GWB Will Get Bike-Ped Upgrades as Part of Cable Rehab Project

Yesterday, the the Port Authority board authorized a $1.03 billion rehabilitation of the George Washington Bridge’s suspension cables that will also fix problem spots for cyclists and pedestrians using its shared paths. But the upgraded biking and walking routes will still be two feet narrower than the recommended width for shared-use paths.

Say goodbye to these stairs on the George Washington Bridge path...in 2024. Photo: Google Maps
Say goodbye to these stairs on the George Washington Bridge path… in ten years. Photo: Google Maps

Today, users of the south path face a hairpin turn on the Manhattan side. The north path, which remains closed, has staircases on both sides of the Hudson. Under the plan, both paths would be upgraded to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, eliminating the hairpin turn and the stairs.

The north path will receive upgrades first and then reopen to the public before the south path is closed for construction.

The fixes were welcomed by Transportation Alternatives and the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, which both worked with the Port Authority as it was planning the project.

In his testimony, Neile Weissman, who serves as president of the New York Cycle Club, also praised the changes but prodded the Port Authority to widen the paths, which at 8 feet would fall below federal guidelines, which call for a minimum of 10 feet, or up to 14 feet for busy shared-use paths.

“We have a budget and a limited amount of revenue,” Port Authority spokesperson Chris Valens told Streetsblog. “We did what we thought we could accommodate based on the project and the cost of the project.” Valens added that with both the north and south paths open, it might be possible to designate one path for cyclists and another for pedestrians, though no final decision has been made.

Construction is set to begin in 2017, with final completion in 2024.

  • A little context:

    Everyone in the bike community is getting exactly what they were asking for, right now, and most are very happy with it.

    The concern is that of future capacity and support from the PA. The Port Authority’s own numbers show a doubling of bicycle users every decade, conservatively. The extent of this bridge “rehab project” is such that it would be reasonable to expect that this is the final project of this nature to touch these pathways, at least in our lifetimes. So, the build-out should be looking toward those future numbers, not the current ones.

    If the bridge paths are only pedestrian-use compliant, and the demand from cyclists creates a crowding/danger scenario, the Port Authority could be in this bind: pay out major lawsuits over bicycle collisions for providing a substandard facility, or post “WALK BIKE” signs on the bridge and join the MTA & Triboro Authority in being horrifically obstinate about letting cyclists avoid a mile-long walk to get from popular points A to B.

    I’m fine with using the path space as it currently is, and the proposed improvements to the entrances are WAYYYY overdue. But I think the Port Authority ought to at least explain how their proposed plans for this project will meet the functional requirements for its expected lifespan. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the projected bike/ped traffic will make the new paths obsolete before opening day, and it would be a massive failure of management to spend over $1B to create something they can’t use as they said it would be used. Maybe this is worrying too much, but some clarification from the PA would help.

  • That’s long way to wait for it to be finished… ten years from now eh.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Engineering wise, the cables are bolted down on either side of the path – leaving 6’8″ in between the cables for two cyclists to pass each other.

    The only option for widening the path will be to either remove a lane of traffic or build the bridge outwards to widen the platform for a new path outside of the cables.

    All things considered, unless people want to walk or bike in the center of the lower level (in between fumes and in darkness), this is likely the best option.

  • qrt145

    How about keeping both sides of the bridge open and making them one-way? That would eliminate most of the bike-on-bike passing (as long as people go the right way, of course…)

  • Neile Weissman

    There are plenty ways to optimize a pair of 6′ 8″/8′ paths. But that only gets you so far. Peak use already exceeds the 300-users per hour AASHTO threshold for high-use (recommended 14′). And bike traffic on the GWB doubling every 5 years.

    The re-cabling is a once-in-a-lifespan opportunity. Whatever (does not) get done now is it for the rest of the century.

  • Jonathan

    Any consideration of changing the policy of closing the sidewalks during bad weather? That would certainly improve ease of crossing for those who count on the sidewalk to get to work or school.

