Dangers Mount With Crashes, Conflicts on Queensboro Bridge

The city should separate cyclists and pedestrians — stat! — before someone gets killed. But motorists, as always, come first.

People biking, walking, and working must all compete for the same narrow space on the Queensboro Bridge. Photo: Twitter/Laura Newman
People biking, walking, and working must all compete for the same narrow space on the Queensboro Bridge. Photo: Twitter/Laura Newman

Is the Department of Transportation just waiting for someone to die on the 59th Street Bridge?

For some reason the city is ignoring warnings that dangerous conditions and a growing number of crashes require the immediate separation of cyclists and pedestrians on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge — because officials don’t want to inconvenience motorists. 

The bridge, the only bike/pedestrian route between Queens and Midtown Manhattan, is a lifeline for many working cyclists, yet they and pedestrians now share a narrow and crowded lane along the the span’s North Outer Roadway — separated only by a painted line. The lane is so claustrophobic that it narrows at one point to a mere nine feet — which is even less space than the notoriously packed Brooklyn Bridge footpath.

Given the crowding, activists for more than a year have been urging the city to repurpose an underused car lane, the South Outer Roadway, for sole pedestrian use.

An everyday cyclist/pedestrian mashup getting on to the QBB shared path from Manhattan. Such conflicts have prompted calls for cyclists to have a dedicated lane. Photo: Steve Scofield
An everyday cyclist/pedestrian mashup getting on to the QBB shared path from Manhattan. Such conflicts have prompted calls for cyclists to have a dedicated lane. Photo: Steve Scofield

The DOT says it is studying the idea, but claims that it can’t move until 2022, when it will complete its reconstruction of the bridge’s upper roadway. Until then, it says, the south outer roadway must compensate for lost vehicular capacity on the span. 

Cars, meanwhile, have nine lanes on the Queensboro Bridge.

(A DOT spokesman confirmed to Streetsblog: “Due to upcoming work on the Queensboro bridge, the South Outer Roadway will be needed for vehicle diversions during construction. During this time, DOT will continue to evaluate different lane scenarios to understand the impacts and modifications that would be required to convert the SOR to a pedestrian path and use the North Outer Roadway as an exclusive bicycle facility. If found to be feasible, this conversion could be timed to coincide with the completion of the construction work.)

Studying? DOT ought to act nowbefore someone dies on the shared bike/pedestrian lane. Three years is too long a wait considering the number of crashes, near misses, and harrowing crossings cyclists and pedestrians experience every day. But apparently, for DOT, safety takes a back seat to potential traffic congestion.

It is hard to quantify this jump in collisions. Queens Transportation Alternatives activists established a bridge crash-reporting tool in May 2018, and some entries are frightening. Crashes — some with injuries — happen daily. Twitter abounds with crash sightings. The city’s Vision Zero initiative, however, does not track crashes on the bridges (a most curious omission given that many occur there), and NYPD only counts motor-vehicle collisions on the spans.

But NYPD traffic stats for Manhattan North, which encompasses the Queensboro Bridge, show an 11.2-percent jump in cyclist injuries so far this year compared to last year, to 269 from 242. On the Queens side, Queens North stats show an even bigger jump in cyclist injuries, 12.9 percent, to 325 from 287. So while we can’t number the injury-producing bike crashes on the bridge, the general trend bolsters our anecdotal information.

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

When the bridge opened in 1909, it had room for vehicles and four streetcar tracks on the lower deck and a wide pedestrian promenade above. In 1917, two subway tracks were added to the upper deck, connecting the Astoria and Flushing lines (today’s N/W and 7 trains) to the long-gone Second Avenue Elevated Line in Manhattan. This turned the bridge into a people-moving machine, with a capacity of more than 300,000 a day.  

Over the years, however, the city turned almost all of the bridge over to cars and trucks. In the 1930s, it gave part of the upper deck to cars; after the demolition of the Second Avenue El in 1940, it gave cars the entire upper span. Over the years, capacity fell from 326,000 in 1940 to 248,000 in 1989, a 24 percent drop.

Trolleys ran on the lower-deck outer roadways until 1957, when those lanes, too, became car lanes. The bridge then became vehicles-only, reducing capacity by 15 to 20 percent and leaving no way to get from Queens to Midtown except by car, bus, or subway.

I know: In the 1970s, I was living in Queens but worked as a bike messenger in Manhattan — and had to maintain a bike in each borough!

