Is a greenway meant to primarily be a recreational trail occasionally used by commuters, or does it exist primarily to serve commuters while providing a park amenity for nearby residents?
Yesterday I went to our local farmer’s market in Riverdale. I saw many cyclists there, and while I would love to ride my bike there, it would feel kind of silly given that I live about a block away. While there, I checked out the Riverdale Riverfest booth, an event meant to drum up community support for a Hudson River Greenway extension to Riverdale. This year, they are unveiling the NYMTC‘s preferred alternative. The preferred alternative map was also available for public viewing.
My primary consideration in this project is to improve my own commute. On this count, the preferred alternative scores quite well. In fact, the alternative pretty much improves the least bike-friendly portions of my current route, including the addition of a cantilevered side-path to Henry Hudson Bridge, the widening and addition of a switchback to the steepest parts of the hill inside Inwood Hill Park, and the addition of wheel gutters along the bridge crossing the Amtrak rails in the park.
However, my secondary consideration is to improve conditions for commuter cycling more broadly in Riverdale. On this count, I’m sorry to say, the preferred alternative inside Riverdale doesn’t do much. Riverdale is located on a hill, and the highest density is achieved at the top of the hill, running along Henry Hudson Parkway. The hill plummets towards the water line very steeply as one approaches the waterfront. Furthermore, the bit closest to the water line is a block-wide park extending about 25 blocks North to South. Given this park’s designation as a “Forever Wild” park, new paths cannot be built inside the park, but only at the edges. Sadly, the preferred alternative proceeds directly along the water, with no connections to the street grid for the whole of those 25 blocks. For anyone living in the dense apartment towers, this essentially forces a commuter, who for the sake of efficiency would like to minimize backtracking, to ride in the street, most of which do not have bike lanes or even sharrows. My greatest fear is that this path is used primarily on weekends for recreation, while it sits empty most of the week. Venturing down the steep hill may be feasible for a recreational rider with time to spare, but the views are still very nice at the top of the hill, and far more convenient. Also, I am lucky to live along a street with two school zones and surrounded by a slow zone, where car traffic is always quite slow despite very wide streets. Those living in some of the other tall buildings may not be as lucky.
This weekend I also met a neighbor who drives to work every day in Manhattan, to Beth Israel Medical Center at the Eastern edge of Gramercy Park. When I mentioned my mode of commuting, he expressed that he had thought of cycling as well, and is supportive of cycling, but sadly it is so much easier to drive to that location, particularly working as an overworked doctor with odd hours. Driving, he says, he usually completes the trip in about a half hour, sometimes 45 minutes if he’s on the road during rush hour. Based on my own trip times, I imagine it would take him at least an hour to make the trip by bike, particularly given the poor cross-town cycling connections. I was sad that he chose this mode, but not surprised given the need to take a bus, a train, and two subway lines to get there by transit. I’m not sure exactly what it would take from him to ride a bike, but a better connection to Manhattan would undoubtedly help.
I believe the preferred alternative Greenway path is a huge missed opportunity to encourage more utility cycling in Riverdale. In Manhattan, the path often makes huge compromises on views and proximity to the water in favor of greater accessibility for the local community. On a number of portions of the Greenway in Manhattan, particularly in the upper reaches of Upper Manhattan, one encounters far more traffic in locations far more connected to the streets but disconnected from the river (e.g. Washington Heights) than in places with direct views of the water but few connections to the neighborhood (such as the Cherry Walk). The worst, of course, is places with neither good connectivity nor direct water access, such as Fort Washington and lower Inwood, which appear to be traveled almost exclusively by long-distance recreational riders and thru-commuters, not local commuters. The best and most popular portions are along Midtown and the Upper West Side, the places with both good river views and appreciably faster typical commute times than any other mode.
All this talk of preferred alternatives neglects to mention the single biggest problem: getting the Greenway built at all. For about 5 years now the NYMTC and Friends of the Hudson River Greenway in the Bronx have been working to evaluate alternatives, a process that was originally projected to take just 1 year. The first phase, I’ve been told, will be to improve the path at the top of the hill along Palisade, if not quite to bikeway standards, then at least to be passable by joggers and cyclists. The woman at the farmer’s market pointed out that the dirt sidewalk along this route was so bad that even joggers often elect to run in the street than endure running on the heavily pockmarked sidewalk, a phenomenon I have observed as well. Without some great interim cycling routes installed, I’m afraid the project, particularly some of the more expensive items such as the cantilevered side-path on HHB, may stall as community support fails to build up. More importantly than any criticism of how it gets done, I just hope it gets done at all.