Should ‘Kathy Plates’ Be Added to Roebling Suspension Bridge?

In the spirit of throwing new ideas out there, UrbanCincy would like to propose installing Kathy Plates on the Roebling Suspension Bridge in order to improve the safety of bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists using the 148-year-old span.

The idea first came to mind when we hosted our Bikes+Brews ride in May 2013. The route took our group of approximately 20 cyclists across the bridge. Following the law, and protecting the safety of pedestrians also using the bridge, we rode across with automobile traffic.

Those familiar with the Roebling Suspension Bridge know that it is somewhat famous for the humming sound it makes as you drive across. Well, this sound is created by the friction between each vehicle’s tires and the grated bridge deck. That same deck that evokes such a pleasant and memorable sound, also can at times redirect a car slightly as it navigates the numerous grooves.

This also occurs for people traveling across the bridge on bicycles, although to a much greater effect due to the lighter weight of the bike compared to the car.

This same phenomenon exists on dozens of Chicago’s famous bascule bridges. The bascule bridge type was invented in Chicago and proved to be an engineering innovation still paying dividends more than 100 years later. The design, however, requires a delicate management of the bridge’s weight distribution – even a new coat of paint has the potential to throw things out of whack.

Chicago has seen an explosion in the number of people using bicycles as their form of transportation, and, as a result, saw many cyclists crashing on the bridges due to the grooves in the grated bridge decks and their joints that are similar to what exist on Cincinnati’s famed Roebling Suspension Bridge.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) came up with a solution that aimed to remedy the safety hazard while also respecting the delicate balancing act required to make bascule bridges go up and down.

That solution is the ‘Kathy Plate’ application, which is named after activist Kathy Schubert, who lobbied for the plates after she had crashed on Chicago’s LaSalle Street Bridge.

It is a fiberglass plate that is affixed to the bridge deck where bicyclists would be riding, thus creating a smooth and consistent surface without throwing off the bridge’s weight distribution.

Mike Amsden, Assistant Director of Transportation Planning with CDOT, told UrbanCincy that the city initially used steel plates or concrete infill, but has since switched to the fiberglass alternative due to its lower cost and lighter weight. As of today, Chicago has one bridge with steel plates, seven with concrete infill, and five with the new fiberglass plate option.

Amsden says that CDOT first began using the fiberglass plates more than two years ago, and has not yet needed to replace any of them – even with Chicago’s harsh winters.

“The open grate bascule bridges can be very slippery, especially when wet,” Amsden explained. “Because bridges can be such a barrier to bicycling, we’re putting extra emphasis on making our bridges bicycle friendly.”

CDOT says that they incorporate these fiberglass plates on any bike lane project that crosses a bridge, and uses the concrete infill option on bridges that are being reconstructed, regardless of whether a bike lane crosses the bridge.

“We match the plate width to the approaching and departing bike lane width,” said Amsden. “So, as you can see on Dearborn, it’s a wide two-way bike land, so the plates are much wider.”

There are no marked bike lanes approaching or departing from the Roebling Suspension Bridge, but cyclists typically use the congested and winding sidewalks cantilevered outside of the bridge columns.

A simple application of these fiberglass plates in each direction could help to improve safety and mobility on Cincinnati’s most iconic bridge.

According to Queen City Bike, it is something they said they would like to research further and consider for potential application on the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

  • John Morris

    If one looks at old photos- the bridge previously had a two way Covington Trolley route. IMHO, a trolley across the river & down Madison is still by far the best use of the bridge. Covington still has all the qualities of a dense, walkable city.

    • EDG

      Nothing wrong with the Southbank Shuttle, considering KY doesn’t allow dedicated transit funding.

    • John Morris

      I liked the shuttle a lot. Why not extend the concept with a short 10-15 block route up & down Madison, an area with a great street grid and building stock?

      Right now the shuttle supports a few budget hotels and areas of the city least adopted to walkability.

    • EDG

      It serves residents and commuters into Mainstrasse and Roebling Point fine, but it does seem to leave Madison out for the “new” downtown around the convention center.

    • John Morris

      Madison is a beautiful, mostly intact urban street that needs good transit access down its length.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Madison seriously reminds me of something out of Boston. The place where Pike meets Madison is one of the best (and like all so many underutalized) corridors in the region. The buildings aren’t crumbling but the area needs a lot of TLC.

    • John Morris

      It is amazing with an almost complete street grid. Few places are as well suited to transit right now.

      The very short Tank trolley model makes a lot of sense. 1 dollar rides in and out down 10-20 blocks and across the bridge.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’ve also wondered why the southbank shuttle doesn’t go to Bellevue, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that the guys who run it need to hire more drivers and they don’t want to spend the money. Same thing probably applies to madison street. Sadly I think the technique here is to make Madison a destination first then the shuttle will come – it already goes to Mainstrasse.

    • John Morris

      A “destination” without transit logically means dead space & destruction for parking- killing the basic attraction of the area.