During the 1980s, after many protests, DOT first converted the south outer roadway (briefly) then the north outer roadway to cyclists/pedestrian use. The department opened a greenway for cyclists and pedestrians on the bridge’s Queens side in 2011, a boon for safety and convenience. It further improved bridge bike access in 2016 with the inauguration of the First Avenue bike lane between 57th and 60th streets in Manhattan.

But the progress isn’t enough. Bike/pedestrian traffic on the bridge grew 21 percent from 2011 to 2016, to more than 5,000 bike trips a day — and will likely grow even more with residential development in Long Island City.

It’s not just the overcrowding. Other design flaws hurt bridge safety — including confusing signage and signals, pedestrian/bike/traffic conflicts on both sides of the span, and blind curves and poor lighting in spots.

Cyclists negotiate a 180-degree turn at the base of the QBB ramp at First Avenue. The ramp has a 9-foot incline. Below, a minute-long video captures some of the dangers for cyclists on the bridge's Queens approach.Photo and video: Steve Scofield
Cyclists negotiate a blind, 180-degree curve at the base of the Queensboro Bridge ramp at First Avenue. The ramp’s nine-foot incline gives speed to those going downhill. Below, a minute-long video captures some of the dangers for cyclists on the bridge’s Queens approach. Photo and video (below): Steve Scofield

On the Manhattan side, these flaws include:

  • The bridge’s First Avenue entrance intersects the protected bike lane there, which goes two ways for the block between East 60th and East 59th Street, so cyclists entering and exiting the bridge cross paths with those going north on First Avenue.
  • Meanwhile, cyclists going south on First Avenue who want to enter the bridge must make a 180-degree turn — in car traffic — eastbound from East 60th Street onto the bridge’s bike entrance, which runs westbound via a protected lane on the south side of East 60th. All this must be accomplished while mixing with pedestrians and deciphering confusing signs and traffic lights. Often, cyclists wind up running a red light at East 60th Street and First Avenue — a fact that has not been lost on ticket-obsessed cops.
  • The shared bike/ped path narrows from 11 to 9 feet as it begins a steep descent above York Avenue. The bike lane shares space with the car ramp down to First Avenue, which has a steeper descent than the main bridge roadway. Bad, often broken, lighting, makes for a huge hazard during evening rush hours in late fall and early winter.
  • Cyclists and pedestrians going up the incline are also blinded by car headlights on the First Avenue ramp, which is just over a low wall. Cyclists and e-bikes speed down the steep ramp as cyclists struggle slowly up the ramp, with pedestrians squeezed into a four-foot space.  At the base of the ramp, a 180-degree hairpin turn creates a blind curve as the lane doubles back to First Avenue.

On the Queens side, the flaws include:

  • The vehicular entrance to the lower deck crosses the greenway at Crescent Street. Traffic entering the bridge sometimes backs up across the greenway, blocking it even when the light is green for cyclists. As the video above shows, buses traveling west on Queens Plaza North also enter the bridge here, making a left across the greenway on the same green light as cyclists. This signaling is problematic, but most bus operators look out for cyclists. The turn is illegal for everyone else, but cars and trucks often do it anyway.
  • Cyclists entering the bridge from the west make a left from the greenway onto the bridge; meanwhile, cyclists exiting the bridge to go west on the greenway make a left, 180-degree turn across the path of entering cyclists. The exiting cyclists, coming off a descent, often are traveling fast. Add pedestrians — and dangers multiply.

DOT is well aware of these flaws. Queens activists have walked and biked the bridge with senior DOT staffers. 

TA Queens’ ongoing campaign to convert the south outer roadway for pedestrians has obtained the signatures of more than 2,000 individuals and 100 business owners and the support of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. The conversion would make the Queensboro Bridge paths like those now on the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. 

Transportation Alternatives also conducted AM and PM rush-hour surveys showing that the number of bikes and pedestrians using the North Outer Roadway already exceeds the number of vehicles on the South Outer Roadway.

The pedestrianization plan also would stimulate business in Long Island City. For tourists, those south outer roadway skyline views could rival those of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

If it were just a matter of convenience and aesthetics, though, we could wait out the three years of bridge reconstruction. But people are getting hurt. Lives are more important than a few minutes’ delay for motorists. So what’s the hold up? 

DOT, do the right thing.

Steve Scofield is a Transportation Alternatives activist in Queens.

