Flickr credit: DBaron

They Should Paint The Bay Bridge Gold

Mischa Vaughn
Apr 4, 2013 · 5 min read

The bridges of San Francisco have a complicated relationship with one another. Almost a classic sibling tale, the Bay Bridge should have every reason to be jealous and spiteful of the Golden Gate, but it's not. Despite all the photographs and gushing over its more picturesque sibling, the Bay Bridge holds its tongue and does its duty.

The Bay Bridge is older, by a full six months, and it's charged with more responsibility — supporting over double the amount of traffic of the Golden Gate (280,000 vehicles compared to 110,000) — and it is a thoroughly more complex structure. No one marvels at the engineering feat it took to build two entirely different dual-leveled spans — each one longer than the entire Golden Gate — and connect them through an island in the middle of the bay. Yes, the Bay Bridge has had its troubles with earthquakes, but it's still standing, and that should count for something.

I also have to point out that the Bay Bridge has somewhat of an identity crisis with its name. It was unofficially christened the James “Sunny Jim" Rolph Bridge, after the former California governor and San Francisco mayor, who died just before the bridge opened. But that name didn't stick. For the new eastern span, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has decided to call it the Emperor Norton Bridge, after a British-born citizen of the city who declared himself "Emperor of these United States." That's a great name, but it's only for HALF of a bridge. The whole thing is officially called the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a hyphenated catastrophe of a name that was clearly settled upon by two liberal parents too strong-headed to make a decision.

The locals shortened this to “The Bay Bridge,” but the nickname adoption makes the bridge feel like one of those kids on the corner that you see in every 1920's gangster film: Sammy, Joey, Nicky, or what-have-you, who sells newspapers and lives in a group home. Those kids are usually killed or kidnapped, to give the good guy of the story a narrative direction. It's a pretty sad state of existence for something as useful and important as a bridge.

But let's be honest, the Bay Bridge is the black sheep of the San Francisco bridge family. It has broken down and been beaten up, and had to have more retrofitting and reconstruction than its younger sibling. The fact that the whole eastern span has had to be redone is emblematic of how people feel about the Bay Bridge. It's ugly, gray, and never the center of attention. Compare the 75th anniversaries of each bridge to learn everything you need to know about the dynamic between them. For the Golden Gate's 75th — an orgy of fireworks, music, and more fireworks that would have made Prometheus glow with pride. For the Bay Bridge — a display featuring the timeline and history of the bridge hidden away on Treasure Island, in a warehouse nobody could find.

The Golden Gate is the younger sibling that comes along and steals all the attention, because it's newer, cuter, and more innocent. But in many ways, the fawning over the Golden Gate makes sense. It was built as an attraction. Complete with walkways, viewpoints, and bike lanes, the Golden Gate connects San Francisco's former-military Presidio district to the beautiful Marin headlands. Those are the hills where mountain biking was invented for god's sake. Compare that to the Bay Bridge, which leads from San Francisco to Oakland, a city that one out of every fifth white person is still afraid to visit.

And don't get me started on how everyone goes gaga over the Golden Gate's suspension cables, the color it popularized (international orange), and how frickin eery and beautiful it looks when fog obscures the tops of the towers. The Bay Bridge never stood a chance, really.

You might have reason to believe this will change. News reports across the country are talking about the Bay Lights, which are San Francisco's belated birthday present to the bridge. Billed as the largest LED sculpture in the world, these lights combine to make the western span of the bridge the trippiest visual stimulus the world has seen since the iTunes visualizer. They'll draw tons of tourists and visitors, and give the Bay Bridge the kind of spotlight it has never had before.

While these lights are truly spectacular, they're only supposed to be around for two years. Imagine the day they take the lights down and how sad it's going to be. It's like your kid going off to an Ivy League school, becoming student body president, and then flunking out a year later. An admirable accomplishment, but in the end a disappointment you've arguably wasted money on.

So it seems as though the Bay Bridge is condemned to a lifetime of playing second fiddle. Unless...

Unless we paint the Bay Bridge gold. At least the western span.

Now, hear me out. I know this sounds like a dumb idea, but I promise it'll pay off. Think about it — everyone loves a good prank, right? So how funny would it be if tourists on the Embarcadero started walking towards the gold-painted Bay Bridge, only to discover that the bridge they're looking for is back three miles in the other direction? And there are other reasons, beyond trolling, to go ahead with this plan:

  • Think of the pedi-cabs, and how much this would earn them in revenue. Shuttling tourists from one bridge to the other is their equivalent of a taxi's airport run, so this would help spur the local economy a bit.
  • It's good branding. The 49ers' colors are red and gold, and international-orange and gold is pretty close to that. Maybe changing the color of the bridge will help the team think of moving back from Santa Clara. OK, it probably won't, but it'll continue to tie the team to the city even if they don't play here anymore.
  • It'll help the Bay Bridge's confidence. A new eastern span and a new coat of paint after two years of lights will do wonders for its self-esteem. I guarantee that after the first paint job you'll see the bridge begin to socialize again, and talk proudly of everything it accomplishes each week. Maybe it'll even take up jogging.

I. M. H. O.

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