Types of Bridges
Over the last several thousand years, bridges have served one of the most
important roles in the development of our earliest civilizations, spreading
of knowledge, local and worldwide trade, and the rise of transportation.
Initially made out of most simple materials and designs, bridges soon
evolved and enabled carrying of wide deckings and spanning of large
distances over rivers, gorges, inaccessible terrain, strongly elevated
surfaces and pre-built city infrastructures. Starting with 13th century BC
Greek Bronze Age, stone arched bridges quickly spread all
around the world, eventually leading to the rise of the use of steel, iron and other materials in bridges that can span kilometers.
To be able to serve various roles, carry different types of weight, and
span terrains of various sizes and complexities, bridges can strongly vary
in their appearance, carrying capacity, type of structural elements, the
presence of movable sections, construction materials and more.
Bridges by Structure
The core structure of the bridge determines
how it distributes the internal forces of tension, compression,
torsion, bending, and sheer
. While all bridges need to handle all those forces at all times, various
types of bridges will dedicate more of their capacity to better handle
specific types of forces. The handling of those forces can be centralized
in only a few notable structure members (such as with cable or cable-stayed
bridge where forces are distributed in a distinct shape or placement) or be
distributed via truss across the almost entire structure of the bridge.
– use arch as a main structural component (arch is always located below the
bridge, never above it). With the help of mid-span piers, they can be made
with one or more arches, depending on what kind of load and stress forces
they must endure. The core component of the bridge is its abutments and pillars, which have to be built strong
because they will carry the weight of the entire bridge structure and
forces they convey.
Arch bridges can only be fixed, but they can support any decking fiction,
including transport of pedestrians, light or heavy rail, vehicles and even
be used as water-carrying aqueducts. The most popular materials for the
construction of arch bridges are masonry stone, concrete, timber, wrought
iron, cast iron and structural steel.
Examples of arch bridge are “Old Bridge” in Mostar, Bosnia, and
Herzegovina, and The Hell Gate Bridge in New York. The oldest stone arch
bridge ever is Greek Arkadiko Bridge which is over 3 thousand years old.
The longest stone arch bridge is Solkan Bridge in Slovenia with an
impressive span of 220 meters.
– employ the simplest of forms – one or several horizontal
beams that can either simply span the area between abutments or relieve
some of the pressure on structural piers. The core force that impacts beam
bridges is the transformation of vertical force into shear and flexural
load that is transferred to the support structures (abutments or mid-bridge
Because of their simplicity, they were the oldest bridges
known to man. Initially built by simply dropping wooden logs over short
rivers or ditches, this type of bridge started being used extensively with
the arrival of metalworks, steel boxes, and pre-stressed construction
concrete. Beam bridges today are separated into girder bridges, plate
girder bridges, box girder bridges and simple beam bridges.
Individual decking of the segmented beam bridge can be of the same length,
variable lengths, inclined or V-shaped. The most famous example of beam
bridge is Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in southern Louisiana that is 23.83
miles (38.35 km) long.
– is a very popular bridge design that uses a diagonal mesh of most often
triangle-shaped posts above the bridge to distribute forces across almost
entire bridge structure. Individual elements of this structure (usually
straight beams) can endure dynamic forces of tension and compression, but
by distributing those loads across entire structure, entire bridge can
handle much stronger forces and heavier loads than other types of bridges.
The two most common truss designs are the king posts (two diagonal posts
supported by single vertical post in the center) and queen posts (two
diagonal posts, two vertical posts and horizontal post that connect two
vertical posts at the top). Many other types of the truss are in use –
Allan, Bailey, Baltimore, Bollman, Bowstring, Brown, Howe, Lattice,
Lenticular, Pennsylvania, Pratt, and others.
Truss bridges were introduced very long ago, immediately becoming one of
the most popular bridge types thanks to their incredible resilience and economic builds
that require a very small amount of material for construction. The most common
build materials used for truss bridge construction are timber, iron, steel,
reinforced concrete and prestressed concrete. The truss bridges can be both
fixed and moveable.
