Clearing Vendors From the Brooklyn Bridge Won’t Solve Its Overcrowding Problem

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

On New Year’s Day, an all-too-familiar scene unfolded at the Brooklyn Bridge. Thousands of people on the path were stuck in a standstill. This type of overcrowding happens periodically, often on unseasonably warm days, but there was one noticeable difference this year: a bigger contingent of street vendors. And that seemed to get the attention of Mayor Eric Adams. Last week, NYPD officers, apparently on direct orders from Adams, abruptly swept vendors off the bridge — even if they had permits — and told them they could no longer do business there. A spokesperson from the mayor’s office said the sweep took place because of “concerns about safety and security on a heavily trafficked walkway.” M.D. Rahman, a hot-dog vendor, told Streetsblog that he had never encountered problems like this in the 20 years he has been stationed at the bridge and that he was nervous about losing his livelihood. “I want to take care of my family, I want to take care of my little son, little kids,” he said. “I am not doing crime over here.”

Where there are tourists, there are street vendors. They’ve coexisted in some sort of equilibrium around the Brooklyn Bridge for decades. For many years, most of the food carts and souvenir stands have been stationed in the walkway and Memorial Grove in downtown Manhattan leading up to the wood-plank promenade. But since 2021, when bikers moved to a protected lane on the vehicle level below, vendors have steadily multiplied in the newly freed-up space, setting up trinket stands and selfie stations (equipped with ring lights and tripods) across the length of the bridge. As visitors to the bridge and the number of vendors have increased, it’s easy to see why Rahman and his fellow vendors were targeted — who’s going to limit tourist selfies? For the past six years, in fact, the Department of Transportation has been working on vending-restriction guidelines for the bridge, but they are not yet finalized. However, the safety challenges facing the Brooklyn Bridge can’t be solved simply by removing all the hot-dog carts. What’s needed is a strategic vision that accommodates everyone who uses it, including the vendors.

Overcrowding is a growing problem on the Brooklyn Bridge. On busy weekend days, it sees over 30,000 pedestrians, double the volume from a decade ago. When improvements are made, they are piecemeal and haven’t been able to address the fundamental danger of a crowd surge, as the crush of people on New Year’s Day proved. In 2017, the Department of Transportation issued recommendations to address the bottlenecks that happen at the entrances, including more signage to direct foot traffic to staircases, changing the on- and off-ramp for bikes, and creating designated concession areas for vendors. And five years ago, the Brooklyn approach received a much-needed redesign to make entering and exiting the bridge safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists. The new protected bike lane, which was intended to alleviate congestion for both cyclists and pedestrians, resulted in a classic case of induced demand: With more room for bikes and pedestrians, more bikes and pedestrians have come. Cycling across the bridge has doubled since the lane opened. Meanwhile, one of the most positive recent changes to the bridge was a publicity stunt from a porta-potty company. The permitless toilets lasted only a few days before they were told to pack up and leave.

We’ve seen examples of what big-picture thinking for the Brooklyn Bridge can look like courtesy of a recent competition from the Van Alen Institute, an urban-design nonprofit. “Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge” showed us radical ideas for modernizing the bridge, including adding High Line–like landscaping, which would widen the promenade and create areas where people can stop and rest (or take photos) without clogging the pathway. Two teams even proposed removing the cars altogether and expanding the pedestrian paths to the roadways below. While some of these ideas may seem far-fetched, they show there are real alternatives to just having everyone pack together into a limited space.

The need for a master plan for the Brooklyn Bridge promenade is especially urgent as more types of vehicles share space on our streets than ever before — including a growing number of e-bikes, cargo bikes, electric scooters, and mopeds. While the city is redesigning its streets and intersections to make it safer for all the ways New Yorkers get around, the bridges haven’t kept up, especially one as trafficked as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Advocates have been demanding better bike and pedestrian access on the city’s bridges for decades, but change has come slowly, if at all. The Queensboro Bridge, which saw a boom in cycling during the pandemic, was supposed to receive a protected bike lane in the roadway (like the Brooklyn Bridge’s) in 2021. It received overwhelming support from the City Council, but the Adams administration delayed the improvements, and construction has yet to commence.

More recently, there are a few promising signs of increasing access. This month, the MTA released a strategic-action plan to improve multimodal transportation across its system, including building accessible ramps and pathways on the RFK Bridge (right now, there are only staircases along the way), widening walkways on the Henry Hudson Bridge, and lifting the bicycle ban on the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge. The plan also calls for continuing research for a cantilevered shared-use path on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and allowing bikes on buses crossing the span — ideas that were studied by the New York City Department of City Planning back in 1997.

But, so far, there is no proposal that responds to the growing crowds on the Brooklyn Bridge. During his State of the City address Thursday, Adams’s Working People’s Agenda included reviving the public spaces beneath the Manhattan side of the bridge to better connect the neighborhoods north and south. The specifics have yet to be announced, but it reads like another modification that will affect the bridge as a whole and draw even more people to the area. If so, it raises the urgency of creating a holistic plan so that everyone who uses it — commuters, residents, tourists, vendors — can continue to enjoy the bridge safely.

Brooklyn Bridge Overcrowding Isn’t Only About Street Vendors