Eastern Queens Advocates Hope to Turn “Motor Parkway” Into Greenway

A 1944 Hagstrom map shows the former Long Island Motor Parkway route. A section of it, marked here in red, has been added to the state and national registers of historic places and converted to a multi-use path. Neighbors hope to extend the greenway east, in purple. Image from LIMParkway

Union Turnpike, running 10 miles through the midsection of Queens and across the border to Nassau County, is one of the borough’s most unsafe places to walk or bike. Now, a group of eastern Queens residents is looking to extend an existing walking and biking path through state- and city-owned property parallel to the multi-lane road.

Last year, Tri-State Transportation Campaign ranked Union Turnpike as the third-most dangerous road in Queens [PDF]. A particularly treacherous location is near the Cross Island Parkway, where sidewalks disappear and highway ramps take over. Earlier this month, a man was killed while walking in this area. He’s not alone: Pedestrians were killed at this location in 2000 and 2009, according to data compiled by CrashStat.org.

A group of advocates is finding a solution in the Long Island Motor Parkway, built by William Kissam Vanderbilt II in the early 20th century but abandoned just a few decades later as the parallel Grand Central and Northern State parkways opened. In 2002, Vanderbilt’s route was added to the state and national registers of historic places, and a section from Winchester Boulevard to Cunningham Park opened as a bike and pedestrian path.

Across the border, Nassau County hired consultants to prepare a vision plan for converting its section of the route into a shared-use path, but progress since the report was released in 2010 has been slow.

Joby Jacob, a professor who lives in Hollis Hills, has long dreamt of extending the existing Queens pathway east to the Nassau border. Now, he and fellow advocates in eastern Queens have launched an effort, named Motor Parkway East, to make the idea a reality.

The group has sketched out a concept of how a path could be built, at first using at-grade crossings and eventually adding more substantial investments like a new bridge over busy Winchester Boulevard as funds become available.

On Union Turnpike near Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, the sidewalk ends but the dirt path shows pedestrians still walk along the road. Photo: Angus Grieve Smith
On Union Turnpike near Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, the sidewalk ends but the dirt path shows pedestrians still walk along the road. Photo: Angus Grieve-Smith

The route passes entirely through property managed by the state Office of Mental Health and the NYC parks and education departments, including Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, the Frank A. Padavan Educational Campus, Queens Children’s Psychiatric Center and the Queens County Farm Museum. “There’s absolutely no eminent domain involved. There’s absolutely no inconvenience to a single neighbor,” Jacob said. “This is about opening up something we already own to the people who own it.”

With so many government agencies involved, Jacob is hoping to enlist the support of elected officials, and has already approached Council Member Mark Weprin. “The next step is really talking to some state government officials,” Jacob said. “I am open to working with anybody on this project.”

Update: “I think it would be a great idea,” Weprin said of the Motor Parkway East proposal. “It is a hidden treasure and I’d like to have more people using it,” he said of the former parkway route. Weprin added that in addition to meeting with advocates, he has started reaching out to elected officials, including Assembly Members Ed Braunstein and David Weprin. He plans to set up meetings with city and state agencies soon to discuss the project.

“We just need to look into the feasibility of extending it,” Weprin said. “We’re dealing with a bureaucracy, and once you get bureaucracy involved it’s probably going to be more difficult than you had hoped.”

The key to getting local groups and officials on board is the group’s petition, which has already gathered more than 200 signatures. If it was just him, Jacob said, “You’d just one crazy guy talking. When you have 200 people signing your petition, it’s a little bit stronger.”

By extending a bike and pedestrian path parallel to busy Union Turnpike, which has no sidewalks in much of this area, Jacob said he hopes residents of Glen Oaks, Oakland Gardens and Hollis Hills will feel safe getting around without a car. “I really want to do something in eastern Queens that helps people see that there’s more to transportation than either taking the bus or driving your car,” Jacob said.

  • Joe R.

