Severe mismatches in traffic flow on the Manhattan Bridge create a golden opportunity

By Annie Weinstock

Image: Michael King, Traffic Calmer

On January 28, 2021, Mayor de Blasio announced that NYCDOT would repurpose car lanes on the Queensboro and Brooklyn Bridges for bicycles. These are massive wins for bicycle advocates including Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog who fought hard for them.

Why not the Manhattan Bridge?

The Manhattan Bridge is notably missing from the Mayor’s announcement. In 2019, the Manhattan Bridge saw 6,008 daily cyclists, a nearly 400% increase since 2004 when the bike path opened, and uncomfortably close encounters are increasingly commonplace. Today, the Manhattan Bridge has a single two-way bike path that maxes out at 9' 9", substandard for a 2-way bike path. Prolonged obstructions narrow it to around 6.5 feet.

The 2-way bike path on the Manhattan Bridge is narrow and often obstructed. Image: Bridges 4 People

The NACTO Bikeway Design Guide recommends a minimum width of of 12 feet for a two-way cycle track and the Netherlands provides a minimum of 13 feet for the kinds of bike volumes seen on the Manhattan Bridge. So why is today’s substandard design ok with the city?

Severely mismatched traffic flows

The Manhattan Bridge has a very strange configuration: two subway tracks in each direction, two Brooklyn-bound and five Manhattan-bound car lanes, and a narrow bicycle and pedestrian path on the north and south sides of the bridge respectively.

Current cross section of the Manhattan Bridge, looking west

The car lanes (2 in one direction, 5 in the other) were not always so mismatched. Until 2015, the three lanes on the lower roadway were reversible with the peak flow. This made some sense because in the morning, many more vehicles travel inbound while in the afternoon, the flow of traffic reverses. But in 2015, a pedestrian fatality at the Manhattan Bridge Plaza caused NYCDOT to take action on safety. They claimed, perhaps rightly so, that changing the direction of travel twice a day resulted in unsafe conditions. Their response, though, was to permanently turn the entire lower roadway of the Manhattan Bridge over to Manhattan-bound traffic.

While this decision may have marginally increased the safety of the plaza, it was far from being the safest choice. There is no reason to have five lanes of traffic coming into Manhattan and two lanes going out.

To boot, there is some traffic engineering basis for this decision. Prior to last fall, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was tolled in the Staten Island-bound direction and free in the Brooklyn-bound direction. This meant that many New Jersey-bound drivers who were beginning their trips in Brooklyn, were choosing the Manhattan Bridge, Canal Street, and the Holland Tunnel, in order to avoid the Verrazzano toll and travel via Staten Island. The excess traffic on Lower Manhattan streets resulting from these unnecessary through trips is something “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has been decrying for years. This issue has been one of the driving forces behind the bridge tolling and congestion pricing proposals that have been on again, off again for decades.

But, while congestion pricing on the East River bridges has so far proven elusive (though hopefully not for much longer), providing excess inbound capacity on the Manhattan Bridge does one thing and one thing only: it gives drivers tacit approval to make the through trips the City is hoping to discourage with congestion pricing.

What’s more, since last November, motorists traveling on the Verrazzano Bridge now pay a toll in both directions. While the data is not yet available, according to a 2017 Hudson Square BID study led by Sam Schwartz Consulting and using the Balanced Transportation Analyzer model developed by Charles Komanoff, two-way Verrazzano tolling is likely to reduce through traffic across Lower Manhattan.

All of this is to say that the lower three lanes of the Manhattan Bridge should not be used for providing three more lanes in the inbound direction than what is provided in the Brooklyn-bound direction. With two-way Verrazzano tolling now in place, this is even more evident. And if congestion pricing passes, it is a no-brainer. The lanes should be repurposed.

Lower roadway for people

With three new lanes to play with, the sky is the limit.[1] But here is a proposal. Take the southernmost lower-level lane for Brooklyn-bound bikes. This frees up the current two-way bike path for Manhattan-bound bikes only giving all cyclists more space. Then: extend the B41 across the Manhattan Bridge (more about this in a future post) and give it a lane in each direction, to share with emergency vehicles.

Proposed cross section for the Manhattan Bridge, lower level for bikes and buses

This gives the 6,008 (and growing!) daily cyclists the space they so desperately need. It also provides a new opportunity for a transit link that is sorely missing from the network.

Manhattan Bridge Plaza

Manhattan Bridge Plaza at Bowery & Canal today. Image: Michael King, Traffic Calmer

By turning the lower level of the Manhattan Bridge over to people, there is an opportunity to reimagine the Manhattan Bridge Plaza in Manhattan. Today, it is a confusing cone-filled mess, or, as the New York Times in 1996 more poetically put it, “a hummocked mess of weeds and trash, with the Beaux-Arts granite walls partly demolished.”

But when it was first built in 1909, the New York Times had called it, “a complete, dignified and monumental ensemble, worthy of one of the principal gateways of a great modern city.” In fact, over a thousand families were evicted to create this plaza — if only they could see it now.

Our proposal for two bus lanes and a bike lane, all on the lower level of the bridge opens up the potential to recapture some earlier visions of the plaza, with the needs of today’s New Yorkers at heart.

Manhattan Bridge Plaza with more space for people. Lower level access repurposed for buses & bikes only. Image: Michael King, Traffic Calmer

It also actually addresses the safety issues present at the plaza, rather than halfheartedly doing so as NYCDOT did in 2015 when they converted the lower level of the bridge to permanent inbound traffic.

There is no reason that the Manhattan Bridge should continue to carry so much traffic into Manhattan. With congestion pricing, any remaining reasons to do so will vanish. Reclaiming the lower level of the Manhattan Bridge is a quick and easy win. Turning the plaza back over to people could help repair the damage wrought by Covid-19 on Chinatown and would create a safer gateway into Manhattan, more fitting of Manhattan’s past and continuing grandeur.

[1] A more radical proposal for the Manhattan Bridge, assuming a nearly car-free Manhattan, was made by Vishaan Chakrabarti at PAU last summer.

Reorientations is a blog by the staff of People-Oriented Cities. Each post provides a novel idea for “reorienting” cities away from cars and towards people.