A pencil drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge
Soomyeong Kim

Why Is It So Easy to Jump Off a Bridge?

Better design could prevent so many suicides.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

New York City’s High Line was not always high. For nearly a century, freight trains ran directly alongside traffic, carrying food to Lower Manhattan—and killing pedestrians, more than 540 from 1846 to 1910. Eleventh Avenue in those days was known as “Death Avenue.” The cargo train that cut through the neighborhood was nicknamed “The Butcher,” and many of its victims were children who crossed the tracks to bring dinner to their fathers at work in the factories and meatpacking plants. Only when the trains were moved onto elevated tracks in 1934 did the rail line begin to lose its association with death.

The High Line was abandoned in 1980, then reclaimed as a public walkway in 2009. Today, it ends in Hudson Yards, the largest private development in the United States. Among its many features are several skyscrapers, a mall, and an arts center, but its crown jewel is the Vessel, a 150-foot nest of staircases frequently likened to a honeycomb, gleaming rose gold and leading nowhere but up. The mall’s developer paid an estimated $200 million for the structure, likely in the hopes that tourists would wander from the architectural spectacle into Lululemon or Aritzia.

When renderings of the Vessel’s design were first released, The New York Times predicted that the structure would form an “exclamation point” at the end of the High Line, an exuberant finale to a peaceful stroll. But today, the Vessel would be far better described as a period. It opened in 2019, but the upper floors have been closed to the public since July 2021.

I visited for the first time in October 2021. Aluminum crowd-control gates enclosed the structure, but I could see two guards inside pacing around, sliding along the railings, and recording each other doing TikTok dances. I approached and asked why the Vessel was closed, and was told that work was being done on the elevators; it would open by Thanksgiving. When I inquired again two months later, I got a vaguer response: closed for maintenance. In April, guards were herding visitors into the atrium of the Vessel but telling them to go no further. “The top is closed,” shouted one guard. “Take all the photos you want. But the top is closed.”

I went back this month to find the Vessel covered in Christmas lights. The entrances to the stairways had been sealed off with black plywood. Some visitors leaned against the barriers, looking up. “Can you climb it or what?” a man carrying a Uniqlo shopping bag asked his companion.

I repeated his question to a guard outside. “Honey, you can’t,” she told me. “It’s been closed since last year. They’re modifying it.”

“Why is it closed?” I asked.

“They’re modifying it,” she said again.

“Why are they modifying it?”

She paused and met my eyes. “I don’t know.”

The truth is that the Vessel is closed because, for the brief stretch that it was open, four people jumped to their death from its staircases.

After its first suicide, the Vessel closed early for the day. After its second, it closed for a few hours; after its third, it closed for four months. Since the deaths began, activists and the local community board have been lobbying the developers to add architectural interventions: permanent barriers and higher guardrails.

The interventions required to reduce suicides by jumping are, thankfully, straightforward. A Swiss study in 2017 found that nets beneath bridges reduce suicide attempts by 77 percent, and that barriers along their edges reduce suicides by 69 percent. It may be surprising that they work so well—if a person were hell-bent on taking his life, wouldn’t he find another way?—but suicide is often an impulsive act. A 2021 study found that nearly three-quarters of those who were hospitalized following a suicide attempt reported that they had made the decision to end their life within three hours of the attempt. More than a third had decided less than five minutes before. One man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge left a note on the railing: “Why do you make it so easy?”

Fewer people die by suicide when it’s harder to die by suicide. When Britain gradually eliminated carbon monoxide from its public gas supply in the 1960s and ’70s, the rate of suicide by self-asphyxiation didn’t just go down; the overall suicide rate dropped by 35 percent, suggesting that getting the most obvious method out of the home may have gotten suicide in general out of the minds of many people.

If a man wakes up intent on ending his life and finds a fence dividing him from an easy death, he will have to make a new plan. He might not have the energy. He might go home instead. He might go to sleep. He might wake up the next morning and the morning after that—a whole lifetime of days strung together.

