Riverside-Figueroa Bridge Destruction: Insult to Pedestrians

April 27, 2012 § 17 Comments

Riverside Drive Bridge 1926-2011 - photo copyright Osceola Refetoff

If there was any doubt that the city of Los Angeles’ wrongheaded destruction of the Riverside-Figueroa Bridge is nothing but zombie engineers fulfilling a now obsolete paean to the automobile, this just in! Not only is the end-product (due 2015) a massive freeway-esque car-centric bridge… but, already this week, the construction zone itself is a dangerous gauntlet for pedestrians.

(No thought has been given to bikes, either, but thick-skinned intrepid bike commuters can pretty much go wherever cars can go… so we cyclists can still use the bridge roadway that’s set aside for cars.) 

Around 2006, when I was working for Friends of the L.A. River, the city’s first environmental reports on this project (a negative declaration, if I remember correctly) came across my desk. I disliked this project then and I still despise it. I’ve pushed harder on more intact historic river bridges that are in the city’s demolition and dis-figuration cross-hairs… but as I look at Riverside-Figueroa’s imminent demolition, it saddens me.

The city is taking out an L-shaped bridge that has a pinch-point where it narrows down to just one lane in each direction. The replacement will be 2 lanes in each direction. The L will be replaced by a smooth curve. Think freeway. The elbow in the L served to slow cars down to somewhat safer speeds. When the excessive replacement bridge is complete, cars that had gone 20mph will do 50+mph… in a historic, transit-rich neighborhood that’s a 10-minute bike ride from downtown Los Angeles and a 15-minute walk to the Metro Gold Line. And in order to cram more and more and more cars into the middle of the city and the supposedly bike/ped-priority (per city’s River Revitalization Master Plan) river corridor… a decent-looking historic-cultural landmark bridge, built in 1929 and re-built in 1939, will bite the dust.

Detour signage and jersey barriers at Riverside-Figueroa-San Fernando intersection today. I couldn't independently confirm that the original design merely showed pedestrians a more true universal iconic symbol: an image of a hand with extended middle finger. This version merely tells peds to walk a 5-10 minute detour on foot. The pedestrian in the photo (red arrow middle left) has ignored the signs and is walking in one of the closed crosswalks to an area where the car-heads who designed this didn't expect pedestrians to continue to go.

I got a good look at the construction barriers already up at the site today. It looks like a suburban cars-uber-alles design, perhaps worthy of James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month. It’s a design that keeps cars flowing in the most direct trajectory, but forces pedestrians about a quarter-mile out of their way. Anyone who has a brain or who has spent 20 minutes walking in a city knows that pedestrians aren’t going to walk a 5-10 minute detour. Today, commuters on foot were walking across car-traffic lanes and hopping over the concrete barriers.

In a post on Facebook earlier this week, Colin Bogart of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition stated:

BOE [L.A. City Bureau of Engineering] tells me there’s a sidewalk on the east side of the road. Eventually it will be off-limits. They told me there will be some sort of pedestrian shuttle for those peds who need to get across the bridge.

So… can anyone out there tell me what’s wrong with this timeline: 1) set up dangerous barriers today… and then 2) start running shuttles later? I hope it doesn’t take a pedestrian death or dismemberment and ensuing lawsuit to show the car-heads the errors of their ways.

(Bogart also reported that “The City’s contractor will be putting up signage for bicyclists in the next week or so. Don’t know why it wasn’t installed from the start.”)

All this makes me fuming mad.

The city is bending over backwards to make sure that cars can get across the bridge during all phases of construction. The bridge will be torn down half at a time, so enough of it is always standing for cars to get across the river. I expect that this increases (perhaps doubles?) the expense of the project… but while no expense has been spared to cater to car traffic (even though drivers actually have a few options to cross the river; the 5-Freeway is immediately upstream) it appears that no expense has been anticipated for healthy, environmentally-friendlier modes.

I don’t think that we’ll ever get to a healthy river until we begin to drive a lot less and to respect pedestrians and cyclists. Someday, perhaps soon, cars will be treated as an afterthought and will have to wait for their tardy shuttle to get through bike/ped construction sites… though truly I don’t wish this kind of disrespectful, unsafe treatment on anyone.

Sidewalk closed signage on Figueroa. In a truly absurdist Kafkaesque twist, pedestrians coming northwest on San Fernando Road are instructed to detour north to Avenue 22. If they do walk this detour (I didn't observe any doing this - walking 10 minutes out of their way), their ability to continue west and get back to the river crossing is impeded by this SIDEWALK CLOSED sign. It's unclear to me if the engineers are actually trying to get peds to walk the ~3 miles to Fletcher Drive to cross... or if the engineers slyly expect peds to ignore ped-hostile signs any way. Perhaps it's a cynical lawyerly tactic. If a pedestrian gets killed ignoring the absurd signage, the attorneys can say "well peds weren't supposed to go there anyway."

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§ 17 Responses to Riverside-Figueroa Bridge Destruction: Insult to Pedestrians

  • Jessica Hall says:

    This bridge used to be part of my (car) commute and the slow down you refer to was never a big deal as a motorist – and much appreciated by me as there are a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists using that bridge and the pinch made me more conscious of them. Which is the real point here – what you are describing is bad news for the MANY people who walk that bridge to get to Figueroa/Ave 26 and beyond. The Elysian Valley neighborhood is kind of isolated from an access standpoint – especially for pedestrians – and yet is surrounded by infrastructure.

    I was never really clear on why this bridge needed to be replaced.

