The Outlaw Biker’s Illustrated Guide to the Triboro Bridge

A veteran cyclist offers New York advice for fixing an important crossing.

Looking over the Triboro's traffic at the Manhattan skyline. Photo: Steve Scofield
Looking over the Triboro's traffic at the Manhattan skyline. Photo: Steve Scofield

Cyclists who ride across the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (known locally as the Triboro) should brace themselves for a ticketing blitz. The state troopers who patrol the span have unleashed one every spring in recent years.

That’s because safety rules make it illegal to ride on the five-foot-wide “side path” that cyclists share with pedestrians across the 1.25-mile crossing, which the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority deems too narrow for both users. Cyclists must walk their bikes the entire way.

No cycling on the Triboro. It's the law! Photo: Steve Scofield
No cycling on the Triboro. It’s the law! Photo: Steve Scofield

The TBTA should lift the prohibition on cycling and stop harassment ticketing on its bridges. Cyclists are going to ride, despite signage and ticketing. Mounted cyclists can and do pass pedestrians on the side path — with care.

Steve Scofield, Queens Transportation Alternatives activist, poses on a bridge.
Steve Scofield, Queens Transportation Alternatives activist, poses on a bridge.

As biking has grown, the Triboro/RFK has become a vital cycling path linking northwest Queens, the Bronx and upper Manhattan. With the opening in 2015 of the Randalls Island Connector,  which connects Randalls Island to the Bronx, many more cyclists now use the span — even for commuting. The new connector is flat, wide, and a pleasure to bike on — making it likely that it will attract even more commuters looking for a non-car way to get between the boroughs, which have few transit connections.

Given this reality, you’d think that a state that is officially committed to safety for pedestrians and cyclists would offer an improvement plan for the Triboro. Such a plan would:

  • Provide a safe, legal, direct bike crossing among Queens, the Bronx, and upper Manhattan. It’s only three miles from Astoria to the Bronx, the same distance as to midtown Manhattan and northern Brooklyn, but the Triboro makes it feel much further.
  • Connect Queens residents to Randalls Island and its park, concerts and other events.
  • Establish consistency among agencies in the regulations governing cycling on bridges, in order to show a strong, visible commitment to the state’s goal of promoting green transportation.

The TBTA should either build separate bike-pedestrian paths or repurpose a bridge traffic lane for a wide, shared bike-ped lane. The former could be constructed by reopening an abandoned walkway on the main span’s south side.

The TBTA could do a number of relatively cheap fixes now to improve safety and visibility for pedestrians and cyclists: It could repave and raise the barrier on the Triboro’s Queens approach in order to protect users from road grit and oncoming headlights; post signage — “go slow,” “ride single-file” and “yield to pedestrians”; and install parabolic mirrors at the bridge’s towers to improve visibility around the sharp curves. Finally, the TBTA could put a higher fence on the outer edge of the main-span walkway, where the current fence is unnervingly low.

Despite the challenges of biking on the Triboro, I think it’s worth the effort.

I grew up in Astoria, practically underneath the bridge on the Queens side. I’ve crossed it hundreds of times, on foot and on two or four wheels.  I have a love/hate relationship with it: I love the way it looks, and the spectacular view from the main span, even as I rail against the illegality and poor conditions.

Starting on the Queens side, as I do, you walk up steep stairs, passing several “no cycling signs.” On the bridge, a three-foot concrete wall separates a badly paved path from traffic.

The shared path over the Triboro for cyclists and pedestrians measures about five feet across. Photo: Steve Scofield
The shared path over the Triboro for cyclists and pedestrians measures about five feet across. Photo: Steve Scofield

The shared path runs about 10 feet above the main roadway, with a five-foot, mesh fence along the outer edge. The pathway zigzags right-left and left-right around the towers supporting the bridge’s suspension cables. The turns are tight: Cyclists and pedestrians can’t see who is approaching from the other side.  

The shared path on the Triboro zigzags around the Queens tower, leading to a blind curve. Photo: Steve Scofield
The shared path on the Triboro zigzags around the Queens tower, leading to a blind curve. Photo: Steve Scofield

Heading north out over the East River, the fence disappears, yielding a gorgeous view of the river, the Hell Gate Bridge and the Manhattan skyline to the left. In about 1,800 feet, you arrive at the Wards Island tower — which has the same curves as the Queens tower — followed by a downward stairway.

The view from the Triboro, looking at Hell Gate Bridge over the East River. Photo: Steve Scofield
The view from the Triboro, looking at Hell Gate Bridge over the East River. Photo: Steve Scofield

At the stairway’s base, the path opens into a wide, curving descending ramp down to Randalls Island, with plenty of room for cyclists and pedestrians. The ramp, added about 10 years ago, is a welcome improvement. From there, you can continue to East Harlem and the Bronx.

On a clear day, it’s glorious.

Steve Scofield is a Transportation Alternatives activist in Queens.

You can take your bike to Queens, but you can't ride it over the bridge! Behind the sign is the Randalls Island ramp. Photo: Steve Scofield
You can take your bike to Queens, but you can’t ride it over the bridge! Behind the sign is the Randalls Island ramp. Photo: Steve Scofield

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