A Tale of Two Bridges

Franklin Bridge

Franklin Bridge

Two bridges spanning the Mississippi River — one connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and a similar bridge crossing the river a mile and a half upstream — exhibit design characteristics reflecting significant changes in how people move across bridges throughout our cities.  

 The Saint Paul-Minneapolis structure joining East Lake Street and Marshall Avenue was built in 1989, and its design conforms to its basic traditional main function of carrying motor vehicles along the main road bed, with relatively narrow passageways for walkers and runners. A pair of vehicular lanes run both directions. Each walkway width is six feet. 

The upper stream Franklin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, officially the F.W. Cappelen Memorial Bridge, was completed in 1923. At the time of its completion, the reinforced concrete open-spandrel arched structure, was the longest concrete arch in the world. The bridge originally carried streetcars, which were removed in the 1940s. F.W. Cappelen also designed the nearby Prospect Park Water Tower (popular name is the Witch’s Tower) in 1913 in a public park at the city’s highest elevation.

Marshall Lake Bridge

Lake/Marshall Bridge

By 1970, the Cappelen Bridge was in such poor shape that it had to be closed down. The bridge was stripped down to its main arches and rebuilt from 1971 to 1973. During rebuilding design, structural engineers calculated that the original bridge was vastly overbuilt, and needed only half as many vertical supports, and many supports were removed, lending the structure a more streamlined design. During the rebuilding, the horizontal beams were built wider with a four-lane deck and wide sidewalks. The railings design was obedient to standard issue Department of Transportation standards in which aesthetics was not a high priority.

In 2015 – 2017 the bridge’s top structure was re-built on its existing arches to accommodate change of people movement. The now recognized growth of walking and bicycle traffic induced traffic engineers to re-evaluate bridge re-design. 

The width changes of both East and West motor vehicular lanes assisted how both evolved movement modes actually function. The new bridge design maintains the original overall width. Wider approach aprons at both bridge ends allow cars to ease into the main East and West traffic lanes, which taper to be narrow enough to permit single travel paths, seeming to induce slower movement. But the main feature provides ample walking and bicycle lanes on both sides of the motorway, giving auto travel and pedestrian use equal widths. This work included rebuilding some of the railing minimally ornamental details lost in the 1970s reconstruction

The F.W. Cappelen Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.

17 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Bridges

  1. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The Franklin Avenue bridge needs better and clear differentiation between pedestrian walkways and bicycle ways, preferably through curb-level elevation of the pedestrian ways as well as prominent signage and markings.

    I used to walk the bridge as an alternative to the Washington Avenue bridge, but have stopped because of the present hazard from cyclists.

    I suspect that Hennepin County chose the present mish-mash design for ease of snow removal.

    1. Rosa

      Even just colored paint would help, I think. It needs a way for eastbound cyclists to turn left up 27th Ave, too – that would keep cyclists out of the crosswalks east of the river. Right now crossing twice with the walk lights is the only safe-ish way.

      But the single driving lane and protected biking lane is nice.

      1. Bob Roscoe

        Rosa is correct in that immediately off the east end of the bridge, various pathways are uncertain although not dangerous from my daily observation. Crossing Franklin Avenue in this five corner intersection is frustrating, as changing traffic lights seem to be determined by a traffic engineer’s roulette wheel.

        1. karen

          Why didn’t they do a traffic circle for all the crazy angled intersections at the bottom of the bridge – seems the perfect place for a traffic circle, would reduce long wait times for peds, bikers and cars to get thru – and yes traffic circles done right can work with lots of peds and backs, see Europe.

    2. hokan

      I now go out of my way on my daily commute to avoid biking on the Franklin bridge because of conflicts with wrong-way bikers and because the bridge creates confusion for bikers in the east-bound direction on how to proceed after being dumped onto the sidepath.

      Also, in one part (at the east end on the north side) the bike lane is less than the legal minimum of 5 feet.

      Before the redeck the bridge had 7 foot bike lanes and a 6 foot buffer in addition to the sidewalk and I loved it!

      1. Dave P

        I think the the pattern of a two-way bike path is a problem in general. I have not found one that I like or feel more comfortable than a simple one way buffered lane which flows with traffic. They also all seem to be incomplete paths which require you to cross traffic to use. This bridge, Oak St, Pelham in Saint Paul.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          You’re highlighting the problem as I don’t think they are intended to be two-way, although people treat them that way, in part, I think, because of the issues with connections on the east side that others have mentioned.

          1. Rosa

            Yeah, the connection for westbound bike traffic coming north up the river road trail is also not great (it’s totally fine coming west on Franklin or south/west on 27th Ave). So people seem to just use it as two ways and go to the north/south bridge path just by which one they can easily get to.

          2. karen

            Personally, I live at east end of Franklin and I am often going west on Franklin to get to this bridge and then going back east, south on west side of river.

            When I do this consistent with one way bike paths, coming down Franklin, staying in cross walks, it means crossing first Franklin from the bike lanes on right side of road, then waiting to cross East River Rd and then crossing Franklin, both car directions, to get to other side of bridge and then once over bridge, crossing back over both directions of Franklin.

            If some one does this every time, they need an award for patience.

            Instead, I get in car traffic left hand turn lane on Franklin, cross walk over East River Rd and go over bridge on east/south/downriver side. Since I work in eastern suburbs, I’m mostly only doing this at nights and weekends and have not had any issues with peds or other bikes, but its light volume and I go slow thru there.

      2. Rosa

        personally, since I’m never turning onto the river road path and always going forward on Franklin or making a soft left onto 27th, I preferred just riding in the traffic lane, so I could get into the left lane as needed.

        But at least half the time I’m biking with my kid along, and that freaking TERRIFIED him, he’d get frozen up and hop up on the sidewalk and be stranded. I’ve seen adult cyclists have the same response. So even though now I have to stop and wait for a walk light, either once to get to Franklin or twice to get to 27th (and brave the right-turning cars who inexplicably get to turn even when people have a walk light) I think the new layout is better for most people. Though last time I drove it some cyclists turned left up 27th from the eastbound/south side as traffic, on a green light – which should definitely be a thing people ought to be able to do – and it looked really dangerous. We don’t design for left turns out of right lanes for a reason.

    3. Monte Castleman

      I’d think it would make it claustrophobic for bicyclists with a curb on one side and the concrete barrier on the other side.

      You have the Washington Ave and 66th street cyclectracks, where they stained the concrete grey for the bicycle section to make it look more like the traditional asphalt trail.

  2. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts

    As a frequent biker and runner on the Franklin bridge, it’s generally improved since the re-design. And having the bike and pedestrian paths at the same level is generally safer since no-one’s slipping over a curb. It’s wide enough to adjust to there being more or less of biking and pedestrian. It’s a shared space that people share pretty well IME.

    That said, if you’re heading east on the south side on a bike, it’s an awkward mess for doing anything other than heading south on the E. River bike trail. Getting onto Franklin Ave itself or 27th is much more complicated than it used to be when there was the bike boxes.

    The MPRB concept designs for the intersection are promising. A Minnehaha Park style bike-friendly roundabout could work well here.

    1. Davis Parker

      Do you have a link or more information for the MPRB plans for the intersection? I bike through there pretty often too and also found it very disappointing that in some ways this route through the intersection (E-bound over bridge on the south side, continuing E on Franklin) was made worse by the new bridge. I also wonder if this would be a good location for a short cyclist/pedestrian simultaneous green interspersed between motorized traffic greens, though the intersection is quite a distance across–maybe pedestrians would need to use 2 green’s to cross between some routes.

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