The Case for 24/7 Access to the High Bridge

Video of opening day on the High Bridge: Clarence Eckerson.

New York City’s bike network would be a shell of its current self without the segments that run through parks. The most heavily traveled bike route in the city — the Hudson River Greenway — is in a park. Paths in Central Park, Prospect Park, and other public parks provide options for safe, quick bicycle travel that simply aren’t available on the city’s car-centric streets.

But bike routes in parks are not managed like other transportation routes in the city. The Parks Department closes greenways after a rough storm and imposes curfews that shut off legal access well before many people head home for the night.

With the opening of the High Bridge earlier this month, there’s finally a safe route to bike or walk between Washington Heights and the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx. The High Bridge, as it happens, is run by the Parks Department. As tremendous an improvement as the restored bridge may be, its curfew is also emblematic of broader problems with how the Parks Department manages critical active transportation routes.

The city has redesigned streets to make biking and walking to the High Bridge safer and more convenient. Anyone can use those streets 24 hours a day. The parks on each side of the bridge are open until at least 10 p.m. The High Bridge, meanwhile, closes at 8.

Reader Steven Kopstein wrote in to express his disbelief that the High Bridge is publicly inaccessible for 11 hours each day. Here’s his message, lightly edited:

I was anxiously anticipating the re-opening of the High Bridge. As a resident of Upper Manhattan with strong Bronx ties, I was very excited to finally have a way to cross into the borough on my bike without having to either ride on a crowded narrow sidewalk or on a dangerously busy bridge. I was also thrilled at the prospect of having a tourist draw and truly unique feature to show off to and enjoy with friends and relatives. I love the prospect of new recreational facilities being developed in an area that has been blatantly underserved for many, many years.

So, it was with great disappointment that I tried to cross the bridge twice after the long heralded opening and was met on both occasions with a chain link fence and no way to actually cross the bridge. The first time I attempted this crossing was the opening day. I went in the evening and there were no signs explaining why the bridge was closed. Memories of Governor Christie popped into my head. But wait, he has no jurisdiction here.

The second evening I tried to cross, at around 9 p.m., I was met by the same locked chain link fence. This time, however, I found something even more disturbing. What appears to be permanent signs showing that the bridge has “hours” from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Whoever is responsible for this surely must live in a bunker in Albany or Washington or some cloistered cubicle in City Hall. This bridge is so many things to so many people who LIVE and PLAY uptown and in the Bronx. It’s an important link — it’s not a play-thing. It’s actually more important as a link between communities than, say, the High Line is in downtown.

This bridge is an economic link. This bridge is a transportation link. This bridge is a community link.

Last night there were hundreds of people out in High Bridge Park at 9:30 p.m. They were enjoying quinceañeras and just plain old relaxing gatherings. There were people on bikes, people enjoying the sculpture installation in the park, etc. I have no idea what was going on over on the Bronx side, because I couldn’t reach it. Had I been able to cross, I would have spent some time and money on the “other side.”

Imagine if the people in charge decided to close the George Washington Bridge at 8 p.m. every night? Surely there would be a huge outcry. There should and must be one for the High Bridge. Is the Bronx CLOSED at 8 p.m.? Would we close the bike and pedestrian paths on the Brooklyn Bridge at 8 p.m.? Of course not, because these other bridges connect communities with more $$$ in their pockets. Yet, in our neighborhood, the Bronx and Washington Heights are given the short end of the stick with regards to public spaces.

If NYC wants to be truly a city of the modern world — as well as decrease rates of obesity and diabetes and actually truly promote green living — then we need to treat bicycle infrastructure at the same level or higher than cars. If this were a car crossing, it would absolutely be open 24 hours a day.

The High Bridge is a great public works renovation project. It’s beautiful to look at. But it’s not meant to be a museum piece, just strolled across during limited hours. It’s a vital transportation link in a network that is severely deprived of car-free zones. Open it up for all at all hours if we are who we say we are as a city — forward thinking, progressive, green and wanting to eliminate the gap between “rich parks” and “poor parks.”

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