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Cantilever bridge
The Pierre Pflimlin Bridge is a balanced cantilever made of concrete, shown here under construction.
The Pierre Pflimlin Bridge is a balanced cantilever made of concrete, shown here under construction.
AncestorBeam bridge, truss bridge
DescendantSwing bridge
CarriesPedestrians, automobiles, trucks, light rail, heavy rail
Span rangeMedium
MaterialIron, structural steel, prestressed concrete
Design effortMedium
Falsework requiredVery little to none

A cantilever bridge is a bridge built using cantilevers, structures that project horizontally into space, supported on only one end. For small footbridges, the cantilevers may be simple beams; however, large cantilever bridges designed to handle road or rail traffic use trusses built from structural steel, or box girders built from prestressed concrete.

The steel truss cantilever bridge was a major engineering breakthrough when first put into practice, as it can span distances of over 1,500 feet (460 m), and can be more easily constructed at difficult crossings by virtue of using little or no falsework.


The original style of cantilever bridge
The original style of cantilever bridge

Engineers in the 19th century understood that a bridge that was continuous across multiple supports would distribute the loads among them. This would result in lower stresses in the girder or truss and meant that longer spans could be built.[1]: 57, 190  Several 19th-century engineers patented continuous bridges with hinge points mid-span.[2]: 75, 79  The use of a hinge in the multi-span system presented the advantages of a statically determinate system[3] and of a bridge that could handle differential settlement of the foundations.[1]: 190  Engineers could more easily calculate the forces and stresses with a hinge in the girder.

Heinrich Gerber was one of the engineers to obtain a patent for a hinged girder (1866) and is recognized as the first to build one. [2]: 79  The Hassfurt Bridge over the Main river in Germany with a central span of 124 feet (38 metres) was completed in 1867 and is recognized as the first modern cantilever bridge.[3]: par. 2 

Human demonstration of the principle
Human demonstration of the principle

The High Bridge of Kentucky by C. Shaler Smith (1877), the Niagara Cantilever Bridge by Charles Conrad Schneider (1883) and the Poughkeepsie Bridge by John Francis O'Rourke and Pomeroy P. Dickinson (1889) were all important early uses of the cantilever design.[3]: par. 3, 5  The Kentucky River Bridge spanned a gorge that was 275 feet (84 metres) deep and took full advantage of the fact that falsework, or temporary support, is not needed for the main span of a cantilever bridge.[3]: par. 3 

The most famous early cantilever bridge is the Forth Bridge. This bridge held the record for longest span in the world for twenty-nine years until it was surpassed by the Quebec Bridge. Benjamin Baker illustrated the structural principles of the suspended span cantilever in the photo on the left. The suspended span, where Kaichi Watanabe sits, is seen in the center. The need to resist compression of the lower chord is seen in the use of wooden poles while the tension of the upper chord is shown by the outstretched arms. The action of the outer foundations as anchors for the cantilever is visible in the placement of the counterweights.[3]: par. 6 


Cantilever Bridge.—A structure at least one portion of which acts as an anchorage for sustaining another portion which extends beyond the supporting pier.

— John Alexander Low Waddell, Bridge Engineering[4]

A simple cantilever span is formed by two cantilever arms extending from opposite sides of an obstacle to be crossed, meeting at the center. In a common variant, the suspended span, the cantilever arms do not meet in the center; instead, they support a central truss bridge which rests on the ends of the cantilever arms. The suspended span may be built off-site and lifted into place, or constructed in place using special travelling supports.

A diagram of the parts of the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge
A diagram of the parts of the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge

A common way to construct steel truss and prestressed concrete cantilever spans is to counterbalance each cantilever arm with another cantilever arm projecting the opposite direction, forming a balanced cantilever; when they attach to a solid foundation, the counterbalancing arms are called anchor arms. Thus, in a bridge built on two foundation piers, there are four cantilever arms: two which span the obstacle, and two anchor arms that extend away from the obstacle. Because of the need for more strength at the balanced cantilever's supports, the bridge superstructure often[citation needed] takes the form of towers above the foundation piers. The Commodore Barry Bridge is an example of this type of cantilever bridge.

Steel truss cantilevers support loads by tension of the upper members and compression of the lower ones. Commonly, the structure distributes the tension via the anchor arms to the outermost supports, while the compression is carried to the foundations beneath the central towers. Many truss cantilever bridges use pinned joints and are therefore statically determinate with no members carrying mixed loads.

Prestressed concrete balanced cantilever bridges are often built using segmental construction.

Construction methods

Some steel arch bridges (such as the Navajo Bridge) are built using pure cantilever spans from each side, with neither falsework below nor temporary supporting towers and cables above. These are then joined with a pin, usually after forcing the union point apart, and when jacks are removed and the bridge decking is added the bridge becomes a truss arch bridge. Such unsupported construction is only possible where appropriate rock is available to support the tension in the upper chord of the span during construction, usually limiting this method to the spanning of narrow canyons.

The old eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, pictured in August 2014, is deconstructed in nearly the reverse order of its construction. Similar temporary supports were used under each anchor arm during the bridge's construction.
The old eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, pictured in August 2014, is deconstructed in nearly the reverse order of its construction. Similar temporary supports were used under each anchor arm during the bridge's construction.

List by length

Main articles: List of longest cantilever bridges and List of cantilever bridges

World's longest cantilever bridges (by longest span):[5]

  1. Quebec Bridge (Quebec, Canada, 1919) 1,800 feet (549 m)
  2. Forth Bridge (Firth of Forth, Scotland, 1890) 2 x 1,710 feet (521 m)
  3. Minato Bridge (Osaka, Japan, 1973) 1,673 feet (510 m)
  4. Commodore Barry Bridge (Chester, Pennsylvania, USA, 1974) 1,644 feet (501 m)
  5. Crescent City Connection (dual spans) (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 1958 and 1988) 1,575 feet (480 m)
  6. Howrah Bridge (Kolkata, West Bengal, India, 1943) 1,500 feet (457 m)
  7. Gramercy Bridge (Gramercy, Louisiana, USA, 1995) 1,460 feet (445 m)
  8. Tokyo Gate Bridge (Tokyo, Japan, 2012) 1,443 feet (440 m)
  9. J. C. Van Horne Bridge (Campbellton, New Brunswick & Pointe-à-la-Croix, Quebec, Canada, 1961) 1,247 feet (380 m)
  10. Horace Wilkinson Bridge (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, 1968) 1,235 feet (376 m)
  11. Tappan Zee Bridge (South Nyack, New York & Tarrytown, New York, USA, 1955–2017) 1,212 feet (369 m)
  12. Lewis and Clark Bridge (Longview, Washington & Rainier, Oregon, USA, 1930) 1,200 feet (366 m)



  1. ^ a b DuBois, Augustus Jay (1902). The Mechanics of Engineering. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  2. ^ a b Bender, C. (1890). "Discussion on Cantilever Bridges by C.F. Findlay". Transactions of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. 3. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  3. ^ a b c d e DeLony, Eric (1996). "Context for World Heritage Bridges". World Heritage Sites. International Council on Monuments and Sites. Archived from the original on 2005-02-21. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  4. ^ Waddell, J. A. L. (1916). Bridge Engineering - Volume 2. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp. 1917. Retrieved 2008-08-19.
  5. ^ Durkee, Jackson (1999-05-24). National Steel Bridge Alliance: World's Longest Bridge Spans (PDF). American Institute of Steel Construction, Inc. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2002-06-01. Retrieved 2007-11-03.