No Bike-Ped Overhaul in Brooklyn Bridge Reno Plans [Updated]

Editor’s note: After we published this post, DOT contacted us to clarify the scope of the Brooklyn Bridge rehab and to clarify their statement on potential safety enhancements to the promenade. We have updated the post accordingly.

Cyclists and pedestrians have uneasily shared scarce space on the Brooklyn Bridge promenade for years. As people use the walkway in ever greater numbers, it only becomes more crowded for pedestrians, more stressful for cyclists, and more dangerous for everyone involved. Is there an end in sight? In a Times op-ed last month, Robert Sullivan suggested that the upcoming overhaul of the bridge would provide a good chance to disentangle the promenade by giving cyclists their own space. The rehab plan that’s moving forward now, however, includes no such solution.

bbridge_crowds.jpgThe shared pedestrian-cyclist walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: PIPERPILOT84.

New York City DOT is scheduled to begin a massive renovation project on the Brooklyn
Bridge in December, with the contract awarded to Skanska Koch. The overhaul has been in the works since the state DOT listed the bridge in bad condition in 2007, and it will give the bridge some long-needed repairs, taking care of cracked concrete and other structural issues. But there’s more to the project than just maintenance:

  • Arguing that the on- and off-ramps for car traffic are too narrow, the city will widen many of them from one lane to two.
  • Steel safety barriers will be added to the bridge’s roadway, to prevent cars from crashing into the East River. These barriers are required for the project to receive federal stimulus funding.
  • A side project, set to start in 2012, will revamp the gateway to the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side by reconstructing the entryway at the crossing of Tillary and Adams Streets.

Overall, the rehab project (which doesn’t include the revamp of the
Brooklyn-side gateway) is set to cost $365 million, of which about $30
million is coming from federal stimulus funding.

None of that money is slated to improve the bridge for the thousands of pedestrians and cyclists who use it every day. DOT has no plans right now to address the crowding on the promenade, but the agency does say it will act accordingly if a crash proves that safety enhancements need to be made. Update: DOT contacted us to clarify their statement, saying they were speaking about monitoring street safety in general, not the specific condition that exists on the promenade. "The agency is always looking for ways to improve safety," said spokesman Seth Solomonow. "We take appropriate actions no matter where they’re needed in the city. We’re not waiting for a crash to prove that improvements need to be made."

A walkway overhaul, he added, would not be a natural fit for the rehab project, which is limited to structural problems with the ramps, not the whole span. "We are not rehabbing the whole bridge," he said. "What you drive on and what you walk across is not going to change."

It’s only a matter of time before some poor tourist gets hit and injured (or worse) by a cyclist trying to navigate through the crowds that the bridge attracts. And when the revamped Brooklyn-side gateway starts enticing more cyclists and pedestrians onto the bridge, the problem is only going to get worse.

There’s no shortage of ideas to fix the problem. The city could, as Sullivan suggests, install a protected bike lane on the roadway. Or they could construct a bike path over one of the road beds. It is not out of the ordinary for New York City’s bridge reconstruction projects to improve bike-ped infrastructure. One phase of the Williamsburg Bridge reconstruction, completed in 2002, included the addition of a
new 18-foot wide footpath/bikeway in addition to structural repairs. With hundreds of millions of dollars now targeted for the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s got to be a better way to allow cyclists and pedestrians to safely use it.

  • Glenn

    Let’s make one point abundantly clear: This is NOT about money. This is about priority of precious street space. If the DOT wanted to make a protected bike lane on the roadway, it would cost very little money. And remember than decreased capacity for automobiles would not cost the city a dime since they pay no tolls. If automobile drivers would pay a small toll to pay for a new separate bikeway, that would work too.

  • “DOT has no plans right now to address the crowding on the promenade, but the agency does say it will act accordingly if a crash proves that safety enhancements need to be made.”

    So ehm, how badly do some of you want a bike lane?

  • AlexB

    I am not sure there is any place to put a new bike lane without taking space from cars or pedestrians. While I would love to take a lane from cars, I just don’t think that will happen. To build a whole new bike path would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, I imagine.

  • chris

    Is there some reason the promenade cannot be widened? It seems like a logical and not terribly expensive thing to do compared to the rest of this project.