  • thomas040

    Every type of traffic need to be separated. Pedestrians / Bikes / Cars / Trucks / Busses.

  • Vooch

    Scot,

    My figures for the Queensboro bridges

    325,000 people per day in 1940
    238,000 per day 2012

    a 27% decrease in through put due to cars.

    1) its a no brainer to reallocate one motor lane to bicycling – this might immediately increase throughput by 5% at nil cost.

    2) One should also seriously consider exclusive commerical plates and FHV from 0700 to 1900 workdays. If the QBB is so necessary for commerce, then let’s make it exclusive for commerce during work hours. 🙂

  • crazytrainmatt

    Maybe it’s my lack of familiarity, but the Queensboro and Manhattan paths feel more dangerous than the Manhattan PBLs lately, perhaps because of the speed differentials and opposing traffic.

    There are enough people paying little attention to their surroundings that it always feels risky. It seems like there’s a lot more heavy motorized scooters, vespas, etc. And regardless of what you think of the stand-up electric scooters in the flats, their poor stopping distance is dangerous when cruising downhill on the bridges as they are.

    The QBB obviously needs separate bike/ped paths. The Manhattan bridge seems harder to fix. Maybe the first step would be reinstalling the fence extensions outboard to add a foot of badly needed width. Or adding a real bike lane on the Brooklyn bridge as a reliever.

  • Isaac B

    Suggested short-term measures:
    – Keep the roadway free of debris and obstacles.
    – Signage and striping urging cyclists to give priority to walkers (and walk if the road is extremely crowded).
    – Ticket drivers of Vespas and other motor vehicles that take the bike lanes.

  • MatthewEH

    Confiscate. Confiscate the equipment of anyone driving a vespa or dirt bike or similar over a bridge path.

    I’ve actually seen this twice in my 4 most recent crossings of the QBB. smh

  • Simon Phearson

    You are clearly unfamiliar with the path.

    It is never so crowded with pedestrians that it would make any sense to tell cyclists to dismount and walk past them. It’s not the Brooklyn Bridge.

    The crowding and “dangerous” conditions (which the OP greatly exaggerates) arise from the diversity of wheeled traffic, varying speeds and experience levels, and a lack of clear guidance on how to use the shared space, given the narrowness of the space given over to cyclists. It is extremely common, for instance, for westbound cyclists to ride the center line, which makes it difficult to pass them on either side safely.

  • Simon Phearson

    Unconstitutional seizures of equipment are not an appropriate solution.

    I don’t have any issues with sharing that space with mopeds, provided they conduct themselves safely and with good “bike sense.” The mere fact that they are motorized doesn’t mean that they are a threat. If anything, their frequency in the shared space just shows how poorly managed the main traffic spans are. They should feel safe riding in traffic, where they belong.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    The fence posts jutting out on the inside of the old smooth barrier on the Manhattan Bridge is complete malpractice. Putting those on the outside where they belong is definitely Step 1 for improving the situation.

  • MatthewEH

    I have to humbly disagree. Someone who takes a dirt bike into an already overcrowded separated bike-pedestrian path is being inherently unreasonable.

    Any laws authorizing seizure of their property in response are not prima facie unreasonable seizures.

  • Andy

    Let’s not forget that every single day DOT parks vehicles blocking over half of the pedestrian/bicycle roadway.

  • MatthewEH

    Possible discussion topic? I generally ride a few inches to the left of the centerline if I’m westbound, though if I see oncoming riders and the pedestrian side is clear at the moment I will shade right, slightly into the pedestrian area, to give the oncoming riders more room. Riders overtaking from behind should still have enough space to get around me so long as nobody is oncoming that moment. The idea of riding *constantly* to the right of the center line, in the designated pedestrian area (except when passing pedestrians), feels kinda horrible to me. Like something that would just inherently put pedestrians on edge.

  • Simon Phearson

    I ride to the right of the center line, passing into the left side when I see pedestrians, doing so well before I come anywhere near to the pedestrians. I stick to the center of the right lane, when I’m there, so that anyone passing me has clearance.

    When I am not on the right side, I try to keep to the right side of the left lane, except when people are coming.

    Generally, I try to choose a lane position and behavior that clearly communicates to other users what it is I’m doing and what it is that I’m likely to do. That is my primary gripe with the line-huggers. I can’t know to which side they might move, as they haven’t visually committed to one side or the other, and I don’t know how they’ll choose to react to oncoming traffic.