    • Joe Linton says:

      Thanks for the comment Jessica. Yes – I didn’t mention it, but that bridge today does see a lot of pedestrians and cyclists. The nearest alternative for peds/bikes to cross the river is 3 miles upstream (Fletcher Drive.) Lots of youth, families and elderly folks cross there every day.

      And on “why this bridge needed to be replaced” – it probably deserves its own full-on blog post… It’s an exasperating story.

      Basically the historic Riverside-Figueroa Bridge is being replaced because there’s money available to replace it. There’s federal money available for replacing ailing bridges. The city’s consultant crunched the numbers and found what bridges were eligible for replacement – based on an eligibility formula that includes the age of the bridge (hence most historic bridges are eligible for replacement whether they need it or not – whether they’ve already been retrofitted for earthquake safety or not.) Unfortunately Riverside-Figueroa Bridge is actually two bridges (a river span and a sidehill viaduct) so there was twice as much money available for bridge replacement… making it even more attractive for the parasite consulting firms trolling for lucrative bridge construction work.

      Once the numbers were crunched, the bridge was declared obsolete.

      I’ve heard city’s engineering folks describe the need to replace the L-turn to bring the structure up to current standards. Here’s a video that shows the sort of mumbo jumbo rationales for this sort of engineering-standard-justified widening projects: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9BUyWVg1xI

      It’s what I call zombie engineering… the standard says widen and straighten… based on future projections of more and more cars… those increased projections are, at best, a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from the wrongheaded widening (at worst, they’re lies.) Despite past projections not predicting the current decline in driving volumes, the city’s engineers are still building for the excessively car-centric dystopian future that they’ve subscribed to.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        Every time I try to cross the street at Figueroa and Ave 26, going from the Ave 26 Gold Line to the River Center, I feel like I’m trapped in a dystopian now.

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  • Chad says:

    Hi Guys,

    Just to clarify, the new bridge when complete will still have the pedestrian access, roundabout and bike path continuation correct?

  • Erik Griswold says:


    Is there an agency for ADA enforcement that this could be brought to the attention of? I’d hate to try to negotiate this during construction in a wheelchair.

    • Joe Linton says:

      I am not sure. Unfortunately, I think ADA (federal Americans with Disabilities Act) enforcement in L.A. stems from lawsuits… anyone out there know? any wheelchair users organizations out there interested in a winnable lawsuit against a nasty construction project?

  • cyclist says:

    I routinely ride a bike between Highland Park & Los Feliz and this debris-strewn choke point is the most hazardous portion. If they replace it with a more spacious bridge and can manage to make it look nice, I’m for it. The current span has little aesthetic merit and there is no room for cyclists. Not every structure needs to be preserved simply because it’s old.

  • This interim bridge sucks. They should have closed it to cars and let everyone else through. There are very, very, few people that drive through here that don’t have 3 or 4 options to get on the freeways nearby. If you ride a bike or walk – this is the only easy way to get from Frogtown to NELA and back. A pox on the heads of engineers in charge on this one.

  • ramona says:

    I used to commute by bike over that bridge and I used the sidewalk because the bridge surface was so chopped up. A man in a motorized wheelchair uses that bridge almost every day. We would cross paths frequently and smile and make space for each other on the sidewalk which was almost 2 feet off the road – either one of us going over the side would have been disastrous.

    My point: What is my wheelchair friend doing these days?

  • […] the My Figueroa project, the Riverside Drive bridge reconstruction, to the bike lanes on Cypress Park and Avenue 28 – the modest gains we’ve made in […]

  • Lane Barden says:

    There’s a larger problem here than the lack of awareness in the decisions that led to this particular bridge, which is the design of the bridge is being handled by engineers, which is to say there is no design at all. It’s just a knee-jerk for faster, more cars, and efficiency. We saw this in the plans for the replacement of the Sixth St. Bridge and it took months of wrangling to get a design competition instead of the wonky bridge that was slated to happen. Good designers are informed by environmental concerns and a newer more egalitarian gestalt, but first there has to be a design culture in the city bureaucracy and some way for activists to enter the discussion about how problems are solved in new infrastructure. Like the river and a million other things, this is now a closed circuit. Unless there are some changes in the way infrastructure is conceived and planned, and recognition that bridges and drainage and nearly everything else is now more complex than solving a basic engineering problem, there will be a lot more bad bridges and bad choices.

  • Frances says:

    This is an unconscionable waste of money. The bridge needed resurfacing, but that’s all. I drive it all the time, morning, noon, night and there have never been more than a few cars at a light. Such a waste. And it was a nice bridge. I try and comfort myself with thoughts of money in the pockets of workers, but it’s not enough. Unconscionable.
    Frances Thronson

  • Stephan says:

    The bridge is not a true land mark. The original bridge was mostly destroyed by a large landslide in 1937. Since the 37 slide, the bridge has been pieced together several times over the last fifty years. The new bridge is part of larger plane to return the LA river to a more natural state, improving the entire area for all residence.

  • Annette M. says:

    The way they have done this is horrible!! My children walk over that Bridge daily on their way home from school… now they have to wait for a shuttle at Home Depot (really makes me feel safe for teenage Daugher). What used to take my children 10 min at the most to walk over that bridge to get home now takes them 30min!!! Thats ridiculous!! They should have a shuttle on both ends and commute people as they get to it not park on either side for 20min at a time and than wait another 10 to see who else shows up. Trying to get someone on the phone to get a complaint in or get info on when they will have something safe for pedestrians is like calling Santa!! Impossible!!

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