Gearing up: New lane brought belated bike boom to Brooklyn Bridge

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The Brooklyn Bridge bike lane opened on Sept. 14.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

It was the first bridge to cross the East River, but the last to get a piece of the pandemic bike boom.

The Brooklyn Bridge finally caught up with the COVID-19-era rise in cycling last year after the city opened a dedicated bike path on the iconic span’s roadway.

Bike crossings over the 138-year-old connector increased by 26.6% to 697,276 in 2021, compared to 550,594 in 2020, an amNewYork Metro analysis of counts by the Department of Transportation found.

“When we invest in cycling infrastructure, we attract more cyclists – it’s that simple,” said DOT spokesperson Vin Barone. “We reclaimed space from cars on the Brooklyn Bridge to make cycling safer and easier while also greatly improving the pedestrian experience.”

“We’re thrilled to see New Yorkers and visitors enjoying this iconic span as well as a healthy, sustainable means of transportation,” the rep added.

The bridge had suffered a 4% decrease in bike traffic from 2020 compared to 573,495 crossings in 2019 on that overpass, bucking the trends elsewhere in the streets of the Big Apple. 

The separated two-way bike path opened in mid-September by repurposing the inner-most car lane of the Manhattan-bound side, offering cyclists a better path than the cramped boardwalk above, where pedalers had to fend for space with pedestrians.

It was one of the signature initiatives in the final year of the Mayor Bill de Blasio administration, and advocates lauded the addition, which was also the first reconfiguration of the bridge since old trolley tracks were permanently removed in 1950.

DOT’s other three East River spans — the Ed Koch-Queensboro, Williamsburg, and Manhattan bridges — all saw double-digit jumps in bike traffic during the first year of the COVID-19 outbreak as New Yorkers hopped on two-wheelers en masse amid concerns around the spread of the virus inside mass transit.

The Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge’s bike counts jumped by 38.5% in 2020, while the Williamsburg Bridge was up 24.7% and the Manhattan Bridge rose 13.1%, mirroring a growth in cycling citywide. 

In just the last three-and-a-half months at the end of 2021, the new lane on the Brooklyn Bridge boosted its bike count, reversing its trend of declining ridership in 2020, city data shows.

“The new bikeway was so profound in its impact on bike trips that even if you look at full year of data, it shows up pretty dramatically,” said Jon Orcutt, of the advocacy group Bike New York, who was a policy director at DOT under the Mayor Michael Bloomberg administration.

“You basically double the bike traffic all of a sudden, starting at the end of September,” Orcutt said.

During the first full month in operation in October, average daily bike crossings surged by 88% on the new lane compared to the same time the year before on the old path, amNewYork Metro previously revealed.

A total of 113,595 cyclists took advantage of the bike lane that month, the second-highest tally ever since the DOT started publishing counts in 2014.

Only July of 2016 had slightly more when 114,991 bikers crossed the bridge.

The new numbers show that even though almost 147,000 more bike trips headed over the Brooklyn Bridge last year than in 2020, it didn’t make a noticeable dent on the Manhattan Bridge, which was previously the preferred route to Lower Manhattan due to its separated lane.

The Manhattan Bridge was up by more than 106,000 bike rides last year, a 7.1% bump compared to 2020.

“There hasn’t been a real decline on the Manhattan Bridge, so it’s not just people are shifting routes, these are new bike trips mostly,” said Orcutt.

“I think people going back to work a little bit has helped fuel it, but they now have that option where you had to really contend with a lot of chaos before,” the advocate added.

The Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge also had a slight increase of 3% in total bike trips in 2021 over 2020, however, the Williamsburg Bridge was the only span over the East River to register a decline during that time of 1.9%, according to the data.

The Queens overpass is supposed to get a new bike lane separated from the current outer roadway shared with walkers too, but those plans announced more than a year ago by de Blasio have twice been punted by DOT until December 2023, because the agency wants to keep the future bike path open for drivers until they finish a renovation of the bridge.