    The same is true when I’m eastbound. It’s very hard to know what a line-hugger is planning to do, when you’re the one eastbound, and it can be very nerve racking when you have to pass them while they’re on the line. That’s a big part of why I ride so far to the right, westbound.

  • MatthewEH

    I think this discussion illustrates why we just need the south outer roadway to be given over to cyclists, full stop. We’re both being thoughtful about our behaviors here and still came up with different results.

    I definitely hear you about not riding in a way to alarm oncoming eastbound riders (especially if they’re on their downhill side and I’m on the uphill), which is why I shade over to the pedestrian side when others are oncoming. If possible.

  • Simon Phearson

    I don’t think repurposing the south outer roadway for cyclists is the way to go, because doing so breaks the link to the Queens Boulevard and Sunnyside Heights lanes as well as the greenway along Queens Plaza.

    I think separation of traffic is the only way to make everyone happy here, but the most logical way to do it would be to repurpose the south outer roadway for pedestrians and invest real capital to make that route attractive and useful for pedestrians who would use it.

  • MatthewEH

    Good point on south versus north buildout, edited earlier comment to reflect.

  • AMH

    “Meanwhile, cyclists going south on First Avenue who want to enter the bridge must make a 180-degree turn — in car traffic — eastbound from East 60th Street onto the bridge’s bike entrance, which runs westbound via a protected lane on the south side of East 60th.”

    Pretty sure that’s talking about going south on Second Avenue.

  • Isaac B

    I use it often on weekends. Main issues I see are; objects and hardware in the road that should not be there and Vespas. I have not seen it so crowded that would warrant walking a bike, though some spots would be best slowing down. And the incoherent Manhattan approach.

  • Daphna

    The south outer roadway needs to be pedestrian-only, instead of car; then the north outer roadway can be bike-only instead of bike/ped shared. This should have been done a decade ago. It is time already and this bridge has the perfect solution in that there is a south outer roadway that is perfect to re-appropriate to pedestrian use.

  • Daphna

    The north outer roadway is a tight space that tries to have bi-directional biking and bi-directional walking/running is a space that at best can handle one or the other. Any staging of vehicles in that area is unconscionable in a path that is already too narrow for its usage. The staging of vehicles during repairs should be in one of the motor vehicle lanes.

  • Daphna

    E-bike, scooters, vespas are not the problem. The problem is vastly too little space given to bicycles and pedestrians on the bridge.
    If anything, I would like signage that the bike/ped path during rush hour is only for commuters, and that joggers may NOT use it for recreation during peak commuter times.

  • Daphna

    This is very important: “the number of bikes and pedestrians using the North Outer Roadway already exceeds the number of vehicles on the South Outer Roadway”. That alone should be enough of an impetus to re=appropriate the space.

  • Isaac B

    I did not say ebikes or scooters. I said Vespas because these are bulkier, faster and force everyone else to squeeze to the side as they come by. They are clearly not bicycles and are welcome in the main traffic lanes of the bridge.

  • Joe R.

    Also, Vespas are gas-powered, which alone is a good enough reason to ban them from bike lanes regardless of their speed or size.

  • Isaac B

    I also mean similar configured electric motorcycles (like Revels).

  • Joe R.

    So long as it can keep up with motor traffic there’s no reason it should be allowed in the bike lane, whether it’s electric or gas powered. That said, isn’t the motor traffic speed limit on the QB 50 or 55 mph? A Revel is between a rock and a hard place—too slow to keep up with motor traffic but too big and too fast to safely share the bike lane.

  • MatthewEH

    Nah, can’t discriminate by intended purpose of trip. That’s a chestnut that anti-veloists roll out about weekend group rides taking over “their roads” and whatnot.

    Besides, it is possible to run-commute! I do this twice in a typical week. Breaks up the monotony of just cycle-commuting, ya know.

  • MatthewEH

    I’m not on the QBB all the time, but seriously I don’t remember ever seeing them on there until this year. It seems like a problem that sensible policing would have nipped in the bud months ago. Now may be too late for that.

    I don’t get why others (besides me and Isaac) seem to be so blasé about goddarn motorcycles tooling around here. It’s completely crap behavior.

  • I was on the bridge today, and I was reminded that the hairpin turn could be eliminated immediately simply by opening the gate that would allow bicyclists to enter and exit the bike path between First and Second Avenues.

