Hopkins students design foot bridge as memorial

Three young women urge building span over Charles for pedestrians

  • Hit and run victims of Thomas Meighan, from left, Tiffany Rawlings, Lynnora Christian and Damien Banks, speak to the media outside the Baltimore Circuit Court house after Meighan's sentencing. Meighan pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter for the hit and run death of Johns Hopkins University student Miriam Frankl.
Hit and run victims of Thomas Meighan, from left, Tiffany Rawlings,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
February 20, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

When Johns Hopkins University civil engineering student Erin Kelly was assigned a class project to design a steel structure, her thoughts went to her sorority "big sister," Miriam Frankl.

Frankl, a fellow Hopkins student, was killed last year in a hit-and-run crash involving a chronic drunk driver while she was crossing St. Paul Street near campus. Kelly thought it would be fitting to make her project the design of a pedestrian bridge that might keep other Hopkins students safe.

So she teamed up with two engineering school classmates, Charlotte Healy and Alison Ignatowski, to research what it would take to build a bridge across Charles Street — the main north-south road through campus — and whether there was a demand for it.

Kelly said that would be a better location for the bridge than the site on St. Paul Street where Frankl was killed.

"The first step needs to be Charles Street because everyone crosses it," she said. "I think the students would use the bridge — especially at night to use the library."

Kelly, 21, gave an interview by phone shortly before she left for study abroad in Australia, but Healy and Ignatowski — though they didn't know Frankl as well — have kept up an effort to make the bridge a reality.

The juniors, both 20, met with a reporter at a campus bookstore to display their design and to make their case for construction of the 150-foot-long span just north of 33rd Street.

To a layman's eye, it's quite a handsome preliminary design — a sweeping arch with a concrete deck and cables to distribute the load. But there was a lot more to it than drawing a pretty picture. They had to do precise calculations of weights and loads. They had to allow for the horizontal force of wind. They had to figure for "moment" — the amount it would have to bend.

Rachel Sangree, a Hopkins lecturer and their faculty adviser, said they did an excellent job and earned high marks for their project in design class. "They're three extraordinarily bright and hard-working and persistent students," Sangree said.

Their persistence shows in their work both before and after the project was turned in. While preparing the design, they also took surveys of their fellow students to learn about their walking habits and experiences as pedestrians.

According to Ignatowski, their survey found that 84 percent of the people they polled around the campus feel unsafe crossing the road. Healy said they found that fellow students cross Charles Street an average of eight times a day and that only 49 percent use the crosswalks.

The students also looked at the experience of other city colleges that have built overpasses — especially Loyola, several blocks up Charles Street. They thought through the disability access issues and calculated that one end of the bridge could connect with an elevator-equipped dorm. They consulted with engineering firm JMT and construction company Whiting-Turner.

Since completing the assignment, they've been no less energetic — shopping it around to university officials and trying to build public support for the concept. One step they took was to contact The Baltimore Sun. Neither student was shy about making her case for the design.

"It would completely eliminate the pedestrian-vehicle interaction," Ignatowski said.

"Charles Street is a street that's equally used by cars and pedestrians but mostly designed for cars," Healy said.

The two women say the next logical step is to reach out to the Charles Village community to build support for the concept. They're eager to take the lessons they learned in class and apply them in the real world.

But the real world might have some disappointing lessons to teach them.

For instance, don't be tardy for the party — even if it's not your fault. Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said that since about 2003, when the three students would have been in junior high, the university, city officials and community organizations have been hard at work on a comprehensive redesign of Charles Street in the Hopkins area. And that plan doesn't call for a pedestrian bridge. Rather, it envisions a series of ground-level improvements to make the street safer for pedestrians, including better-defined crosswalks, improved signage and lighting.

O'Shea said a bridge was considered but rejected because planners doubted enough students would use it. "There's no one place where they cross, and there's really no way you could get them to use a bridge in one place in that long span," he said.

University and city officials hope to break ground on the new Charles Street streetscape and traffic design this fall.

It would be a shame if these young women were overly discouraged by the long odds against getting the bridge built. They accurately identified a need and made a good case for a solution. Whatever the merits, however, the train seems to have left the station.

Still, it was refreshing to see aspiring engineers thinking about structures that could help to make an urban environment a little safer for people on foot. It gives one hope that the civil engineering profession will be less auto-centric than it was in the 20th century.

O'Shea said Hopkins has nothing but praise for the students' work. He said they've already absorbed an important lesson: "Engineering is not about the steel, it's about the people."

Kelly, Healy & Ignatowski P.E.? KHI Associates? Either has a nice ring to it.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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