Will the Revitalized High Bridge be Bike-Friendly?


This is a guest post by Susan Murray, author of the Urban Naturalist.

The High Bridge, a graceful stone and steel bridge, reminiscent of the great Roman aqueducts, spans the Harlem River between parks in Washington Heights and the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx. Erected in 1848, decades before the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, it is Manhattan’s oldest bridge, designed not just for transportation but to carry water as well. The water stopped flowing a long time ago, and the bridge was closed to people in the 1960s. Though it is no longer in use, there are plans to bring it back to life, a project that is expected to cost $60 million. The planned reopening of this crossing, built in a pre-automotive era, presents a great opportunity for Livable Streets advocates to help shape what could be a unique pedestrian and bicycle link between Manhattan and the Bronx.

In fact, the Parks Dept. is hosting a public meeting to discuss the High Bridge tomorrow evening:

Come talk about Your Vision for the High Bridge
Wednesday, June 20, 2007 – 6:30 pm
Highbridge Recreation Center
2301 Amsterdam Avenue at 173rd Street, Manhattan

highbikelane.jpegA little background:

In the late 1960s, High Bridge Park in Washington Heights fell into disrepair. It became a dumping ground for abandoned cars, a haven for drug dealers and gangs and a dangerous place for local residents.

During this period, the city, strapped for funds and lacking interest in rehabilitating a park so far uptown, decided to close the bridge to prevent vandals from dumping junk off of it into the Harlem River. Massive steel gates laced with barbed wire were erected to prevent people from accessing the bridge. Far from calming the chaos, closing the bridge only made High Bridge Park more desolate and less watched.

The park became a dangerous, anarchic cul de sac and fell further into disrepair and anarchy. But over the past 10 years or so, neighborhood organizations, caring individuals and the New York Restoration Project have worked hard to clean up High Bridge Park. These days you’re more likely to see kids playing baseball than dealers selling drugs. A recent announcement from Mayor Bloomberg has the neighborhood excited: Thanks to a $5 million allocation from Congressman José E. Serrano, work on the High Bridge has begun. After decades of dreaming, it sounds like it’s really going to happen.

The reopened bridge will revitalize the park, making it accessible to both the Bronx and Manhattan. It will restore a vital transportation link for bikers and pedestrians in the area and it will preserve one of the city’s finest historical monuments.

As the Parks Department moves to the planning stages, Livable Streets and bicycling advocates should make their voices heard. We need to make it clear that this bridge can be more than just a scenic vista and tourist attraction. It can be a vital part of New York City’s growing bicycle transportation network.

With a significant slope from the top of High Bridge down to the bridge entrance there is a risk that Parks Dept. officials will choose to install stairways without bike ramps leading to the entrance of the bridge. I am hoping some of you can join me at tomorrow’s meeting to help make the case for convenient bike access to the bridge. Likewise, it would be a tragedy if the money allocated to rehabilitate the bridge was mostly spent on "security measures" such as unnecessarily high fences that would block the breathtaking view and cumbersome gates. As a vital transportation link, the High Bridge ought to remain open 24-hours a day.

In the rendering above I have sketched out an idea for where I think the bike lane might be placed. It would be tempting to put the lane on one side of the bridge with a line down the middle. But pedestrians will want to enjoy the view on both sides. So, I suggest that we put a bike lane down the center with benches (and there should be benches!) facing outward toward the views. This would create clear areas for all bridge users. Note that I don’t show any tall chain link fences in the rendering.

  • I can’t make the meeting, but I did take a tour last year. (The tour BTW, was a major disappointment, as I thought we’d go onto the High Bridge; instead, we just ascended the old pumping tower – cool, but not what I was expecting)

    This is another project, long overdue, to correct a misguided decision decades ago.

    Note, the structure was even more beautiful before they replaced some of the stone arches with steel to allow ships to pass beneath.

