The Long-Missing Link: New Push for Verrazano Bridge Bike-Ped Path

Before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964, New Yorkers on foot or bike could travel between Staten Island and Brooklyn by taking a ferry from 69th Street in Bay Ridge to St. George. Since the bridge opened, there are only two times each year when people are allowed to cross it under their own power: the New York City Marathon, held every November, and the Five Boro Bike Tour each May.

A map of the Harbor Ring route. Notice what’s missing? Image: Transportation Alternatives

In two years, the MTA will mark the 50th anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In anticipation, advocates have launched a new effort to create a permanent bicycle and pedestrian path on the span. It’s the missing link of what’s being called the “Harbor Ring,” a loop around New York Harbor christened on Tuesday by Transportation Alternatives.

The proposal has already received a cool reception from Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he told the Advance. “How many people would use it? It’s got to be worth the effort and the cost.”

Molinaro, apparently unaware of other New York City bridge paths, including one in his own borough, also argued that “wind, winter weather and choking exhaust fumes would deter walkers and riders,” according to the Advance.

A quarter of households in the 13th Congressional District, represented by Michael Grimm and including Staten Island, Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, do not have access to a motor vehicle, according to 2011 U.S. Census numbers. In neighborhoods close to the bridge, the number is even higher, passing 50 percent in many areas. Even those who do have cars might want to avoid tolls anticipated to soon reach $15, said Harbor Ring committee member Dave ‘Paco’ Abraham.

Unlike Molinaro, other elected officials are in favor of a path across the bridge, including long-time supporter State Sen. Marty Golden and Molinaro’s Brooklyn counterpart, Borough President Marty Markowitz, who called the Harbor Ring loop “a promising idea that deserves serious consideration.”

“Putting a pedestrian and bike crossing on the Verrazano Bridge is a wonderful idea — the bridge needs it, and I’m certain New Yorkers would love it and use it,” Markowitz said in a statement. “It is absolutely necessary for any retrofit to be feasible, both financially and from an engineering, security and safety perspective,” he said. “I encourage the MTA and City officials to at least take a look at the potential and determine if it could work.”

In 1997, the Department of City Planning hired the bridge’s architect, Ammann & Whitney, to study the feasibility of a path. The firm identified a preferred option — two paths, one each on the north and south sides — that, if combined with upgrades to the Brooklyn approach, would cost $50 million (adjusted to 2012 dollars). The paths would fit beneath the bridge cables, as they do on the George Washington Bridge, which was also designed by Ammann & Whitney. The Golden Gate Bridge, which the Verrazano bested for the title of world’s largest suspension bridge when it opened, also includes paths on both sides.

Someday, maybe: An illustration of a path across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Image: Ammann & Whitney, Department of City Planning

One of the alternatives discussed in the 1997 report, but never implemented, was using buses to shuttle bike riders across the Narrows in the absence of a dedicated path. In addition to Manhattan-bound express buses, S53, S93 and S79 SBS buses cross the bridge to connect with the subway in Bay Ridge.

“There is quite a lot that can be done without much delay or expense,” Abraham said. “Adding bike racks or shuttle buses is an easy, logical, cost-effective first step in the short term.”

The 1997 report noted that shuttle service should only be considered a short-term option before a path is completed, since bus schedules and rack capacity would limit the number of cyclists to 12-20 riders per hour in each direction. Fifteen years after planners made this short-term recommendation, New York — where none of the MTA’s buses are equipped with bike racks — remains far behind a vast majority of American cities. Two of every three U.S. transit providers have equipped their entire fleet with bike racks, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

There are two MTA capital projects moving forward that do not include plans for a bike and pedestrian path on the bridge, but which may affect its future viability. The first, scheduled to begin construction next year, would replace and widen the upper deck to accommodate a bus and carpool lane at a cost of more than $400 million. The second, which has yet to enter the design phase, would relocate ramps on the Brooklyn side between the bridge and the Belt Parkway.

Next Wednesday, Brooklyn Community Board 10 will get an update from MTA staff on the plan to widen the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the CB 10 district office, 8119 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge.

