Vermont Street Bike and Pedestrian Bridge

San Diego, California
Source: Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC)


In 1979, the City of San Diego had to demolish the aging Vermont Street footbridge for safety reasons. Absent an immediate replacement, pedestrians and cyclists were required to cross Washington Street, a high-speed commuter artery, at grade. This route was especially dangerous for many elderly residents and shoppers with small children. Additionally, local controversy emerged around issues of crime and neighborhood connectivity.


The new Vermont Street Bridge over Washington Street.

San Diego's grid street pattern in pre-war neighborhoods is frequently interrupted by what are known locally as "finger canyons," of steep, often wooded ravines. Wooden pedestrian bridges, built in the early 1900s by streetcar companies, knit these neighborhoods together and linked them with streetcar service to the rest of the city.

The Vermont Street footbridge had served the community for 60 years. Crossing over Washington Street, it linked a residential community, University Heights, with its closest commercial district, Hillcrest. Washington Street, classified as a Primary Arterial, had a posted speed limit of 40 mi/h (65 km/h), but actual speeds of 40-55 mi/h (65-90 km/h). Average daily traffic volume counts totaled 38,000. Adjacent land uses were highly urbanized and the roadway was depressed in a canyon with steep sides and had freeway-type access ramps located immediately under the old bridge. The at-grade route required a 0.25 mi (400 m) detour on each side of the road to reach a small commercial strip where an at-grade crossing existed.

At the time the bridge was removed, the neighborhood debated whether to request the city to replace it. Some argued it provided easy access for criminal activity. The city proceeded, commissioning a design in 1982, but a lack of funding delayed the project. In 1990, the city launched a program to integrate public art into new infrastructure. Pro-bridge residents seized the opportunity to show their skeptical neighbors how a new bridge could be an artistic landmark for the neighborhood.


Artistic details and the cobalt blue color add intrigue to the structure.

The city agreed to make the bridge its first public art infrastructure project. However, the selected art consultant, Stone/Paper/Scissors, initially did not enjoy unanimous support. First, the opponents preferred to "hide" the bridge by keeping it plain and painting it green to match the eucalyptus groves at either end. Second, since the bridge had already been completely designed, the structural engineering consultant resisted changes that might weaken the structure.

To overcome these obstacles, the artists worked closely with the residents to select design themes. After gaining the residents support, the artists suggested that the bridge should stand out as a gateway to the community. Their concept won out, and a bold cobalt blue color was chosen. Positive themes of bipedal, historical and transformative movement would be incorporated as quotes and artistic flourishes, sandblasted into the deck, and carved into the stainless steel panels on the railings. Gateway columns at either end would reflect the two neighborhoods, one modern, and the other historic. The artists then worked at length with the engineering consultant to ensure these elements could be incorporated without compromising structural integrity.

The project cost of $1.2 million was funded through TransNet, a regional half-cent sales tax for transportation projects passed by the region's voters in 1988 (renewed by a two-thirds vote in 2004).

The Vermont Street Bridge gateway.

Anticipating the new bridge, a large Sears department store at the southern end of the bridge was redeveloped as Southern California's first New Urbanist development, known as the Uptown District. The project includes a mix of trendy shops and restaurants, two major grocery stores, small offices, and 310 dwelling units. All residential parking and 37 percent of the commercial parking is underground, leaving much of the surface for sidewalk cafes, plazas and landscaping. Uptown's inviting pedestrian orientation and mix of uses became an instant draw for nearby residents.


At the bridge's December 1994 unveiling, 450 people attended. A year later, the bridge received a coveted "Orchid" design award from the San Diego Council of Design Professionals. The Uptown District owes much of its success to the bridge and to the mix of pedestrian access and pleasant walking environment within the development - a combination which resulted in a 10 percent lower vehicle trip generation rate and a correspondingly higher pedestrian mode share than comparable shopping centers in the region. The larger grocery store is consistently in the top five in sales volume of its locations in California, although the footprint is only 75 percent of the chain's standard square-footage only generates 110 vehicle trips weekly per 1000 square feet of store, as compared to the typical 120 vehicle trips per 1000 square feet.

Twenty years later, community support for the bridge remains strong. While no pedestrian/bike counts or crash data of alternative routes are available, it is clear from the high volume of users that the bridge provides an easy and safe alternative to surface streets or driving. Although the city has deferred maintenance of the bridge due to severe funding cuts, it remains an attractive structure and has contributed to the very high property values on its residential end. What began as a "replacement bridge" project has become a key part of the neighborhood's identity.

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