New City Hall Excuse for Squeezing Pedestrians on QBB: It’s More Work Than You Think!

The Queensboro Bridge, packed with essential workers just trying to get to and from work. Photo: Melodie Bryant
The Queensboro Bridge, packed with essential workers just trying to get to and from work. Photo: Melodie Bryant

There’s a new excuse!

City officials have trotted out a new reason for why they cannot give pedestrians and cyclists more space on the combined bike and foot path on the north side of the Queensboro Bridge — the latest in a long line of excuses for inaction on the dangerously congested span. Prior excuses include that the bridge’s south outer roadway is needed for car drivers until repairs to the upper level are completed, and that a “multi-million-dollar” fence would need to be installed before pedestrians could be trusted to walk over the bridge (which currently has a six-foot-high fence to prevent automobiles from falling off).

On Thursday, after Streetsblog asked Mayor de Blasio about the delays, City Hall provided the new excuse (on background, as no one wanted to put a name to the info): The roadway would, apparently, need to be redesigned on both ends to accommodate pedestrians. Also, the existing construction contract would need to be altered for said work.

No further details were provided and follow-up questions directed at DOT were not answered.

It’s the latest development in a long-running saga that began years ago when politicians, activists and advocates for sustainable transportation demanded more space on the bridge so that pedestrians and cyclists do not have to share a single narrow lane on the bridge’s northern edge. Previously, the DOT had said it could not repurpose the south outer roadway because car drivers would need an additional lane because of ongoing repairs on the upper roadway that will be done in 2022.

The need for that car lane is unclear, activist say, citing city statistics that show vehicle traffic declining on the Queensboro Bridge by 8.5 percent between 2006 and 2016 — at the same time that bike trips doubled and pedestrian trips tripled.

Then, earlier this year, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg added a new excuse: the need for a security/suicide fence. Her agency set the cost of said fence in the “multi” millions of dollars, but Streetsblog reported this week that such a fence would cost substantially less than the $700,000 that Port Authority officials apparently spent for its security fence on the much longer, much-harder-to-secure George Washington Bridge.

In addition, Streetsblog got two Council Members, whose districts flank the bridge, to commit to providing whatever capital money DOT might need for the fence project. So that’s why we asked Mayor de Blasio about it on Thursday:

This week, two members of the City Council told Streetsblog they’ll pay for that security fence out of their discretionary capital money. So will you accept that money, build the fence, and double the pedestrian and cycling space on that vital span?

The mayor responded that he would “look at that situation” and “bring it up with our Transportation Commissioner,” but a spokesman said the mayor definitely supports more space for pedestrians and cyclists, citing this part of the mayor’s answer: “Where we have options to create more alternatives, that’s what we want to do.”

Nonetheless, City Hall reminded Streetsblog that the project can’t be done until 2022 — at the earliest.

An official who requested anonymity then added that the multi-million-dollar fence issue is not merely a function of adding a security screen. The official claimed that the bridge would have to be redesigned for the pedestrian users — though pedestrians and cyclists had full access to the south outer roadway in the 1980s until then-Mayor Giuliani banished them in favor of drivers.

The Triboro Bridge pedestrian path, which cyclists aren't allowed to use per MTA rules. Photo: Google Street View/Samuel Baumel
Here’s a reminder of the extent of the “security fencing” on the Triboro Bridge, which pedestrians are allowed to use. File photo: Google Street View/Samuel Baumel

Streetsblog is not alone in its concern for the bridge’s greenest users. Earlier this month, the #MoreSpaceQBB Coalition — which includes Transportation Alternatives, Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer, Ben Kallos and Costa Constantinides; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; State Sen. Michael Gianaris; Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright; and Manhattan Community Board 6 members Sandra McKee (Transportation Committee chair), Brian van Nieuwenhoven (Budget Committee chair) and Rich Mintz (Housing Committee vice-chair) — demanded “emergency action.”

“Walking or biking over the Queensboro Bridge, despite the beautiful views of the city and the historic architecture of the bridge itself, is not a safe or comfortable experience. In fact, it presents a danger to public health,” the letter declared. “Each day thousands of cyclists and pedestrians, commuting to and from Manhattan, all jockey for space on a path as narrow as nine feet. These dangerous conditions have led to frequent crashes, serious injuries, and insufficient space for social distancing. Vulnerable bridge users like seniors or parents with strollers avoid using the path out of concern that the passage is not safe for them. New Yorkers who don’t feel safe crossing the East River by subway, bike, or foot, will turn to cars. Many already have.”

Citing the DOT’s excuses, the coalition admitted they “are important, but they cannot prevent the city from rising to the challenge and finding ways to prioritize the creation of more space for the thousands of pedestrians and cyclists who need it in this crucial moment.”

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