The Transportation Alternatives Harbor Ring committee is also asking for donations to print copies of a map of the loop route.

  • Anonymous

    Glad to see this post about the renewed push for VNB walk and bike paths, especially Marty’s full-throated support and links to pieces of the 1997 A&W study, which I consulted on.

    Two tweaks: (1) The pdf’s in the links are summaries of extensive/detailed documents; Steve Faust has some of those materials, as do I. (2) The cost of the “preferred option” of separate bike and walk paths on each side should be stated as $35-$40M in 2012 dollars (not $50M), based on inflating the $26.5M estimate in the study at CPI inflation between 1997 and 2012 (a factor of 1.414).

    If folks are interested, this link takes you to an appeal to build the paths that I published as an op-ed in the S.I. Advance that year: http://www.transalt.org/files/newsroom/magazine/974JulAug/02provocateur.html

  • Ben Kintisch

    Even if some of the SI electeds are lukewarm on walking and biking, a bridge ped-bike path would be tremendous for SI and south Brooklyn tourism. Everyone who’s ridden the 5 boro bike tour or ran the NYC marathon knows that the view from that bridge is spectacular and should not be reserved just for motorists.

  • CheapSkate

    Had Molinaro been around 135 years ago he probably would’ve asked “Why bother building a pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge? Who would use it?”

  • KillMoto

    Too bad there isn’t a way to hold up funding for the bus lane project and tie it to requiring pedestrian/bicycle access.  Say a lawsuit in the name of congestion mitigation & air quality.  

    Or perhaps an organized protest march across the bridge, one that brings traffic to a halt at some peak traffic time.  That might get attention. 

  • KillMoto

    And how narrow minded is Molinaro?  According to one (seemingly quite rigorous) study, about 8000 walkers/cyclists cross the Golden Gate each weekday, rising to 15000 on weekends.  
    http://goldengate.org/news/bridge/documents/bikesafetystudy_april2011.pdf

    These are commuters, lowering the cost of traffic and road maintenance, or tourists, who likely spend dollars at both ends of their crossing.  I don’t know about you, but when I drive across the VZ the only money I leave behind is the toll, which doesn’t even cover the maintenance cost of my crossing.  After I leave my toll fare, I don’t stop until CT or NJ.  On a bike, I’m going to spend my $$ in SI or Brooklyn. 

  • Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro said: “I think it’s absolutely
    ridiculous,” he told the Advance. “How many people would use it? 

    Is it ridiculous?  Is it worth the effort and the cost?

    There are several places to look for users: 
    commuter, school and personal trips between boroughs;
    recreation, as a 2 mile extension for users of the Shore Parkway Bike & Ped Path and for regional bicycle touring; and
    as a world class tourist destination.

    VNB traffic counts by PORT show that 10 percent of bridge crossings have an origin and destination distance of 8 miles, between Staten Island and Brooklyn.  Eight miles is a 45 minute bike ride.  There are some 70 million annual motor vehicle bridge crossings, so 10 percent of the total is 7 million car trips, with average occupancy of well under 2 persons per car. 

    Can we estimate how many of these 7 million drivers will opt to forgo paying the tolls (high, even with the special SI resident EZPass discount); the traffic congestion and delays – including unreliable arrival times; the wear and tear and expense of the car, the problems parking, particularly on the Brooklyn side; and will look forward to the exercise they get from riding over the bridge?  During rush hours, how many drivers manage to average more than the 12 MPH – 40 minute ride, that a cyclist would take. 

    If one in ten drivers (10% of 7 Million)) makes this choice, there would be 700,000 path bicycle crossings a year based on work, school, social and shopping trip users.

    Local Recreation Ridership Potential?
    The Shore Parkway along the Narrows has world class separate dedicated bicycle and run/walk paths that are used by thousands of New Yorkers.  Using the Fourth Avenue path exit ramp, by crossing at a single traffic light to Cannon Ball Park, you get a direct traffic free connection between the Shore Parkway Path and the proposed VNB Path ramp,  rising from Fort Hamilton Parkway.  The VNB paths would be 2 miles long between the local street entrances in Bklyn and SI.  Runners, walkers and cyclists just going to the top at mid span would have a new 2 mile extension for their exercise.  A full round trip to SI adds 4 miles of light, air and views. 

