The tourists, casual walkers and bikers of the Brooklyn Bridge might be getting some space to breathe.
New York City’s Department of Transportation announced a $370,000 study this week, looking into ways to create more room on the bridge’s always packed pedestrian and bike lanes.
Use of the city’s “Times Square in the Sky,” as the DOT called it this week, has jumped in recent years. Weekend pedestrian volume increased 275 percent from May 2008 to May 2015.
More space for non-car travelers over this New York icon is a great idea, particularly for the two groups most often at loggerheads — pedestrians and bikers.
But it also means we’ll likely be bidding a fond goodbye to one of the true (dangerous) pleasures of NYC sport: the gauntlet obstacle course of running the bridge.
Urban obstacle course
In memoriam of all my near collisions as a runner, I revisited the bridge for a run Tuesday — albeit slower than during bygone high school cross-country days.
The DOT says potential solutions for the walkways include an expanded path on top of the bridge’s girders; seasonal fencing between bikers and pedestrians, reserving more space for pedestrians; or the reallocation of some roadway space. Each of these would put some safe distance between bikers and slow-moving bipeds, and runners would be able to slot themselves in one or the other with less trepidation.
For now, it’s still the Wild West, with crossers often ignoring the reminders of painted lines.
Starting on the Manhattan end and edging around busy vendor stalls, pedestrians briefly keep to their side. Here the path is so thin and the hill so steep — full of bikes hurtling down so fast — that the walker horde stays packed tightly together. So the runner is forced to straddle the line demarcating the bike section, eyes straight ahead watching for bikers coming downhill.
As the Manhattan-side tower nears and winded tourists pause for an iconic selfie, the horde thins out, and the true fun begins.
Keeping an eye out for bikes, there’s now room for the runner to dodge and juke around unsuspecting walkers. Here we see the first stutter-steps from fellow-bridge crossers, who see you coming and try helpfully to stop. Not necessary.
After the tower, the game changes: energized and limber, it’s time to race the bikes going downhill.
Here it’s fun to stay right on their tails, particularly as they ring bells helplessly at picture-takers drifting over into the bike lane.
On Tuesday, a helmeted Citi Biker called out a repeated and ignored reminder: “Excuse me, bike line!”
Mostly, it’s to no avail, so that even going downhill the runner can have the upper hand, thanks to the crowds pleasantly filled with tourists and definite locals — a man wearing a “Loyal ’til the last out” Mets t-shirt, for example.
Toward the end of this approximately mile-long bridge you can navigate the terrifying crosswalk that bikers pay no attention to, leading to the stairs towards Brooklyn land.
The other bridge to Brooklyn
Safely on the Brooklyn side, it’s a quick jog to your reward for enduring the obstacle course — the calm, sheltered path crossing the Manhattan Bridge.
There, the only vendors are two high school students on summer break hawking waters and Gatorades, and the empty entrance plaza boasts a plaque declaring this less-loved bridge a “National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark,” which was “the world’s third longest from 1909 to 1924.”
On the Manhattan Bridge, cyclists are free to race each other on the north-side lane, a world away across the no man’s land of above-ground trains. The south-side pedestrian passage is often nearly empty for a run or, in my case, walk. On Tuesday, a lonely male model stood for a photo shoot, flexing at the bridge entrance.
A few hundred feet farther, a pair of NYU students on a date, extending their time together by walking to a Manhattan-side subway. At the apex, a tourist from Germany who’d already done the Brooklyn Bridge, but decided to give the Manhattan Bridge a shot on his last day. “The look is amazing,” he says.
Or John Burke, 46, a Google employee who lives in Brooklyn, returning home from a trip to Chinatown for dumplings. He says he avoids the Brooklyn Bridge because of the crowds and fear of bikes. “It’s not as pleasant an experience.”
Indeed, there are obstacle-course-less pleasures to the Manhattan Bridge, with its gentle slope, impeccable views of its more famous sibling to the south, and exhilarating descent into Manhattan’s aggressively graffitied Chinatown roofs, where residents can be seen beating dust and dirt off laundry hanging in the sun.
And if you’re looking for more miles and more dodging, the Brooklyn Bridge entrance is just a quick jog south.
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