DOT’s $200-Million Rotunda Fix Leaves Cyclists in Danger

The agency's rehabilitation effort fails to protect cyclists bound for the country's most heavily-used bike path.

DOT's redesign of the 79th Street rotunda omits protection for people attempting to access the country's most popular bike path. Image: DOT
DOT's redesign of the 79th Street rotunda omits protection for people attempting to access the country's most popular bike path. Image: DOT

SB Donation NYC header 2This one’s going to be an uphill battle — literally and figuratively.

The Department of Transportation is gearing up for a $200-million renovation of the 79th Street Rotunda, complete with accessibility improvements, restroom upgrades, and concrete work. But Upper West Siders are outraged that the project bizarrely omits safety upgrades for cyclists bound for the busy Hudson River Greenway.

“They’re going to spend $200 million, and we’re not getting anything,” said Howard Yaruss, a West 68th Street resident who co-chairs Manhattan Community Board 7’s transportation committee.

Currently, greenway cyclists ride along the waterfront. To get there via 79th Street, they must navigate in mixed traffic through the rotunda’s traffic circle. DOT’s plan does nothing to change that — in fact, it narrows the roadway so that cyclists must share the same space with MTA buses and motorists exiting and entering the Henry Hudson Parkway.

“I exit there,” Yaruss told Streetsblog. “I’m one of the, literally, hundreds of thousands of people who live in the vicinity, and it’s treacherous.”

Complicating matters further, the Parks Department will soon impose a year-round detour that forces cyclists away from the waterfront and over a steep ramp just to the west of the traffic circle — dangerously close to traffic. The detour goes into effect this spring, but will be suspended for three years once construction on the rotunda begins.

When construction is complete, DOT’s proposed design, pictured at the top of this story, would direct northbound cyclists all the way around the circle in order to continue north — an illogical and unsafe maneuver that many are certain to ignore at their own peril.

Earlier this year, the Parks Department permanently diverted cyclists from the flat waterfront greenway to the hillier path marked by the bold dotted green line. Image: NYC Parks
Earlier this year, the Parks Department permanently diverted cyclists from the flat waterfront greenway to the hillier path marked by the bold dotted green line. Image: NYC Parks

On Monday, the CB 7 transportation committee met and refused to vote on DOT’s project proposal. Instead, board members told the agency to go back to the drawing board.

But Yaruss isn’t optimistic that DOT will comply with that request. The agency has bucked multiple requests for safety upgrades from the board this year.

At Monday’s meeting, DOT rep Joannene Kidder, who works in the agency’s bridge division, attributed the omission of bike lanes to its bike planning department, the West Side Spirit reports.

“Our cycling experts have determined that that is not ideal, and therefore it is not in the current design,” Kidder said.

It’s not clear what’s “unideal” about providing a safe connection for thousands of cyclists trying to access the nation’s busiest bike path.

Streetsblog Publisher and greenway commuter Mark Gorton proposed the alternative of a two-way protected bike lane on the south side of 79th Street between Riverside Drive and the rotunda. That would connect to a pathway adjacent to the south stairs into the rotunda, which would lead to the greenway. For much less money, DOT could just put down painted bike lanes.

The greenway detour makes the need for protected bike infrastructure even more urgent. It was imposed by the Parks Department with the support of both CB 7 and Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who was nonplussed at the time by cyclists’ concerns about the steep incline and close proximity to traffic.

Rosenthal’s advocacy may be the only salvation for West Side cyclists.

“I have cycled in this rotunda and it’s very important that we get input from cyclists as to their experience in this space,” the council member said in a statement provided to Streetsblog. “I’m asking the DOT for a briefing on their plans, and am looking forward to working with them to protect both cyclists and pedestrians in the rotunda.”

SB Donation NYC header 2It’s our December Donation Drive!

  • MatthewEH

    Reposting this from the West Side Spirit comment thread:

    I think what I’d like to see here is dedicated space for bikes on the very inside of the rotunda, adjacent to the wall separating the open circle in the middle of the structure from the roadways. Paint that part of the roadway green, protect the area from the surrounding roadway with soft-hit posts. Then put a traffic light with pedestrian/cyclist activated buttons connecting 9 o’clock position of the inner circle with the park pathway & garage access roads to the west of the rotunda, and a nice, wide, boldly-painted crosswalk. (With 12 o’clock being Manhattan north.) Cyclists will then cross the main traffic lane at right angles; when cyclists & pedestrians can cross, traffic will have a red light. When cars & M79 buses have a green light to continue around the rotunda counterclockwise at the 9 o’clock position, bikes & peds will have a red light.