  • You are correct about the presence of scooters/mopeds on the bike path. I see them every time I use that bridge; and my sense is that this problem is getting worse.

    Today I even pointed this out to a couple of traffic agents, who watched a motorbike ride right by them. One of them said to me “We’re not the police” (while wearing a uniform bearing a patch saying “Police Department City of New York”, and while standing next to a car emblazoned with “NYPD” in gigantic blue letters).

    Even if one of these traffic agents cannot make an arrest himself/herself, a traffic agent who sees something like a gas-powered scooter/moped/motorbike on a bike path could radio ahead to an actual police car. A little enforcement would go a long way on this matter.

  • The Revel rules prohibit the use of their scooters/mopeds on bridges to Manhattan.

    (An exception appears to be the 36th Avenue bridge connecting Queens and Roosevelt Island.)

  • Joggers are pedestrians; therefore, they belong on the pedestrian path whenever they like.

    Also, it would make no sense to distinguish between, on the one hand, someone who is jogging to work and intends to shower and change once there, and, in the other hand, someone who intends to go back home to shower before going to work.

  • Joe R.

    Well, the prohibition makes sense for the reasons I mentioned—too fast/big for the bike lane but too slow to keep up with motor traffic.

  • That’s assuming the speed limit on the bridge is something like 50 miles per hour, which I don’t think it is.

    This document from the City website seems to indicate that the speed limit on the bridge is 35.

    https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/current-pre-vision-zero-speed-limit-maps.pdf

    That’s still a bit beyond a Revel scooter/moped’s top speed of 30. Maybe the next mayor (Johnson?) can take the speed limit down to 25.

  • Joe R.

    Google Earth shows it as 35 mph also:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7509871,-73.9408086,3a,75y,280.01h,67.55t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1ss4Ldfgmmv9ZcTb-h1fZhzA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    It’s been a while since I was over it. I do recall it used to be much higher.

    However, the defacto travel speed is probably 45 to 50 mph, given how motorists routinely go 10 or 15 over posted limits. That’s way above the Revel’s capability.

    I don’t think lowering the general speed limit on the QB to 25 mph will fly but what we should do instead is have a lane solely for e-bikes and things like Revel scooters. These vehicles are often too fast to mix with bikes but too slow for general traffic lanes.

  • Simon Phearson

    That would ease entry for cyclists coming from Second Avenue headed eastbound, but it would retain a hairpin turn for cyclists coming from First Avenue (and would, indeed, introduce a new conflict in the form of cycling cross-traffic), and I’m not sure cyclists coming off the bridge are better served flowing directly into traffic on 60th (which includes bridge traffic). You’d have to add physical separation and likely a light to make it safe.

    The hairpin there isn’t great, but I don’t see how opening the gate improves options.

  • Simon Phearson

    Now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of those scooters over the QBB until fairly recently, myself. I commute over that bridge, and I can certainly say that they seem more common lately.

    I’m not sure what explains the difference. My theory is that delivery drivers may have “graduated” to scooter/moped/Vespa-type vehicles when the NYPD started cracking down on throttle-controlled e-bikes. They certainly became more common in front of my apartment building.

  • MatthewEH

    I’m thinking the same thing. Unintended blowback from the ebike crackdown

  • Isaac B

    Various electric and gas powered cycles are saturating the market. I get email promotions every few days from a company offering gas and electric power add ons for my bike. They promise speeds of up to 35 MPH.

    What irks me is that the typical e-cycle is a heavy beast, only really drivable with power. In 5 years, the batteries will be spent and replacements will not be available. Which means that the bikes will be toxic electronic waste.

  • Ah, that’s a good point; without a light at that exit ramp, bicyclists coming out of that gate would effectively have to continue east along 60th Street anyway on account of the steady stream of cars using the ramp off the bridge.

    But maybe a light could work if the period were very short, changing back and forth frequently between red and green, so as not to back up the cars coming off the bridge too much. Even short green periods would allow bicyclists to make a safe left on 60th Street to go west [a reminder to readers: 60th Street is two-way between First and Second Avenues], and would also allow cyclists coming from Second Avenue to get onto the bridge path without having to go to First Avenue only to double back.

  • You got that right. On most issues there is room for at least some discretion; but on the question of motor vehicles on bike paths, a policy of zero tolerance is most appropriate.

  • SONNY CHIBA

    this would’ve been advanced like the williamsburg bridge already if queens cyclists had the power of white brooklyn

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