John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
For years, a North Carolina man has documented an 11-foot-8-inch-tall bridge's amazingly destructive effect on passing traffic.
What's the difference an inch can make? At one underpass in Durham, North Carolina, it means either having an uneventful commute or getting the top of your vehicle peeled off in a loud and violent can-opener-type crash.
Big signs and flashing yellow lights alert drivers that the railroad trestle at Gregson and Peabody streets is 11 feet and 8 inches tall. Some drivers don't see these signs or choose to ignore them. That's inevitably a mistake. About once a month, the neighborhood's birds are shaken from their roost by the booming echo of the trestle whittling a too-tall truck down to the proper height.
Recognizing the potential for rich cinéma vérité, a local man named Jürgen Henn has taken it upon himself to act as the official videographer of this panel-crumpling bridge. On his YouTube channel, he's compiled dozens of wince-worthy scalpings; he also maintains a website, 11 Foot 8, where he attempts to answer all questions related to this nightmare of traffic-infrastructure logistics.
For instance, if you're wondering why this ridiculous bridge exists in the first place, Henn says, "This train trestle is about 100 years old. At the time when it was built, there were no standards for minimum clearance." Why not just lower the road, then? Because there's a sewer main directly underneath. And as to why nobody's fixed the damn thing, he explains:
Norfolk Southern Railroad owns the train trestle, and their concern is primarily with keeping the trains running and keeping them running safely. So their concern is mainly with reducing the impact of the truck crashes on the actual structure of the train trestle. As far as they are concerned, they solved that problem by installing the crash beam.
The city of Durham has installed "low clearance" signs on each of the 3 blocks leading up to the trestle (Gregson is a one-way road). There is a "overheight when flashing" sign with flashing lights that are triggered by vehicles that are too tall. Several blocks ahead of the trestle the speed limit is 25 MPH. The folks from the city planning department said that they made an effort to prevent accidents.
The North Carolina Dept. of Transportation maintains the road, but not the signage. I suspect they have much bigger problems to deal with statewide than this bridge.
The below video is a fan tribute to Henn's dogged documentary efforts edited into a Rocky montage. For Western fans, there's also a shorter Ennio Morricone remix:
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