  • (land)Mark

    One thing to keep in mind while brainstorming how to accomodate peds/bikes/cars is the bridge is an individual landmark. Any physical change would need to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. I question if “a bike path over one of the road beds” would be approved, but I’m no expert on the subject.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Until a real plan can be worked out, whether putting a lane on the roadway, there’s not really much that can be done. This year’s new lane markings by the DOT has helped a bit in my opinion overall with directing pedestrian behavior.

    One thing that could be done – get rid of the vendors selling H2O and water on the bridge AND especially the two guys hawking their wares (one a t-shirt dude, the other a guy selling photos) I see regularly. Those two people create big bottlenecks and the drink vendors create huge amounts of trash which later in the day there always seems to be a few bottles littlering the bike lane despite trash cans (which are overflowing.)

  • OBA

    “It’s only a matter of time before some poor tourist gets hit…”
    Who would even keep the stats? My wife was injured in a cyclist-ped accident on the bridge in ’00 — she was on the bike and in the lane when a tourist kid wandered over and his jacket snagged on her handlebars; he was uninjured but she was taken off the path on a stretcher — I seriously doubt this was the only accident btw. and ped and cyclist in the last ten years.

  • We’re in the midst of a budget crunch. If the city won’t spend this money on all its citizens, I propose we transfer the cash to the MTA for station rehabilitation and simply decrease the number of usable lanes to a safe amount.

  • Jason A

    “Arguing that the on- and off-ramps for car traffic are too narrow, the city will widen many of them from one lane to two.”

    Am I the only one outraged by this? Is there a good explanation for this? Why in the world would you want to recreate the race track conditions that already exist for the other East River Bridges?

  • SCL

    The group of people that lose out on this is the runners. On weekends, pedestrian side is too clogged to run, and the bikers on the bike side are too crazy to share.

  • Glenn

    At a minimum, I think the DOT owes the community a feasibility analysis of different options. Totally new bike path, taking away one lane from cars, two lanes.

    The real beneficiaries of a separate bike lane would be lots more pedestrians.

  • If DOT action is only motivated by the aftermath of deadly crashes, that puts automobile infrastructure upgrades at a decided and morbid advantage. Of course, that is not their only motivation and this is just a recycled excuse for why any DOT in the country is not doing whatever it is that some citizen wants done (and it’s always a disappointment to hear it coming from our progressive DOT).

    How about this, DOTers: every car crash in the bridge’s history “proves” that a certain “safety enhancement” needs to be made, which would be to shift lanes back from inherently dangerous conveyances (amateur automobile driving) to those that are, by established records, hundreds of times safer. Cars dramatically flying into the east river is not an actual problem deserving of our limited millions of dollars; rather, our problem is cars crashing into each other and people on and around bridges, killing us in the most mundane ways. This renovation is a step sideways, if not backward.

  • vnm

    Did you say widen the automobile approaches? Shouldn’t they have to do an EIS for that?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Is there a good explanation for this?”

    There’s an explanation, but you aren’t going to like it.

    In order to get around all the toll shoppers backed up in the right lane of the northbound BQE heading for the Brooklyn Bridge, other tolls shoppers ride down the middle and left lane and try to merge in at the last minute.

    This backs up the whole road, often all the way back under the promenade and through the Cobble Hill Trench to the diverge from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel entrance (where the road is backed up by toll shoppers squeezing from four lanes down to two, also to avoid the tunnel). It’s one of the biggest bottlenecks in Brooklyn.

    The theory is that having a second lane on the ramp would allow more riders to queue for the free Brooklyn Bridge there, making it more likely that at least one lane of the northbound BQE would get by, at least some of the time.

    I’m not sure what that time would be, however, and am not willing to take the risk of finding out. The only time I take that road is when I’m leaving before 7 am on a weekened to drive out of the city. Even then, I’ve often been nailed by a back-up from that exit.