  • Dormer

    This would be great. As a model, look at what Chattanooga did with the Walnut Street Bridge, an abandoned railroad crossing.


  • da

    Bike lane down the center is fine.

    But, not sure I’m crazy about the orientation of the benches… why not just back them up against the bridge railings, as on the Brooklyn Bridge? The view would be basically the same and then you could people-watch too.

  • Did they stripe a lane on the Chattanooga did with the Walnut Street bridge? Where did they put it?

    The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t working so well IMHO, since the bike lane in only on one side, but there are so many people walking that it hardly works this way, and people want to look off of both sides so you can’t blame them (much).

    I though the benches might help divide the space better, but maybe it’d be to boring to just stare at the harlem river through the rail.

    The highbridge is wider than the booklyn bridge so maybe we could do both?

    Come to the forum and talk about your ideas!

  • Please ignore that last comment from me. I made a bunch of mistakes and I doubt it makes sense. Here is what it should say:

    Dormer: Did they stripe a bike lane on the Chattanooga Walnut Street bridge? Where did they put it?

    da: The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t working so well IMHO, since the bike lane is only on one side and there are so many people walking on that bridge it hardly works, people are in the bike lane all of the time. I guess people like to look off of the bridge on both sides… so you can’t blame them (much).

    I thought that the benches might help divide the space better if they faced out, but maybe it’d be to boring to just stare at the Harlem River through the rail. Watching people *is* fun. I just worried with with the lane in the center and benches facing inwards on both sides the pedestrians would not feel as safe.

    I’m looking forward to being able to FLY over this bridge on my bike, with a bit of a barrier people would stand less of a chance of being scared by fast-moving bikes.

    The High Bridge is wider than the Booklyn Bridge so maybe we could do both in places?

    Please come to the forum and talk about your ideas!

  • Dormer

    Correction: The Walnut Street Bridge is not a railroad bridge. However, since closed to motor vehicles in 1978, the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.

    Photo here:


  • If the issue with the steep hill is getting up, here’s one solution: a bike lift

    I thought there was a similar entry on S’blog, but couldn’t find one.

    As for going down, I recommend brakes.

  • cmu

    From the “fly over the bridge” comment, I can only assume that Susan is one of those spandex tornadoes who scare pedestrians (and kids)? Bicyclists should co-exist with peds or they will never be accepted. Having a bike lane is not a license to speed.

    btw, I am a regular cyclist, but I use my bike as transportation, not sport, so I go slowly everywhere.

  • I do not wear spandex and I resent that remark!

    I bet June is one of those girls who bikes in a skirt with some kind of lame wicker basket at about 2mph (this is revenge for the spandex comment)

    I do enjoy being able to travel at a speed that faster that walking and I agree that scaring pedestrians is a very bad thing. I also bike mostly to get from one place to another and I go rather fast since, well, who wants to waste half their life getting from one point to another?

    The goal here is to ask the question: can we make it so that everyone can be happy? When people are walking in the bike lane and blocking it I assume it’s because there is simply no place else to go or the signs aren’t clear or something. Long stretches of the green-way around manhattan provide places for people to walk and places for people to bike as fast as they please and it works great: so much so that it’s worth it to go over there just so that you can avoid the redlights and make good time on long trips. So it’s possible.

    But in some places there are bottle-necks and it makes everyone uncomfortable.

    Right now if you want to bike to the Bronx from Washington Heights you must go over the Washington bridge. Only one side is accessible to bikes without going over stairs and it’s barley wide enough for people to walk two abreast. If you’d like to risk your life you can try riding over with the cars, but the surface is bumpy there are massive amounts of debris in the gutter and you will get honked at since cars don’t think you should be there.

    So most people bike on the sidewalk then slow down and stop when people who are walking need to pass. It’s just stupid. People get scared even if you slow down or stop becuase there is not enough space. Then it’s “Oh I’m sorry, sorry!” etc. There should be enough space for everyone. I hope the High Bridge will help with some of these problems.

