New York’s pedestrian infrastructure gets even better

The New York area famously accounts for something like 40% of all U.S. transit trips.1

New York may do even better when it comes to pedestrian trips, but these are a great deal harder to measure. New York’s walkscore (89.2) ranks first, but not by a large margin: San Francisco’s walkscore is 86.0. New York though has ten times San Francisco’s population in six times San Francisco’s area, and the city of New York makes up a far larger part of the New York urban area than San Francisco does of the Bay Area. It’s pretty clear that New York has far more highly walkable space than any other United States city, and it certainly appears (although it would be difficult to prove) that a larger proportion of this space gets used intensively than just about anywhere else.2

Recent trips to New York have suggested that New York has only gotten better about providing facilities for pedestrians. New pedestrian spaces like the High Line have of course become famous, but in fact the High Line seems to me to be more of a tourist attraction than a pedestrian facility: it’s so crowded much of the time that you can’t walk quickly on it, and you certainly can’t run there except maybe at 5 in the morning.

In this post, I describe three less well known and much more practical New York pedestrian facilities, all recently built or radically improved.3

Part of the New York area, showing the pedestrian facilities mentioned in the text as well as passenger rail transit lines, streets, and parks. GIS data from and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, considerably modified.4

[1] The Pulaski Bridge. The Pulaski Bridge crosses Newtown Creek, connecting Greenpoint in Brooklyn with Long Island City in Queens, two neighborhoods that have been subject to a great deal of middle-class in-migration in the last couple of decades. It’s not particularly high, but it rises enough above the Creek to provide spectacular views of Manhattan, of Long Island City’s new skyline, of shipping on Newtown Creek and the East River, and of the Long Island Railroad’s Long Island City station. The bridge has apparently had a pedestrian path since its inception in 1954, but the original path was narrow, separated from heavy traffic by a curb only, and made somewhat uncomfortable for pedestrians by its increasing use by cyclists. A considerable amount of lobbying, especially from bicycling groups, induced the New York City Department of Transportation to establish a bicycle path in the westernmost road lane, a project completed in the spring of 2016. This path was separated from both the roadway and the old pedestrian path by substantial barriers. One happy result is that the pedestrian path is no longer right next to the highway. The Pulaski Bridge pedestrian path has become one of the most pleasant bridges to walk across in New York.

The pedestrian and bike paths on Pulaski Bridge looking roughly north toward Long Island City.

[2] Hudson River Greenway and Hudson River Park. The Hudson River Greenway is the result of several decades of contention. The arguments started when part of the old (1929-1937) elevated West Side Highway collapsed in 1973. The Highway had to be shut. For sixteen years it served intermittently as a not-quite-legal precursor of the High Line. Pedestrians and cyclists would sometimes use the closed highway as a scenic, traffic-free route between Midtown and Downtown. Planners meanwhile aimed to replace the highway with the Westway, a freeway along the West Side that was scheduled to run below ground, replacing the Hudson’s mostly  moribund piers. More than a decade of protest achieved success when a court ruled in 1982 that Westway would destroy the environment of striped bass. The plan to build Westway was finally abandoned in 1985, and the old highway was torn down in 1989. The federal money that had been allotted for Westway was used instead for rail transit and for the construction of a surface version of the West Side Highway, a very wide roadway running from 59th Street to the Battery. Plans for the Hudson River Greenway between the surface West Side Highway and the Hudson were formulated in the 1990s, and the Greenway is still, more than twenty years later, barely half finished, but it’s pretty clearly a success. It includes separate bicycling and pedestrian paths, as well as parkland and recreational facilities. (The park area is known as Hudson River Park.)

Hudson River Park, at one of the few places in Lower Manhattan where (thanks to a temporary detour) the pedestrian and bike paths can be included in a single photograph from ground level. In most places, there is a substantial amount of parkland between them.