Suicide-reduction architecture, as I’ve come to call it, demonstrably saves lives, and yet no standards or guidelines address it. If a bridge or building is the site of a suicide—or worse, if it becomes a known destination for people seeking to take their life—barriers are generally considered as a last resort. If implemented, the design is often described euphemistically as a “safety net” or an “attractive security membrane.” The goal is almost always to make these barriers as unobtrusive as possible. No developer wants to fund a multimillion-dollar public work that calls to mind the image of someone plunging to their death.

When the Vessel reopened to the public in May 2021, after four months of community-board meetings, no architectural changes had been made. But new policies had been put in place. Visitors weren’t allowed inside on their own; individuals were paired off with other tourists. A sign beside the guard station provided information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Entry had been free but now cost $10, which helped pay for a threefold increase in security.

It wasn’t enough. Two months after the reopening, a 14-year-old boy entered the honeycomb with his family. He chased his sister up the reflective stairs, laughing, dodging tourists, and ignoring a guard’s warnings to slow down. When he reached the eighth level, he climbed the rose-gold banister and jumped to his death.

pencil drawing of the hive
Soomyeong Kim

That boy, the fourth and last person to jump from the Vessel, was also the youngest. The oldest was 24. Since 2007, the suicide rate among 10-to-24 year-olds has risen sharply. Young people tend to die by suicide for different reasons than older adults. They are much more likely to fatally harm themselves in response to a single, traumatic event, rather than a persistent state of anguish.

Although the Vessel was built on private property with private dollars, its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, insisted that it was for the public. In a podcast interview that aired in February 2021, Heatherwick declared that his creation “must be free in the same way that it’s free to walk in Central Park or free to walk on the High Line.” He said that the Vessel was never meant to be viewed only from the outside, that it wouldn’t be complete until it was filled with visitors.

In an interview with The Daily Beast in July 2021, Stephen Ross, the billionaire founder of the Related Companies, which co-developed Hudson Yards, suggested that the Vessel may never fully reopen. Ever since, I’ve been struggling to understand the developers’ inaction and secrecy. Why would Hudson Yards and Heatherwick sacrifice so much of their vision for what the Vessel was meant to be rather than adapt its architecture to make it safe?

The head of media at Heatherwick’s studio declined a request for an interview. When I asked a spokesperson for Hudson Yards whether suicide barriers are being considered, he offered the following statement: “We continue to test and evaluate solutions that would allow us to reopen the staircases so that everyone can fully enjoy the unique experiences Vessel provides.” And indeed, in August, Eyewitness News reported that the Vessel was testing “some sort of safety netting” under the stairs. But it’s unclear whether any measures have been undertaken since.

More broadly: Why do certain places become magnets for deliberate death in the first place? Why don’t we have a protocol for dealing with such sites, for amending their architecture, for making them safe?

The Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular site for suicide in the Western Hemisphere. I grew up in San Francisco, crossing the bridge twice a day to attend school in the hills of Marin County. The longer you live near it, the more likely you are to know people who’ve jumped from it.

One was beautiful, impulsive, 18. He dated one of my close friends. He was missing for two weeks before his body was recovered from the Bay.

When I was a small child, Kevin Hines, a 19-year-old enrolled at the City College of San Francisco, skipped class to kill himself. He sobbed openly as he rode the bus to the Golden Gate and paced the walkway for 40 minutes, having made a pact with himself that if anyone asked him what was wrong, he would “tell them everything.” No one did.

We know that because the four-second fall didn’t kill Kevin. That made him unusual: The fall kills nearly everyone who jumps. But what didn’t make him unusual was that he, like almost every other jumper who somehow made it to shore, was grateful. A 1978 study of hundreds of people who’d jumped but survived from 1937 to 1971 found that 94 percent were still living or had died of natural causes.

Suicide has haunted the Golden Gate Bridge for its entire 85-year history. In August 1937, just 10 weeks after its opening, a World War I veteran walked onto the bridge and told a passerby, “This is as far as I go.” The movement for a barrier can be traced back to February 1939, when the California Highway Patrol asked the bridge district to take action to address what was rapidly becoming, in the words of one reporter, “a Mecca for despondent persons seeking self-destruction.” No action was taken. Over the next 30 years, district officials commissioned at least three separate studies of suicide barriers but ultimately ignored or rejected all of their recommendations.

