The Brooklyn Bridge Protected Bike Lane, Reviewed

Photo: New York City Department of Transportation

Since its opening in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been a marvel. Its two tall 277-foot-tall limestone and granite towers, each with two Gothic arches, are perhaps the bridge’s most iconic emblems, but what I appreciated most up close were the cables and steel wires that have been designed to support the roadway. These bridge workhorses – there are over 14,000 miles of cable in all – are intricately crisscrossed so that when you cross the dead center of the bridge, where the footpath is, the wires overlap and create beautiful shapes and parallax effects, as if you’re inside a Spirograph design.

But as picturesque as the Brooklyn Bridge is, I hardly ever cross it on my bike because it’s just too crowded. Even though my office was near Bowling Green, I took the longest route to work and cross the Manhattan Bridge and take the East River Bike Trail. The Brooklyn Bridge is inconvenient given its pedestrian traffic. If I decide to use it, it’s early in the morning or late at night, when the selfie-stick tourists who normally flood every square inch of the walkway aren’t around. The Manhattan Bridge, with its pedestrian and bicycle lanes, is a smoother, safer, and faster commute. But the location of the Brooklyn Bridge can’t be beat for bike tours in the financial district under the right conditions.

For years, cycling advocates have fought for a protected bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a larger vision for safer streets and low-carbon transportation in the city. On Tuesday, it finally opened its doors. The mayor of Blasio – who in January promised to improve cyclist and pedestrian access to city bridges, including by committing to building the cycle path – did not attend the opening ceremonies, but said: “This cycle path is more than just a safe and convenient option for thousands of daily cyclists. It is a symbol of New York City which fully embraces a sustainable future and is a blow to automotive culture.

I really wanted to believe de Blasio’s statement. I really wanted to like this bike path. But after a few trips down the path – one on its opening night and the others on Wednesday morning and evening – the words sounded like double talk. Taking a lane away from cars and giving it to bikes, a hard-earned symbolic victory though, feels like the smallest of stages in a journey that needs a jump.

Photo: New York City Department of Transportation

Before my first round, the biggest question on my mind, of course, was: is it wide enough? When the DOT revealed the bike path’s designs in April, many immediately questioned its narrowness – only eight feet wide for a two-way lane. After removing a traffic lane and putting in concrete Jersey barriers, that’s all that was left. The National Association of Transportation Officials recommends 12 feet as the “desirable” width for a two-way lane.

On Tuesday night, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the track didn’t look as narrow as it looked in the renderings. But every time someone passed me or passed in the opposite direction, it was still too close to be comfortable. As I passed a cyclist and an electric scooter rolling side by side towards me, they didn’t move and I thought I was going to get run over. It was the same when a scooter passed me (another regular event on the bike paths, although they’re not supposed to be there). A pillow a few more feet would go a long way. This design clearly ignores thoughtless people and does not give cyclists the opportunity to hide on their side. And that’s a big deal, because humans love to break the rules, and the design has to take that into account. The Manhattan Bridge is 9.9 feet wide, and those two feet make all the difference.

The next day I crossed the bridge during the morning drive and enjoyed the less steep incline. The lane was busier than the day before, with commuters, people exercising (judging by their spandex) and delivery people on scooters. When a man pulling a square cargo trailer – something that looked like a delivery – approached me, I noticed the trailer was wider than its side of the track. He was well aware that he was taking up more space than his allotted lane, and apologized when I walked past. It was disappointing to realize how difficult it would be for cargo cyclists to use the bridge, given that they are needed to reduce delivery truck traffic.

Tight pressure.
Photo: New York City Department of Transportation

The only activity that the new bike path really supports is commuter biking at a slow, steady pace, which just isn’t the only reality of riding. There’s nowhere to safely stop if your chain comes loose and you need to put it back on, or you have a flat tire, or want to walk on your bike because you’re tired. If a pothole appears, there isn’t much room to go around it. Ditto for the many drains and manhole covers on the innermost track. And if you want to stop and take a photo – which cyclists on the bridge often like to do – good luck.