    Staten Islanders currently exercise and view the harbor in Von Breizen Park, Fort Wadsworth (part of Gateway National Park) and South Beach.  The VNB Paths would directly connect to these parks. 

    With the proposed VNB Paths, both SI and Bklyn harborfront park systems would be easily accessible to recreation users from both boroughs.  Miles of new waterfront parks, beaches and paths will be opened up.

    For bicycle tour riders, some incredibly interesting new routes would open up.  Riding from Manhattan to southern Brooklyn now involves crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and navigating some 10 to 14 miles miles of Brooklyn, parts with heavy traffic.  Opening the VNB paths creates a totally new option: Staten Island Ferry, 2-1/2 miles of Bay &/or Front Street (the 5 Boro route), the VNB and a direct connection either Shore Parkway Bike Path or Bay Ridge local streets.  Travel time, including the ferry, is very similar to the ride through Brooklyn, if not faster.  Live in Bay Ridge and want to bike to Manhattan – for work or touring? Ride the bridge and ferry.  It was done before the VNB opened using the Bay Ridge to SI Ferry, with a short transfer to the Manhattan Ferry.  Two Nickles and 45 minutes got you to work at the Battery, faster and easier than paying 15 cents to squeeze on the R Train.  Maybe some things were better 50 years ago.

    How many recreation users would there be? 
    How many of the thousands of Shore Parkway Path and SI park users would opt to climb the bridge? I am not sure.  There will be hundreds, and probably over a thousand per day using the path, fewer when the weather is bad. 

    The SI Ferry carries at least 70,000 bicycles a year, exclusive of the 32,000 5 Boro riders.  Ridership is very heavy every weekend with nice weather. During the summer back when the boats carried cars, there were more cyclists than cars during June through August.  And that is without any VNB path.  These are cyclists coming to ride in Staten Island that can only get there via the ferry.  New riders coming directly from Brooklyn and new riders using the bridge and ferry to Manhattan will be crossing.

    There are new regional Greenway corridors that would connect through SI. 
    The Harbor Ring of course uses the VNB to close the loop for this Upper Harbor route.
    The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway extends north from Shore Parkway.
    The East Coast Greenway (ECG)currently crosses from Manh to NJ via Hudson ferries or PATH.  With the VNB open, a fully on land pathway can be created through Brooklyn, SI and either Bayonne-Jersey City-Newark (a new Route 1/9 bike path been opened) or via the Goethals Bridge to Elizabeth (real continental USA.)  The ECG runs from Maine to Florida – an ocean front parallel to the Appalachian Trail  – with long distance touring hikers and cyclists.

    Recreational walkers, runners and cyclists on the VNB?  Several hundred thousand.

    Finally, there are the tourists.  Tourists bring money and jobs to NYC.  Every extra day tourists stay in NYC brings in dollars.  Every neighborhood tourists visit gains jobs.

    Normal New Yorkers already know to avoid the Brooklyn Bridge on nice afternoons, there is no room to walk or bike through the throngs of tourists. Great bridges attract tourists. However, would the VNB be too far away from Manhattan’s tourist center?  The Golden Gate Bridge is miles from the San Francisco center, yet how many visitors to the city don’t go out to walk or bike on the bridge?  A huge tourist bicycle industry has developed; rent a bike downtown, ride over the bridge and eat and shop in Sausalito, then ferry back downtown.
    The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a world class span, the equal to the Golden Gate and in its own way, the equal of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It is the longest bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and would be the longest bridge with useable paths in the world.  This will be on the Must-Do list of all the guide books.

    The view of the city and harbor from the paths are the east coast match to the Golden Gate.  Tourist can arrive at the VNB path by the R subway, by SI Ferry and Bay St bus, or they can use the bikes that many are already renting and do loop via ferry, SI, VNB and Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway.  Finally tourists will have a good reason to get off the ferry in St George and explore the island.  And spend some money there, and in Bay Ridge.