In 1976, Roger Grimes started walking back and forth over the pedestrian walkway with a sign begging passersby: Please Care. Support a Suicide Barrier. He eventually gave up, Tad Friend wrote in The New Yorker, not because of the tedium or the weather, but because of the hostility. Drivers pelted him with soda cans. Joggers urged him to jump.

Neighborhood groups have cited aesthetic objections and the (unsupported) assumption that would-be jumpers will simply find another means to end their life. Bicycle coalitions have complained that netting would ruin the vistas of their morning rides. Online, there’s been a persistent digital chorus of Let them jump.

In his New Yorker article, titled “Jumpers,” which came out in 2003, Friend suggested that the “lack of empathy for the depressed” was surprising in “an area as famously liberal as San Francisco, where you can always find a constituency for a view that pets should be citizens or that poison oak has a right to exist.”

As a sixth-generation San Franciscan, I am a little less shocked. The resistance to suicide barriers doesn’t strike me as a bizarrely un-Californian refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the mentally ill. It strikes me as typical of San Francisco’s many failures to relieve, or take responsibility for, individual suffering—much less build that responsibility into the landscape of the city. San Francisco has been notoriously resistant to investment in low-income housing, opting instead to crowd its enormous unhoused population into tents enclosed by chain-link fences. The city’s appearance is a point of pride for those who can afford it, and maintaining that appearance tends to trump any facade of compassionate politics.

Dayna Whitmer, who serves on the board of the barrier-advocacy organization BridgeRail, has taken it upon herself to respond to the online vitriol. “A lot of times,” she told me, “people just don’t understand the facts.” She scrolls through comments and tries to educate them. What sorts of comments does she see? Oh, you know: “Let’s put in a diving board; let’s make them pay for it.”

Whitmer joined BridgeRail in 2008, after her 20-year-old son, Matthew, leapt from the bridge to his death. Matthew didn’t leave a note, but he did leave a computer search history. He had visited the district’s page to see if barriers were in place—a small amount of money had recently been earmarked for a project to explore adding them. They were not. Next, he looked up directions to the Golden Gate. His body was never recovered.

After decades of debate and roughly 2,000 deaths, work on the Golden Gate Suicide Deterrent Net System is under way. Construction began in 2018 and is expected to be completed in late 2023, almost three years behind schedule.

What changed? Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, the director of public affairs for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, told me, “There’s not one point” that you can pin the decision on, but rather “many factors, many families.” It was a response to the shifting understanding of suicide as a public-health issue rather than an individual failure, the gradual weight of so many deaths, the pressure of grieving relatives showing up at every single one of the district’s monthly board meetings demanding that something be done.

Now, every weeknight, the Golden Gate Bridge’s six lanes narrow to three. Cranes lower building materials over the edge, where midnight steelworkers hang on suspended platforms, 200 feet above the Pacific.

You will only really see the barrier, a contractor on the project told me, if you are staring directly over the edge—or up from the water below. The nets are gray, camouflaged by the Bay. The beams that support them are painted International Orange, the same shade as the bridge itself.

Cosulich-Schwartz told me that a simple fence would have been much cheaper and easier to install. But cheaper and easier were not the primary goals. The district believes the project will cost $220 million, more than $75 million over the original construction budget. The contractors say that the total expense will be closer to $400 million.

The nets beneath the Golden Gate are composed of woven steel, thin to the point of transparency. Similar nets divide human spectators from zoo animals, and prisoners from the outside world. They have been used at suicide hot spots in Switzerland and beneath the bridges spanning the gorges around Cornell University. An architect at Cornell who worked on the project suggested to me that a student could go four years and never notice them.

That may be the case. But in installing the nets, in 2013, Cornell was undertaking a risk, just as the city of San Francisco is now. In high school, I chose not to apply to Cornell because I knew it as “the suicide school.” People are so miserable there, my friends and I would say, that they had to install nets under their bridges to keep their students from offing themselves. Cornell is far from the only college that has faced a crisis of student suicides. But the addition of the nets brought a new round of national attention to the problem.