      I assume that many buildings have historic status, so the option to build larger apartments is also limited.

    • Neil Clingerman

      As well preserved as this area is, there still are a few parking lots that can be worked with, developers may need to get more creative with space than most Cincinnati or Indianapolis based developers are used to.

    • John Morris

      A much better solution is to eliminate all mandated parking and use the investment to beef up transit. Short,, frequent flexible shuttles would do this since the area is already walkable.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Seeing stuff like Madison Ave in Covington really drives home how important transit is to the vitality of cities. The only places where you see architecture like that usually are way more vibrant and didn’t have their transit ripped out of them the way that Cincy has.

    • John Morris

      I agree. Covington pretty much has everything it needs but the transit around which it was designed.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      Southbank Shuttle goes to the edge of Bellevue (by the Joe’s Crab Shack), but not down Fairfield Avenue into the city’s main commercial district.

    • Neil Clingerman

      That’s what I meant ;)

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Right…way back when the bridge used to carry streetcars, but that was in its early days. Nearly 150 years have taken a toll on the bridge and in order to maintain it going forward, there is a need to regulate how much weight can cross it. As a result, we’ll probably never see streetcar or normal bus traffic on the Roebling Suspension Bridge again.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I wonder though if its just due to differed maintenance. I would think if they were to reinforce the old structure it would be able to handle higher loads again.

  • AJ

    I LOVE Kathy Plates, but I still wouldn’t use them on the Roebling. I am a bike commuter who follows all traffic laws, rides with cars and never bicycles on the sidewalk EXCEPT when crossing at the Roebling. That bridge is only two lanes wide, not even two lanes and two shoulders. If I were to bicycle with traffic on that roadway I would take the lane and ride right out in the middle. There is no way I would EVER bicycle off to the right side of the road on that bridge. That’s a death wish. The side walkways are wide enough to handle bicycles and pedestrians, and the bends around the towers keep the bicycles riding at a reasonable speed. One improvement I would like to see though, is a curb cut on the Southbound KY side to allow bicycles to re-enter the roadway after the bridge.

    • John Morris

      AJ explains the situation well. The bridge is a bare two lanes plus walkways. Transit of some type is the best possible use. Limiting access to shuttles, police & emergency vehicles would be wise. Adding a few new shuttle routes like on down Madison would be a good use.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      The shuttles are really the only thing that can work for the bridge now due to the weight restrictions. In fact, this is why TANK switched to those silly vintage trolley buses the other year…they were smaller and allowed for their service to continue operating using this bridge. Had they not made the change, the buses would not be allowed on.

      I think vehicular traffic is fine as it is now. There isn’t a heck of a lot of traffic on the bridge, but the pedestrian and bicyclist interface is a bit awkward.

    • John Morris

      Right, there doesn’t seem to be much traffic so limiting it to shuttles and bikes makes sense.

      My experience with the Tank trolley was very good & we would have certainly used a route that went down Madison or Scott.

      No insult to bikes, but the basis of a city is transit and pedestrian access first with bikes as an add on.

    • Robert Yoder

      Randy, I think we need more silly and fun in cities. The trolleys also communicate well to tourists that this is the public transportation that will bring you to multiple sites and hotels – and it will bring you back to where your started.. It’s simple, take that trolley. Not, I guess you can take the #25 or #12.

    • EDG

      Police and emergency is already limited as it’s a state boundary, unless there’s an emergency on the bridge.

  • http://www.cincymap.org/ Nate Wessel

    I would like this only if they were placed in the middle of the lanes, between where the average car tires run. Those lanes are not nearly wide enough to share!

    Also, if I’ve been reading the speed limit signs correctly, the limit is 15mph. If that’s the case, there should be little reason a car should want to or be legally able to pass the average bicyclist.

    The expansion coupling in the middle has always been the biggest challenge for me.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      You make some great points here. The expansion coupling is difficult…at least the grooves of the deck are consistent and predictable, albeit controlling.

      And your point about the plates being in the middle of the lane is a wonderful one, and speaks to the issue described above by AJ. I’d be in favor of that.

    • Jake Mecklenborg

      I have never had any issue with the expansion joint. You can just ride straight over it at any spot, it doesn’t matter, the wheels don’t sink more than a 1/2 inch into the grooves. Even when it’s below 0 in the winter and the expansion joint is at its widest, you can still just ride straight over it like it’s not even there.

    • http://www.cincymap.org/ Nate Wessel

      I dented both my rims doing that once. Very solid, 30+ spoke wheels too.

      Now I either hop the front wheel and take weight off the back, or if there are no cars I’ll cross it at an angle. Perhaps your tires are wider than mine.

  • http://www.cincymap.org/ Nate Wessel

    I would like this only if they were placed in the middle of the lanes, between where the average car tires run. Those lanes are not nearly wide enough to share!

    Also, if I’ve been reading the speed limit signs correctly, the limit is 15mph. If that’s the case, there should be little reason a car should want to or be legally able to pass the average bicyclist.

