A bridge plan gone too far? Bikers have an idea of their own

By Lincoln Anderson

The cyclist came flying down the Manhattan-side ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge. A young woman, wearing a halter top and shorts, she zipped through a crosswalk area, then smoothly and assuredly coasted down a median in the middle of Delancey St., gradually decelerating as she went.

“See how fast she’s going? She’s not a speed demon  — and it takes her a whole block to slow down,” noted Bill di Paola, watching from about 75 feet up on the ramp.

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon — Irene was a day away — and the sun was beating down, a perfect day for a ride over the bridge, capped off by a graceful “landing” on the median.

But di Paola fears a plan by the city’s Department of Transportation will cramp the bridge cyclists’ freewheeling style, as well as that of skateboarders and in-line skaters. More to the point, D.O.T.’s new plan will be dangerous, he warned.

In short, the agency is planning to install

a curved, “rub rail”-style, stainless-steel fence at the bridge bikeway’s Manhattan-side end. Also included in the design are 3-foot-tall concrete walls flanking the median near the new railing.

“This railing is being installed to guide bikers to the north and south lanes on Clinton St. — where they can connect to east-west routes — before they reach the crosswalk [in front of the bridge],” said Montgomery Dean, a D.O.T. spokesperson. “A similar design has been in place on the Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge for several years and has proven very effective at separating bikes coming off the bridge from pedestrians on the local sidewalk.”

Some other cyclists, as they came off the Williamsburg Bridge at varying speeds last Friday afternoon, like the first woman, coasted through the crosswalk and down the “landing strip” median before merging onto Delancey St. One jogger going through the crosswalk had to quickly hop out of the way to avoid an oncoming bike.

Other cyclists, using the crosswalk’s curb cuts, quickly merged directly onto Delancey St. without using the median, or turned right or left onto Clinton St.

However, unlike Clinton St., Delancey St. — which has heavy auto traffic and trucks coming off the bridge — lacks the safety of a bike lane. Two weeks ago, Jeffrey Axelrod, a 52-year-old cyclist from Brooklyn, was crushed to death under a cement truck on Delancey St. near Chrystie St.

But di Paola, founder of the pro-cycling, environmental group Time’s Up!, thinks D.O.T.’s plan will cause more problems than it fixes. This will be just the latest of several designs Transportation has already tried at this spot.

“This is like the third design,” he said. “First they had cones here.”

However, all the designs have been bad, according to him, which is why the city keeps redoing it.

This latest D.O.T. project, though, seems more serious — and looks like it will be built to last. The concrete walls are being poured into forms with sturdy rebar, and the job isn’t expected to be done until Jan. 1, according to workers on site last Friday.

Specifically, having a rail that forces cyclists and others on wheels to come to a stop is a recipe for disaster, in di Paola’s view. Riders on brakeless fixed-gear bikes will be particularly at risk, he noted.

“D.O.T. forgets it’s an exit and an entrance,” he said of the bridge’s ramp. “But it’s more important for exiters, since they’re coming off at high speed.” With the D.O.T. barrier, di Paola warned, “You’ll see a lot of near injuries, people hitting into each other, especially the skateboarders — they can’t stop.”

Di Paola said around 6 p.m. the scene at the bridge bikeway’s entrance / exit gets as chaotic as Grand Central at rush hour, and that throwing the new railing into the mix will just worsen things.

“It’s going to be chaos,” he predicted. “I’m going to come out here with a video camera the first day.”

A recent D.O.T. study found that 4,000 cyclists cross the bridge daily, making it the most heavily traveled East River span for bicycles.

Meanwhile, di Paola and Time’s Up! members recently devised their own alternative scheme that would connect the bikeway directly to the south side of Delancey St. Under their plan, a new ramp would start about 75 feet up the bridge on the Manhattan side, cross over the bridge’s eastbound lanes, then drop down to Delancey St., where a bike path would run through a new parkway for several blocks.

Di Paola said he showed their design to one of the D.O.T. project workers at the site last Friday and the man was impressed.

“The construction guy said it can work,” he said. “It would be much safer, but the bridge part [going over the span’s eastbound lanes] is expensive.”

However, the cycling advocate stressed, “What’s the cost of a life? If you can save one life a year… . This is taking cyclists off Delancey St.

“And what a beautiful entrance and exit, where a bike path would run through a new parkway — three blocks of beautiful park. There’s no fences and it would be open 24 hours,” he declared of the park. Before pedaling over the bridge, people could meet up in the park, which would sport mini bike-repair stations, he noted.

This plan would work, he assured, as opposed to the city’s design, which he called, “trying to put a band-aid on a bad situation.”

The new bikeway along Delancey St. would run parallel to the sidewalk and just south of it. (Currently sporting open-air parking lots, these blocks are in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area and slated for eventual development.)

Di Paola said another reason they’re concerned about the city’s new plan is because the Williamsburg Bridge is the East River crossing most used by new cyclists. Time’s Up! has bike-support spaces at Rivington St. and Bedford Ave. at both ends of the bridge to help these budding bike riders.

“We’ve been focusing on this bridge for a long time, and that’s why we’re located at both ends of it,” he noted.

This newspaper provided D.O.T. with a copy of the Time’s Up! bridge plan and a written description of it, and asked if the agency would consider it instead of the rail project that’s already underway.

However, spokesperson Dean responded, “There are no plans at this time to consider alternative designs.”