    The Vanderbilt Motor Parkway starts about 1.9 miles and ~7 minutes riding time east of where I live, so obviously I’m thrilled to hear about this. Although Union Turnpike is my preferred, really only, route out past city limits, I agree it’s not for the faint of heart. The travel lanes and parking lane are typically only 9 or 10 feet wide. That precludes safely riding to the right of traffic because it puts you squarely in the door zone. Moreover, riding in a traffic lane usually isn’t possible except ironically during peak hours (or late nights when traffic is very light) because motor traffic typically moves too fast for even a strong cyclist to keep pace. During peak times you can take a traffic lane if you can ride at 20-25 mph but I’ll readily admit this can be dicey at times. I nearly hit a women crossing midblock two years ago when I was keeping pace with traffic, going east at about 33 mph on the downgrade after Utopia Parkway. The pavement is also very poor in spots, notably when Union Turnpike goes under the Grand Central Parkway. This presents a serious hazard to cyclists precisely because it’s a long, fairly steep downgrade where speeds are likely to be quite high.

    I would welcome a safer route out of the city, particularly one which was free of motor vehicles and traffic signals. The Vanderbilt Motor Parkway as it stands now isn’t particularly useful for that. It dead ends at Winchester Boulevard, right at the bottom of the aforementioned downgrade under the GCP. I support the plans but I think a bridge over Winchester Boulevard should be built from day one for two reasons. One, seeing how these things work, once the VMP is extended past Winchester Boulevard with an at-grade crossing chances are some will say it’s good enough, let’s not waste money on a bridge. Two, and more importantly, because the grade crossing would be at the bottom of a long downgrade, cyclists will be going fast, and might have difficulty stopping. A bridge is a safer, saner option here. You can start/end the bridge well before Winchester Boulevard to smooth out the steep grade. This will make it easier for cyclists going uphill.

    I’m curious as to how far into Nassau Country we can go. I would love to have a route which goes on for many miles past city limits if it’s at all feasible. That gives me a nice long bike “highway” practically at my doorstep. In fact, 75th Avenue, which I can pick up two blocks from me, functions nicely as a westward extension of the VMP. It’s much better than the parallel 73rd Avenue which has bike lanes. There are only two traffic signals between where I get on 75th Avenue and the VMP, compared to eight on 73rd Avenue. Generally, they’re timed perfectly for my riding speed. If I hit the first one when it’s green, I know the second one will be green also. If not, it’s usually a less than 30 second wait. Coupled with an extension of the VMP to or past city limits, this all means I could potentially enjoy an essentially non-stop route well into Nassau Country.

  • This one should be fast tracked. Mark Weprin’s district could experience a bike & walking renaissance. There are two large neighborhoods on either side of that highway interchange and even a brave, experienced rider like me feels a little frightened going from the end of the Parkway over to Little Neck. The connections that would be spawned by this link could open residents eyes. Many of the slower streets off the grid over there are wide with few cars, some of the nabe reminds me of what Portland, Oregon looks like. Whatever bureaucracy there is should start being tackled immediately.

  • Motor Parkway East

    Hi Joe,

    We’d love pedestrian/bike bridges! In fact as you mention that is part of the long term plan.

    The more expensive or time-consuming the plan is the higher the likelihood that nothing happens. We want to do something that makes the lives of people better as soon as possible.

    In phase 1 we essentially are only asking for 3 things –
    1. Moving Fences on certain properties along the route
    2. Paving and using an existing bridge over the Cross Island Parkway
    3. Planting shrubs and beautifying the area

    Once those fences are moved we should certainly start planning for phase II – the building of a bridge across Winchester and another one across Commonwealth. I hope you’ll join us and sign the petition.

  • Joe R.

    Sounds like a great plan so long as we’ll eventually see a bridge over Winchester Boulevard. I just signed your petition. I encourage others here to do likewise.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    This would be amazing, i can’t wait. The petition already has over 250 signatures, but could use more.

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