Then there’s the Manhattan approach to the track, which needed more consideration. In those early days, it seemed like there were a lot of navigation guides. On my first trip to Brooklyn, a DOT volunteer stationed on the island where bikes would normally enter the bridge (and who was very excited about the route) directed the cyclists to the new ramp. Temporary light green signs with white arrows also indicated the new entrance. But ones some advocates have pointed out, this threshold towards the bridge was not rearranged effectively for the new flow of bicycle traffic. Instead, the Jersey barriers direct bikes in and out from the north. Cyclists coming from the south or heading south do what is essentially a hairpin bend, like I had to do, coming from Park Row. It is this type of connectivity with the global cycling network that should have been better taken into account. I saw a few people awkwardly get off their bikes and waddle on the sidewalk rather than making that treacherous turn. And without a bike signal for the busy crosswalk, I could easily see the cyclists around the bend at full speed and encounter a wall of pedestrians. Over time, experienced riders will get used to it, of course, but it should be more intuitive for beginners. Fortunately, on the other hand, the transition to the Brooklyn Ramp Access Ramp went relatively smoothly, due to a redesign a few years ago.

Photo: New York City Department of Transportation

But it wasn’t the proximity of the back streets or the difficulty of connecting to Manhattan that touched me the most. It was the whole experience: all about utility but needing more care. The route may be practical compared to the old system, but it remains inconvenient. Yes, I was no longer constantly at risk of hitting a dumbfounded tourist, but I had lost the magic of riding the Brooklyn Bridge. I even missed the rumbling wooden planks. In the protected cycle path, I was struck by the oppressive ugliness of the chain-link fence on either side. And then there’s the discomfort of being on the same level as cars, inhaling their fumes, and being blinded by the headlights of oncoming traffic at night – just a nuisance to me, but a danger. potential for visibility to others. The only good thing about being there was hearing a driver go “Enter Sandman” on his radio. Surrounded by traffic lanes on one side and metal trusses on the other, I had lost sight of the water, the skyline and the striking architecture and engineering that make the bridge crossing. a delight. I suspect that for most bike commuters, the chain link won’t be that bad (although there is a risk that the handlebars will get caught in it) as everyone riding a bike in town is already used to not not have enough space and to dodge whatever obstacles arise.

Photo: New York City Department of Transportation

The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t the city’s busiest bridge – as of May of this year, it saw just 63,000 passengers, compared to 220,000 on the Williamsburg Bridge and 170,000 on the Manhattan Bridge – because many cyclists avoid it due to congestion. But when the foot traffic was light, it was a nicer ride. I might think differently about the new lane if it weren’t for cyclists being barred from climbing the summit now, a rule that will be enforced by the NYPD, with violators liable to fines. The NYPD did not return a request for comment on the start of the execution. It’s fine to ride your bike to the top, however.

Maybe part of my disappointment with the track carried over from a rally on transportation alternatives I had just attended on Tuesday night. About 300 people gathered in Union Square, the same place where a tow truck fatally struck a woman in July, to protest against the road violence which baby in stroller killed by reckless driver in Brooklyn this weekend. Maybe it was hearing about all the pain and trauma that people who had lost loved ones in car crashes had gone through. Perhaps it was a group recitation of all the names of children who died in vehicle crashes this year – Apolline Mong-Guillemin, at 3 months; Yoshi Balaban, Four years; Jonathan Beauchamp, 4 years old; Fried shimon, 6 years; Hiromi tamy, 6 years; Isabelle Granobles, 10 years; Dylan moreno, 16 years old; Darwin Durazno, 16 years old; Christina cora, 18 years old; unknown, 18 – called in a solemn commemoration. I wanted to ride on a track that really struck the car culture. Instead, it felt like a little nudge.

The old Brooklyn Bridge bike path which was also very tight.
Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

As I rode home on my bike, engulfed in car traffic and the link of concrete and chain, overwhelmed by the traffic violence that had taken place this year, I kept thinking of another proposition that I ‘had seen in the Van Alen Institute Reinventing the Brooklyn Bridge last year, which invited ideas to rethink the iconic passage to be safer, fairer and more enjoyable. The winning proposition featured a widened promenade that covers traffic lanes, with more space for pedestrians and cyclists. The lower deck had bike paths on either side, with a bike-sharing dock at the foot of the bridge. This vision sounds like a dramatic change, almost inconceivable now, but the bridge has always adapted to meet the needs of the city. The protected bike path is the only major change to the bridge since 1950.

It is not too much to ask motorists to make room for a more balanced vision of transport. This is what I will continue to hope for. The protected Brooklyn Bridge bike path is a useful jumping off point, which cyclists appreciate. As I waited for the traffic lights to pass Tillary Street, I asked the cyclist next to me what he thought of the new route. “I didn’t have to yell at anyone today,” he said approvingly.

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