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A bridge is a structure built to span a physical obstacle, such as a body of water, valley, or road, without closing the way underneath. It is constructed for the purpose of providing passage over the obstacle, usually something that can be detrimental to cross otherwise. There are many different designs that each serve a particular purpose and apply to different situations. Designs of bridges vary depending on the function of the bridge, the nature of the terrain where the bridge is constructed and anchored, the material used to make it, and the funds available to build it.

Most likely the earliest bridges were fallen trees and stepping stones, while Neolithic people built boardwalk bridges across marshland. The Arkadiko Bridge dating from the 13th century BC, in the Peloponnese, in southern Greece is one of the oldest arch bridges still in existence and use.


The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origin of the word bridge to an Old English word brycg, of the same meaning.[1] The word can be traced directly back to Proto-Indo-European bʰrēw-. The word for the card game of the same name has a different origin.


The simplest type of a bridge is stepping stones, so this may have been one of the earliest types. Neolithic people also built a form of boardwalk across marshes, of which the Sweet Track and the Post Track, are examples from England that are around 6000 years old.[2] Undoubtedly ancient peoples would also have used log bridges; that is a timber bridge[3] that fall naturally or are intentionally felled or placed across streams. Some of the first man-made bridges with significant span were probably intentionally felled trees.[4]

Among the oldest timber bridges is the Holzbrücke Rapperswil-Hurden crossing upper Lake Zürich in Switzerland; the prehistoric timber piles discovered to the west of the Seedamm date back to 1523 BC. The first wooden footbridge led across Lake Zürich, followed by several reconstructions at least until the late 2nd century AD, when the Roman Empire built a 6-metre-wide (20 ft) wooden bridge. Between 1358 and 1360, Rudolf IV, Duke of Austria, built a 'new' wooden bridge across the lake that has been used to 1878 – measuring approximately 1,450 metres (4,760 ft) in length and 4 metres (13 ft) wide. On April 6, 2001, the reconstructed wooden footbridge was opened, being the longest wooden bridge in Switzerland.

The Arkadiko Bridge is one of four Mycenaean corbel arch bridges part of a former network of roads, designed to accommodate chariots, between the fort of Tiryns and town of Epidauros in the Peloponnese, in southern Greece. Dating to the Greek Bronze Age (13th century BC), it is one of the oldest arch bridges still in existence and use. Several intact arched stone bridges from the Hellenistic era can be found in the Peloponnese.[5]

The greatest bridge builders of antiquity were the ancient Romans.[6] The Romans built arch bridges and aqueducts that could stand in conditions that would damage or destroy earlier designs. Some stand today.[7] An example is the Alcántara Bridge, built over the river Tagus, in Spain. The Romans also used cement, which reduced the variation of strength found in natural stone.[8] One type of cement, called pozzolana, consisted of water, lime, sand, and volcanic rock. Brick and mortar bridges were built after the Roman era, as the technology for cement was lost (then later rediscovered).

In India, the Arthashastra treatise by Kautilya mentions the construction of dams and bridges.[9]The%20Mauryan%20P]][10]Chandragupta I[10] ntury.[11] A number of bridges, both for military and commercial purposes, were constructed by the Mughal administration in India.[12]

Although large Chinese bridges of wooden construction existed at the time of the Warring States period, the oldest surviving stone bridge in China is the Zhaozhou Bridge, built from 595 to 605 AD during the Sui dynasty. This bridge is also historically significant as it is the world's oldest open-spandrel stone segmental arch bridge. European segmental arch bridges date back to at least the Alconétar Bridge (approximately 2nd century AD), while the enormous Roman era Trajan's Bridge (105 AD) featured open-spandrel segmental arches in wooden construction.

Rope bridges, a simple type of suspension bridge, were used by the Inca civilization in the Andes mountains of South America, just prior to European colonization in the 16th century.

During the 18th century there were many innovations in the design of timber bridges by Hans Ulrich Grubenmann, Johannes Grubenmann, and others. The first book on bridge engineering was written by Hubert Gautier in 1716.

A major breakthrough in bridge technology came with the erection of the Iron Bridge in Shropshire, England in 1779. It used cast iron for the first time as arches to cross the river Severn.[13]

With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, truss systems of wrought iron were developed for larger bridges, but iron does not have the tensile strength to support large loads. With the advent of steel, which has a high tensile strength, much larger bridges were built, many using the ideas of Gustave Eiffel.

In Canada and the U.S., numerous timber Covered bridges were built in the late 1700s to the late 1800s, reminiscent of earlier designs in Germany and Switzerland. (Some covered bridges were also built in Asia.)[14] In later years, some were partly made of stone or metal but the trusses were usually still made of wood; in the US, there were three styles of trusses, the Queen Post, the Burr Arch and the Town Lattice.[15] Hundreds of these structures still stand in North America. They were brought to the attention of the general public in the 1990s by the novel, movie, and play The Bridges of Madison County.[16][17]

In 1927 welding pioneer Stefan Bryła designed the first welded road bridge in the world, the Maurzyce Bridge which was later built across the river Słudwia at Maurzyce near Łowicz, Poland in 1929. In 1995, the American Welding Society presented the Historic Welded Structure Award for the bridge to Poland.[18]

Types of bridges

Bridges can be categorized in several different ways.

Bridges may be classified by how the actions of tension, compression, bending, torsion and shear are distributed through their structure. Most bridges will employ all of these to some degree, but only a few will predominate. The separation of forces and moments may be quite clear. In a suspension or cable-stayed bridge, the elements in tension are distinct in shape and placement. In other cases the forces may be distributed among a large number of members, as in a truss.

