, funding, and building great structures in the interest of future citizens.
Alas, the Delaware River Port Authority (the bridge’s modern-day steward) permits only one of the two walkways to be open at any given time – and neither are open after 8 PM. Notwithstanding current lackadaisical management of these magnificent public assets, that fact that they exist in the first place is crucial. (The Walt Whitman and New York’s Verrazano Narrows bridge lack non-motorized access and retrofits would be extremely difficult and expensive.) The Ben Franklin Bridge hosts two wonderful pedestrian walkways; and someday, both will be fully accessible around the clock to everyone, including those in wheelchairs.