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Exploring Different Types of Bridges: Design, Structure, Uses
7 minute read
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Tim Forestell
August 2, 2023

Exploring Different Types of Bridges: Design, Structure, Uses

Bridges are one of the great design and engineering marvels of human construction. By connecting communities, overcoming natural barriers, and reshaping landscapes, they are recognized both for their functionality and beauty. There are many types of bridges with their own strengths and limitations, which makes each one suited for specific environments.

From iconic landmarks to essential transportation infrastructure, bridges play a vital role in shaping our world. Whether you are a construction enthusiast, a curious traveler, or someone passionate about civil engineering, this guide will provide you with valuable insights into the fascinating world of bridges.

Understanding Bridges and Their Importance in Construction

Bridges are important for several reasons, but mostly for their functionality. This includes connecting land, making the transport of people and goods between regions possible. Having a broken-down bridge infrastructure can result in economic progress and development being slowed down. It also limits traffic flow, causes driving delays, and impacts tourism.

That's why having a well-functioning bridge infrastructure is so crucial. They reduce travel times and transportation costs, making it more efficient for people to commute and businesses to transport goods.

Key Components of a Bridge

While the key components of a bridge structure depend on the type and design of the bridge, there are some common segments.

Abutments: These are support structures at the ends of a bridge that hold the deck in place and transfer the load from the deck to the ground or foundation. They resist the horizontal forces and prevent the bridge from moving laterally.

Piers: Vertical supports that are constructed to hold up the bridge deck, Piers are placed at regular intervals along the length of the bridge and are designed to withstand the vertical and horizontal forces exerted on the structure.

Deck: The deck is the roadway or pathway that carries the load (such as vehicles, pedestrians, or trains) across the span of the bridge. It is the top surface of the bridge that people and vehicles directly use for crossing.

Foundations: Crucial structural components that transfer the loads from the bridge to the ground, foundations can be deep into the ground, such as pile foundations, or shallow foundations like spread footings. When made over water, foundations could include caissons or cofferdams.

These are the most common components found on every bridge, other components are unique to the type of bridge that is being constructed.

Common Types of Bridges and Their Design Features

Some of the most common bridge types include arch bridges, beam bridges, truss bridges, suspension bridges, and cable-stayed bridges. Each of these bridge types has design features that make them optimal in specific environments.

Arch Bridges

Arch bridges are one of the oldest and more enduring types of bridges. In addition to their iconic curved shape, they work on the principle of distributing the load and forces through compression along the curve of the arch. Arch bridges have a semi-circular or curved shape, which allows them to transfer the weight of the bridge deck and any load applied to it to the abutments or supports at each end.

The main load-bearing component of an arch bridge is the arch itself, which can be constructed from various materials, such as stone, brick, concrete, steel, or a combination of these materials. The arch distributes the weight it carries downwards and outwards, transferring it to the abutments on the ground.

Despite their versatility and reliability, they do have some limitations to be considered. The main challenge in designing arch bridges is providing proper foundation support at the abutments, as the arch exerts significant horizontal forces on them.

Examples of Arch Bridges

Arch bridges are ideal for crossing obstacles such as rivers, valleys, and gorges, where a strong and stable span is required. Their ability to span long distances without the need for numerous piers or supports makes them suitable for situations where clear navigation or minimal obstruction is desired. Some of these bridges include the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Rialto Bridge, and many others.

Beam Bridges

Beam bridges, also known as girder bridges, are one of the simplest and most common types of bridges used in construction. They consist of horizontal beams (girders) supported at their ends by abutments or piers.

Beam bridges are designed to support the load primarily through bending resistance. The beams, typically made of steel, concrete, or wood, are placed horizontally across the span, with their ends resting on the abutments or piers. Beam bridges must consider a few factors ranging from the expected traffic load, materials used, and the support structure.

The primary components of a beam bridge are horizontal beams, which can be either solid or composed of a series of girders. These beams are typically reinforced with rebar within the concrete to provide additional strength and the abutments and piers provide the vertical support for the beams and transfer the load to the ground.

Examples of Beam Bridges

Beam bridges are ideal for crossing relatively narrow bodies of water, roadways, railways, or small valleys. Due to their straightforward design and construction, beam bridges are cost-effective and can be quickly assembled, making them suitable for various applications, including pedestrian bridges, rural road crossings, and urban overpasses.

Some of the most iconic arch bridges are the Tokyo Gate Bridge, the Forth Bridge, and many more. However, they are not very suitable for longer-spanning areas.

