MyTurf

No bridge too far, too long or too wide

ST GRAPHICS
The OUE Link overhead bridge is lined with retail shops and food outlets.
The OUE Link overhead bridge is lined with retail shops and food outlets.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

MyTurf is a fortnightly series that aims to tell untold stories of our neighbourhoods. In this instalment, we look behind the pedestrian overhead bridges that have sprouted up since the first one in 1964.

If you need a new dress, a pedestrian overhead bridge is probably the last place you would think of going to get one.

Yet a few office executives have been saved by Ms Priscilla Phua's shop suspended 5m above the bustling traffic of Collyer Quay in downtown Singapore.

Nestled in the glass, steel and concrete OUE Link, the 40-year-old sales supervisor's cosy shop, TheDressBar, has a panoramic view of cars cruising the nine-lane thoroughfare below.

"Sometimes they come in with torn dresses or broken zips and say they need something to wear immediately," said Ms Phua.

"Some are stressed and come in to look at clothes or talk to us, and they become happier."

Most pedestrian overhead bridges are much simpler in design and purpose than the one where Ms Phua's shop sits.

Singapore's first, which opened at Collyer Quay in 1964, was a mostly wood and steel structure high, wide and safe enough for pedestrians to pass over traffic. It sits at the spot where OUE Link is now.

Today, most of the country's 560 or so pedestrian overhead bridges follow this philosophy - from the one that crosses the greatest width of traffic, spanning 145m over the Ayer Rajah Expressway near Telok Blangah Crescent, to the petite overpass above the single-lane slip road connecting the Pan-Island Expressway and Central Expressway.

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The oldest still standing is a 1967 veteran near the junction of Serangoon Road and St Michael's Road, unless you count the two iconic 1932 railway bridges in Bukit Timah that have become memory lanes for pedestrians after the last train crossed them in 2011.

Assistant Professor Yeo Kang Shua, an architectural historian at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said: "Most of these bridges in Singapore are utilitarian and functional - construction technologies, safety and cost are important considerations."

Still, he said, overhead bridges could contribute more to architecture in Singapore through interesting designs, rather than simply being a generic walkway for people to get across.

For example, much talked about in heritage circles is the 1975 structure in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, near Lorong Chuan. The work of architects Mak Ng & Associates, it resembles a freight container with hexagonal windows cut along the sides.

Junior college student Seth Tay, 17, who was crossing the bridge on his way home on a sunny afternoon, told The Straits Times that its interior reminded him of an aeroplane or express train.

He added that its overall cultural value could be enhanced in a way similar to a wooden bridge he visited in Switzerland some time ago.

"Wood panelling on the inside would look quite posh. You could also put up information about the history of the bridge and who came up with the design," he said.

Meanwhile, in the heart of Chinatown lies an open space landscaped with Chinese pavilions, bonsai trees and rock art with water cascades. It is easy to forget that you are perched on a gargantuan pedestrian bridge some 10m wide in places, with Eu Tong Sen Street beneath your feet.

On a recent visit, several people were using it as a background for photographs, including some with professional cameras and a model.

In one of the pavilions sat a 62-year-old woman enjoying a packet lunch of mixed rice from a food centre.

"The hawker centre is too crowded," said the travel agent working nearby, who wanted to be known only as Madam Chin. "Everybody is waiting for space and you have to move. Here you have open space for yourself and the greenery is soothing to the eyes."

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has strict rules governing the design of new pedestrian overhead bridges, which are detailed in its Architectural Design Criteria last updated in 2015.

For example, LED lights must be used and have to conform to specified brightness, colour range and power consumption. The light fittings must be dust-proof, splash- proof and vandal-proof.

Even the material of the railings is strictly regulated - it must be Grade 316 stainless steel, which resists corrosion well and is, in fact, used on the exterior of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Concrete is the main material for bridges nowadays as it is more durable and requires less maintenance than others like steel, the LTA said.

While 46 pedestrian overhead bridges have been built since 2010, some experts say Singapore can do without them altogether, even with its high population density.

Assistant Professor Oscar Carracedo, from the Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment, said a liveable city should have streets that prioritise pedestrians and alternative mobility systems like bicycles over cars, instead of relying on pedestrian bridges.

He added that Singapore is already making headway in reducing the number of cars through its car-lite drive and the development of public transport infrastructure.

Despite having as many as 20 to 56 cars for every 100 people, much more than Singapore's 10 per 100 people, major cities like Sydney, London, New York and Vancouver use streets and pavements as the main pedestrian space, said Prof Carracedo.

"Pedestrian bridges are expensive infrastructure that forces people to be detached from their natural environment," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2017, with the headline 'No bridge too far, too long or too wide'. Print Edition | Subscribe