Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

27 April 2015

Cyclists Can't Get Off (Or On) The Island

Every decade or so, some resident of Staten Island tries to resurrect the movement to “free” his homeland from the colonial clutches of New York City.  Much of that impetus is really no different from the change in politics people undergo when they morph from single city dwellers to suburbanites with lawns, SUVs and broods of kids:  No matter how much evidence (statistical and otherwise) they are shown to the contrary, they become convinced that the taxes they’re paying for their plots of land and shelters are subsidizing freeloaders in the city they’ve left behind.

Ironically, there is a strong argument for those Staten Islanders who want to liberate themselves from the Big Apple, even though they never use it:  geography.  You see, although the Island is one of the five boroughs of New York City,  it’s actually closer to New Jersey than it is to Gotham—or, for that matter, any other point in New York State. 

Early governors of both states noticed as much and nearly fought an intercine war over it.  The reason each side wanted it is that the Island, which sits at the point at which the Atlantic Ocean meets New York Bay (at the Verrazano Narrows) and the Hudson River, is the Gateway to New York Harbor.  That distinction was even more important then, long before trucks hauled goods on Interstates and airliners ferried passengers across the ocean. 

So how did the island become a county (Richmond) of New York rather than New Jersey?  It was the “prize” in a boat race.  Or so legend has it. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.  Ever since, some New Yorkers have wondered whether the Empire State actually lost and Staten Island was the booby prize.  That, of course, begs the question of what New Jersey won.  The Nets?

Joking aside, this capsule history is actually relevant to this blog and, in particular, to the subject of this post.  You see, the secessionists’ worst nightmare has come true, in a way—at least if any of the secessionists are cyclists.

From Bikensurf

Right now, it is impossible to pedal to or from the Island.  And the only way to get to or from "the forgotten borough" with your bicycle—aside from hauling it in or on a motor vehicle—is to take the Staten Island Ferry to or from Manhattan.  According to a Port Authority official with whom I spoke yesterday, this situation will continue for “about two years”.  That, of course, begs the question of whether those years will consist of “New York minutes” or Biblical days.

Of the bridges that connected Staten Island to the rest of the world, only the Bayonne had a walkway cyclists were allowed to use.  It was closed in September of 2013 for an extensive rebuild which will result in raising the roadway higher above the water so that newer, larger ships can pass.  From May to October of last year, the Port Authority operated a bicycle shuttle across the bridge.  But that shuttle will not be available this year, as the bridge is closed to all traffic, motorized and otherwise. 

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall that I've crossed the Bayonne fairly often.  I could do a nice half-day ride by pedaling across the RFK Bridge, up through Harlem and Washington Heights to the George Washington Bridge, along and down the Jersey Palisades, then to the waterfront of Jersey City and Bayonne before crossing to Staten Island and taking Port Richmond Boulevard, which snakes from Superfund sites to the hill of Snug Harbor and some of the most stunning views of the lower Manhattan skyline.  Then I’d hop on the Ferry and, after disembarking, I could pedal or take the subway home.

Now, I would have to end that ride in Jersey City or Hoboken and turn back—or take the PATH train or one of the boats to the World Financial Center.  I’ve done both, and they’re not disagreeable.  But, to me, neither quite compares with taking the Ferry from Staten Island. 

Besides the Bayonne, three other bridges go to and from Staten Island.  One is the Goethals, which had a very narrow path just barely wide enough for most people to walk across.  When my parents were living in New Jersey, I used to take that path because, while not the most pleasant ride, it was convenient:  Once I disembarked from it, I could ride across Elizabeth to State Route 27, where traffic wasn’t terrible.  However, I tried to use it about three years ago, only to find a gate across it.  When I asked a Port Authority officer whether it would open again, he claimed that it never was legal to ride or walk across.  When I explained that I used to take that path “all the time”—and I wasn’t the only one who did—he said it simply wasn’t possible, for there never was any path.  "Well, I guess I broke the law," I said half-jokingly.  "Maybe you did," he replied, suppressing a grin.

Anyway, the PA official with whom I spoke yesterday told me the Goethals is getting similar treatment to the Bayonne and will have—as the Bayonne also will—a “twelve-foot wide bike and pedestrian lane”.   Yes, in “about two years”.

As for the other two connections—the Outerbridge Crossing and the Verrazano-NarrowsBridge—neither ever had bike/pedestrian lanes. The Outerbridge (which is actually named for its builder and is not, as many believe, so named because it’s the “outer” of all of the crossings) takes motorists from the west shore of the Island to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. 

The Verrazano, on the other hand, brings cars, buses and other vehicles to and from Brooklyn.  In his infinite wisdom, RobertMoses didn’t want to deface his last great project with provisions for people who want to walk or pedal.  (It's claimed that he didn’t want buses to cross the span.)  In his vision of the world, everyone would have his or her own car and get in and use it to get in and out of the city—where he or she would work and perhaps shop, but not live.  Even how people played would be determined by the internal combustion engine:  He built Jones Beach, accessible Long Island’s highways but not by the Rail Road or any bus line. 

(Given what I’ve just described, it’s surprising that he actually built the Kissena Velodrome—and that he himself never learned how to drive!)

For me and other cyclists who don’t live on Staten Island, the situation I’ve described is an inconvenience or annoyance.  But those who live there can’t get off the Island—or escape from New York.  I just hope, for their sake, that they aren’t secessionists.  Somehow I don’t think very many of them are.

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