Truss Bridges

Truss bridges consist of a framework of interconnected triangles, known as trusses, which form the main load-bearing structure. Their design is characterized by its excellent strength-to-weight ratio. They are designed to distribute the weight of the bridge deck and any load applied to it through tension and compression forces along the length of the truss members.

Truss bridges are constructed of the trusses themselves and can be made up of various materials, including steel, iron, or timber. The truss configuration can vary, but they commonly use Pratt, Howe, Warren, or K truss designs. The truss members are connected with pins or bolts at the joints, which allow the truss to flex and carry the load efficiently.

Examples of Truss Bridges

The Taylor Southgate Bridge, Minato Bridge, and the Quebec Bridge are the most well-known examples of a truss bridge. Truss bridges are most commonly used for medium to longer spans of area, and it has proved best suited for areas with clear spans. The deck, the roadway or pathway, is placed on top of the trusses, and the load from the deck is transmitted to the trusses, which then transfer the forces to the abutments or piers.

Some of the limitations of this type of bridge include obstruction of water navigation and susceptibility to the wind. Their use of triangulated structures can obstruct water navigation in some cases and as a result of the open design they are susceptible to wind resistance.

Suspension Bridges

Suspension bridges are characterized by their main load-bearing element, the suspended deck, which is supported by large cables anchored to towers at each end. This type of bridge carries the load of its deck by suspending it from the large main cables that are anchored to towers or piers at each end. The main cables are supported by vertical suspenders, which are connected to the deck and transfer the load to the cables.

The key components of a suspension bridge are the main cables, suspenders, towers, and the bridge deck. The main cables, typically made of high-strength steel wires, are the most critical load-bearing elements, as they carry the weight of the entire bridge deck. The suspenders, made of steel or steel-reinforced concrete, connect the main cables to the deck.

The towers or piers, usually made of concrete or steel, provide vertical support for the main cables and keep them in place. The bridge deck, the roadway or pedestrian pathway, is hung from the main cables and is in tension under the weight of the load.

Examples of Suspension Bridges

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the most recognizable suspension bridge. They are best suited for long-span crossing and are most commonly used to cross large bodies of water, deep valleys, and other obstacles. There are also suspension bridges at tourist locations like the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado or the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada.

Suspension bridges are also favored for locations with challenging geological conditions or where building traditional piers would be impractical or costly. However, suspension bridges often have a higher cost compared to other types of bridges and often require ongoing maintenance due to weather exposure.

Cable-Stayed Bridges

Cable-stayed bridges are designed to carry the load of the bridge deck through cables that extend from the towers and attach directly to the deck. The cables are arranged in a fan-like or harp-like pattern, providing excellent stability and load distribution.

The primary components of a cable-stayed bridge are the pylons, cables, and the bridge deck. The pylons, also known as towers, are tall vertical structures that provide the main vertical support for the bridge. The cables, typically made of high-strength steel, extend diagonally from the pylons and attach to the deck at multiple points along its length.

Cable-stayed bridges can have different configurations based on the number and arrangement of cables and pylons. They can be classified into three main types: single-pylon, twin-pylon, and multiple-pylon cable-stayed bridges.

Examples of Cable-Stayed Bridges

One famous example of a cable-stayed bridge is the Millau Viaduct in France. It spans over 2.4 kilometers and is one of the tallest cable-stayed bridges in the world. Another bridge can be found here in North America with The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in South Carolina. Cable-stayed bridges are most frequently used in congested urban areas, busy shipping channels, and large bodies of water.

Another reason cable-stayed bridges are favored is for their aesthetic appeal, as the design creates a visually striking and modern appearance. Additionally, they are more price-friendly, as they require fewer materials and have a simpler construction method compared to other bridges.

How Are Bridges Built?

Bridges require time, craftsmanship, and lots of construction equipment. Two of the most common pieces of equipment used on these construction sites are excavators and bulldozers. The type of bridge being built will depend on a few different factors, but the construction equipment being used will mostly likely be the same, and using an equipment marketplace like DOZR can help. There are ways to use of bridges in construction through transportation, bridge maintenance, and more.

Excavators, specifically long-reach or ones with dredging attachments, are versatile machines used for earthwork and foundation preparation. They are essential for digging, trenching, and removing soil and debris during bridge construction.

Bulldozers are machines used for grading, leveling, and compacting the soil at the construction site of the bridge. They are ready to take on any project ranging from helping in preparing the foundation and constructing the approach roads.

As bridges continue to stand tall, connecting people and places, it's important that we remember the purpose of bridges: bridging gaps, fostering progress, and bringing humans closer together. It's equally important to understand each bridge type's strengths and limitations to understand why each is best suited for that environment.

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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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