– are somewhat similar in appearance to arch bridges, but they support
their load, not through a vertical bracing but trough diagonal bracing with horizontal beams that are being
supported only on one end. The vast majority of cantilever bridges use one
pair of continuous spans that are placed between two piers, with beams
meeting on the center over the obstacle that bridge spans (river, uneven
terrain, or others). Cantilever bridge can also use mid-bridge pears are
their foundation from which they span in both directions toward other piers
The size and weight capacity of the cantilever bridge impact the number of
segments it uses. Simple pedestrian crossings over very short distances can
use simple cantilever beam, but larger distances can use either two beams
coming out of both abutments or multiple center piers. Cantilever bridges
cannot span very large distances. They can be bare or use truss formation
both below and above the bridge, and most popular constriction material are
structural steel, iron, and prestressed concrete.
Same of the most famous cantilever bridges in the world are Quebec Bridge
in Canada, Forth Bridge in Scotland and Tokyo Gate bridge in Japan.
Tied arch bridges
– are similar in design to arch bridges, but they transfer the weight of
the bridge and traffic load to the top chord that is connected to the bottom cords in bridge
foundation. The bottom tying cord can be reinforced decking itself or a
separate deck-independent structure that interfaces with tie-rods.
They are often called bowstring arches or bowstring bridges and can be
created in several variations, including shouldered tied-arch, multi-span
discrete tied-arches, multi-span continuous tied-arches, single tied-arch
per span and others. However, there is a precise differentiation between
tied arch bridges and bowstring arch bridges – the latter use diagonally
shaped members who create a structure that transfer forces similar to in
Tied arch bridges can be visually very stunning, but they bring with them costly maintenance and repair.
– utilize spreading ropes or cables from the vertical suspenders to hold the weight of bridge deck and
traffic. Able to suspend decking over large spans, this type of bridge is
today very popular all around the world.
Originally made even in ancient times with materials such as ropes or
vines, with decking’s of wood planks or bamboo, the modern variants use a
wide array of materials such as steel wire that is either braided into rope
or forged or cast into chain links. Because only abutments and piers (one
or more) are fixed to the ground, the majority of the bridge structure can
be very flexible and can often dramatically respond to the forces of wind, earthquake or
even vibration of on-foot or vehicle traffic.
Some of the most famous examples of suspension bridges are Golden Gate
Bridge in San Francisco, Akashi Kaikyō Bridge in Japan, and Brooklyn Bridge
in New York City.
– use deck cables that are directly connected to one or more vertical
columns (called towers or pylons) that can be erected near abutments or in
the middle of the span of the bridge structure. Cables are usually
connected to columns in two ways – harp design (each cable is attached to
the different point of the column, creating the harp-like “strings” and
“fan” designs (all cables connect to one point at the top of the column).
This is a very different type of cable-driven suspension than in suspension
bridges, where decking is held with vertical suspenders that go up to main
Originally constructed and popularized in the 16th century, today cable-stayed bridges are a popular design that is often used for
spanning medium to long distances that are longer than those of cantilever
bridges but shorter than the longest suspension bridges. The most common
build materials are steel or concrete pylons, post-tensioned concrete box
girders and steel rope. These bridges can support almost every type of
decking (only not including heavy rail) and are used extensively all around
the world in several construction variations.
The famous Brooklyn Bridge is a suspension bridge, but it also has elements
of cable-stayed design.
Fixed or Moveable Types
The vast majority of all bridges in the world are fixed in place, without any moving parts that forces them to
remain in place until they are demolished or fall due to unforeseen stress
or disrepair. However, some spaces are in need of multi-purpose bridges
which can either have movable parts or can be completely moved from one
location to another. Even though these bridges are rare, they serve an
important function that makes them highly desirable.
– Majority of bridges constructed all around the world and throughout our
history are fixed, with no moveable parts to provide
higher clearance for river/sea transport that is flowing below them. They
are designed to stay where they are made to the time they are deemed
unusable due to their age, disrepair or are demolished. Use of certain
materials or certain construction techniques can instantly force bridge to
be forever fixed. This is most obvious with bridges made out of
construction masonry, suspension and cable-stayed bridges where a large
section of decking surface is suspended in the air by the complicated
network of cables and other material.
Small and elevated bridges like Bridge of Sighs, ancient stone aqueducts of
Rome such as Pont du Gard, large medieval multi-arched Charles Bridge, and
magnificent Golden Gate Bridge are all examples of bridges that are fixed.
