Ever since it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been a marvel. Its two soaring 277-foot-tall limestone and granite towers, each with two Gothic arches, may be the most iconic emblems of the bridge, but what I’ve appreciated most up close are the steel cables and wires that were engineered to support the roadway. These workhorses of the bridge — there are over 14,000 miles of cable in all — are intricately crisscrossed so that when you cross the bridge dead center, where the pedestrian path is, the wires overlap and create beautiful shapes and parallax effects, as though you’re inside a Spirograph drawing.
But as schmaltzingly scenic as the Brooklyn Bridge is, I almost never bike over it because it’s just too annoyingly congested. Even though my office was near Bowling Green, I’d take the longer route to work and ride over the Manhattan Bridge and down the East River bike path. The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t practical given its pedestrian traffic. If I do decide to use it, it’s early in the morning or late at night, when the selfie-stick tourists who normally flood every square inch of the pedestrian walkway aren’t there. The Manhattan Bridge, with its dedicated pathways for pedestrians and bikes, is a smoother, safer, and faster ride. But the Brooklyn Bridge’s location is unbeatable for bike trips to the Financial District under the right conditions.
For years, cycling advocates have fought for a protected bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a grander vision for safer streets and low-carbon transportation in the city. On Tuesday, it finally opened. Mayor de Blasio — who promised in January to improve cycling and pedestrian access to the city’s bridges, including a commitment to build the bike lane — didn’t attend the opening ceremonies, but offered a statement: “This bike lane is more than just a safe, convenient option for thousands of daily cyclists. It’s a symbol of New York City fully embracing a sustainable future and striking a blow against car culture.”
I really wanted to believe de Blasio’s statement. I really wanted to love this bike lane. But after a few trips over the path — one on its opening night and the others Wednesday morning and evening — the words felt like doublespeak. Taking a lane away from cars and giving it to bikes, as much of a hard-won, symbolic victory as it is, feels like the tiniest of steps in a journey that needs a leap.
Ahead of my first ride, the biggest question on my mind, of course, was: Is it wide enough? When DOT revealed drawings for the bike lane in April, many immediately questioned its narrowness — just eight feet wide for a bidirectional lane. After removing one lane of traffic and putting in concrete Jersey barriers, that’s all that was left. The National Association of Transportation Officials recommends 12 feet as the “desirable” width for a two-way lane.
On Tuesday night, I was pleasantly surprised that the lane didn’t feel as narrow as it looked in renderings. But whenever someone passed me or came by in the opposite direction, it was still too close for comfort. As I passed a cyclist and an e-scooter riding side-by-side toward me, they didn’t budge, and I thought I was going to get clipped. It was the same when a motor scooter passed me (another regular occurrence on the bike paths, even though they’re not supposed to be there). A cushion of a couple more feet would go a long way. This design clearly doesn’t account for inconsiderate people or give cyclists any room to duck to the side. And that’s a big problem, because humans love breaking rules, and design ought to take that into consideration. The Manhattan Bridge is 9.9 feet wide, and those two feet make all the difference.
The next day, I rode over the bridge during the morning commute, and I appreciated the less-steep grade. The lane was busier than the night before, with commuters, people out for exercise (judging by their spandex), and some delivery workers on motor scooters. When a man pulling a boxy cargo trailer — something that looked like it was for deliveries — came toward me, I noticed that the trailer was wider than his side of the lane. He was well aware that he was taking more room than the lane allocated for him, and said sorry when I rode by. It was disappointing to realize how difficult it would be for cargo-bike riders to use the bridge, considering that they’re needed to cut down on delivery-truck traffic.
The only activity the new bike lane really supports is commuter biking at a slow and steady pace, which just isn’t the sole reality of riding. There’s nowhere to safely stop if your chain comes loose and you need to re-affix it, or if you get a flat tire, or if you want to walk your bike because you’re tired. If a pothole appears, there isn’t really room to swerve around it. Same for the many drains and manhole covers on the innermost lane. And if you want to stop and take a picture — which cyclists on the bridge often like to do — good luck.
