The Sands Street Shuffle

sands_street_entrance.jpgAn evening commuter enters the Sands Street bike path at Jay Street, after descending from the Manhattan Bridge.

Last month, the long-awaited Sands Street bike path officially opened, giving cyclists a much safer connection to the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. From what I can tell so far, everyone loves the new protected space between Jay and Gold, which separates bike traffic from all the trucks and cars accelerating onto the BQE. If you bike over the bridge from Fort Greene or points east and south, it’s a huge improvement. And once the Carlton Avenue Bridge reopens, this path should be an attractive approach to an even bigger swath of Brooklyn bike commuters.

We’ve received a few emails from readers who think the path would be safer with a few not-so-dramatic changes, and it will be interesting to see if DOT tweaks the Sands Street approach to address these concerns. One trouble spot: At the intersection where the Sands Street path meets the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, cyclists have to cross against southbound traffic on Jay Street and eastbound traffic on Sands. Many are doing it in one fell swoop, making a diagonal movement that can be pretty dangerous.

Here’s my attempt at a triptych showing what this looks like as a cyclist exits the bridge. The curb cut you see in the third frame is the entrance to the Sands Street protected path:


Some readers might get on the cyclist’s case here for crossing against one of the lights, but I think this behavior is going to be pretty common as long as cyclists are asked to wait through two signal phases and make two separate crossings.

Here’s a short video clip where you can see a few other ways people are handling this condition (apologies for the amateurish camera-work). 

One step that might encourage safer crossings would be to add an exclusive bike/pedestrian phase at this intersection. Another would be to cut a hole in that black fence on the bridge side of the street and install a direct crosswalk, giving cyclists a straight shot between the two paths. We have a query in with DOT to see if some tweaks might be on the table.

Another question is whether the block between Gold and Navy Street is adequately protected and delineated as space for bike traffic.

sands_gold.jpgPhoto: brooklynbybike/Flickr.

The bike lanes here are raised slightly above the level of car traffic and set off with a painted buffer. A fence was originally planned to separate bike traffic, but that would have formed a block-long barrier for pedestrians between sections of Farragut Houses. One proposed alternative — bollards — hasn’t made it into the built project. I’d say the jury is still out on this one, but a coat of green paint might provide some additional reassurance for cyclists.

  • David_K

    I am thrilled with the bike path, which eliminates the danger of dodging traffic accellerating to highway speeds on two separte on-ramps. I have been so thrilled about it over the past few weeks, that I’ve thought it to be “perfect.” But cutting through the iron fence to make a straight shot from the bridge entrance would be helpful. The block between Gold/Navy seems pretty safe to me. I think that the path is kind of beveled from the roadway, which helps. Now I’d love to see DOT give attention to safety at other bridges, particularly the Manhattan side of the W-Burg.

  • Streetsman

    My guess is that the block between gold and navy is designed that way for emergency vehicle access since they used a mountable curb – it allows a fire truck to drive in the bike lane if there is a stalled vehicle or another fire truck parked in the moving lane.

  • J

    Streetsman, you may very well be right. It is frustrating that this type of concern guides design, when 99.9% of the other roads will never have this type of accommodation. The FDNY is possibly the biggest obstacle to livable streets and innovative design. They constantly order bigger, less maneuverable fire truck, then demand that streets accommodate the monstrosities. Ridiculous.

  • No, it’s designed that way to be permeable to pedestrians. Otherwise they would have needed the same treatment for the other block for emergency vehicles.

  • Streetsman

    I think the other block is either two lanes wide or has shoulders or other room for fire trucks to pass such as a sidewalk where there’s no curbside parking. Also, the other block has no buildings on it so maybe FDNY isn’t as concerned.

  • Jessica Roberts

    Here in Portland (OR) we used to have a trail entry/exit point that connected in a really awkward way to the adjacent bike lanes, and consequently most cyclists were crossing diagonally and/or running the red light.

    The City ended up installing a “scramble” signal that stops all vehicle traffic and lets bikes & peds cross at a diagonal (the most common direction) with a dedicated signal (photo here: and more details here:

    A Portland State University student study found that the percentage of cyclists crossing illegally (diagonally and/or against the light) decreased from 71.8% to 4.2% after the signal was installed (source: As a user, I have the impression that cyclists are willing to wait for the signal because once they get their turn, they get a high-quality experience that lets them make the movement they want to make.

    It sounds like a similar treatment might help here.

  • Steve Faust

    As Jessica says, Sand and Jay will need an exclusive bike signal because car traffic from two streets has to be held. New ramps and bike signal heads would be needed.

