Point of Collapse

During Blackout '03, the Brooklyn Bridge Swayed as Pedestrians Trudged Across. What If Manhattan's Emergency Exit Has an Emergency?

Tom Cocola, the spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation, says his department was first alerted to the movement of the Brooklyn Bridge by an engineer from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, but that the DOT had engineers on the scene all afternoon. He stresses that in situations like the blackout, the DOT sends staff to highly traveled infrastructure such as bridges and ferries. If they had felt there was a danger at the bridge, Cocola says, they would have alerted the police. (Department engineers also observed the Queensboro, Williamsburg, and Manhattan bridges.)

The department's director of bridge inspection, Bojidar Yanev, who arrived at the bridge at 8 p.m., experienced what he called "minor swaying by general suspension bridge standards." In an informal DOT report written August 15, he noted that the movement alarmed pedestrians, most of whom do not know that suspension bridges can "[sway] by several feet once every two to three minutes."

People noticed the movement more than they normally would have because many walked on the inbound traffic lane along the outer edge of the bridge, where movement is more perceptible, he wrote.

Cables are installed during the building of the Brooklyn bridge (circa 1875–1878).
photo: Dominique Vitali
Cables are installed during the building of the Brooklyn bridge (circa 1875–1878).

Yet there are two problems with Yanev's analysis, according to witnesses. First, many people on the center promenade reported feeling the movement so much that it affected their ability to walk and made them feel ill. Several witnesses said the bridge not only swayed from left to right, but bounced, jerking the cables and vertical suspenders.

Second, much of the heavier foot traffic had passed over the bridge between about 5:30 and 7 p.m., many witnesses reported. At 8, some argue, the movement was not as pronounced as during the peak of the exodus.

The DOT's Cocola doesn't refute that pedestrians in the center lane could feel the movement, but says it fell within a normal range. He also reiterates that department engineers were at the scene well before Yanev.


One of the best examples of the unknown interaction between people and bridges took place on June 10, 2000, on London's Millennium Bridge. When the structure opened, to great fanfare, pedestrians eagerly hopped on.

But the bridge immediately started to sway, and the oscillations increased as more people piled on. Eventually pedestrians had to adjust their movement to that of the bridge, exacerbating it even more.

In the book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, published earlier this year, Cornell University mathematician Steven Strogatz writes that within minutes, the bridge "began to wobble, 690 tons of steel and aluminum swaying in a lateral S-shaped vibration like a snake slithering on the ground." Though the pedestrians originally walked at random, the bridge's movements forced them into synchronized step—precisely what soldiers try to avoid when crossing a bridge.

Every engineer interviewed for this article said no one was in danger on the Millennium Bridge, yet its builders closed it, and it remained shut for a year. "There was danger in the fact they didn't know what was going to happen," McRobie says.

In an interview, Strogatz says he hopes engineers considered synchronized walking in their calculation when they designed the Brooklyn Bridge. Though he says he didn't think the Brooklyn Bridge was in any danger on August 14, he says the phenomenon "can take off in an explosive way. If it does move significantly, enough to change people's pattern of walking, their gait can cause a problem."

In his report, the DOT's Yanev wrote that the Brooklyn Bridge "is probably the best secured Bridge against such movements going out of control." John Roebling designed it with three separate systems "for that specific purpose," he wrote, noting that it has a suspension system, a diagonal stay system, and a stiffening truss. "Roebling himself famously said if anything happens to one of [his] systems, 'The bridge may sag, but it will not fall.' "


The Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883. It has had its share of tragedies and scandals, from the dozens of men who died building it—including designer Roebling—to a scam that almost resulted in dodgy wire being strewn throughout its cables. Yet experts and laypeople alike consider it to be the most beautiful and best-designed bridge ever built. Spiro Pollalis, an engineer and professor of design technology at Harvard, suggested that New Yorkers "turn the lemon to lemonade." He says that the events of August 14 should be investigated, but that no one should panic. Instead, people should use the blackout as a reminder of the "jewel" in Lower Manhattan and walk across it more often. "It's my favorite bridge," he says.

M.I.T.'s Ochsendorf says he doesn't believe the bridge would ever collapse, but that his biggest concern would be cables or vertical suspenders snapping on the bridge. That occurred in 1981, killing a pedestrian; the cables have since been replaced.

But Cambridge's McRobie offers a philosophical perspective: "When you have a crowd on the bridge, you're at the very limits of human knowledge. We understand the bridge very well, but we don't understand the crowds."

And should another catastrophe force him to again walk from Manhattan to his Bedford-Stuyvesant home, Jomo Prince will try out a new plan to get over the East River. "I'm going to take the Manhattan."

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