    The expansion coupling in the middle has always been the biggest challenge for me.

  • Robert Yoder

    OMG! UrbanCincy covers something in NKY – what could it be that UrbanCincy realizes that Covington and Newport are part of Cincinnati’s Urban Core! Now, the paths on either side of the Roebling are wide enough to be considered multi-use paths. A better use would be to make sure cyclists are polite and considerate of pedestrians when using them. I think a more cost effective solution would be some share the path signs for cyclists to watch for pedestrains.

    • http://reserbicycle.com Jason Reser

      This looks like a good idea for cantilevering out and expanding the sidewalks on the Fourth Street Bridge as it would weigh less than the concrete. As for the Roebling, I have to agree with you. Signs outlining mixed sidewalk use would both reduce conflicts and increase cycling usage. Many don’t know the laws or policies for riding on the sidewalk or on the bridges, and that’s just about everywhere. I know there’s a decent number of folks who think it’s illegal to ride on the Purple People Bridge because of the vague signage prohibiting riding on the narrow section.

    • John Morris

      Yes, my visit convinced me Covington & Newport are a critical part of Cincinnati’s urban core.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Absolutely. Both are beautiful urban neighborhoods that are critical to the region’s success.

    • James Bonsall

      They oftentimes take guest submissions if you have something you would like to write about. I would like to read more articles about Newport and Covington myself.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      We do our best to cover as much news as possible, but our resources are limited. We do in fact cover news in Northern Kentucky, although we would love to do more. If you know of anyone interested in writing about the area, I would be happy to interview them about joining our team. In the meantime, you can check out our other coverage of Northern Kentucky by going here:

      http://www.urbancincy.com/tag/covington/
      http://www.urbancincy.com/tag/newport/
      http://www.urbancincy.com/tag/bellevue/

  • Mark Christol

    I generally use the sidewalk and if there are peds in the way, I club ‘em & toss ‘em into the drink.
    Well, not exactly, I usually stop & take in the view.
    I’m not a commuter there, tho.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    I almost always bike on the deck of this and the other bridges, and also the Western Hills Viaduct. It’s a fun to burn it up crossing any of the bridges and to jump the expansion joints, even though you can’t really get caught in any of them. On the suspension bridge you can get dizzy if you look straight down at the water through the deck at any point, but it’s especially fun to look down as you’re crossing the piers so that you get the effect of biking off a cliff when the river becomes visible. The grating on the suspension bridge is also unevenly sloped inward toward the lanes on the outside stripes, so there is some tendency to ride about a foot out into traffic. But traffic is always going slow on this bridge, and there’s not much of it anyway, so I’m not sure why people are so fearful of it. Compared to the Clay Wade, Taylor-Southgate, or Western Hills Viaduct, there is no danger of being hit and ejected over the side of the bridge into the water and/or railroad tracks.

    • James Bonsall

      Ladies and Gentlemen, we have yet another example of Jake the Great wanting biking to be an extreme sport. This may be nice for him but us normal people would rather have a suitable surface to ride, all other things being equal.

      By the way, Jake is a great guy in person, I just like to tease him on his stances on bicycle infrastructure.

    • Jake Mecklenborg

      There was no such thing as “bicycle infrastructure” when I was a kid, and we rode all of these city streets and river bridges that now have lanes, because we genuinely loved biking. We loved the sense of freedom and its outsider status, aside from it being the only practical way for kids to get around. Most people who in the past few years have gotten into biking have gotten into having their photos taken while biking, not so much actually biking around and getting to know what getting strong on a bicycle feels like. What’s going on with the recent popularity in biking is kind of like if a bunch of people suddenly discovered skiing but only aspired to ski the bunny hill and bad-mouthed everyone who has been skiing the mountains for decades.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I was a weirdo who loved biking as a kid for the reasons you listed, got away from it for awhile and then came back to it upon moving for Chicago and seeing how strong the cycling culture was – I saw people regularly biking the streets and I fell in love again, and back in 2002-2006 cycling was not really a thing in Cincinnati. I’ll agree there are some dumb people doing it cause its trendy, but at the same time its a really fantastic mode of transportation and we should be doing everything we can to encourage more to ride a bicycle over other modes of transportation – lots of people have misconceptions but anything that encourages a critical mass of people to bike will only encourage more people to do so.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      I think you oversimplify the issue. Yes there is the group you discuss that is getting back into cycling after years of being away. But I’m of the mindset that improving safety for all users is critically important. Many studies have shown that the number of people bicyclingn now is only the top of the iceberg, and that many more would ride if they felt safer.

      Of course in many other cities around the world they may not need “bicycle infrastructure” to make things safe and accommodating, but American cities do need that since they’re all essentially designed around moving cars quickly. In other places around the world you regularly see children, women, and the elderly biking around town, not just on a cul-de-sac street. Most of the riders in the U.S., meanwhile, are largely young men. That’s an awfully small and limited demographic.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Can we make “Jake the Great” a thing?