  • girlonabike


    Those of us who occasionally wear ‘spandex’/lycra are adding to the numbers of cyclists on the road and therefore making them safer for you. And yes, many of us try, like you, not to scare pedestrians. An escalade is more dangerous than me in ‘spandex’. Let’s be friends.

  • I really like your rendering Susan. It would seem that configuring it like that would allow the edges of the bridge to support slower pedestrian traffic, people watching, view watching and gathering. Creating choices of where to walk and somewhat protected stopping and gathering places, but also maintaining some friction between users and modes is I think key.

    Perhaps, to help further inform this discussion, here is a gallery and captioned slide show we put together of some of the world’s best pedestrian bridges (including Chattanooga):


    Unfortunately, I can’t make the meeting as we are opening the Livable Streets exhibit at Brooklyn Public Library that night, but if any of these images would be useful for the public meeting, I would be glad to send them along.

  • “An escalade is more dangerous than me in ‘spandex’.”

    I don’t know about that…

    (For the record I have biked in spandex and in a skirt and just about everything else that is a kind of clothing item.)

    Fast biking and safe happy peds ought not be mutually exclusive. Hell, slow biking and fast peds should also be able to work together. We need to take the street space from the cars and make it happen.

  • On a sidewalk in a small city we were working on in Sweden there were six different paving types that were used intricately to support a range of transitioning relationships between pedestrians and bicyclists as they entered a pedestrian area. The first transition was to take bicyclists out of a separated (buffered) lane and onto a shared street. Next the paving changed to merge the bikes onto the sidewalk, still separating bicycles from pedestrians but forcing bikes to go slower and then finally forcing the bikes to dismount with cobble stoned pavement. There where still two very narrow, smooth tracks for wheel chairs, strollers and high healed women through the rough paving.

    All the while, the paving for cars was adapting, curb heights were transitioning and colors on pavers were changing. Though somewhat complex, each change had a subtle but effective impact on user behavior. And there were essentially no traffic signs. Every user was very aware of each other and their environment, but it was also providing a calm and comfortable experience for each user.

    On the high bridge you could do something similar with a smoother surface in the middle for bikes and then a small curb and rougher pavement on the edges — with the narrow smooth tracks.

  • That’s a really good idea, Ethan. I wish you could make it to this meeting.

  • Dormer

    I have been up there to the bridge entrance. There is a trail in the woods shown in the picture, leading to the bridge. The trail is wide and pretty flat, part of a long neglected city park. Why not pave the trail and revive the park.

  • Mitch

    The bridge might be a good place for “bicycle traffic calming.” If it’s successful as a public place, it will be well populated with lots of people moving at different speeds, or sitting or standing still. In such an environment, bikes should be welcome, but they should be encouraged go slowly — 10 mph. at most.

    If it were up to me, I wouldn’t make a sharp distinction between the bike path and the pedestrian areas — I’d treat the whole bridge as a linear Woonerf, high above the water. And I’d use a paving surface that’s not slippery when wet, and not too rough, but not perfectly smooth, either.

    So the bridge would not be for bikers in a hurry, but it would be a nice place for a leisurely ride.

  • “So the bridge would not be for bikers in a hurry, but it would be a nice place for a leisurely ride.”

    But what about all of the commuters? It’s not like there is some other bridge in the area that works well at this point for people who cross every morning and evening.

    Unrelated: http://www.nycmtb.com has lots of events in this park for bikers! I didn’t even know that. I wonder if they know about this meeting?

  • da

    “But what about all of the commuters?”

    This is exactly what drivers ask when we propose eliminating cars from Central and Prospect Parks.

    These are parks, folks. Not commuter routes.

  • cmu

    I exaggerate for effect. I know how exilerating it is to go fast. But I think about this: An Escalade to me (on bike) would be like me (on bike) to a ped if I do the same sort of things we all complain about: go too close, too fast, be rude etc.

