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
  • Brian

    One swift gust of wind and you’re overboard.

  • majormajor42

    Thank you Steve. I ride the bridge twice a day. This year it seems that enforcement was centered around the weeks leading up to the Frieze Art Fair on the island. Otherwise no issues mixing with pedestrians. I go slow, I yield. I thank peds as I pass. I may avoid the bridge if there is a major festival such as the Governors Ball last Friday. Coming from Astoria Park, I can look up and assess if there are lots of folks walking on the bridge and take the longer route to the QBB instead.

    My peeves are the stairs. I call them the Robert Moses Memorial Steps and clearly he had no intention of bicycles OR the disabled from utilizing the bridge. Sad since there are a good number of disabled citizens on Randall’s island. There have been opportunities to eliminate some stairs recently that were not taken advantage of. When they built the new wide habitrail ramp on the island side, why not have it terminate several feet higher on the bridge to eliminate the west steps? They recently refurbished the area around the Queens landing east steps to add cashless tolling sensors. Why not build a switch back ramp in that space?

    The steps at the Queens end are often dirty as well. Like slippery subway stairs, an accident waiting to happen. Is safety really the MTA’s concern? Apparently not.

    I once wrote to the MTA asking for the justification of their policy. The PR response was “safety” but no proof or study was provided as evidence to say safety is a real issue on the bridge. The new habitrail ramp is wide. Can bikes be ridden on that section? No. The Triboro Manhattan span paths are wide, on both sides of the bridge but the same signs are posted. So the safety concern does not seem to be based on any actual data or consistent.

    I like your idea of reopening the south side path. Also doing something about the counterflow headlight glare in the darker months. I forget where I saw it proposed once, but I have a dream that a new path be built across the Amtrak owned Hell Gate bridge that connects Astoria Park to the Island.

  • Alex

    I used that bridge for all of my undergrad and grad studies (From Jackson Heights to West Harlem) and I got my first ticket on there on my last semester of school.

    Its ridiculous to expect cyclists to dismount and WALK that bridge, since biking the portion of the bridge from Queens to the island will take about 5-10 minutes, but if you were to walk it, it would take close to half an hour. The second portion (from the island to Harlem) is about a 5 minute bike ride, where walking it is about 15 minutes.

    And the times I have taken the bridge, most of the users are cyclists with only a couple being pedestrians, usually i see no more than 2-4 pedestrians crossing per span (since its long as hell) unless they are going there to play soccer.

    So forcing cyclists to dismount on the “pedestrian” path, where there are barely any pedestrians using it, is adding an extra half hour to their commute EACH way.

    My tip for crossing the bridge by bike and to avoiding getting ticketed is once you reach close to the end of the descent (about .15 of a mile away from the end of the path), you dismount and walk the rest of the way (so you walk for about 3-5 minutes, which is way better than walking for 30)

  • Larry Littlefield

    Same thing on the Marine Parkway Bridge, which they rebuilt and could have added a second path but decided not to. Except that bridge has lots of pedestrians — standing there, and fishing.

    What they have done really is a “screw you” to anyone who rides a bike, and I can’t imagine it was an accident.

    A reasonable policy for the Triboro is either stop and walk or slow to 3 mph in proximity to a pedestrian. Then get back on and ride. With audio announcements playing on either end of the bridge.

    If there were even a real issue, plainclothes officers could easily launch a sting and ticket those who failed to yield to pedestrians.

  • macartney

    Nice piece, Steve!

    My dream is a separate foot/bike bridge from Astoria Park to Randall’s island. Manhattan has one; why shouldn’t Queens?

  • Guess I got lucky having ridden across a few times on my way to hit golf balls. Everytime it was free of both pedestrians and law enforcement. It’s a nice ride.

  • I used to ride the Triboro Bridge somewhat frequently. But I have stopped doing it. The three sets of stairs are bad enough; I don’t want to risk a ticket or even having to walk all the way across from Queens.

    Now, if I want to visit the bike paradise that is Randall’s Island, I go in through the Bronx.

  • macartney

    Pretty sure that sign is for the dirt footpath. There are no corresponding signs on the Manhattan side. In fact, the opposite! Only signs telling bikes where to go: https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7867198,-73.9386532,3a,75y,25.69h,86.2t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1suyNq4DLk6fljmiayBG59yA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  • Geck

    There are far fewer fisherman on the Marine Park Bridge in recent years for some reason (I can’t remember having seen one in recent memory) and riding a bicycle is still banned and the ban widely ignored. Yes, TBTA seems to just ban biking on its bridges as a matter of course as a “screw you” that has nothing to do with the adequacy of the facilities. The Cross Bay Bridge’s path is very wide and safe for cyclists and pedestrians to share and cycling is banned there too. A rule/signs that “Bicyclists Must Yield to Pedestrians” is all that is needed on TBTA bridges.

  • The same situation will soon be effect on the GWB – severely overcrowded paths maintained to a pedestrian standard (ADA) rather than widened for safe use (AASHTO). https://tinyurl.com/ybeo524b

    At minimum, the City Council should call on the MTA to expand bike access on all seven of its bridges–similar to GWB Reso 0103-2018. https://tinyurl.com/y8gb9vuo

    Some upgrades are cheap (Cross Bay) and should be done immediately. Larger projects like the Tri-Boro, should be eligible for proceeds from congestion pricing.

    For comparison, London invests $200 million per year in its cycle infrastructure. https://tinyurl.com/y68n7oen

  • Interesting.

    I was there once when cops were standing on the Randall’s Island entrance to that connector, telling bicyclsts to dismount. They were saying this both to cyclists who were about to get on the thing to go to Manhattan and also to cyclists who were arriving from Manhattan.

