National News

Making a New York City River More Inviting to Cross, by Foot and Bike

Posted May 4, 2018 4:20 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Julian Torres would see his friends in the Bronx more often if only it were easy to ride his bike over from northern Manhattan.

It is not. The one time he tried, he went wheel-to-wheel with cars crossing the Harlem River on the squat, aging Madison Avenue Bridge, which does not have a separate bike lane. Drivers honked at him to get out of the way. He was unnerved.

“It doesn’t seem far, but actually it is far,” said Torres, 17, who lives near the foot of the bridge in East Harlem. “It’s a hassle.”

Now New York City officials want to make this crossing, and many others nearby, more welcoming to cyclists and pedestrians, in an effort to strengthen ties between historically underserved communities in northern Manhattan and the Bronx that are divided by the winding Harlem River. On Friday, the Transportation Department unveiled an ambitious plan that addresses all 13 Harlem River crossings, which are often overlooked but serve as crucial neighborhood connections for those who live and work around them.

The plan calls for installing dedicated bike lanes on six of those crossings — the Madison Avenue, 145th Street, Macombs Dam, Washington, University Heights and Broadway bridges — and converting a seventh, the Third Avenue Bridge, into a pedestrian-only passage by diverting cyclists to other bridges (cars will remain). In addition, it proposes a host of design and safety improvements to the streets leading to and from all 13 bridges, including adding new bike lanes and crosswalks, widening sidewalks and carving out more pedestrian areas.

“New York City is a city of islands, so crossing rivers and bodies of water is one of the major transportation challenges,” said the city’s transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg. “The rivers are physical barriers between boroughs and communities, and the bridges are vital connections. They should be accessible to all.”

The focus on the Harlem River crossings comes as cycling is booming in New York City, with bike routes being expanded and commuters and tourists alike hopping onto a fleet of Citi Bikes to get around. It follows two decades of similar efforts by the city to transform the East River bridges into pedestrian and cycling connections. On the Brooklyn Bridge alone, there are now an average of 13,196 pedestrian and 3,157 cyclist crossings on a weekday.

Trottenberg said the plan for the Harlem River crossings was developed with input from residents in Manhattan and the Bronx who have long chafed at the difficulties of crossing the river. She said the department has started making improvements to East 138th Street in the Bronx, which joins with the Madison Avenue Bridge, and streets around other bridges, and would gradually install the new bike lanes on the bridges themselves as they come up for rehabilitation.

The plan is estimated to cost more than $90 million, which will be covered in part by funding for existing programs, city transportation officials said. The first bike lanes will be completed on the Broadway and 145th Street bridges by 2021.

Nivardo Lopez, 36, the transportation department’s Bronx commissioner, said that when he was growing up in that borough, he used to go to Manhattan every week to visit relatives and friends, and to shop and eat along Dyckman Street. Though he lived near the University Heights and Broadway bridges, back then it never even occurred to him to walk. “Those bridges are what connect these communities, and for years, cars were the only safe way to cross,” he said.

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said the crossings not only provided a free alternative to subways and buses for those on a tight budget, but were also better for the environment and gave people another chance to squeeze in some exercise. “We should be walking, we should be bicycling, as opposed to getting in a car or subway,” she said. “It’ll be healthier. We’ll live longer.”

The Madison Avenue Bridge, which was built in 1910, takes its name from a Manhattan street synonymous with the city’s advertising industry and tony designer boutiques. The bridge links East Harlem with Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, both communities whose residents have long struggled with poverty, asthma and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

Though it will still be years before bike lanes are installed on the bridge, new protected bike lanes have recently been added on the Bronx side on East 138th Street for several blocks. Torres, the East Harlem teenager, said he cannot wait for the bike lanes to run all the way across. “I’d be able to go more often and get there safe,” said Torres, whose favorite deli is in the Bronx. “A bike lane would be really convenient.” City transportation officials have also made other improvements to that stretch of East 138th Street in the Bronx, where there have been a spate of vehicle crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists in recent years. A few blocks down from the bridge, a new intersection with traffic signals and crosswalks has been created across from a busy subway station for the No. 4 and 5 lines. Giant planters — and soon tables and chairs — sit in a crescent-shaped curve on the street where livery cars once parked illegally.

Monica Ortiz, 50, a risk manager for a local moving company, said the improvements make it safer for her to walk around the neighborhood during her lunch break. “The traffic is so dangerous that I’ve lost count how many times I could have been hit by a car,” she said.

But Benjamin Phillips, 25, a salesman at a car dealership, said he worried that more people would now descend on an already congested street. “It looks good, but I have mixed feelings,” he said.

The attention to the Harlem River crossing is long overdue, said Liora Harvin, 54, a performing artist who walks over to the Bronx from her home in Harlem every day. For years now, she has railed against drivers who speed off the Madison Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, run through red lights, and turn aggressively at intersections packed with pedestrians. She has repeatedly called on city transportation officials to install traffic cameras and increase enforcement.

But even those dangers have not deterred her from walking across the bridge every day. She cannot resist the panoramic views — including a glimpse of the Empire State Building — the chorus of birds and the peace that comes with being close to nature in a big city.

“I love walking across the Harlem River,” she said. “It’s just lovely, and then you get to the intersection, and it’s hell.”