Some Engineers sub-divide 'beam' bridges into slab, beam-and-slab and box girder on the basis of their cross-section.[32] A slab can be solid or voided[33] (though this is no longer favored for inspectability reasons) while beam-and-slab consists of concrete or steel girders connected by a concrete slab.[34] A box-girder cross-section consists of a single-cell or multi-cellular box. In recent years, integral bridge construction[35] has also become popular.

Most bridges are fixed bridges, meaning they have no moving parts and stay in one place until they fail or are demolished.

Double-decked (or double-decker) bridges have two levels, such as the George Washington Bridge, connecting New York City to Bergen County, New Jersey, US, as the world's busiest bridge, carrying 102 million vehicles annually;[36][37] truss work between the roadway levels provided stiffness to the roadways and reduced movement of the upper level when the lower level was installed three decades after the upper level. The Tsing Ma Bridge and Kap Shui Mun Bridge in Hong Kong have six lanes on their upper decks, and on their lower decks there are two lanes and a pair of tracks for MTR metro trains. Some double-decked bridges only use one level for street traffic; the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis reserves its lower level for automobile and light rail traffic and its upper level for pedestrian and bicycle traffic (predominantly students at the University of Minnesota). Likewise, in Toronto, the Prince Edward Viaduct has five lanes of motor traffic, bicycle lanes, and sidewalks on its upper deck; and a pair of tracks for the Bloor–Danforth subway line on its lower deck. The western span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge also has two levels.

Robert Stephenson's High Level Bridge across the River Tyne in Newcastle upon Tyne, completed in 1849, is an early example of a double-decked bridge. The upper level carries a railway, and the lower level is used for road traffic. Other examples include Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait and Craigavon Bridge in Derry, Northern Ireland. The Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö consists of a four-lane highway on the upper level and a pair of railway tracks at the lower level. Tower Bridge in London is different example of a double-decked bridge, with the central section consisting of a low-level bascule span and a high-level footbridge.

A viaduct is made up of multiple bridges connected into one longer structure.

A multi-way bridge has three or more separate spans which meet near the center of the bridge.

A bridge can be categorized by what it is designed to carry, such as trains, pedestrian or road traffic (road bridge), a pipeline or waterway for water transport or barge traffic. An aqueduct is a bridge that carries water, resembling a viaduct, which is a bridge that connects points of equal height. A road-rail bridge carries both road and rail traffic. Overway is a term for a bridge that separates incompatible intersecting traffic, especially road and rail.[38] A bridge can carry overhead power lines as does the Storstrøm Bridge.

Some bridges accommodate other purposes, such as the tower of Nový Most Bridge in Bratislava, which features a restaurant, or a bridge-restaurant which is a bridge built to serve as a restaurant. Other suspension bridge towers carry transmission antennas.

Conservationists use wildlife overpasses to stop habitat fragmentation and animal-vehicle collisions.

Bridges are subject to unplanned uses as well.

The materials used to build the structure are also used to categorize bridges.

Analysis and design

Unlike buildings whose design is led by architects, bridges are usually designed by engineers.

In most countries, bridges, like other structures, are designed according to Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) principles. In simple terms, this means that the load is factored up by a factor greater than unity, while the resistance or capacity of the structure is factored down, by a factor less than unity. The effect of the factored load (stress, bending moment, etc.) should be less than the factored resistance to that effect. Both of these factors allow for uncertainty and are greater when the uncertainty is greater.


Most bridges are utilitarian in appearance, but in some cases, the appearance of the bridge can have great importance.[50] Often, this is the case with a large bridge that serves as an entrance to a city, or crosses over a main harbor entrance.

To create a beautiful image, some bridges are built much taller than necessary.

Bridge maintenance

Bridge maintenance consisting of a combination of structural health monitoring and testing.

Bridge traffic loading

While the response of a bridge to the applied loading is well understood, the applied traffic loading itself is still the subject of research.[51] This is a statistical problem as loading is highly variable, particularly for road bridges.

Bridge standards generally include a load model, deemed to represent the characteristic maximum load to be expected in the return period.

Most bridge standards are only applicable for short and medium spans[61] - for example, the Eurocode is only applicable for loaded lengths up to 200 m. Longer spans are dealt with on a case by case basis.

Bridge vibration

Bridges vibrate under load and this contributes, to a greater or lesser extent, to the stresses.[34] Vibration and dynamics are generally more significant for slender structures such as pedestrian bridges and long-span road or rail bridges.

There have been many studies of the dynamic interaction between vehicles and bridges during vehicle crossing events.

Bridge failures

The failure of bridges is of special concern for structural engineers in trying to learn lessons vital to bridge design, construction and maintenance. The failure of bridges first assumed national interest during the Victorian era when many new designs were being built, often using new materials.

In the United States, the National Bridge Inventory tracks the structural evaluations of all bridges, including designations such as "structurally deficient" and "functionally obsolete".

Bridge monitoring

There are several methods used to monitor the condition of large structures like bridges.

An option for structural-integrity monitoring is "non-contact monitoring", which uses the Doppler effect (Doppler shift). A laser beam from a Laser Doppler Vibrometer is directed at the point of interest, and the vibration amplitude and frequency are extracted from the Doppler shift of the laser beam frequency due to the motion of the surface.[76] The advantage of this method is that the setup time for the equipment is faster and, unlike an accelerometer, this makes measurements possible on multiple structures in as short a time as possible. Additionally, this method can measure specific points on a bridge that might be difficult to access. However, vibrometers are relatively expensive and have the disadvantage that a reference point is needed to measure from.

Snapshots in time of the external condition of a bridge can be recorded using Lidar to aid bridge inspection.[77] This can provide measurement of the bridge geometry (to facilitate the building of a computer model) but the accuracy is generally insufficient to measure bridge deflections under load.

While larger modern bridges are routinely monitored electronically, smaller bridges are generally inspected visually by trained inspectors.

Visual index

See also

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