    I want bikers to be respected and be respectful of others. If we don’t co-exist with peds, how can we expect cars to co-exist with us?

    No offense intended…

  • Dawson

    Saw your post and email, thanks for contacting me. I wasn’t aware of the meeting but to be honest Transportation Alternatives would probably be the better group to contact about this. I had the pleasure of attending a NYC Parks Steward program in upper Highbridge Park and discovered the oak forest south of the bridge on the Manhattan side. It’s not suited for bikes of course but will be amazing when the invasive species are cleared out. I imagine people will want to travel across the bridge with their bikes but the width will probably dictate suitability of a bike lane. Definately an issue for Transportation Alternatives as they are the experts in this area.

  • Dawson: Thanks for stopping by! I thought the NYCMTB could help because you guys know your way through the woods in that park and you might be able to help find a way to connect the bridge without stairs. Annother poster mentioned some kind of path. But all the paths I know lead *under* the bridge, not to the entrance.

  • “These are parks, folks. Not commuter routes.”

    I don’t see why these things must be mutually exclusive if people are walking or riding to work. This is taking it back to the idea that bikes are just a form of recreation and walking is just something you do for 30min three times a week because your doctor said you needed to.

  • Also I must add that the park became unsafe because it stopped being a “commuter route”

    How many people are going to just “hang out” on a bridge? Some, yes, but this is way uptown and there are not as many people. There should be people on this bridge at most hours of the day and night if it is working right, and to make that happen you need to bring in commuters on foot and on bike.

  • moocow

    Have any of you ridden under the FDR north of the Seaport? People are going to be walking in that lane no matter what. Signs or suggestions meant to dissuade walkers will be ignored and you will be brought to a slow speed anyway. Hopefully not true if you are riding late or some other off peak time.

  • svaccaro

    Bicyclists must have a principled consistent approach to traffic laws in order to have their agenda taken seriously. But principled does not mean nec. mean 100% lawful. Guiding principle should be based on safety, and to a lesser extent courtesy. That’s how most cops operate 99% of the time, no ticket for lawless peds/bikers unless causing significant safety issue (putting aside occasional ticket blitzes). Cars almost automatically raise safety issue when lawless, enforcement reflects that.

  • “Hopefully not true if you are riding late or some other off peak time.”

    It’s only a short section of the greenway that works like that. It’s not a big deal to slow down for just a block or so… and it’s only like that after 1:00pm During the morning it’s pretty empty.

    There are about a jig-llion people at the seaport, this uptown bridge won’t have those kinds of crowds, most of the time. I think the bridge being too empty at hours of the night might be the bigger problem.

  • Even the imposing fences and gates on the Bridge now don’t stop people from crossing. Take a look at my pictures from a few years ago taken from the Highbridge Tower:


    (or click on my name to go there).

    Those guys looked like they cross over every day.

    We need to design public facilities so people can use them, not so they can be closed off from the public (like all those extra gates on the GW Bridge walkways).

  • Amazing image Ed! When you block something off only people who are willing to break the rules will use it. This image shows that the demand is there, and that fences don’t always have the intended effect. In fact, they can make an area less safe. Hope you can make it to the meeting later today.

  • Spud Spudly

    Having walked the High Bridge twice (legally), I would hope that the whole High Bridge would be made into a non-biking zone where people would have to get off and walk their bikes. The High Bridge isn’t that wide and people should be able to meander from one side to the other with their kids without having to worry about getting clipped by a speeding Trek.
    Maybe make an exception during evening hours, but if the bridge is crowded on a weekend afternoon with people just out for a casual stroll then there is no room for moving bikes.

    You know, if you open a manhole cover on the bridge you can climb down to this really cool walkway next to the old Croton aqueduct underneath. (Both the walkway and the pipes are suspended from the bottom of the bridge over the water 200 feet below.) Maybe send the bikers who don’t want to dismount down there.

