16 June 2018

Offering An Illusion Of Safety

Sometimes there just isn't a better way.

I am reminded of that whenever I ride along the North Shore of Long Island and eastern Queens.  The area offers much, from mansions and country clubs with the Gatsby vibe to picturesque towns like Roslyn (where, incidentally, Gabriela Mistral--the first Latin American and fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature--spent her last few years) as well as tidal wetlands, beaches, bird sanctuaries--and cliffs.  Best of all, there are actually some nice roads for cycling and a few bike lanes, including one that winds along the bay near Udall's Cove Park

Cyclist riding on Northern Boulevard near the Little Neck Bay bridge

The problem is in getting there from my part of Queens.  I know a few decent routes that will get me to Bayside, about 20 kilometers from my apartment.  Little Neck Bay, an arm of the Sound, reaches into the neighborhood, and you have to cross it in order to get from Bayside to Little Neck and Nassau County.  Oh, I could get around that body of water if I take a detour southward--one which I actually don't mind, as there are some quiet side streets and a rather nice park (Alley Pond) along the way.  I don't mind, as long as I have enough time or am not trying to stay ahead of rain I didn't anticipate before my ride.

But if you want to go directly from western Queens, where I live (just across from Manhattan), there is only one choice if you don't want to swim or take the Long Island Railroad:  Ride the Route 25A, a.k.a. Northern Boulevard, bridge over Little Neck Bay.  

Northern Boulevard is a four-lane road.  For most of its length, at least in Queens and Nassau County, it is a commercial thoroughfare,  which means that it is heavily trafficked.  But even where it cuts through parks and nature preserves-- as it does on either side of the Bay bridge-- there is little if any respite from the traffic because, as it happens, highway exit and entrance ramps veer from and merge with the road near the bridge.

At 6:30 on a summer morning almost two years ago, 78-year-old Michael Schenkman was cycling eastward, in the direction of the bridge--ironically, on his way to the nearby Joe Michaels Mile Bike Path.   A black Chevrolet Impala traveling in the same direction on Northern collided with Schenkman, who died shortly afterward.  The driver, to his credit, remained at the scene.

223rd Street and Northern Boulevard, where Michael Schenkman was killed

After the crash, the city's Department of Transportation came up with a plan to create a bike lane on the north side of the bridge by taking out a lane of traffic.  The local community board approved it, but changed its mind just as the DOT was beginning to work on it last September.  Tomorrow, members of that board will march along the side of the bike lane project.  They--led by State Senator Tony Avella--want the DOT to scrap the lane and, instead, expand the width of the sidewalk so that it can be shared by cyclists and pedestrians.

As someone who has pedaled that stretch of Northern Boulevard dozens of times, I can say that those folks probably aren't cyclists it would be a terrible idea for everyone.  First of all, no one quite knows how wide the sidewalk would have to be in order to accommodate both cyclists and pedestrians--and whether it would mean new construction or taking out another lane of traffic. Either way, it would probably cost more than what board members claim--or, for that matter, the DOT's project.

Worse, though, is that the sidewalk crosses a highway exit ramp.  It's bad enough when pedestrians have to walk into the crosswalk with cars streaming on the ramp; I can only imagine the consequences if cyclists and pedestrians are forced to share that crosswalk!

Some experienced cyclists (like me) who are familiar with the area have learned how to at least minimize the risks while riding along the bridge and Northern Boulevard.  A shared sidewalk would give less-experienced cyclists (and those unfamiliar with the area) the illusion of safety, which can be worse than any hazard of the road.

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