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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.