  • “Maybe make an exception during evening hours, but if the bridge is crowded on a weekend afternoon with people just out for a casual stroll then there is no room for moving bikes.”

    If it’s that crowded people will just walk their bikes anyway. I hope that crowds *are* the problem rather than the bridge being empty all the time and scary like back when it was closed. We should try to make the bridge inviting for everyone.

  • Mitch

    re 17: Perhaps the word “leisurely” was ill-chosen. I think bike commuting is great — that’s how I get around town most of the time — and I agree that going really fast can be lots of fun. But in a confined space (and High Bridge looks fairly narrow), high speed biking doesn’t mix very well with the other users you might expect on the bridge, including pedestrians, families with kids on training wheels, and timid skirt-wearing ladies on bikes with wicker baskets (they have rights too, you know).

    I think a good design for the bridge would encourage everybody to the other users into account. If the bridge is mostly empty (as it probably would be for morning rush hour) bikes can feel free to go as fast as they want. In the bridge is busy, bikers should limit themselves to 10 mph or so, and negotiate their way past the slower folks.

    I do a lot of my commuting on multi-purpose bike paths, so I know than can work reasonably well. In the morning and in the winter I can go pretty fast most of the time. On summer afternoons, I have to slow down occasionally and say “on your left” a lot to get past the dog-walkers and the middle-aged couples out for a walk. But it’s not too bad; most of the time, it’s pretty pleasant.

    If you paint stripes on the bridge to delineate pedestrian and bicycle zones, I would expect them to work about as well as the stripes that keep cars out of Class II bike-lanes — not very well at all. But the separated zones would encourage some bikers to fly across the bridge, even when toddlers are wandering around or old people are hobbling from one side to the other.

    I would encourage a design that encourages people to work cooperatively with each other, instead of insisting on mutually exclusive “rights.” That’s why I brought Monderman into the discussion.

  • From the meeting I got the sense that people don’t like the idea of a bike lane and I think that Mitch makes some good points about time of day and usage. Part of what’s great about public spaces that aren’t for cars is that you interact with people so not having a lane will force bikers to pay more attention to how the bridge is being used when they cross and then go super fast, or slow or walk the bike depending on that. So maybe it’s not that important to have a lane.

    Right now I’m really more concerned about the hours of access, since at the meeting they said it’d be “only open on the weekends at first” (YIKES!) If you can’t count on this bridge being open it will become a neglected backwater again, and kids will just keep jumping the fence (I don’t care how tall it is) and that’s just dangerous.

    It needs to be open 24/7 –after going to the meeting I think this needs to be the primary thing we all advocate for. And I bet the pedestrians and bikers can all agree on this. We want it OPEN. When the bridge is open it will help make the park safer. I know they parks department “thinks” that park closes at dusk, but it’s not like they can fence off a giant wooded area and keep people out. Like central park it’s used at all hours, and rather than locking out people who follow the law and leaving it to the lawless we need to acknowledge how the park is used and then plan around it to meet the needs of the residents on foot and on pedal.

  • Steve

    I think Mitch is right that in a narrow space, demarcation will only promote conflicts as pedestrians ignore the markings and bicyclists attempt to stake out their turf. Also, if it has a bike lane, it will of necessity be a Class I bike lane, and there goes one mile of the 3 or so miles of Class I bike lanes that the City has committed to laying the next few years. I can think of better places to designate Class I lanes.

    This bridge can’t accomodate cars, so better to leave it unregulated.

  • Hannah

    I agree that a push for access should be top priority. However, my understanding of what was said was that 24-hour access is planned for weekends and more limited access for weekdays. I did not think that full-day closures was part of the plan.

