Seeking Safer Routes to Walk and Bike Across the Harlem River

Harlem residents point out how to improve safety on streets near the Harlem River Bridges on Saturday. From left: Abena Smith, president of the 32nd Precinct community council; community council vice president Sherri Culpepper; Louis Bailey of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; Tom DeVito of Transportation Alternatives; and Maria Barry, chair of Manhattan Community Board 10's Vision Zero task force. Photo: Stephen Miller
From left: Abena Smith, president of the 32nd Precinct community council; community council vice president Sherri Culpepper; Louis Bailey of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; Tom DeVito of Transportation Alternatives; and Maria Garcia, chair of Manhattan Community Board 10’s Vision Zero task force. Photo: Stephen Miller

Have you ever tried biking or walking across the Harlem River? Despite a plethora of bridges, walkers and bikers often face crossings and approaches that are confusing or downright hostile. A new campaign from Transportation Alternatives and local residents aims to focus DOT’s attention on making it safer for New Yorkers to get between the two boroughs under their own power.

There are 11 bridges connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, including the High Bridge. Nine currently have paths for pedestrians, though most are narrow, and cyclists are allowed to ride on only two of them. New Yorkers walking or biking on either side of the bridges have an even tougher time, penned in by the car-clogged Harlem River Drive and the Major Deegan Expressway. Nearby bike lanes are a hodgepodge with few clear, safe routes leading to the bridges.

On the East River, the city has built out bike routes on bridges and nearby streets, and bike ridership is climbing year after year. Organizers of the new campaign say it’s time for the Harlem River bridges to get the same attention to safety, and on Saturday they gathered for the first of three summer “street scans” to identify places where streets could be safer and easier to navigate.

“I’ve been saying for years that there should be bike lanes in Harlem, and there were none past 110th Street for many years,” said Sherri Culpepper, vice president of the 32nd Precinct community council.

It’s not just about biking for Culpepper, who also walks and drives in her neighborhood. She learned of Saturday’s event from the Manhattan Community Board 10 Vision Zero task force. “I was happy to see that there is an initiative to make the streets safer. Because we have kids that walk to the park by themselves; they go to the community rec centers,” she said. “Drivers are just driving too fast in the community.”

A few weeks ago, Culpepper witnessed two crashes where Lenox Avenue meets the 145th Street Bridge. On the bus, she saw the aftermath of a crash involving a young boy who was taken to the hospital. “He did what he was supposed to do as a pedestrian. He stopped, he had the light, he saw the car coming,” she said. But there was a miscommunication with the driver, who struck him in the street. Moments later, a young girl was hit just feet away in a separate crash.

The group squeezes onto the Bronx side of the Madison Avenue Bridge. Photo: Stephen Miller
The group squeezes onto the Bronx side of the Madison Avenue Bridge. Photo: Stephen Miller

The community council is devoting its attention to traffic safety, and officers often ticket drivers for running red lights as they come off the bridge. “Oftentimes, motorists aren’t yielding to pedestrians as they should,” said Abena Smith, president of the 32nd Precinct community council. “Before Vision Zero even came out to the public, there were people at the precinct council meetings saying they were particularly concerned about that street.”

Smith lives just two blocks from the 145th Street Bridge and says Harlemites often walk across it to go shopping at the Bronx Terminal Market. “Of course they’re walking, because it’s the easiest way and the least expensive way for them to bring back something,” she said. She doesn’t see too many cyclists on the bridge, but when she does, they are on the sidewalk, where there are “dismount” signs, instead of in the busy roadway. “Maybe for some reason they don’t feel safe enough to do that. They’re always on the pathway,” Smith said, adding that the bridge should have a dedicated bike path.

The Bronx side, at 149th Street next to the Major Deegan, is just as difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. “You have cars coming from different angles, and it’s this big wide open space,” said Greg Thompson, a Bronx resident whose sister Renee was killed by a turning truck driver on the Upper East Side last year. “It’s a confusing spot. You really gotta look.”

On Saturday, participants split into two groups, with one going by bike and the other on foot. At the end of the afternoon, both converged where the Madison Avenue Bridge meets 138th Street and the Major Deegan Expressway, and watched as pedestrians and cyclists tried to safely navigate around a crush of car traffic.

“We have a lot of trucks, commercial trucks,” Smith said. “That tends to cause a lot of congestion and makes it difficult to cross the street safely.”

“It discourages people from moving back and forth in a way that’s easy, convenient and safe,” TA organizer Tom DeVito told the group. Saturday’s event included representatives from the precinct community council, Community Board 10, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and the office of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “You’re all experts in a way that, you know, not necessarily someone from DOT can be,” DeVito said. “You know the streets better than anybody.”

Over the course of the afternoon, the groups suggested everything from better lighting and more curb extensions to a crackdown on illegally-parked city vehicles and more bike lanes. DeVito said TA plans to take the suggestions to local elected officials and DOT.

The second “street scan,” scheduled for this Sunday at 2 p.m., will focus on the area near High Bridge. Another event is planned for mid-August near the University Heights Bridge.