Many San Franciscans do not want the Golden Gate Bridge to become a similar symbol of suicide. But for those living near it, it already is. A 2009 study found that more than 80 percent of those who died beneath the bridge had lived in its immediate vicinity. With or without nets, the bridge will always be a reminder of the people who jumped from it.

Dereck Revington has lived for four decades in Toronto, regularly driving across the Prince Edward Viaduct, a 131-foot bridge over two rail lines and the dregs of the Don River. It was once the most fatal standing structure in Canada; by the late ’90s, someone was jumping to their death from the bridge every 22 days on average.

In 1998, Toronto’s city council announced a design competition, calling for barriers that would provide both public safety and public art. Designing a barrier that would keep people safe wasn’t the hard part, Revington told me. “There’s no difficulty in establishing a secure edge between life and death in the physical sense,” he said. But he was inspired by the philosophical and artistic challenges of the project. He also has a personal connection to the issue, having successfully intervened in the attempted suicide of a family member when he was a child.

His winning proposal for the barrier consisted of two layers of stainless-steel rods—thousands of them—strung to the balustrades on each side of the bridge, forming a 16-foot gate between the sidewalk and the fall. These rods are outfitted with 35,000 LED lights, which produce an ever-changing light show. The lights are digitally programmed to “translate local environmental conditions” into “ghostlike” undulating patterns—they respond to changes in wind speed, temperature, and season. I’ve watched probably hours of videos of the fence on YouTube, mesmerized. The design is called the Luminous Veil.

Instead of trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, Revington’s design is dazzlingly conspicuous. But this carries its own dangers.

In my first semester of graduate school, I was white-knuckling my way through a debilitating depressive episode and studying daily in New York University’s Bobst Library. The library is designed like a box. Its 12 stories form a perfect square around a marble-floored lobby, above which is 150 feet of vertical air. The atrium is enclosed in aluminum panels, randomly perforated and tinged with matte gold. I found the panels ugly but didn’t think much about them until I learned their purpose: Three students had died on the lobby floor in just over six years. Many more had watched them fall. Apparently, four groups of prospective students filed through that lobby mere hours after the final suicide, oblivious.

Every time my eyes slipped from my blank Word document to the barrier, I imagined those tours. I would see college hopefuls walking over their own reflection in the freshly polished marble. I would see blood. I would see bodies falling, limbs windmilling until they didn’t. Often, these limbs were my own. Thoughts of suicide began to pour over my brain. I found another place to work.

Studies have repeatedly shown that suicide is contagious. I can’t find any reports of suicides in Bobst Library from the first 30 years of its existence. But after one student jumped in late 2003, another followed just four weeks later (he had taken psilocybin, and his death was ruled an accident). A third jumped not from the banister but from the narrow wall of clear plastic that campus safety had screwed into the backs of the railings and stairways—a precursor to the metal cage.

People go to surprising lengths to be part of a particular suicide community. A common reason given for choosing to die at the Golden Gate, as articulated by a research participant who made the attempt, is “you’re with all those people who jumped before.” Sensitive to this phenomenon, some people fear that a conspicuous barrier can draw even more attention to the problem it’s addressing, perhaps encouraging at-risk people to find a way around it.

But Revington thinks the greater danger lies in trying to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. “The circumstances behind suicidal impulses don’t go away simply because you prevent someone from jumping off a bridge,” he told me, sounding almost exasperated. Barriers buy a suffering person time, but they don’t stop the suffering.

Revington likened the movement of light across the steel balustrades to ripples across the skin of a lake. Sometimes a storm comes up, and the light dances with an ominous energy. But the storm passes. He wanted a design that “resonated with the tragedy of this place.” He does not call it a barrier. I asked him if he thought of it as a memorial, and he did not hesitate: “Yes.”

Revington understands the impulse to edit suffering out of our environment. But he knows grief is built into the infrastructure of our lives. We may cross it every day, but we never get over it.

New Mexico’s suicide rate is nearly double the national average and has been for decades. In 2014, a 23-year-old Taos local named Cooper Beacom climbed over a 47-inch railing on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and leapt. His mother and younger brother watched him jump; the decision seemed spontaneous.