    As commenters stated last night, it would be seen as ridiculous to close a car bridge part of the time. Yet bikes and pedestrians are not viewed as seriously. Take, for example, the other ped-only Parks bridge over the Harlem River, the Wards Island Footbridge. It’s closed several months of the year and open limited hours the rest of the time. I rarely use it as a result–it’s a pain to keep track of the hours and one always worries that they might change arbitrarily anyway. The George Washington Bridge ped/bike path is also closed overnight while cars have free reign.

    High Bridge can be a vital part of our ped/bike transportation and greenway network and should be open full time!

  • Hannah

    I agree that a push for access should be top priority. However, my understanding of what was said was that 24-hour access is planned for weekends and more limited access for weekdays. I did not think that full-day closures were part of the plan.

    As commenters stated last night, it would be seen as ridiculous to close a car bridge part of the time. Yet bikes and pedestrians are not viewed as seriously. Take, for example, the other ped-only Parks bridge over the Harlem River, the Wards Island Footbridge. It’s closed several months of the year and open limited hours the rest of the time. I rarely use it as a result–it’s a pain to keep track of the hours and one always worries that they might change arbitrarily anyway. The George Washington Bridge ped/bike path is also closed overnight while cars have free reign.

    High Bridge can be a vital part of our ped/bike transportation and greenway network and should be open full time!

  • Count me among the bikers who think this bridge is not the best place for bikes.

    We encourage multi-modal commuting. Why not encourage bike/walk commuting, where the walk part is this bridge?

    Given the length of the bridge, however, the bike /ped conflict may be limited to the edges. How about walk-your-bike sections for the first hundred yards or so on each side and a center bike lane for the middle section?

  • Given that most people on bikes ride on the side walk over the Washington bridge I don’t think you’re going to force people to walk their bikes that easily, especially in the early morning or late at night when the bridge won’t be that packed.

    You could mess with the pavers and put it cobble stone, but that won’t work since the pavers are a part of the “historic” aspects of the bridge.

    The best way to slow bikers down is with a “critical mass” of peds.

  • In the Public Gardens in Boston (of Make Way for Ducklings fame), there are big “No Biking” signs and stencils.

    Nobody bikes.

    Cobbles would help, of course.

  • Is it worth it to effectively ban bikes from the bridge when that will reduce the number of people who use it? People on bikes are not going to go over this bridge at all if we insist that people walk the whole way. They will go over the more dangerous Washington bridge.

    This bridge is a a part of the greenway system. Sean. I find you suggestions, well, I find them strange. How will bikes detract from the bridge? Can you explain?

  • By “strange,” you mean brilliant and creative, right?

    For the reasons discussed above, the bridge seems like a good opportunity for bike/ped conflict.

    If that’s the case, I think that bikes need to yield to peds.

    A lot depends on how the bridge gets used. If it’s a bike/walk thoroughfare (meaning the primary use case is getting from one side to the other), then divide the space and everyone wins. Your idea of a middle lane for bikers is sound.

    But, if it’s more like an esplanade, where pedestrians’ primary use is sitting, lingering, strolling, then I think bikes become a problem.

    My guess is that the ends will be esplanade-like. (Few people will walk to the middle to sit on a bench when there are benches out near the ends.) The middle will be primarily used by those whose primary interest is crossing. If that’s the case, promote/require bikers to walk their bikes through the esplanade-like end sections and let them high-tail it across the middle section.

    I think that some clever design might even promote my esplanade-end scenario, not only discouraging riding on the ends, but discouraging lingering in the middle.

    Bottom line: I think that there is a hierarchy of uses. Not all paths for pedestrians are suitable for bikes and vice-versa.

  • PS — Regardless of what you think of my ideas — which I acknowledge are not always good ones — I think it’s fabulous what you are doing to restore this wonderful resource.

    I look forward to walking or riding on it … or both.

  • “The middle will be primarily used by those whose primary interest is crossing.”

    The best view is in the middle. That’s how it works on the Brooklyn Bridge. People walk about half way out then walk back.

  • johndon

    I agree that a push for access should be top priority.


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