– Temporary bridges are made from basic modular components that can be
moved by medium or light machinery. They are usually used in military engineering or in circumstances when fixed
bridges are repaired, and can be so modular that they can be extended to
span larger distances or even reinforced to support heightened loads. The
vast majority of temporary bridges are not intended to be used for
prolonged periods of time on single locations, although in some cases they
may become a permanent part of the road network due to various factors.
The simples and cheapest temporary bridges are crane-fitted decking made
out of construction wood that can facilitate passenger passage across small
spans (such as ditches). As the spans go longer and loads are heightened,
prefabricated bridges made out of steel and iron have to be used. The most
capable temporary bridges can span even distances of 100m using reinforced
truss structure that can facilitate even heavy loads.
– Moveable bridges are a compromise between the strength, carrying capacity
and durability of fixed bridges, and the flexibility and modularity of the
temporary bridges. Their core functionality is providing safe passage of
various types of loads (from passenger to heavy freight), but with the
ability to move out of the way of the boats or other kinds of under-deck
traffic which would otherwise not be capable of fitting under the main body
of the bridge.
Most commonly, movable bridges are made with simple truss or tied arch
design and are spanning rivers with little to medium clearance under their
main decks. When the need arises, they can either lift their entire deck
sharply in the air or sway the deck structure to the side, opening the
waterway for unrestricted passage of ships. While the majority of the
moveable bridges are small to medium size, large bridges also exist.
The most famous moveable bridge in the world is London Tower Bridge, whose
clearance below the decking rises from 8.6m to 42.5m when opened.
Types by Use
When thinking about bridges, everyone’s first thought are structures that
facilitate easy passenger and car traffic across bodies of water or
unfriendly terrain. However, bridges can be versatile and can support many
different types of use. Additionally, some bridges are designed in such way
to support multiple types of use, combining, for example, multiple car
traffic lanes and pedestrian or bicycle passageways (such as a present on
the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City).
– The oldest bridges ever made were designed to facilitate passenger travel
over small bodies of water or unfriendly terrain. Today, they are usually
made in urban environments or in terrain where car transport is
inaccessible (such as rough mountainous terrain, forests, swamps, etc.).
Since on-the foot or bicycle passenger traffic does not strain the bridges
with much weight, designs of those bridges can be made to be more
extravagant, elegant, sleek and better integrated with the urban
environment or created with cheaper or less durable materials. Many modern
pedestrian-only bridges are made out of modern material, while some tourist
pedestrian bridges feature more exoteric designs that even include
transparent polymers in the decking, enabling users unrestricted view to
the area below the bridge.
While the majority of modern pedestrian bridges were made from the start to
facilitate only on-foot access (such as Venice’s Ponte Vecchio and Rialto
bridge), other bridges can be transformed from other purposes to
pedestrian-only function (such as Prague’s historic Charles bridge).
– This is the most common usage of the bridge, with two or more lanes
designed to carry car and truck traffic of various intensities. Modern
large bridges usually feature multiple lanes that facilitate travel in a
single direction, and while the majority of bridges have a single decking
dedicated to car traffic, some can even have an additional deck, enabling
each deck to be focused on providing travel in a single direction.
– Multi-purpose bridges that provide an enhanced flow of traffic across
bodies of water or rough terrain. Most often they have a large number of
car lanes, and sometimes have dedicated area for train tracks. For example,
in addition to multiple car lanes on the main decking, famous Brooklyn
Bridge in NYC features an isolated bicycle path.
– Bridges made specifically to carry one or multiple lanes of train tracks,
although in some cases train tracks can also be placed beside different
deck type, or on different decking elevation. After car bridges, train
bridges are the second-most-common type of bridges.
First train bridges started being constructed during the early years of European Industrial Revolution as means of
enabling faster shipment of freight between ore mines and ironworks
factories. With the appearance of safe passenger locomotives and cars, the
rapid expansion of railway networks all around Europe, US and Asia brought
the need for building thousands of railway bridges of various sizes and
– Less common as a standalone bridge type, pipeline bridges are constructed
to carry pipelines across water or inaccessible terrains.