  • Cyndi

    Having chaired the advocacy committee and worked directly with the PA, I can speak about some of the considerations that were taken when the decision not to widen the paths was made:
    1. the changes we are getting total $56 million. The additional widening has a $90 million price tag.
    2. I spoke with engineers on the project and outside of the PA and their opinion is that adding cantilevered bikepaths to this span will place extreme asymmetric loads on the middle span due to high wind loading. In short, a conservative engineer would not make this recommendation, as the bridge’s structure could be compromised.
    3. The “doubling rate every five years” will not be sustained. That number will start to diminish.
    4. When routes get more crowded with vehicles- cars, bikes, people – speeds slow down. Slower speeds are associated with fewer crashes, not more. Therefore, additional volume will not cause an increase in crashes.
    5. As part of these improvements, the PA is changing the designation of both paths from walkways to shared use paths, further confirming their position that these are intended for various travel modes.
    6. The concern that a lawsuit could ensue exists today and has existed throughout the entire period that the PA has tolerated cyclists riding on the sidewalks. This change in designation is an improvement over what we have today.
    7. The FHWA issued guidance in August 2013 for transportation agencies to “use flexibility” when making design decisions. In other words, the guidelines are just that, and individual circumstances can be accomodated. The concern over the bridge’s structural integrity is a valid one and falls under this leeway in the guidance.
    8. If the rate of cyclists crossing this span does continue to grow at the volumes that are mentioned here, there will be no choice but to create additional accommodations that would likely involve using a car travel lane based on the limitations of cantilevering. The PA has shown with this project that they are willing to work with the cycling community as long as we are reasonable. The committee I had the privilege to chair operated under that spirit. I especially wish to thank Paul Steely White of TA and Eden Weiss of the NYCC.
    9. There were significant forces within the PA HIGHLY opposed to this project; our reasonable approach helped our advocates within the PA secure this win for cyclists.

    Cyndi Steiner
    Executive Director, New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition
    Chair, Bike Path Remediation Committee

  • A more pressing improvement would be the end to the nightly closures between midnight and 6am. I have all these big ideas of doing some huge bike trips through Jersey; but I’d like to get a real early start, which would get me to the bridge well before 6:00. Unfortunately, this is impossible.

  • Neile Weissman

    These are PA talking points, not cyclists’ (“Secaucus Syndrome” … ?”). They’re also counter able. And what we’re left with a 9 point rationale on why cyclists will eventually have to walk the span (“when routes get more crowded …speeds slow down”). With due respect, this feels like the start of a discussion, not the end.

  • Leonard Diamond

    In the cycling and cycling advocacy world it always seems that there are folks whose attitude is, either give us exactly what we want/the ideal, or give us nothing. A group of sensible advocates took a project that would have left conditions for us exactly as they are now (except we would have lost access to the south stairway free path for 4 years) and have worked with the PA to get us a plan where the ramps will be less steep, stairs eliminated and an inconvenient/dangerous turn eliminated.
    As far as capacity/width, right now pretty much all cyclists use the south side. Eliminating the stairs on the north side doubles our current capacity so I look at it as a 16 foot wide path.
    Bike New York especially thanks Cyndi Steiner for spending so much time on this project, developing working relationships with key staff at the PA and getting cyclists such a good result.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Well put Cyndi! I think this is a VERY reasonable compromise. I don’t think that you could create a perfectly AASHTO compliant multi-use pathway on the bridge without spending and exorbitant amount of money that would be better spent on other projects elsewhere in the Port Authority system, particularly bike and ped projects.

    The reality is that you will need to take it easy crossing the bridge in the future as you need to now. We are lucky that Othmar Amman and Cass Gilbert understood the need 80 years ago to build walkways that are as wide as they are. Just 30 years later the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built without them. Maybe the rest of that money could be spent on a walkway on that bridge!

  • Neile Weissman

    But you don’t acknowledge, let alone thank, those who first foresaw the problem/opportunity when sensible cyclists; who did the months of advocacy that got PA to put on the table what announced this week; and who continue to call for a solution that meets accepted national guidelines (sensible?) for a high use facility.

    “8+8=16” … ? Not if bikes-peds each get their own path as was announced. Still 8.

  • Canonchet

    Meanwhile, at the next crossing upriver, see today’s NYT piece on bikepath-backlash on the west side of the Tappan Zee, by the preternaturally cranky Joe Berger, who never met a bike path he didn’t dislike:http://nyti.ms/1r9uPjn

  • Kevin Love

    I would like to publicly thank Cyndi for all of her hard work. We need more people like Cyndi who put themselves out there to make better cities for all of their people.

    Having said that, I must respond that I disagree with a few of the things that Cyndi has written. For example:

    “3. The ‘doubling rate every five years’ will not be sustained. That number will start to diminish.”

    Mathematically, of course this must be true as any mode share has an upper limit of 100%!

    However, there is going to be a lot more people cycling for transportation in the future. We need to plan infrastructure today.

    And where is a plan to accommodate the higher cycle mode share that would attend reasonably foreseeable events such as a revolution in Saudi Arabia or any other major oil exporter?

    There has been talk of repurposing car lanes to cycle lanes, but it would be better to have a concrete plan along the lines of “When cyclist numbers hit X here is our engineering plan to repurpose car lanes.”

    Of course, what is of very serious concern is her point #4. A transportation system which is so congested that cyclist speed and throughput are compromised has just become a far less useful transportation system. That is the point at which it is necessary to repurpose car lanes. Let’s have a plan for this.

  • Andrew

    Where do you put pedestrians, many of whom wish to walk at a leisurely pace, enjoy the view, and take pictures?

