The George Washington Bridge and the Differences in NY and NJ Cycling

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The George Washington Bridge spans not only a great river, but also a great difference in attitudes towards cycling.

Due to a quirk of our nanny situation, I was freed from having to take my daughter to school this morning.  I took advantage by taking the long way to work over the George Washington Bridge and through New Jersey.  The ride reminded me of how different attitudes towards cycling are in New York and New Jersey.  As difficult as it can sometimes be to cycle in New York City, you only need to cross the river to realize how great we have it on this side of the Hudson.

I headed out only a bit earlier than usual, at about 7:45, and the Hudson River Greenway was already full of cyclists on their way to work.  Although I had cycled this stretch of the greenway countless times going south, this was my first time headed north at this time of day, and I was quite heartened to pass streams of cyclists coming the other way in spite of the sub-50 degree weather.  [This is in stark contrast to the (much longer) trip through New Jersey, where I passed only a single cyclist.]

A contra-flow bike lane elsewhere in Upper Manhattan, very similar to the one on 177th Street and Cabrini Blvd.

As I headed up Washington Heights from the greenway to the GWB path, I saw another pleasant addition to the streetscape.  The GWB southbound path approach now includes a protected contra-flow bike lane on 177th Street and on Cabrini Blvd, thus directing city-bound cyclists off 178th Street and away from fast-moving traffic onto the much calmer side streets nearby.  The bridge-bound side remains striped as a sharrow, although in a much narrower and calmer shared lane.  Abundant “bike route” signs also alert motorists to the likely presence of cyclsits along this route.

On my way to the bridge, I felt a twinge of sadness at not being able to ride that new bike lane, as I would not be heading home over the bridge later on.  However, the sadness quickly turned to anger and frustration as I discovered that the south path on the bridge was closed, with no explanation given and no warning.

If you drive but do not cycle often, imagine for a moment that you take a highway every day, and for years exit 4N has been closed while exit 4S was open.  This was actually great, as exit 4N includes a number of loops and sharp turns, whereas 4S was far more direct.  Then, one day, you notice 4N is open, but you keep driving, only to notice a few hundred feet down the highway that 4S is now closed!

So I turned around (at least now I got to ride those contraflow bike lanes) and headed for the north path.  However, unlike the south path, the north path has about 6 staircases going up, down, and around various on and off ramps for cars.  Later on, a colleague who takes a similar route informed me today is only the second day the south path was closed, but he, too, was caught completely off guard and did not see any signs warning of the closure in advance, nor any mention of the closure on the Port Authority web site.  Perhaps I was just unlucky, but a few signs telling cyclists which path to go to today would go a long way, especially considering that one has to pass an extremely busy intersection to head to the other side.  If a car ramp were closed on a given day, I suspect the Port Authority would find a way to warn drivers well ahead of time not to head for the closed ramp.

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This street was still under construction last time I passed through here, but now it is open and bustling with car and bus traffic.

The ride through New Jersey has gotten much worse (and that’s after considerable route optimization) since the last time I tried it over the summer.  Perhaps many schools had not yet started up, or perhaps summer traffic is generally lighter.  This time around, JFK Boulevard East was jam-packed with bus after bus constantly pulling over to the curb, stopping, then starting up again.  A formerly quiet stretch which had been under construction for a while was now completely open, and the streams of buses which must have previously been diverted from this road were now out in full force making their rounds.

Not only is cycling infrastructure in New Jersey woefully inadequate, but the drivers themselves are far less considerate.  At least in NYC drivers expect to see bikes and know how to behave around them, but it seems NJ drivers were completely flummoxed by my presence.  At one point I was slowly rolling towards a red light, in the center of a relatively narrow lane, and a bus (a bus!) honked at me from behind.  Excuse me!?  Is it really so important to you that you reach the light 2 seconds faster?  On another supposedly calm 25 MPH residential street, I was proceeding down the center of a lane full of potholes at about 20 MPH when a car honked at me from behind.  After the honk I speed up to 25 MPH, only to be passed by mere inches as the car sped past me while crossing the double-yellow lines.  In both cases above, I caught up with the driver in less than a minute and quickly passed him (yes, it is always a him) as he waited in a long line of cars while I made my way to the front of the pack.  Thankfully neither caught up to me again as the car traffic was pretty heavy.

Granted, I have had pleasurable cycling experiences in New Jersey.  The Sunday before my Bike MS ride, I trained solo by riding up Henry Hudson Drive in Palisades Interstate Park and back along the adjacent Route 9W.  It is also telling that my Bike MS collision occurred in upstate New York, on roads relatively rarely traveled by cyclists, not on the extremely popular NJ portion.

As an aside, this past Sunday I tried out New York’s closest competitor to HH Drive, the South County Trailway.  However, until the path through Van Cortlandt Park is paved as planned, I think HH Drive and 9W will be my Sunday route of choice.  Despite Bike Snob NYC‘s seeming adoration for the path (never can tell if he’s speaking tongue-in-cheek), the path is in quite horrible shape and is quite jarring to ride at many points.  However, once that path is upgraded, and the greenway ramp in Inwood completed, I can easily see it overtaking 9W as the high-speed road ride of choice for cyclists from NYC.

However, these are overwhelmingly recreational routes taken by cyclists out for exercise, not commuters [though South County Trailway + Van Cortlandt Park has great potential for Westchester commuters if properly linked to Manhattan by upgrading the Henry Hudson Bridge path].  The sad fact remains that attitudes in NJ remain strongly against utility cycling.  Until that changes, I doubt I will be making the NJ route a regular part of my daily commute.

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