    The geometry of the ramps just makes it a little hard to handle this any other way.

    To complete the design, carve out a center-running bidirectional bike lane along 79th street connecting the 3 o’clock position on the rotunda with the intersection of 79th & West End. Another nice effect of that is that cyclists will be protected from cars using the ramps that lead into or away from 79th street slightly west of the West End Ave intersection; it eliminates those conflict points.

    I don’t think a stairway/ramp combo down to mezzanine level of the rotunda works very well for cyclists, btw. I will actually ride the existing north-side ramp sometimes, but only during down season. On summer afternoons and evenings, getting to the water from there would require cycling through a busy cafe. 😉

  • MatthewEH

    I can’t imagine, btw, that the final design would actually require northbound cyclists to enter the traffic circle and go around, negotiating what seems to 5 conflict-points with motor vehicles. I’d expect the status quo to hold here, which is that anyone riding north here can simply cut across without getting hassled.

    Also, the situation with the detour away from the riverside esplanade is going to be a ridiculous clusterf*ck no matter how they slice it. Except for periods where there’s active PEP enforcement — and I think I read somewhere that there are 2 PEP officers assigned to patrol all of Riverside Park above 72nd Street? though more dedicated resources for the area between 72nd & 59th, oddly — I expect 60-80% of through riders to be noncompliant and just ride on the old right-of-way. Maybe more like 30% noncompliance at peak periods.

    With Freedom Place South now connecting through to 59th Street, my own plan for dealing with this is just to head east at 59th Street and north through that neighborhood; just nope out of this section of the greenway entirely.

  • Reader

    Can we please send every member of the bike team to the Netherlands? They have roundabouts all over the place and know how to design them to accommodate cyclists

  • jzisfein

    The 79th Street rotunda is unsafe for cyclists due to cars entering and exiting the greenway. It might be marginally improved by barriers and signage but I don’t think it can be made much safer. Of course, DOT is quite capable of making it less safe. Putting cyclists in the same lane as fast moving car traffic would not be a good move.

    Cyclists entering the park at 79th Street do not have to use the rotunda for greenway access. They can take paths to parkway underpasses near 91st St, 84th St, and 72nd St. It would be nice, however, to have safe and barrier-free greenway access at 79th Street for cyclists and other wheeled users. The existing pedestrian path with stairs could be converted to an ADA-compliant ramp. The expense of that conversion could be mitigated by including it as part of the 79th Street rotunda rebuilding.

  • It’s ghastly that the detour is even happening. Instead of making a real commitment to keeping this a usable thoroughfare, the plan is to displace lots of bicycles to a convoluted, unsafe right-of-way with more safety problems than the waterfront path, and to ticket “scofflaws” who are using the greenway that was originally designed for them, all to basically take what is a multi-use path now and allow it to fully devolve into a pedestrian plaza for clueless tourists and aimless residents.

    This is what you get when you refuse to invest in parks for parks’ sake (but when the money that IS available is immediately provisioned to maintain LOS for individual automobile drivers who should all not be driving in that part of a city anyway!)

  • UWS Rider

    The worst part of this situation is Parks plan to actually reroute cyclists. The access at the rotunda is small issue, the real problem will be the rerouting of thousands of cyclists onto narrow, poorly-lit paths that are not as safe as the esplanade.

    Shame on Parks and Helen Rosenthal for removing the best bike infrastructure in the city.

  • MatthewEH

    As I recall, and I actually went to the full CB7 meeting, there was a board member who voted for the full reconfiguration (rather than just seasonal) only because he was confused about what he was voting for, otherwise it wouldn’t have passed. It’s a travesty on so many levels.

