Suicide barriers and landmarks: my thoughts on the Golden Gate Bridge

A recent entry on poses the question of whether or not a suicide barrier should be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge:

I just saw a movie called “The Bridge” about all the suicides that take place at the Golden Gate and it was shocking to watch all those people leaping to their deaths…. Average number of jumpers is 1 every two weeks and the grand total now is well over 1200 people ages ranging from 80 to 14. It is the most popular location to commit suicide in the world. Yet, San Franciscans refuse to build a barrier (ala Eiffel Tower, Empire State building) because it would not look aesthetically pleasing.

The article concludes with an incompletely-attributed quote by Eve Meyer from this SF Chronicle article:

“When suicide becomes difficult,” Meyer says, “people do not switch to another method. They tend to get help.

Now the last part of the article is technically incorrect as the plan to build a barrier has been approved but not yet funded. We’ll get to that in a minute.

I admire art, including architecture. The Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful in its present form. But when a landmark becomes known for its suicides almost as much as its beauty, I feel it is absolutely, positively, patently devoid of good judgment to place the preservation of aesthetics above the preservation of human life.

Moving on…

The SF Chronicle article reveals how this could have been avoided when the Golden Gate Bridge was originally built. The original plans by chief engineer Joseph Strauss called for railings of a specific design at a height of 5&12frac; feet, which he believed would make the bridge suicide-proof.

Enter architect Irving Morrow, who was originally brought in to design the plazas and entryways. For some reason, he reduced the height to 4 feet, a decision with tragic consequences for over a thousand people who have chosen to end their lives at the bridge, and the thousands more surviving friends and family, in the decades since. What the heck could he have been thinking? The only possibility that makes much sense to me is that first, Strauss not clear enough in his original plans why the height was set where it was, and second, the change was made for primarily aesthetic reasons. If this is the case, we’ve found out the hard way in the decades since that looks can indeed kill.

So we’ve identified the problem. How to fix it?

This LA Times article from 2008 October documents that the plan to build steel netting below the bridge was approved, and was chosen as the least expensive alternative. From what I’ve been able to find out, it has yet to be built, assumably due to funding issues as documented in this SF Examiner article. The cost is estimated at $50 million with annual maintenance costs well under $100,000.

To say the least, I’m horrified. Funding issues? Maybe the beancounters standing in the way of a decades overdue fix to a flawed, suicide-friendly bridge should give their excuses to the surviving friends and family every time there’s yet another jumper. I’m pretty sure the money would be found rather hastily thereafter. Is $50 million a lot of money? Yes. But there’s no objective way to place a price tag on human lives. The first suicide prevented will make every dollar spent worth it.