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.”

  • Pat
  • J

    The Parks department has an extremely narrows view of the utility of the paths that run through its parks, which completely and totally ignores their use as transportation routes.

  • Joe R.

    While we’re on this subject, other paths like the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway are technically in parks, and therefore subject to whatever closing times exist. Yes, I’ve been on some of these paths at 3 AM but I’m guessing technically it may been illegal. This silly practice by NYC needs to end yesterday. In fact, so does the idea of closing parks, which lost any rationale for existing probably 20 years ago, if indeed this practice ever made any sense. NYC is undeserving of its moniker of “The city that never sleeps” if it can’t keep its parks open 24/7. Remember people in this city work all shifts. Also, some just prefer to enjoy the parks at times when they’re not full of people.

    By the way, does anyone know if the Belt Parkway Greenway technically has a closing time? I’ve been on it past 1 AM. Nobody ever stopped me but this article now has me wondering if in fact this crucial bike link is yet another victim of NYC’s silly park curfew laws.

  • Ari_F_S

    Very interesting. Thank you for the links.

    Parks have official closing times, if for no other reason than to avoid what happened in Zuccotti Park (Occupy Wall Street).

    But I wonder if NYC has similar rules/laws that allow people to lawfully MOVE THROUGH closed parks. Anyone?

  • Ive never been in a city that closes parks at night and enforces them like NYC does. It is insane. Once at 3am in Boston I was walking along the river esplanade park with a friend. A cop came by, told us to be aware of our surroundings, and moved on. Thats how it should be.

    Car roads never close, why do people roads close in NYC?

  • Boston park

    http://m.cityofboston.gov/Parks/rules.asp

    SECTION 1. No person shall, in any public park (including any boundary road thereof), or other public place (including any parkway) under the control of the Parks and Recreation Commission
    (f) enter, or remain in, any public park between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. on any day except for the purpose of going through such park on the walks or malls thereof unless specific request is made for a particular facility, written to the Commissioner, and brought before the Commission and approved. The Parks Commissioner can postpone or cancel events due to inclement weather or public safety.

  • Alec

    Remember the reason this bridge closed in the first place was because it became too dangerous to maintain – gangs were throwing bricks off of it onto traffic below, among other things. So I think the Parks Department is being a bit cautious to start since it takes resources to police and protect the bridge. 8pm does seem early though – I was thinking 11pm or maybe the standard 1AM. I personally don’t want to be biking over the Highbridge (or Central Park, or the Hudson River) at 1AM – it’s just not safe. I’d rather be with the cars and in more populated areas at that hour…

  • Mike

    As a teenager in the early 1990s, I used to walk home with some friends across the great lawn at 2am or so with some regularity. We’d just drop to the ground if we saw a cop car rolling around, and we were never spotted. It’s beautiful seeing the park that empty and having it all to yourself, and it’s crazy that it ever shuts.

  • ganghiscon

    http://gothamist.com/2014/09/10/prospect_park_parade_ground.php

    Cops cracking down on pedestrians back in September for passing a couple of blocks through the PP Parade Grounds (which close at sunset, even though PP itself is open until 1 AM).

  • Joe R.

    And the reason it may not be safe is exactly because the places you mention are deserted due to others thinking just like you. The way to make a city safe, at all hours, is for people to not be afraid to be out. My mom told me stories about how she would sleep on the roof of her building on hot days. Sometime between then ( the 1950s) and the 1970s people surrendered the night to the dregs of society. We may have started to meekly take some of it back, at least in more public places like the subway. That’s a good thing. We need to finish the process by taking back our parks and other areas. NYC isn’t helping matters by taking away our choice, indeed our right, to be in these parks whatever time of day it is. Little doubt the garbage of society knows this, and preys on the few who venture on our parks or greenways late at night.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Take back the night. It’s the best part of the day as far as I’m concerned. If enough people are out and about at 2 AM, the human detritus in these formerly dangerous areas will scatter like roaches do when you turn on the lights.

  • Alec

    I appreciate the sentiment but I am a product of 1980s Brooklyn – you didn’t go in to Prospect Park after dark no matter what, and I guess that philosophy is ingrained in me. Even today I prefer to take the Brooklyn Bridge instead of the Manhattan after 10pm because it’s more populated and you are less likely to get jacked.

  • Joe R.

    I lived through the 1980s, and also the 1970s, so I understand the sentiment. I remember in the 1970s many women wouldn’t even ride the subway after maybe 8 or 9. And things kept getting worse all through the 1980s and early 1990s. They were pretty bad in a lot of Queens, even worse elsewhere. A cousin who lived in the Bronx had heard rumors of devil worship, human sacrifice, and other stuff in Bronx Park. For a time it looked like the city was a lost cause.

    I know it’s hard to conquer old fears. I suppose what I have on my side is I regularly rode the trains to high school when things were at their worst (late 1970s). I used to sometimes go through the PABT at 1 AM on the way to or from college in the early 1980s. After dealing with all that to me being on a greenway at 2 AM in the much safer 2010s just doesn’t phase me. It seems though a lot of the city still has the siege mentality from the old days. I’m not sure there are any good answers. I’m just saying if we all collectively said screw it, decided we’re not going to be hostage to our old feelings, then those places you mention might no longer be places to be feared.

    It’s also worth mentioning the NYPD is paid to make those very places safer. If they’re not safe, then the police aren’t doing their job. Nobody should fear going into a park a 2 AM. I think a good first step for anyone might be to venture into some of these places as part of a group. You’re always safer that way. Enough groups standing up to the predators might finally chase them away for good.

  • 1) I said closes AND enforces
    2) going THROUGH the park is exactly what were talking about here. Transportation, not play baseball at 3am

  • Andrew

    Car roads never close,

    Even the ones that happen to run through parks, like the Central Park transverses and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

  • AnoNYC

    All parks in NYC should be accessible 24/7, and especially those which provide such important links. Such a stupid regulation.

    The concerns about crime are nonsensical. You can cross the other two bridges on foot and crime isn’t the issue, it’s the excess automotive traffic that’s most dangerous.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    I Heard DOT Is thinking of closing The Adjacant Hamilton Bridge at night also

  • In Stockholm, Sweden the local “DOT” is currently in the process of taking over all the major cycle routes that have thus far been (poorly) managed by the parks department. The hope is that this will make the quality of the routes more consistent, especially with regards to clearing of snow and maintenance.

    I don’t think parks departments should be responsible for vital transportation links in general…

  • tomhenning

    You’ve mentioned the early closing…but the late opening (7am) makes it difficult for many commuters as well as runners and walkers to use the bridge before going to work. A Parks employee told me that it was a lighting issue on the paths leading up to the bridge but that should be easy to fix.

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