    Nowadays I’m also a bit horrified by the reconfiguration because I know my daughter — a full 10 years old! — won’t be able to handle the steep choppy uphill bit to get to the path alongside the rotunda. Not on her bike with the gearing she has available and its weight. We’ll be doing a lot of walking of that little stretch, I think…

  • Daphna

    The supposed conflict between cyclists and pedestrians that prompted this unsafe detour for cyclists only exists during very limited times, yet the detour will be in effect 24/7/365. On summer weekends during nice weather days is the only time when there is a high volume of pedestrians and cyclists. It is still entirely possible to share the greenway during those times, but if the desire is to prioritize pedestrians and penalize cyclists, then a detour does that. But at most that detour is needed Saturday and Sunday afternoon for about 12 weekends a year minus the rainy ones. But instead of inconveniencing and placing cyclists in harms way (with the detour) for the perhaps 120 hours per year when the pedestrian traffic is high, that detour will be in effect all the time – even late nights, winter, etc. when the path is empty or nearly empty of pedestrians.

  • Daphna

    Shame on Helen Rosenthal for supporting this detour of the greenway. It shows that entitled pedestrians who do not want to share complained most loudly and frequently to her office, while cyclists who use the path were willing to share and did not complain with the clout that the pedestrians did.

  • Well, that’s NYC in a nutshell. “If anyone’s going to be even remotely inconvenienced or startled by the presence of a bicycle, come to a full stop & walk your bike” If there was any question about this, look at Herald Square (the bike lane is barricaded) or the new Midtown crosstown lanes (DOT never installed the protection in most places & they’re often blocked by any vehicle doing anything). What do you think the official solution to those problems happens to be?

  • MatthewEH

    To be fair, nice evenings during the week it can get pretty hairy on this part of the greenway too. And the park is closed entirely from 1 AM to 5 AM or suchlike. (It’s actually hard to find the exact rules here online.)

    I’d still put an absolute upper limit of 10% of the time where there’s a problem as compared to the aggregate time the park is open. And there’s truly never a reason that cyclists should be redirected after dark any time of the year, nor during morning commute hours any day of the week, any time of year.

  • Joe R.

    Is the greenway still open from 1AM to 5AM, or is it technically considered part of the park?

  • Joe R.

    It seems like the problem could have been solved by just widening the greenway. When I look at the satellite view, nothing I’m seeing precludes this. It’s just dirt, shrubs, benches, lamp posts, and possibly a few trees which might be in the way of a widening. No structures or anything similar.

  • MatthewEH

    I’ve seen isolated stories about people being hassled on the Greenway after hours, but nothing I’ve heard recently.

    Widening the Greenway would be a big project, no mistake. Ballfields, stone bathroom houses, the boat basin Cafe and rotunda structure at 79th (opposite the houseboat docks, so it’s not as though you could cantilever something over the water there either.)

    I feel like a city/state/country that really believes in infrastructure would have done it, but this is not that.

  • Joe R.

    Compared to what we spend on car infrastructure, we’re talking about a rounding error to fix this. As an aside, is the detour even enforced?

  • Andrew Rosenthal

    I was at the last meeting with DOT. DOT is more worried about delays to starting this project than about possible cyclist deaths. They are also more worried about protecting out of control cars from hitting barriers than protecting cyclists from being hit by cars. Call Helen Rosenthal’s office if you care about this at 1-212-873-0282.

  • Daphna

    Widening it is not needed. Simply putting down striping would help. The park of the greenway that is on the bridge over the water in the 80’s is narrow but there are few conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians because it is clearly marked who goes where. The problem with the greenway is that pedestrians go everywhere and do not organize themselves. Striping would fix that.

  • Daphna

    The greenway is open 24 hours a day while the rest of Riverside Park is closed. The police might say otherwise when patrolling the park, but the greenway through Riverside Park is definitely 24 hours a day.

  • Rider

    The process is broken when DOT can charge ahead with an insensitive proposal like this. What about alternatives–like removing the interchange altogether? It’s bad enough that there’s a highway in the park. Spending $$$ to maintain this archaic cloverleaf interchange with an ill-conceived, unnecessary “rotunda” adds insult to injury.

    There is certainly no reason to engineer this thing as a turnaround for buses, which aren’t even allowed on the highway; they can go around the block instead.

    And think of the space that could be reclaimed for the park if it were simply excised. It might even be possible to build a more reasonable “detour” with the money and space saved.

  • KeNYC2030

    I just want to correct one thing in David’s post: no one has suggested that cyclists traveling northbound on the bike path that skirts the western edge of the traffic circle will have to travel around the circle in order to continue going north. I can see how someone would get that impression from the lane markings on the rendering, but it’s just a case of the person doing the rendering not taking into account the bike path, which is under Parks Dept. jurisdiction.

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