    Absent toll shopping, this problem would probably not exit.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    As a runner who used to use the bridge back in the 90s and early 00s – until it got too crowded – I have no idea why people try to run on the Brooklyn Bridge during rush and busiest hours. It is not a pleasant experience and there are so many other places to run (DUMBO, Heights Promenade, Manhattan Bridge, BB Park, just about all of Brooklyn Heights is low traffic, or can run to P’Park if a longer run.) Common sense dictates not running there. The last time I tried a few months ago (8 AM on a Saturday) I even thought it was too crowded.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Following up, I’m not sure that not widening the exit ramp, and thus having one of Brooklyn’s most important freight routes obstructed more of the time, is the right thing to do.

    The again, perhaps more people would just switch from the tunnel to the bridge, changing nothing for the road, and cutting MTA revenues.

  • J:Lai

    The DOT claim that they will act accordingly if a crash occurs is transperently sweeping the issue under the carpet. Adding space for non-motor vehicle users of the Brooklyn Bridge is clearly not a priority.

  • er

    @Larry: I thought trucks weren’t allowed on the Brooklyn Bridge (Weight and height limits)? I understand if it’s for the BQE, but if it’s an on-ramp/off-ramp issue for the BB, then local and regional truck/freight shouldn’t be a top reason to justify this, or any reason at all.

    Should we be writing to our reps in Congress on this one, or are there additional key people we can write to in reference to this project?

  • Bill from Brooklyn

    Maybe they need the two lanes to accommodate the future toll plaza. Well I can dream.

  • rex

    There is a really good reason to increase the bike capacity of the Brooklyn bridge: Induced demand. How many people skip the bike ride because they don’t feet like dealing with the turons or riding out of their way?

  • JoAnn Fleming

    I am tired of worrying about the pedestrians. It is time to look how dangerous it is for cyclists. This past summer, I hit a pedestrian & I went flying off my bicycle. I suffered a concussion with a helmet on!! The pedestrian walked away!!!

    The pedestrians are oblivious to the bike lane!! It is worse than ever. I have been riding over the Bklyn Bridge everyday since 2002, but I can’t take it anymore. I ride my bike to relieve my stress and enjoy my commute. I now have to use the Manhattan bridge to commute because I don’t want more stress in my life.

  • Ian Turner


    Given that it’s a good thing if people are switching trips from automobile to bicycle, it’s not clear why induced demand would be a problem. There are plenty more auto lanes to swap to bicycle use…

  • archie

    “…the agency does say it will act accordingly if a crash proves that safety enhancements need to be made.”

    Where can we go to provide feedback to NYC DOT letting them know that this is not an acceptable solution??? There is clearly a pedestrian/biker/runner demand that should be nursed, not inhibited. They should be addressing the bridge’s currently maxed-out capacity for these modes. Don’t stop making noise on this!

  • rex

    Ian that was my point. Induced demand works for both bicycles and cars. If you create infrastructure for bikes, they will come – just like cars.

  • Ian Turner

    Rex, right, but unlike automobile traffic, cycling is beneficial for the environment and for public health and cycling infrastructure can be provisioned at low cost. I hope we induce lots of cycling demand, it can make the city a quieter, cleaner, healthier, and wealthier place.

  • beng722

    thanks for all the thoughtful comments. 2 practical points that are clear:
    1. the brooklyn bridge is no longer an option for runners – however the manhattan bridge, only a couple of blocks away on the brooklyn side is ideal.
    2. ANY kind of vending on the brooklyn bridge needs to be banned ASAP (and the ban needs to be ENFORCED) before they cause the tragic accident the DOT seems to imply they need to make genuine changes.
    unfortunately since i come from midtown west and travel to downtown brooklyn in my commute i really have to use the brooklyn bridge otherwise i’m stuck in a lot of car/bus/taxi/truck traffic crossing manhattan to get to the manhattan bridge. on the few days when my destinations allow for the manhattan bridge i feel enormously blessed (and much less stressed) although the construction around the bike paths on each side is starting to get annoying.

  • Ace

    no bicycles on the Brooklyn Bridge between 7am and 7pm?

  • I witnessed a crash, a tourist stepped into the path of a cyclist going very fast. She was over 60 and it seemed she had a severe injury. i put her in a cab after waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance with her. It was both their faults really, but she spoke no English and I’m sure that fat white painted line is not the international symbol for “cyclists traveling 15 mph wearing headphones and no brakes right next to you”

  • Ace2

    How about no cars on the Brooklyn Bridge between 7am and 7pm?


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