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Bicyclists vs. Pedestrians: An Armistice

The New York Times, Op Ed: Bicyclists vs. Pedestrians: An Armistice

By ROBERT SULLIVAN
Published: September 26, 2009

ONE of the great battlefields in the war between bicyclists and pedestrians in New York City is the Brooklyn Bridge. Pedestrians think all bicyclists are out-of-control maniacs; bicyclists — the majority, anyway — are just trying to avoid cars and not break a sweat. The stripe painted down the center of the elevated Brooklyn Bridge walkway, to separate bicyclists from pedestrians, has become a line in the sand. We need to erase that line once and for all.

There are various reasons for the battle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn seems to sprout bike commuters, as do its vaguely do-it-yourself cultural attitudes that the real estate race has not yet destroyed. The walkway, meanwhile, is narrow. Thus, on any given day, we see on one side a herd of pedestrians, part tourists photographing the Statue of Liberty, part people walking to work — a volatile mix to begin with. On the other side of the line are two kinds of bicyclists, most pedaling peacefully, a few confusing bike commuting with driving rocket cars on the Bonneville Salt Flats. It’s a recipe for confusion and arguments, not to mention accidents.

Indeed, the Brooklyn Bridge is just one of several bike-pedestrian flash points in the city; skirmishes (and anti-bicyclist sentiment) have arisen on the Hudson River Greenway and on the Central Park and Prospect Park loops. But the Brooklyn Bridge battle, maybe because the bridge is iconic, is the most charged. The New York City Department of Transportation has experimented with lane sizes, signs and bollards, but with more people walking and more people biking (both good developments), chaos quite naturally ensues, in addition to shouting and calls, not for the banning of pedestrians — that would be wrong, everyone agrees — but for the banning of bicycles.

I hear the call to ban bikes on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway all the time, but up to now I, a Brooklyn resident who sometimes shows up a little late for meetings in Lower Manhattan with chain grease on his hands, have resisted. Today, though, I am prepared to accept a bicycle ban on the walkway, allowing just one condition.

Before I describe the condition, a very brief history of transportation on the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. By 1902, when it was fully operational, it accommodated horses, horse-drawn trolleys, trains and pedestrians, and they were — all of them — charged a toll: one cent for pedestrians, two cents for livestock and 20 if you had a carriage pulled by horses. More than 340,000 people crossed daily that year, according to a chart published in 1988 by the Federal Highway Administration (and recently rediscovered by Streetsblog). By 1907, the bridge’s peak year, 426,000 people crossed every day. The toll was abolished in 1911.

(I personally am a result of this historic transportation mix, as my grandparents, family legend has it, met on a Brooklyn Bridge trolley around 1917.)

In the 1940s and ’50s, as more cars crossed, trains and trolleys were removed. By 1989, the number of people who crossed daily had dropped to 178,000.

I realize that most people who want to ban bikes on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway want the bicyclists to use the Manhattan Bridge. True, the Manhattan Bridge has an excellent bike-only lane. But this is the kind of idea that sounds good only to a non-Brooklyn Bridge bicyclist; the Manhattan Bridge bike lane is great for getting to a lot of places, but a long way to go for downtown.

Thus, I present the following condition. Yes, ban bicycles on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, but allow them on the roadways, where they are now not permitted, by creating physically protected bike lanes. This may sound like going back to the old days when the bridge carried nearly four times as many people with a fraction of the pollution, but here is one of those cases in which a conservative, backward-looking proposal feels right. If the city were to experiment with the idea on a weekend, all they would have to fear would be a shortage of hot chocolate at the South Street Seaport caused by the influx of parents and children from Brooklyn.

While we’re at it — and while the bridge undergoes a four-year refurbishment set to begin this year — why not also get some buses on the bridge, as we wait for light rail?

If we bicyclists cede the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, then it might be a step toward winning the public’s respect. Then, just maybe, pedestrians would call a truce and recognize that their real enemy is the car, that bikers are like pedestrians in that they are just trying to get to work without the use of a gurney.

After the first Battle of Brooklyn, at the end of August 1776, the defeated American forces managed to stay alive by retreating to Manhattan at around the same place where the Brooklyn Bridge lands today. Less remembered is the meeting a few weeks later between the British and the Americans at the Conference House on Staten Island. The British hoped to broker a peaceful “reunion with America,” but they couldn’t stop referring to the Americans old-style, as British subjects, so the Americans walked, refusing to turn back the clocks.

It’s the same with bicyclists. They are full-fledged New Yorkers now, not maniacs who need to be banned. We are all fighting to make the streets safe for something other than driving and parking. The livability revolution has begun. There is no turning back.

Robert Sullivan, the author of “The Thoreau You Don’t Know,” is writing a book about the American Revolution.