Why do bridges collapse – and how can we prevent it?

The Ponte Morandi bridge, Genoa, after its collapse, which has claimed dozens of lives. Image: Luca Zennaro/EPA.

As rescue workers look for survivors in the concrete rubble that used to be part of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italian authorities are starting their investigation into the possible causes behind this terrible tragedy.

It is too early to determine what may have caused the catastrophic collapse of more than 100 metres of the multi-span, cable-stayed suspension bridge, completed just over 50 years ago. But it’s important to understand that bridge engineering does not end when construction finishes and traffic starts to flow. In fact, properly looking after a bridge during its long life is as crucial as having a good design, using high-quality materials, and ensuring sound workmanship during construction.

Modern bridges are designed for a life of 100 years, though many centenarian bridges – such as the Forth Bridge in Scotland, which opened in 1890 – still provide sterling service, and of course there are smaller bridges built of stone to more ancient designs that have stood for many hundreds of years. Considering the number of bridges built in Europe during the expansion of the motorway networks from the late-1950s onwards, we should expect, and be prepared for, many to exceed their planned lifespan in coming decades. Facilitating this is ambitious but necessary, and made possible thanks only to regular inspection and maintenance that ensures that building materials have not degraded, and that structural elements are fit to bear the traffic and environmental loads they face.

The Forth Bridge outside Edinburgh, one of Britain’s iconic bridges, is more than 100 years old. Image: Andrew Shiva/The Conversation.

So what are the factors that affect the strength of a bridge and may compromise public safety?

Environment and climate

The climate in a bridge’s location, taken alongside atmospheric pollution common in cities, can have an adverse influence on the material of the bridge – for example, the corrosion of steel reinforcement or pre-stressed steel tendons embedded in concrete. Regular inspections are typically scheduled every six years for large bridges to identify any degradation, and to take appropriate measures to replace cracking concrete and corroded steel, or to introduce protective coatings.

In England, the Midlands Link motorway viaducts, comprising 13 miles of elevated motorway carrying the M5 and M6 motorways around Birmingham, suffered from chloride-induced steel corrosion early on in their life from exposure to salt used to de-ice the roads. This required an extensive application of corrosion protection measures in the early 1990s. More than 700 structures have benefited from this action, demonstrating the cost savings that can be made if appropriate action is taken at the right time.


Stress and fatigue

Fatigue caused by use is another factor, and inspectors will look out for tell-tale signs of failure often associated with the cyclical stress produced by passing vehicles, particularly heavy trucks. This type of failure is especially relevant for metal bridge decks and the cables of suspension and cable-stayed bridges. Traffic has increased ever since these bridges were built, which inevitably leads to the need for more maintenance and strengthening work, such as additional steel, glass or carbon fibre-reinforced plates on critical parts in order to restore or enhance their strength compared to what was deemed necessary during their design. For example, Network Rail in the UK used fibre-reinforced polymers to strengthen more than 20 bridges carrying highway or railway traffic between 2001 and 2010.

Consider how we all tend to react to a road sign bearing the words: “Essential Bridge Works – Expect Long Delays”. One such situation prompted this comment from a member of the public: “We are doomed. I am going to buy a tent and pitch it outside work for the three months while the misery goes on.” Perhaps knowing why this is necessary – and the consequences of not doing so – might persuade people to reconsider such views.

Money and willingness to spend it

Equally, we must understand that maintenance budgets need to be set at levels that far exceed those that would allow engineers only to “firefight” the most severe problems, as is becoming worryingly commonplace. Instead, budgets need to allow for planned interventions and necessary upgrades over many decades. That requires public and government support, as well as skilled engineers committed to ensuring the safety of an ageing structure.

There are challenges in devising improved methods to assess bridge strength, developing new repair techniques, and new ways of collecting and using inspection and monitoring data to provide advance warning of problems. These constantly push technological boundaries, making it possible to operate existing bridges safely during their long service lives. And the experience gained feeds into new designs that will become reality in years to come.

The ConversationThose investigating the collapse of the Morandi bridge will look at inspection and maintenance matters. Other lines of enquiry will no doubt include the unusual design of the multi-span bridge, with only a few cable stays to transfer deck loads to the towers, the ongoing work to shore up the foundations, and the heavy rainfall at the time of the collapse. In the shadow of this terrible loss of life, it is worth remembering that bridge inspection and maintenance may be annoying for commuters – but it is crucial.

Marios Chryssanthopoulos, Professor of Structural Systems, University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.