  • qrt145

    I recently crossed the 145th St bridge on my bike, using the roadway, and it is scary even for cyclists of the “strong and fearless” type. Drivers speed and there are points with poor lines of sight due to the shape of the bridge. No wonder most cyclists use the sidewalk here (maybe I’ll do that next time). The NYC Bike Map recommends walking the bike on the sidewalk.

  • Jonathan R

    Stephen: Great article, but I count 12 bridges. Here are my biggest grumbles.

    Amtrak bridge: no bike path, no foot path;

    HH Bridge: narrow paths, walking requirement, stairs to pathway, far from Manhattan destinations;

    Bway Bridge: metal road surface, autos speed, extra traffic from toll non-payers;

    Univ Hgts Br: path only on S side of bridge, lots of foot traffic, highway interchange and steep hill on Bx side

    Washington (181st St) Br: very narrow paths, south path connects with Manh streets through sketchy area of Highbridge Park, tough to cross University Ave on Bx side;

    I-95 Br: no bike path, no foot path;

    High Bridge: closed, steep hill on Manh side, Manh access only from south.

    Macombs Dam Br: no crosswalk on ACP, south side, steep hill on Manh side, highway interchange on Bx side

    145th St Br: highway interchange on Bx side

    Madison Ave Br: north side and south side paths end up in different places in Manhattan, long way along 149th St to Bronx destinations

    Metro-North Br: no bike or foot access

    Triboro Br: two bridges to cross to get to the Bronx. Randalls Isl-South Bx connector not yet open. Difficult to navigate Randalls Island paths

  • vnm

    If you’re in the Bronx coming southbound to get to the Madison Avenue Bridge, the BEST way to get to the bridge is to get off the Walton Avenue bike lane at 146th Street and then go under the Major Deegan (officially “Exterior Street”) for three blocks. That puts you right at the entrance to the bridge without having to cross any lanes of traffic. So no matter what phase the light is in, you can easily scoot right onto the bridge without waiting. It lets you avoid the on-ramp and off-ramp traffic and basically the entire clusterfuck of traffic leading to the bridge. Try it out and you’ll see what I mean!

  • vnm

    Also for the Manhattan side, it is going to be a lot easier to get to the bridge if and when the DOT closes the gap in the East Side Greenway between 125th Street and 133rd Street. You’ll be able to zip right onto the bridge almost seamlessly from the flyover.

  • millerstephen

    Yes, my count excludes two rail bridges (Metro-North main line and Amtrak Hudson Line) and the RFK-Triborogh.

  • Marlboro4eva

    Who’s that sexy tom guy? we want more of him.

  • AnoNYC

    How about a ramps where needed on the bridges?

    The Willis Ave Bridge could use some lane markings and signaling for bikes at the Bronx side exit too.

  • BBnet3000

    If the people who say “Shared Lane” on Cropsey Avenue to Coney Island are telling you to walk your bike on the sidewalk, you know the road is really intimidating and unsafe.

  • Vision Zero comes uptown!

  • I tried Cropsey Avenue a little while based on the bike map’s recommendation. That won’t be happening again. The Saturday before last, I made the same mistake with the North Channel Bridge coming back from the Rockaways: a narrow, painted bike lane, no buffer to the traffic, garbage bags every 100ft or so and cars driving at 70mph and faster.

    “Find New York City’s most terrifying marked bike route” could be an interesting Streetsblog piece.

  • I had a very enjoyable ride two Saturdays ago from Brooklyn up to City Island (described here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-concrete-plant-park-chat-roosevelt.html) but I agree the bridge situation is frustrating. I got lost on Randall’s Island and can’t understand why cycling is banned on the Tri-Borough Bridge. There’s very little pedestrian traffic, so I can’t see – apart from the MTA’s general antipathy towards allowing cycling on its property – it’s marked as being a “walk your bike” bridge. In the past, I’ve ridden across the Broadway Bridge a few times. I’ve always ridden on the road, on the dodgy metal surface, which is technically not allowed. I think there’s a blanket ban on cycling across any bridge with a wire mesh roadway, since I spotted yesterday that there’s a sign banning cycling even on the Union St bridge across the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. I can’t see why, on the Broadway Bridge, where pedestrian traffic is also light, cycling isn’t allowed on one of the sidewalks. The situation for the western Bronx would be better if cycling were allowed on the Henry Hudson Bridge. I think cycling access through Inwood Hill Park is being improved, so it could potentially be a good link in the network.

    It’s obvious that bridges are pinch points and tend to feature very fast, dangerous motor traffic. It’s a real pity that some public agencies – most notably the MTA – don’t seem to think it’s part of their job to help to solve this problem.

    More positively, I rode back from City Island via the Willis Avenue Bridge and that seemed pretty good.

  • AnoNYC

    Randall’s Island could use some signage. Especially when they hold events that block the Western path.

    The Willis Ave Bridge is great. Just gets confusing on the Bronx side to figure out which direction to go. When you come off the bridge, the road becomes a two-way directly in front (Willis Ave), and fast moving traffic along the service road for the Bruckner.

    I assume that the best thing to do is wait until you have the light that stops traffic entering the Bronx from the bridge, then cross over and wait for the cross traffic to stop. Some cyclist proceed straight, straight into oncoming traffic along Willis Ave. A bike box should be inserted a that location. Might as well go parking protected along Willis Ave too. Street is way too wide for such heavy pedestrian density.

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