    There is already an exclusive bike signal the the Gold St intersection. There are bike crossing traffic signals that give cyclists 15 seconds of exclusive green. That does not sound like much, but it seems to be enough to clear all the cyclists from the bike waiting areas on each side of Gold St, and give cyclists clear no conflict turns onto Gold.

    Most cyclists seemed to be waiting on the bike signal last week. IT will be interesting to see what they do as they get used to the traffic flows at Gold St.

  • Even though I access the bridge from the southwest on Sands and don’t use the new path I took a ride on it the other day just to see what all the fuss is about. I loved the feeling of security riding in the protected lane. It’s great to be able to relax a little while you ride on the street. Given how nice the path is, I think it’s pretty obvious that the entire area under the bridge needs to be rethought. There’s no good way to get from the new path to the bridge without breaking the law or waiting forever and the wayfinding system to destinations in Brooklyn suuuucks.

    It’s kind of disappointing how ad-hoc the whole thing seems. This has been in development for YEARS and nobody was able to use it as an opportunity to rethink a confusing bridge access point? It doesn’t strike me as well thought out, even though it’s a great aid to cyclists. I feel the same way about the on ramp to the bridge. It’s awesome for cyclists but it’s kind of lame from a design perspective(tons of useless open space and chain link fencing). There’s really nothing inviting or beautiful about any of the spaces DOT has carved out for cyclists near the bridge, and that’s a shame.

  • Steve Faust

    Cycle track and car traffic between Gold and Navy and the mountable curb:

    I came out twice to observe and photograph the new cycle track with its mountable curb, and I watched the cars operating between Gold and Navy for a while. I am pleasantly surprised how well drivers are staying out of the bike lane.

    In large part, the raised mountable curb takes a lot of credit. This is a lot more “aggressive” a delineator than just paint, and DOT has applied a lot of paint to mark the cycle track too. I believe that this is the first installation of a long linear mountable curb in NYC. This type of mountable curb is common in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but not in the US.

    I have tried riding a bike off and on the curb, it was not a problem. This was with new dry clean cement. I’m not sure how it will feel in the rain or when it gets dirty or oily.

    Last week, a large front end loader was working at a manhole mid block on the north side – west bound traffic lane. Cars came up to it, then cautiously climbed up on the bike lane, passed the work site and got off the cycle track and back to the car lane immediately. There were a few cyclists traveling in the cycle track, the cars merged quietly and smoothly between the bikes and then got out of the way. Drivers are very cautions crossing the mountable curb.

    I think this was a good example of how this lane is likely to operate 24/7.

    Another element making this block work OK is that there is pretty much only one lane of traffic moving on Sands St west to Gold St, which matches the one lane to Navy St. That gives less incentive for cars to try passing each other. Much of the eastbound Sands St traffic from Jay St turns off onto the two BQE ramps, leaving less than a third of the cars continuing on past Gold St. These cars don’t backup at the intersection traveling east on Sands from Gold to Navy St – so there is little incentive to try passing by using the cycle track.

    Cars being parked or double parking between Gold and Navy may stick out a little in the roadway, but there is just about enough room for a car to pass in the roadway lane without climbing up on the cycle track. If there is a truck parked on the right, cars may have to climb up into the painted buffer zone, but they don’t need to use the full cycle track.

    What the DOT did here with the mountable curb is to inhibit drivers from entering the cycle track, yet not totally loosing the roadway space to cautious mixed traffic for unusual problems.

  • Mike

    As far as I can tell, cyclists going straight have no reason to wait for the bike signal phase at Gold. No conflicting movements are permitted when cars on Sands have the green; they’re not allowed to turn left. So why wait?

  • chuck

    What’s wrong with just waiting for the light? Or two lights?

    I’ve taken the “Bicycling Rules” pamphlet to heart lately, and stop at red lights even if there’s no oncoming traffic. It’s relaxing. It’s polite. And it’s what we expect cars and pedestrians to do.

    I feel very civilized to stop in front of a pedestrian crosswalk at a red light light and let walkers pass by. It feels like Amsterdam.

  • > What’s wrong with just waiting for the light? Or two lights?

    The objection isn’t to lights generally, it’s to lights without a reason.

    If cross-traffic is indeed prohibited, and there can be no turning conflicts, then the bike red phase is unnecessary.

    There’s nothing wrong with waiting for a good light.

  • Hey–
    Can we see a map of where this protected lane is, and how it relates to on/off the bridge? I avoid the Manhattan bridge in favour of the Williamsburg one because of the chaos, so I can’t really envision how this works.


  • Dory, the lane is in the median of Sands Street, from Jay St (where the bridge entrance is) to Navy St (where there’s a north-south bike lane).


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