    But that 102nd Street Bridge is shown as ridable on the official New York City bike map (on which it’s called the 103rd Street Bridge), as opposed to the Triboro, which is marked as a bridge that requires you to walk the bike.

    https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/bikemap-2019.pdf

    Anyway, the police were definitely ordering riders off their bikes the time that I saw. So you might get a ticket, and have to fight it.

    Who controls that connector? If it’s the TBTA (a unit of the MTA), just like the Triboro, then we can be sure that riding is not allowed. If it’s the City, then riding probably is allowed.

  • Until the golf range closed a year ago I rode the footbridge often, always saw plenty of other riders, and never any law enforcement.

  • Elizabeth F

    Not true about the GWB. The GWB has 12′ combined with between the North and South Sidewalks, whereas the RFK has only 5′. Bikes and pedestrians will be separated, bikes on the North, peds on the South. The hairpin turn and all steps are being eliminated. It will be far better than the RFK.

  • I saw them only once; and I have ridden that connector many times. So the likelihood of having a problem on any given ride there is low.

    But I just don’t want the potential hassle. After all, there’s always someplace else to ride; and there is now a way to get to Randall’s Island which is ackonowledged as legal by everyone.

    By the way: how do we determine whether the 102nd Street footbridge is under the control of the MTA or the City?

  • macartney

    It’s a DOT bridge. Probably there was a concert or festival or otherwise concentration of people and NYPD was asking you to dismount for crowd control. Biking is totally allowed and encouraged on that bridge.

  • Komanoff

    Yes, terrific post. On point, informed, clear, practical, visionary. Thank you Steve.

  • AMH

    Good to hear!

  • AMH

    It is! The ticket blitzes have definitely scared me away though.

  • qrt145

    It’s a trap! They want to make sure all bicycles eventually get trapped in Randall’s island forever. 🙂

  • AMH

    Are you talking about the end of the cattle chute, or the ends of the bridge near the stairs?

  • MatthewEH

    Reposting some comments from the last time we discussed this, on https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/08/28/heads-up-mta-fining-people-for-biking-on-the-triborough-bridge-car-free-path/

    “The real test of a rule is how it mediates between competing interests. The example I usually use is the dog rules in most city parks, which require dogs to be on-leash between 9 AM and 9 PM, and in some designated areas at all hours. (Usually close to a dog run.) Other times and places, dogs can be off-leash. This is a reasonable compromise between dog owners who want to let their dogs run around unconstrained and others who find dealing with offleash dogs inconvenient.

    So…

    Do the pedestrians who do use the bridge (in relatively low numbers) have an interest in not getting buzzed by riders going by at speed on a super-narrow path? Sure. (And it is super-narrow. There’s barely enough room for two cyclists going in opposite directions to pass each other without grazing each other.)

    OTOH, cyclists who use the path have an interest in traversing the path efficiently, especially as the distance to cover and isolation of the paths make walking the whole thing prohibitively inconvenient. Which is why there are so few bona-fide pedestrians on the path to begin with.

    A rule that says “no cycling on the bridge, ever” clearly fails to balance competing interests. And with the bridge path absolutely empty so often — the only other time I’ve ever seen a soul on the Queens->Wards Island segment has been on summer weekends — it’s absolutely no wonder such a rule would be observed only in the breach. The TBTA cops should be ashamed of themselves for hassling anyone about this.”

    —-

    Also, some discussion of the E 102nd Street pedestrian bridge:

    “My wife was injured pretty badly [in 2016] when we were trying to cycle over it. A child walking westward — we were cycling eastward! — wasn’t paying attention and walked into her from the side, knocking her over. (Sum of the injury: ruptured right-knee ACL, some bone-to-bone bruising.)

    The cops that came over to help were generally useful (and appreciated), but they did start imagining that cycling was prohibited on the bridge and started yelling at the frequent passing cyclists to dismount. I confirmed clearly that there is “Bike Route” signage at both ends of the bridge. Nothing that says anything about cycling being prohibited on the bike route.

    Although, given the severity of the injury — and the bridge was a little crowded that day, though other than J. Random Child, not that chaotic 🙁 — I could see it being reasonable to require riders to walk this bridge during peak times. I think this bridge is under Parks jurisdiction? I know Parks doesn’t like to have rules be conditional on time of day or time of year, though.”

  • Steve Scofield

    To the best of my knowledge it’s legal

  • If the North Path is for cyclists, why is the Port Authority hanging “BridgeWalk” over the entrance? Just because one thing is better than another doesn’t mean it’s any good.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bdf36eb4849d4d78cab21e136172260dd54fb665cefac0d1866c50ecd76e2040.jpg

  • Alex

    The ends of the bridge by the stairs that go directly to the street.

    For example, when going from the island to Queens, there is a slight bend at the end of the bridge. I would dismount right before that bend, just in case cops are posted right at the top of the stairs.

  • Alex

    Also, when getting from Manhattan onto the island, the last part of the bridge is basically a super steep descent with a sharp right turn and then a U turn onto the island.

    Since theres a lot of MTA personnel, probably MTA police there too, I would dismount at that section too.

  • Setty/Steven

    Coast Guard rules require any bridge over Hell Gate to be high enough to let a large military vessel pass under. The “connector” would be a new Triboro. Better to just fix the one we’ve got.

  • Setty/Steven

    Robert Moses allowed bikes on the roadway. They paid a toll. The first crossing of the bridge after it was opened was by a boy on a bicycle, as the first car stalled while trying to get over the span. https://books.google.com/books?id=pIl-DwAAQBAJ&lpg=PT122&ots=Agjv9QOw-M&dq=bike%20toll%20triborough%20bridge%201936&pg=PT121#v=onepage&q=%20triborough%20bridge&f=false

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