03
Sep

2015

Decaying Rail to Profitable Trail: Lessons From Walkway Over the Hudson

Post by Nick Chu

This past weekend, I found myself traveling to a small town called Poughkeepsie in Upstate New York and had the opportunity to visit the Walkway Over the Hudson. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY (2 hours/130 kilometres north of New York City) is the world’s longest pedestrian bridge. It has lessons to offer planners. Image by Nicholas Chu.

 

OVERVIEW

As an urban planner, I love coming across unique examples of transport infrastructure when I visit a city. The Walkway Over The Hudson (WOTH), a former steel rail bridge turned pedestrian path, is a great example of one of those instances. The bridge has a fascinating history and is a great example of how elevated infrastructure can positively interact with its surrounding communities.

Entering Poughkeepsie, visitors will immediately notice a behemoth old structure spanning the town. The rail bridge, first built in 1889, played a significant role in the growth and development of the region. It was used in the past to deliver goods and materials but like many railroads, its importance began to decrease in the 1950s when industry declined and the interstate highway was developed.

It was used sparingly until 1974 when a fire broke out, forcing it to finally close. From then, the bridge was essentially left to its own accord until it was deeded over to the a non-profit called Walkway Over the Hudson in 1998. The organization was able to raise $38.8 million for restoration versus $50 million to tear down and the WOTH officially opened to the public in 2009.

THE BRIDGE

Strolling the 2.0km (1.28 mi) long WOTH felt slightly surreal. After a flight of stairs, visitors find themselves 65m (212ft) above ground to a sweeping panorama of the Hudson Valley. But what creates that surreal feeling is this purely pedestrianized elevated environment. The absence of noisy and noxious cars and trains adds much to the ambience and sheer pleasure of walking the bridge.

Walkway Over the Hudson, Washington Street entrance . Image by Nicholas Chu.

Walkway Over the Hudson, Washington Street entrance. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Looking westbound. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Standing on WOTH. Looking west. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway hovers high homes, rail tracks, and roads. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway hovers high above homes, rail tracks, and roads. Looking north (and down). Image by Nicholas Chu.

VIEWS and NOMBY-ISM

Given its elevation, the Walkway naturally provides users many unique vantages.  This means the ability to peer into people’s homes and businesses, about which there are mixed feelings.

Scrappy entrepreneurs underneath the bridge has turned it into an advertising opportunity. Image by Nicholas Chu.

For some entrepreneurs underneath the bridge, the Walkway has turned their rooftops into a perfect advertising opportunity. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Most homes seem to live peacefully with the bridge. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Most homes seem to live peacefully with the bridge despite being just meters away. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Not surprisingly, some homeowners were uncomfortable with the idea of thousands of pedestrians gazing down into their backyards.

Some homes closest to the bridge has erected green meshes to reduce privacy invasion from passerbys. Image by Nicholas Chu.

A row of homes opted to install green meshes to reduce privacy invasion from passersby. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The installation of privacy meshes is an interesting solution to what may have been a sticky situation. The green cover is a neat example of how a simple, good design intervention can solve almost all problems.

For gondola installations, these privacy screens may be an another ideal and cost-effective answer to limiting privacy concerns stemming from aerial infrastructure.

IMPACT

The Walkway has brought immeasurable benefits to the community. Initially, project proponents were worried that few would venture into town to experience the engineering marvel. In fact, the bridge was originally estimated to attract only 267,700 visitors annually but to the surprise of many, the bridge has been wildly popular.

On good weather days, the Walkway attracts scores of dog-walkers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Image by Nicholas Chu.

On sunny days, the Walkway attracts scores of pedestrians and cyclists. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Information center at the end of the bridge offers users a chance to buy souvenirs, rest up and learn more about the site's history. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Information center at the end of the bridge offers users a chance to buy souvenirs, rest up and learn more about the site’s history. Image by Nicholas Chu.

During its first year, WOTH brought in nearly three times (780,000) the amount of projected visitors and since its opening, over 3 million users have already traversed the bridge! As a result, it is estimated that WOTH has created 208 direct jobs and generated $575,000 in state tax revenue.

CLOSING

Overall, the bridge offers many lessons for urban planners interested in adaptive re-use and community initiated projects. It is not only a great example of how to creatively restore and reinvigorate underutilized waterfronts and greenspaces — remember it cost less to convert it into a revenue source than demolish —  but also serves as a reminder that it is possible for residents to co-exist peacefully with elevated infrastructure.

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