The pedestrian path runs along the Hudson. On it, one feels surprisingly far from the surface West Side Highway. Its chief flaw stems from its success. On nice weekend days, there are so many runners that walking pedestrians can feel a bit uncomfortable. Fortunately, while the path is never empty, it’s usually not uncomfortably crowded either—especially of course in winter.

The pedestrian path in Hudson River Park on a bitterly cold day in March 2017.

There are still some sections where the Park hasn’t yet been built, and the rough pedestrian and bicycling lanes that carry one through these stretches are inadequate, but the Park is scheduled be done at some point in the early 2020s. One obstacle to finishing the work is that many of the piers along the Hudson, while generally no longer functioning as piers, are still in use and take up space where the Park is supposed to go.

The Greenway now incorporates the walkway north of 72nd Street that has been in place for many years. This Robert-Moses-era stretch—a narrow path that carries both pedestrian and bicycle traffic and that lies flush with the West Side Highway above 86th Street—makes the finished southern portions of the Greenway seem all the more attractive.

[3] Squibb Park, Squibb Bridge, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. The once-industrial Brooklyn waterfront has also been transformed as factories and piers have shut. There is not yet anything like the continuous park that’s being built in Manhattan (and, indeed, will probably never be), but there are new parks here and there. Brooklyn Bridge Park is the largest of these. It contains recreational facilities and a wonderful 2.1 km walkway along the East River. As has been the case with Hudson River Park, it took more than two decades to move from idea to opening. The park was first planned in the late 1980s but, except for some tiny access points, it only opened in 2010 and, in fact, is still under construction.

Part of Brooklyn Bridge Park from Manhattan Bridge.

Access to the park has been a problem, since it’s barely above sea level, while some of the adjoining parts of Brooklyn like Brooklyn Heights are 25 m higher and are separated from Brooklyn Bridge Park in places by a highway. Squibb Bridge and its small associated park were intended to solve this problem. Squibb Bridge runs between the end of Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the central part of Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was always supposed to be a flexible bridge, but, when it opened in 2013, it turned out to be so flexible that it was declared unsafe and had to be closed. Three years of studies and repairs followed. The bridge reopened in spring 2017. It appears to be used by a huge number of people over the course of a day.

Squibb Bridge and Park.

New York is hardly alone in working to improve its pedestrian infrastructure. Many other North American cities have embarked on analogous projects. These endeavors have produced landscape features that seem quite different from each other since by their very nature they have had a tendency to seize on the availability of distinctive local spaces. In Chicago, for example, the 606 (or Bloomingdale) Trail (2015); the extension of the Chicago Riverwalk (2016); and the current effort to create separate bicycle and pedestrian paths along the Lakefront (which is supposed to be completed in 2018) are similar to New York’s projects mostly in that they’re designed for pedestrians and cyclists—and in that they’re set up to remind their users of just where they are. Atlanta’s BeltLine (of which a small section opened in 2012) is an additional example.

These projects have one more thing in common:  All were the result of a hugely complicated process that included proposals, counterproposals, demonstrations, and negotiations over many years. However sympathetic local governments may have been, they have not had infinite funds at their disposal, and it’s taken the work of a great many people and pressure groups to get these projects actually to move forward.

  1. According to the 2016 Public transportation fact book (67th edition) (Washington, D.C. : American Public Transportation Association, 2017), there were 10,750,000,000 unlinked passenger transit trips in the United States in 2014, of which 4,358,276,900 were in the New York area. Los Angeles ranked second, but it was way behind, accounting for only about 6.3% of U.S. transit trips (682,209,400 trips).
  2. Click here for some comments on areas with high walk scores and few pedestrians.
  3. All have been described in more detail elsewhere (for example, in the New York Times and on the New York Streetsblog Website).
  4. All versions of OpenStreetMap are inconsistent in their portrayal of rail lines: in some cases every track is shown by a separate map line, while in others only one map line is used even for multi-track rail lines. I’ve just started the process of cleaning this problem up for New York data.
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