    As to the practicality and safety of using the VNB Paths, the bridge is nearly identical to the GWB, the paths would be no steeper than existing and heavily used city bridge paths.  To date, between the 5 Boro Bike Tour and the NYC Marathon, over two million people have run, walked and biked over the VNB.  32,000 tired cyclists successfully climb the VNB at the end of the 5 Boro every year, at the end of a 42 mile ride.

    So what is the total expected use of the VNB Paths?  Half a million to one million crossings per year would not be an unreasonable estimate.  Combining commuter/utility trips, recreation trips and tourist trips, 500,000 to 1,000,000 users of the paths would account for about one percent of the total bridge traffic – a little less – a little more. 

    The cost of the path today would be $35-$40Million in 2012 dollars, as estimated by Komanoff.  Today’s replacement cost for the Verrazano-Narrows would be about $3.5 Billion dollars.  Doing the math, installing two paths on the VNB would cost approximately One Percent (1%) of the current bridge cost and would carry approximately One Percent (1%) of the bridge traffic.  When the bridge opened in 1964, TBTA estimated that the paths would cost $2.5 Million to build, out of a total bridge cost of $250 Million – the paths would have cost the same One Percent (1%) of the total bridge costs.

    Conclusion: There will be VNB Path users, the Paths are safe, and their cost is reasonable based on the relationship of the number of Path users to total vehicle crossings.

    You just read the short version of the analysis.  😉
    I first wrote the long version in 1976.
    City Planning replicated and enhanced that study in 1997.
    It works.
    It’s time to complete the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

  • In the interim, what about installing bike racks on the S79 SBS fleet so that bikers can get across the bridge? The MTA should also do the same thing for the articulated buses at Stengel and 126 Street for access across the Whitestone and RFK Bridges – for the M60, when it goes fully articulated in the winter.

  • fj

    Yes this is very important as I would likely use this a lot and currently makes me rely on modalities not terribly convenient or not go to si.

  • J

    Worth mentioning is the fact that the firm Ammann & Whitney was founded by Othmar Ammann, the original designer of the bridge. (He also designed the George Washington, and Bayonne bridges).

    Another interesting thing I noticed was the overwhelming amount of support for the idea in the comments of the Staten Island Advance article. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    Finally, this project is long overdue. There is no good reason that this project wasn’t built in the first place, and it needs to be built now. How can we possibly justify spending $400 million on the bridge without putting in a small path for the two most basic modes of transportation: walking & biking?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know. How did they justify it when they redid the Whitestone without adding bike/ped paths?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    After working a couple of bike ed gigs for Bike NY at Midland Beach, I
    rode up to the Fort Wadsworth and looked longingly at Brooklyn from atop
    the bluff.

    If I could ride my bike over the VNB, I know I would visit Staten Island and Brooklyn much more often.  With ample free parking in the areas around the South Shore of SI, I could park my car and then take my bike over to Brooklyn.  A path over the VNB would make working in Brooklyn so much more appealing for this New Jersey guy.

  • @aemoreira81:disqus yes we absolutely want to press for bike racks on that mus as a short term solution. We’ll be keeping you and Streetsblog updated with our progress all along the way. But remember, first step is for us to get more and more exposure with the printed maps so if you’re supporting this project with some comments in this post, please as support it with a few dollars at our indiegogo campaign. http://www.indiegogo.com/HarborRing

  • Anonymous

    @Komanoff:disqus Thanks for the clarification on the preferred alternative’s cost. I’ve changed the wording to more accurately reflect what was said in the 1997 report.

  • Bill Orme

    When Marty says nice things on the record about a possible major  new bike path, you know you have momentum on your side. Biking or walking over the Verrazano would be a world-class attraction, a boon to both Staten Island and Bay Ridge. The interim solution, before building a $40m separated pedestrian & bike path,  would be marked bike lanes on the edges of the new bus lanes that will soon be created on the top level. All mayoral candidates should be asked to support the plan. 

  • Mary Pablate

    You can use Long Path Tool, it works for such issues!

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