Pipelines can carry water, air, gas and communication cables. In modern
times, pipeline networks are usually incorporated in the structure of
existing or newly built bridges that also house regular decking that
facilitates pedestrian, car or railway transport.
Pipeline bridges are usually very lightweight and can be
supported only with the basic suspension bridge construction designs. In many
cases, they are also equipped with walkways, but they are almost
exclusively dedicated for maintenance purposes and are not intended for
– are ancient bridge-like structures that are part of the larger viaduct networks intended to carry
water from water-rich areas to sometimes very distant dry cities. Because
of the need to maintain a low but constant drop of elevation of the main
water-carrying passageway, aqueducts are very precisely created structures that
sometimes need to reach very high elevations and maintain rigid structure
while spanning large distances. The largest aqueducts are made of stone and
can have multiple tiers of arched bridges created one on top of each other.
The modern equivalent of the ancient aqueduct bridges are pipeline bridges,
but while the viaduct network used natural force of gravity to push
water toward the desired destination, modern pipeline networks use electric pumps to propel
water and other material.
– These are bridges that host commercial buildings such as restaurants and
shops. Most commonly used in medieval bridges created in urban environments
where they took advantage of the constant flow of pedestrian traffic, today
these kinds of bridges are rarely constructed with a notable amount of them
being found in modern India. Slovakia’s city of Bratislava is a home of a
car passageway bridge with a large tower that hosts a restaurant on top of
Medieval bridges are much more commonly known for their commercial
applications. Italy is home to two of the best known commercial bridges in
the world – the famous multi-tiered Ponte Vecchio in the city center of
Florence, and brilliant white Rialto Bridge that spans the scenic Grand
Canal in Venice. Both feature numerous shops that offer tourist memorabilia
Types by Materials
The core function of the bridge is to span a stable decking intended for
the transport of pedestrians, cars or trains while enduring weight of its
core structure, the weight of the traffic, and the natural forces that
slowly but surely erode its durability. Various materials can help bridge
designers to achieve their goal, and provide stable and long-lasting
bridges that require varying levels of maintenance (and in cases of
historic bridges, restorations). Here is the breakdown of all the common
types of materials that are used in historical and modern bridge building:
Bridges of natural materials
– The first bridges ever made were constructed from unprocessed natural
materials, starting from simple wooden logs that were placed across small
rivers or ditches, to the large rope-tied bridges that are constructed over
large canyons and mountain ranges in inhospitable areas of Asia.
Wood (Wooden bridges)
– Wood is an excellent material that can be used for the creation of small
to medium-sized bridges that are best suited for pedestrian or low-weight
car transport. In modern times, wooden bridges are most commonly found for
spanning short distances or being used to transport people, cars, and
livestock over rough terrain or small rivers in Covered Bridges.
Stone (Stone bridges)
– Stone is an excellent long-lasting natural material that can be used for
the construction of bridges that can last for centuries. Stone pieces can
even be used to construct very large bridge structures that don’t even use
concrete – such as in Pont du Gard aqueduct in southern France that uses
the weight of individual stones to make an entire 48.8 m high and 275 m
structure stable for two thousand years.
Concrete and Steel
Concrete and Steel bridges
– Durable, long-lasting and highly versatile modern materials that are
today used for the creation of countless types of bridge designs. Coupled
with the presence of cables and other modern materials, these types of
bridges represent the majority of all the bridges that are currently in
public pedestrian, car, and train transport use today.
Bridges of advanced materials
– As decades go on, modern industry enables bridge builders to gain access
to wide array of advanced materials that offer noticeable advantages over
traditional construction processes.
Fictional and Mythical Bridges
While bridges can very commonly be found in various works of fiction, such
as novels, TV series or films (most notably, as a center motif in the novel
and Academy Award-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), some of the
most famous fictional bridges are in fact mythological bridges which are
part of several religions. These bridges are usually connected with the
passageway of souls from our world to the paradise.
The three most popular bridges of this type are Zoroastrianism’s “ Chinvat Bridge” that separates the worlds of the living
and the dead where soul must travel through and be judged, hair-narrow
Islamic “As-Sirāt” bridge that carries souls to the
paradise, and burning rainbow bridge “Bifrost” that
carries souls of the worthy warrior souls between our world (Midgard) and
the halls of the elder Nordic god Odin in Asgard.