Then there’s the Manhattan approach to the lane, which needed more consideration. In these early days, it seems there are a lot of navigational guides. On my first trip heading toward Brooklyn, a DOT volunteer stationed on the island where bikes would normally enter the bridge (and who was very excited about the lane) directed cyclists to the new onramp. Temporary bright-green signs with white arrows also pointed to the new entrance. But, as some advocates have pointed out, this threshold to the bridge hasn’t been effectively reengineered for the new flow of bike traffic. Instead, Jersey barriers direct bikes to enter and exit from the north. Cyclists approaching from or heading south make what is essentially a hairpin turn, as I had to, coming from Park Row. It’s this sort of connectivity with the overall cycling network that ought to have been better considered. I saw a couple of people clumsily get off their bikes and waddle up the curb rather than make that treacherous turn. And without a bike signal for the busy crosswalk, I could easily see bikers coming around the curve at full speed and encountering a wall of pedestrians. Over time, experienced riders will get the hang of it, of course, but it should be more intuitive for first-timers. Luckily, on the other side, the transition to the Brooklyn onramp-offramp was relatively seamless, owing to a redesign from a few years back.
But it wasn’t the closeness of the lanes or the trickiness of the Manhattan connection that got to me the most. It was the whole experience: all about utility but needing more care. The lane may be practical in comparison to the old system, but it’s still bothersome. Yes, I was no longer constantly at risk of hitting a gawking tourist, but I had lost the magic of riding on the Brooklyn Bridge. I even missed the rumbly wood planks. In the protected bike lane, I was struck by the oppressive hideousness of the chain-link fencing on either side. And then there is the discomfort of being on the same level as the cars, inhaling their fumes and blinded by headlights from oncoming traffic at night — a mere nuisance for me, but a potential visibility hazard for others. The only nice thing about being down there was hearing a driver rock out to “Enter Sandman” on his radio. Hemmed in by traffic lanes on one side and metal trusses on the other, I had lost the view of the water, the skyline, and the striking architecture and engineering that makes crossing the bridge a delight. I suspect that for most bike commuters, the chain link won’t be such a big deal (though there is a risk of handlebars getting snagged in it) since everyone riding a bike in the city is already used to not having enough space and dodging whatever obstacles come their way.
The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t the most heavily biked bridge in the city — in May this year, it saw just 63,000 riders, compared to 220,000 on the Williamsburg Bridge and 170,000 on the Manhattan Bridge — since many riders avoid it because of the congestion. But when foot traffic was low, it was a more beautiful ride. I might feel differently about the new lane if cyclists weren’t forbidden to ride over the top now, a rule which will be enforced by the NYPD, with rulebreakers subject to fines. The NYPD did not return a request for comment on when enforcement begins. It’s okay to walk your bike up top, though.
Perhaps some of my disappointment with the lane had carried over from a Transportation Alternatives rally I had just attended on Tuesday night. About 300 people gathered in Union Square, in the same place where a tow truck fatally struck a woman in July, to protest the traffic violence that led to an infant in a stroller being killed by a reckless driver in Brooklyn over the weekend. Perhaps it was hearing about all the pain and trauma that people who had lost loved ones in car crashes had experienced. Perhaps it was a group recitation of all the names of children who died from vehicle collisions this year — Apolline Mong-Guillemin, at 3 months; Yoshi Balaban, age 4; Jonathan Beauchamp, age 4; Shimon Fried, age 6; Hiromi Tamy, age 6; Isabella Granobles, age 10; Dylan Moreno, aged 16; Darwin Durazno, aged 16; Christina Cora, age 18; unknown, age 18 — called out in a solemn remembrance. I wanted to ride over a lane that was really striking a blow to car culture. Instead, it felt like a gentle nudge.
As I biked home, engulfed in the car traffic and concrete and chain link, overwhelmed by the traffic violence that had taken place this year, I kept thinking about another proposal that I had seen in the Van Alen Institute’s Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge competition last year, which invited ideas for reenvisioning the iconic crossing to be safer, more equitable, and more enjoyable. The winning proposal featured an expanded promenade that covers the traffic lanes, with more room for pedestrians and cyclists. The lower deck featured bike lanes on each side, with a bike-share dock at the foot of the bridge. This vision feels like a dramatic, almost inconceivable, change now, but the bridge has always adapted to meet the needs of the city — after all, cable trolleys and steam-engine trains have come and gone from the bridge to make room for cars. The protected bike lane is the only major change to the bridge since 1950.
It’s not too much to ask car drivers to make room for a more balanced vision of transportation. That’s what I will keep hoping for. The protected Brooklyn Bridge bike lane is a useful start, one that riders do appreciate. When I was waiting for the light to change at Tillary Street, I asked the cyclist next to me what he thought about the new lane. “I didn’t have to scream at anyone in the way today,” he said approvingly.