Basket-Handle Arches: Strengths and Weaknesses

Stone Bridge of Granite

In our last post, we described the class of so-called “basket-handle” arches: The basket-handle arch basically forms a compromise between a Roman arch and a segmental arch. The basic form is an ellipse, but most bridges using a basket-handle arch use a so-called “three-centered” arch — it is drawn using three separate radii.

The Primary Purpose of the Basket-Handle Arch

Why do we need a basket-handle arch?

The primary advantage of this arch form is that it allows for a long span with a low rise without needing massive abutments to resist the horizontal thrust inherent to low-rise segmental arches. This is huge — the amount of material saved is significant.

The upshot is that an arch bridge with a reasonable grade can be built more simply. But there is another advantage to the basket-handle arch.

An Advantage of the Basket-Handle Arch: Increased Waterway

Due to the shape of the basket-handle arch, there is greater waterway available than with a more conventional segmental arch of the same rise and span.

Keeping the waterway open is always beneficial. For streams that for one reason or other cannot have any obstruction in them, a basket-handle arch may very well be the best solution.

One way the basket handle arch can be used to span a stream that cannot be obstructed, is to determine the acceptable bridge rise over the stream banks and draw a basket-handle arch with the shallow main arc starting at the stream bank level and rising to this maximum predetermined rise over the stream. Then all that is left is to round out the ends of the arch to form a basket-handle shape. These rounded ends cut into the bank, landing at about streambed level.

The Weak Point of the Basket-Handle Arch: The End Curves

One of the primary weaknesses of basket-handle arches is that the basket-handle shape does not bear much resemblance to the parabolic lines of thrust you see in an arch. The result is that the basket-handle arch needs some help to remain stable.

The trouble is best shown in the case of the three-centered arch. The weakness is near the point where the main low-rise segmental arc transitions to the rounded arcs that take the arch to a horizontal plane. Below this point of transition, lines of thrust tend to escape the arch — the top of the arch wants to collapse, bulging out the rounded end arcs to do so.

The typical solution to this problem is to pile weight against these end arcs to resist this thrust. This is comparable to the abutments required to resist the thrust of a segmental arch; however, much less material is needed to do this with a basket-handle arch — the lower arcs do still tend to transition the force downwards.

An alternative solution is to build the arch ring thicker at these lower curves. This method adds more arch where it is needed most, and is better than adding weight at the ends of the arch alone.

Stone Bridge of Granite
A close look at this bridge reveals that the rounded ends of the arch are made thicker than the upper parts. This makes the arch much stronger, for the ends of a basket handle arch tend to bulge out due to the thrust lines tending to leave the arch proper at these points.

While you still may need to add more backing against the ends of the arch for stability, thickening these lower arcs is a great solution. This extra thickness at the lower points of the arch ring should not add to the grade of the bridge as it is lower down on the structure.