28 December 2016

A "Bridgegate" For Cyclists?

I lived through a time when the word "nuclear" was almost invariably followed by "holocaust".

Then again, I also experienced a few air raid drills when I was in elementary school.  One of the first stern glares a Carmelite nun directed at me was in response to my innocent (well, maybe not-so-inncocent) question:  "How is this going to protect us from an atom bomb?"

(Of course, now everybody knows that this is what you do in case of a nuclear attack:

  • Duck under desk or table.
  • Curl up in foetal position.
  • Place head firmly between legs.
  • Then, kiss your ass goodbye.)
Anyway...just as "nuclear" went with "holocaust", it seems that these days, "bridge" is followed by "gate".  And "Bridgegate" is the first thing people think of when you mention the George Washington Bridge.

Traffic jams have been as much a part of the bridge's 85-year history as corruption has been a part of the politics on both sides of the bridge.  Most of those tie-ups, unlike the ones caused by Governor Christie's acolytes, are not deliberate.  Nor will the ones that will  probably come soon and plague the bridge for the nest seven years.

Actually, the Port Authority's renovation project began last year, when lead paint was removed from the lower deck.  Removal of said paint will continue, and most important of all, the vertical cables will be replaced.  The PA says it will try to time the work to cause the least possible inconvenience to commuters.

Just as the term "human being" meant "white man with property*" to the Founding Fathers, "commuters" means, in PA parlance, folks who drive into the city and, well, maybe those who take the bus.  So, for that matter, does "traffic".

Now, to be fair, the PA plans to improve access to the bridge's bike and pedestrian lanes.  Then again, almost anything would be an improvement over what exists:  Hairpin turns on the New York side of the lane on the south side of the bridge, and steep stairs on both sides to access the lane on the north side.  Worse yet, the stairs on the New York side can only be entered by crossing a heavily-trafficked street that has become a de facto exit lane for the bridge an the Cross-Bronx expressway, and for buses entering and leaving the George Washington Bridge bus terminal.

Image result for George Washington Bridge bike lane pinch points
It's like this on a good day.

But those entrances aren't the worst part of the lanes.  For one thing, in more than three decades of biking (and, occasionally, walking) across the bridge, I have never seen both lanes open at the same time.  Worst of all, though, is that each of those lanes is seven feet wide at its widest. At some pinch points--where, for example, towers are located--the lanes are considerably narrower.  And, of course, the structures that cause the "pinch" also make for very poor sight lines.  At times, I've wondered that collisions and conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians aren't more frequent than they are.

To give you some perspective:  The Federal Highway Administration recommends 14 feet for a two- way bike lane.  And the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommends 16 feet.  

In other words, the lanes are half as wide as is generally recommended.  And, just as the GWB is the nation's busiest commuter crossing for motorists, its bike and pedestrian lanes are also among the nation's busiest.

Now, are you ready for this?  The Port Authority's plans call for reconstructing the bike and pedestrian lanes.  The north lane will be designated for cyclists, and the south for pedestrians.  Sounds good so far, right?

Image result for George Washington Bridge pedestrian bike lane pinch points
New Jersey entrance to the bike/pedestrian lane on the south side of the George Washington B

And the bike lane will indeed be wider.  How much wider?  Check this out:  one foot.  So the new bike lane, according to the plan, will be 8 feet wide.  There is nothing to indicate that narrower "pinch points" won't be eliminated.  Perhaps they can't be.  But I have to wonder why, if the Port Authority is planning what is essentially a once-in-a-century project, it can't or won't build the bike and pedestrian lanes to modern standards. Instead, it plans to rebuild the lanes to the standards that existed in 1931, when the bridge opened.  

Now, I don't know much about the economics of major public works projects.  I can't help but to think, though, that in relative terms, it wouldn't cost much more to build a modern path than the one that's planned--and, better yet, to build  a bike path on a separate, lower lever from the pedestrian lane.  Certainly, doing so would cost less than building another lane as a stand-alone project at a later date.

Weissman's proposal would put 10-foot bike lanes to the side of the existing paths. Image: Neile Weissman
Artist's rendering of a possible bike laneconstructed at a lower level alongside the current lane on the north side, which would be reserved for pedestrians.

Oh--one other thing is planned in the reconstruction:  a fence, a.k.a. a suicide barrier, along each lane.  I'm not going to argue that such a barrier shouldn't be installed:  It's likely that most of the suicides that have occurred from the bridge were preventable.  I can't help but to wonder, though, whether the barriers will make riding or walking across the bridge feel even more claustrophobic than it already is at times.


  1. My bridge crossing, a mere 1.4 miles carries pedestrians and bicycles on little more than a shared two metres if that then every hundred feet lamp posts directly opposite each other pinch it down to less than safe to pass!

    To make matters worse it has been resurfaced with metal sheets which are badly fitted and bubble up so that a bike has to push that bubble ahead. Stupid does not even start to describe it, then again I doubt that anyone involved with these projects has the slightest idea about cycling or has the intelligence to find someone who does!


  2. As always, the emphasis is on making driving more convenient, walking & cycling (and well-planned mass transit,)are not ever given serious consideration. Now, exactly why anyone with a brain cell would think that driving into NYC should be more convenient, increasing the motor traffic flow into an already overcrowded street system is a good idea is beyond me.
    This is a situation that is repeated nation-wide and will continue as long as the automobile with its solo driver is held in such exalted status in the USA.

  3. Coline--You show that a lack of consideration for cyclists and pedestrians--and just boneheaded planning overall--are not exclusive to the US. At least your country hasn't elected anybody like Trump--yet.

    Mike--Your last statement sums it all up. What's scary is that New York is actually one of the better cities in the US when it comes to including cyclists in planning.

  4. What kills me is that every state in the union has some version of a "complete streets" law. It's obvious that they don't really mean it. Around here cyclists have to practically threaten to burn down the town just to get a couple sharrows painted. We did get a separated bike lane through town last year. I suppose the city fathers feel like we should be good to go for the next 30 years or so. There are 7 billion people on this planet. I don't want to be here when they all get an SUV.

  5. Phillip--Most people aren't aware of the "complete streets" law. Maybe I should do a post on those.

    Seven billion people with SUVs? Yikes!