Anette Meertens, a landscape architect and designer in Taos, knew Beacom’s mother, and started working with an advocacy group she had founded to think about ways to make the bridge safer. Meertens had been shocked by the young man’s suicide, both by the loss and by the ease of it, how he could place his hand on the railing and, in an instant, flip right over to his death. “We design our way through many, many, many dangerous conditions,” Meertens told me. People’s lives are saved daily by the little bit of yellow paint that runs down the spine of a highway. She began drawing up sketches in her free time.

Unlike Toronto, which voted to build a suicide barrier and held a contest for designs, Taos was not searching for an architectural solution to the Gorge Bridge. Meertens was essentially working on spec, hoping that the New Mexico Department of Transportation would be compelled by her plan. It is, to be sure, an unusual one.

Meertens wants to eliminate the metal railing that currently separates the sidewalk from the drop. She wants to replace it with a wall of thin steel mesh, stretching concave toward the sidewalk so as to make climbing it virtually impossible. The bridge would be secure, but Meertens doesn’t want it to feel that way. She hopes to use the netting to exaggerate, rather than obscure, the bridge’s threat.

Like Revington, she wants her design to put the reality of the fall in the mind of every individual on the bridge. The point is not to force the community to encounter the history of suicide—“there isn’t a single person in the younger generation who doesn’t know that that bridge is about death,” Meertens told me—but to force people to encounter their own mortality. Standing at its edge, divided from bodily destruction by a web as thick as the average flea is long, you might contemplate the moment of impact. You might notice the trees on the valley floor, shrunken by the distance. You might feel the heft of gravity, your own heart suddenly flapping against your rib cage. These sensations might shock you out of your psychological pain and back into your fragile body. Encountering the sensation of danger in the built environment is rare and, Meertens thinks, healthy. Danger, she believes, “helps you be careful.”

The transportation department was less than enthusiastic about Meertens’s design. There was concern that someone might cut a hole in the steel wiring and climb through into the empty air. That concern did not goad the department into implementing another design, however. Two to three people on average continue to jump over the four-foot railing annually. As it stands now, the bridge doesn’t just feel dangerous—it is dangerous.

pencil drawing of Luminous Veil
Soomyeong Kim

It has been four decades since a train ran down the High Line.

Before the architecture was changed, people saved people from the Eleventh Avenue cargo trains. Not just people. Cowboys. Waving red flags by day and red lanterns at night, men on horseback cut through the thicket of meandering schoolchildren, hollering vegetable vendors, weaving bicyclists, and stray dogs in advance of the rushing freight.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this, something about the power of individuals to fill in the gaps that institutions leave open. There is a bridge over China’s Yangtze River in Nanjing that for years killed at least one person a week. One man—Chen Si—crosses that bridge nearly every weekend, and has for 13 years. He has stopped more than 400 people from jumping. He has been profiled by GQ, This American Life, and The New York Times, and in 2015 was the subject of a feature film. The bridge itself has garnered considerably less attention.

Chen’s is a story we can all get behind: one that emphasizes individual heroism rather than the collective failures that made such heroism necessary. But the Yangtze River Bridge is almost a mile long, and Chen is one man. How many more lives could be saved with a net?

The West Side Cowboys saved lives on Death Avenue for more than 80 years. But it was still Death Avenue. There was nothing to divide the train tracks from the horse-drawn carriages, cars, and vegetable carts, from the zigzagging commutes of hundreds of children bound for school and factories mass-producing everything from chocolate to razor blades. It was, perhaps, the single most congested stretch of Manhattan. In the dark of November, December, and January, the trains killed an average of three children a month.

In 1908, a 7-year-old boy named Seth Low Hascamp died on the tracks. Nothing made his death markedly different from the many that came before, but it was a breaking point. Five hundred of his peers took to the streets in protest. They marched in the dark, night after night along the tracks, together. They spread banners and beat drums. They lit the way with fireworks.

The children didn’t propose a solution; they probably could not have imagined a pedestaled train line running a mile and a half through the sky. But they illuminated the tracks.

Their protests on Death Avenue lasted weeks. The bureaucratic battle over a new railroad design lasted years. The tracks stayed in place for another three decades until eventually, finally, they rose.