A Blueprint for Safer Biking and Walking Between the Bronx and Manhattan

DOT has mapped out safety improvements for the streets approaching each of its 11 crossings over the Harlem River.

The recently-installed protected bike lane approaching the Madison Avenue Bridge from the Bronx. Photo: David Meyer
The recently-installed protected bike lane approaching the Madison Avenue Bridge from the Bronx. Photo: David Meyer

Unlike the East River, the Harlem River is not a wide gulf between boroughs. But covering this short distance still isn’t easy for people walking or biking. If you want to get between the Bronx and Manhattan under your own power, the options are intimidating.

Car traffic moves fast near the Harlem River bridges, pedestrian crossings are wide and dangerous, and bike connections are few and far between. Only five of the 11 city-controlled Harlem River crossings (including the Randall’s Island Connector) have bike paths.

That is set to change for the better with DOT’s release today of the Harlem River Bridges Access Plan [PDF].

“These bridges were built, really, with a legacy of focusing on moving vehicles, and pedestrians and cyclists [were] often an after-thought, if that,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at a press event announcing the report. “We’re doing a bunch of things to both humanize these approaches and make them safer.”

The East 138th Street approach to the Madison Avenue Bridge before DOT put in pedestrian and bike improvements.Photo: Stephen Miller
The East 138th Street approach to the Madison Avenue Bridge before DOT put in pedestrian and bike improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

The report spells out expansions of walking and biking rights-of-way on most of the DOT crossings, which will mainly be carried out via capital projects to rehab and replace the aging bridges. Perhaps more significantly, DOT has mapped out bike and pedestrian upgrades on many surface streets connecting to the bridges — projects that can be carried out faster using low-cost materials.

Trottenberg said DOT began working on the project after the rehabilitation of the High Bridge ignited a discussion about the need for better biking and walking access on the other bridges that cross the river. Advocates campaigned for safer paths across the Harlem River starting in 2014, and the city has been gathering feedback from local residents in a series of workshops going back to 2015.

The timetable for the bridge upgrades will last at least a decade, with DOT folding the work into the capital rehabilitation and replacement of several Harlem River crossings. Next up is the Broadway Bridge, which is in line to be replaced in 2020 and will receive buffered bike lanes under DOT’s plan. While adding physical protection to the buffer zone on a bridge should be doable, DOT does not refer to the Broadway Bridge bike lanes as “protected.”

One crossing that’s not in line for bike improvements is the Third Avenue Bridge, despite connecting to bike lanes on the Bronx side and being a short distance away from protected lanes in Manhattan. The bridge was recently replaced — without the addition of a bikeway — and another capital project isn’t forthcoming. In the plan, DOT says it will direct cyclists to the nearby Willis Avenue Bridge instead.

Progress should be faster on surface streets, where DOT can work with its quick-build toolkit. For each bridge, DOT has identified a set of street projects to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. Details of these projects have yet to be worked out, but they include several east-west bike connections in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as upgrades like converting the buffered bike lanes on Edward L. Grant Highway to protected lanes.

manhattan_bronx_north

harlem_river_south_access
Maps: NYC DOT

In the 1980s and 90s, the city made a concerted effort to improve bike access across the East River, eliminating stairways on the bridges, opening up bridge lanes for 24/7 bike/ped access, and building entirely new structures like the Williamsburg Bridge biking and walking path. That led to more on-street bike projects connecting to the bridges, and since the turn of the millennium, bicycling across the bridges has increased by a multiple of six.

DOT sees the Harlem River projects as similar catalysts for cycling.

“Work we had done on the East River bridges, both on the bridges and on the approaches to the bridges, had an incredible effect on cycling,” she said. “[They were] actually some pretty modest improvements, but those improvements really transformed [the bridges] in terms of making them feel safer and more comfortable for cyclists.”

Some of the on-street bridge access projects have already been completed, including safety improvements on the Bronx side of the Madison Avenue Bridge, the site of today’s announcement.

In addition to protected bike lanes on the bridge approach, pictured at the top of this post, the project expanded pedestrian space and added crosswalks on East 138th Street and the southern end of the Grand Concourse. DOT also converted the semi-circular driveway outside the Finca del Sur urban farm into pedestrian space.

Before the changes, people exiting the 138th Street-Grand Concourse subway station across the street had to walk one block east or west in order access the farm, said Freddy Gonzalez, a Finca del Sur volunteer.

“You had to walk one block up or down just to cross the street. It was very dangerous,” Gonzalez said. “We appreciate the stuff that DOT has done for us.”

A brand new pedestrian space outside the Finca del Sur urban farm. Photo: David Meyer
This new pedestrian space outside the Finca del Sur urban farm used to be full of parked cars. Photo: David Meyer
  • This is a good start.

    Here’s a counterfactual to torture everyone: What if the Ravitch plan had passed in 2009 and all these bridges were tolled? What would these bridge bikeway dimensions look like?

  • J

    It’s great that they’re doing this, but why is everything talked about in generational terms? The East River Bridges were upgraded in the 80s & 90s, and we’re STILL working to improve access today. Is Trottenberg implying that decent access to the Harlem River bridges will take until 2040s & 50s?

  • vnm

    I’m really glad the DOT is focusing on this important issue and dedicating a lot of resources to the problem.

    But I gotta say I’m disappointed in the section on the Third Avenue Bridge though. Until a huge, massive project started recently that seems to be moving or relocating the FDR Drive, it was possible to ride across the bridge without hitting stairs. (Using the north or west sidewalk of the bridge, you’d loop past Harlem River Park, and end up at the start of Second Avenue, a perfect position to start down the southbound Second Avenue protected bike lane.) Now if you ride over that side path, you end up with no choice but to carry your bike up and then down two flights of stairs at Lexington Avenue and 129th Street. (The south or east sidewalk has stairs on the Bronx side.)

    Their advice on this bridge is to “Direct cyclists to preferred Willis Ave Bridge route
    with wayfinding signage” but there’s no information or mention of the enormous capital project going on right next door to move the FDR, or whether there will be a restoration of that stair-free routing once that project is over.

  • jzisfein

    As a daily bicycling user of the Madison Ave Bridge, I can attest that the new bike lanes marked with striping and bollards on 138th St in the Bronx are safety improvements. A curb cut at the Bronx end of the south bridge sidewalk is needed. I am curious whether bike lanes (ideally bollard-protected) are planned on the bridge itself versus the existing bridge sidewalks to be signed for shared bike/ped use. The latter would be acceptable based on sidewalk widths and current usage.

  • BrandonWC

    Check out page 33 of the pdf linked above. It looks like plans to build out 10′ two-way bike lane on south side, perhaps with shared use access as interim step. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/08017f903af6ce14936224a8c94d88753696208f8efbba570d8c8bf3c6d5d09b.png

  • vnm

    I also hope they have a curb but planned for that tough south side bump.

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