  • Leonard Diamond

    Sorry Neile I still prefer the improved duAl 8 foot paths thAt will get built to your better 10foot ones that would not get built

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Yes I just read that story and was gonna’ post a link to it! This is where advocates need to focus next. At least Nyack agrees that the new bike/ped on the new Tappan Zee will be popular!

  • Neile Weissman

    Leonard, Cyndi, et al, may have succeeded in “developing working relationships with key staff at the PA” but that did NOT necessarily “get cyclists such a good result”.

    Contrast the AASHTO-compliant bike facilities that PA has planned for the Bayonne and Goethals — sans input from “sensible” advocates”. Clearly, PA engineers already know better than to mis-apply ADA guidelines to a cycling facility. http://tinyurl.com/o9d8afd

    Rather, what was announced, which had previously been defined is short-term fix … is manifestly deficient of even medium-term cyclist needs … but is nonetheless being marketed as a long-term solution.

    Given the current rate of growth, by 2020, when the new North Path will come online for mixed use, once past the entrances, the actual experience riding-running-walking across will be worse than today. Think Brooklyn Bridge. http://tinyurl.com/prwwhbc

    Then by 2024, when peds get the South and cyclists get the North the same, the 8′ span could see as much as four times current bike traffic.

    Note: I don’t recall any mention that the blind chicanes around the towers will be widened. http://tinyurl.com/okcn5y7

    If the 5 year rate of doubling in bike traffic across the GWB DOES attenuate, it will likely be because cyclists perceive the experience to be such a suck-fest. OTOH, unlike the BB, there won’t be any Manhattan-Williamsburg to serve as work-arounds.

    Note: I presume Bike New York is working to support Bloomberg-DiBlasio’s goal for 6% of all trips to be taken by bike. That’s six times the current 1% in NYC and many more times that of NJ.

    Upshot? The history of the Port Authority has been one of having the vision to anticipate the region’s transport needs and leveraging the resources to implement solutions.

    When the GWB opened in 1931, 5.5 million cars came over. Today it is twenty times that. When Port Authority assumed control of region airports in the 40?s, air traffic was three percent what it is today. In each case, the Authority created infrastructure that would beacon exponential growth.

    Cycling has become, and will continue to be an increasingly critical component of the region’s transportation matrix. What’s being asked here is for Port Authority is to fulfill its historic role and put forth a plan that really IS a centennial solution.

    Notes:

    Since the existing paths WILL have to be ripped out and restored to facilitate recabling, this IS the low cost opportunity for the rest of the century.

    Also, the off-the-chart benefits to the region of just a cantilevered North Path make PA VERY eligible for tens of millions in USDOT TIGER funding to offset the added cost. http://tinyurl.com/lpcklpw

  • Cyndi

    Kevin, thanks for your comments. I could not agree further with your point re: #4. Here are my additional thoughts- no plan proposed but concepts offered.

    http://www.njbwc.org/gwb-improvements-a-victory-and-a-portent-of-changes-to-come/

  • adam

    They could start charging a toll to cyclists to cover the $90M walkway expansion. That would also cut down on the usage rate. Problem solved. Or we could take the $56M in improvements we just got for free, and say thank you. I guess it all depends on how entitled we feel.

  • Bobberooni

    We need to think more critically about this “doubling every 5 years” stuff. Right now, peak time for bikes (BY FAR) on the GWB is on weekends. It is mostly athletic / recreational riders coming out of Manhattan, looking for a scenic ride in NJ. Do I believe that the number of people looking to do centuries on Saturday afternoons will double every 5 years? Absolutely not!

    What WILL likely (hopefully) see a big increase is commuter cycling. But there is still PLENTY of available capacity on the GWB for that, even at “rush” hour. I was a GWB commuter cyclist for 2.5 years, I know what I’m talking about. It’s not totally deserted, but it’s nothing CLOSE to being crowded, either with peds or bikes.

    The geography also limits the amount of commuter cycling we are likely to see. Climbing the Palisades up to Ft Lee is a challenge, to say the least. And many of the routes across the NJ Turnpike are downright dangerous. One of these can be fixed (in theory, if NJ towns feel like it). The other is more of a challenge, unless e-bikes become popular.

    This leaves likely NJ cycle commuters as only those ALREADY living up on the Palisades towns, not too far from Ft Lee. Yes, there will likely be more bike commuters from those areas. But the total amount will be limited.

    For all these reasons, I find it hard to believe the GWB will be overwhelmed with commuter cyclists any time soon, especially now that capacity is being doubled.

    As for capacity on the weekends… simply eliminating the hairpin turn will increase capacity, since that is the biggest bottleneck.

    And for safety… I agree, current conditions are unsafe at peak time (weekends). I would suggest a speed limit, maybe 10mph. The current situation of a 40mph speed differential between two bikes passing inches from each other is just not acceptable. Common sense would be nice, but not everybody uses it.

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