I read with dismay and consternation an article in the New York Times a day or two ago:
“Want Fewer Crowds on the Brooklyn Bridge? You’re Not Alone”
By Winnie Hu, The New York Times, December 8, 2017
Some assertions made by the article, and my thoughts, follow.
My thoughts are in boldface.
“New York City is releasing a report on Friday aimed at easing congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge, which has become known as the ‘Times Square in the Sky.’ The Brooklyn Bridge has become as famous for its outsize crowds as its sweeping views of the New York skyline — earning it the distinction of the ‘Times Square in the Sky.’ “
Oh, no. Another report coming. Already, I am dubious. The Brooklyn Bridge is indeed famous, as a beautiful bridge and an engineering marvel, for its promenade and views. But, “Times Square in the Sky”? That appellation (can the word appellation be used with a structure?) doesn’t fit. It’s like calling Barack Obama “the Donald Trump of the Democratic Party.”
“The elevated promenade of the iconic bridge is clogged with selfie-posing tourists, vendors hawking water and souvenir knickknacks, and harried commuters just trying to get to work or back home.”
There is some truth to this all. Yes, the bridge is clogged — at peak hours, such as during rush hour and often during the day — but it depends on weather and other factors.
With tourists, many leaning over the sides to admire the view or taking “selfies.” This is a bad thing? Not whatsoever. That the bridge is a tourist attraction — as is Central Park — is actually wonderful, in many respects. It means that the bridge is special and is so recognized. The tourists add so much to the vitality of the pedestrian throng. (More about this below.)
The vendors do NOT present a problem. They are unobtrusive and are mostly located at the Manhattan entrance to the bridge. That they are selling water to me is a plus, since I often walk the bridge on hot summer days. There are few “vendors hawking … souvenir knickknacks,” and those that are, are not a bother to me; they are also unobtrusive. The writer of this article, Winnie Hu, who has the Times “pedestrian transportation” beat, exaggerates and distorts for the sake of a story. You would think this is the Grand Bazaar. Far from it.
“Cyclists constantly brake for pedestrians overflowing into the bike lane. Pedestrians yell at cyclists for going too fast, or coming too close.”
This is true. It’s a fact of life on the bridge, when it’s crowded (which is not always). But it’s not a serious problem — it’s a consequence of having the elevated walkway (which is mostly a boardwalk) of the bridge shared by pedestrians and cyclists. If you are going to have this, you are going to have some jostling of each group for the right of way.
I cross the bridge as a pedestrian. Sometimes, I stray a bit into the bike lane, sometimes owing to absent mindedness, at other times because the pedestrian lane is crowded. Bikers ring their bells or shout at me to get out of the way. I can bear it. The bikers seem to me to be too aggressive. They regard “errant” walkers like me as a nuisance. It’s the kind of tradeoff and interaction that regularly occurs in a big city, and it’s one I can live with. I am sure there are unobstructed jogging, bike, and equestrian paths somewhere in idyllic regions beyond the city limits.
“In response, the New York City Department of Transportation is taking a series of steps to relieve congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge, including possibly creating a separate bike-only entrance to the bridge on the Manhattan side and limiting the number of vendors and where they can sell on the promenade.”
Beware the New York City Department of Transportation. Social engineers, not many of whom, I suspect, actually walk the streets and bridges, as I do. Congestion on the bridge (pedestrian congestion, that is; there are also traffic lanes on a lower level) is a FACT on certain days and certain hours (such as rush hours, weekends, during nice weather, and so on), but it is not a PROBLEM.
Limiting the number of vendors or taking measures to control them is entirely uncalled for. The vendors bother no one. To repeat, they are not obtrusive. They are an asset because of things like bottled water which they sell, at moderate prices. They are making a living. What is really going on here is common to policy initiatives taken by social engineers: attack the problem at the “lowest level” by picking on the easiest targets, which means those lowest on the socioeconomic scale who have no one to advocate for them.
“These steps were outlined in a report released Friday that was based partly on the findings of an engineering study by a consulting firm, Aecom, which was hired by the city in 2016 to look for ways to relieve overcrowding and improve safety on the promenade.”
Beware of such studies. The firm hired gets a hefty fee for a producing a report that was and is entirely unneeded in the first place. It’s incumbent upon the firm to find “problems” that need to be corrected or rectified, and to come up with nonessential recommendations. So, they find, for example, that vendors are a problem, which they are not. Or that, more seriously, there are too many pedestrians, which there are not.
Here’s the truth. The crowds on the bridge are exhilarating. That there are so many people on a high, as it were, from walking over the bridge, makes it fun to be part of the crowd. (The reason people live in cities: because they like to directly or vicariously interact with and experience other people and to be part of what Walt Whitman called the “democratic En-Masse.”)
I sometimes walk over the Queensboro Bridge to get to Manhattan — it’s closer to my home. Even on nice days, the Queensboro Bridge has very few pedestrians. When it is cold or the weather isn’t anything to rave about, there are hardly any pedestrians. Walking over the bridge is, consequently, not uplifting. And, the views, which could be spectacular, are nothing great because of a barrier on either side of latticework that restricts one’s view. And, the promenade is a cold cement walkway.
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is the opposite type of experience, and the crowd makes it fun. People always seem to be in great spirits, as is the case with Central Park. It’s fun to see all the attractive people, most of them young and vibrant, not only getting exercise but reveling in the atmosphere. Many of them are chatting, taking photos. Couples are having a wonderful time together.
Sometimes I stop to chat with the tourists. There are so many of them. They add so much to the atmosphere (of the walking throng, that is). They are often taking photos of one another. This is a problem that social engineers should be concerned about? (And what about the fact that tourists contribute mightily to the local economy?) Sometimes I will ask one of them to take a photo of me. They are invariably obliging. And, usually, it happens that this leads to me striking up a conversation with them to find out where they come from and what they think of New York. You can only have these experiences frequently in a great metropolis like New York.
The tourists are not taking “selfies.” They are taking photos of one another (this is a crime?), as is often the case with young couples, and young people in general, such as a girl posing for a friend taking a photo of her.
“The Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, once carried far more people when railroad cars and trolleys used the bridge. But today, traffic is limited to six lanes for passenger vehicles and the wood-and-concrete promenade overhead that narrows to just 10 feet across in places, barely wide enough to fit the side-by-side pedestrian and bike lanes.”
Yes, the pedestrian promenade is narrow at spots; at other points along the walkway, it’s wide. So what? Some city sidewalks are narrow; others are much wider. PEOPLE MANAGE.
“Several vendors said that they did not want to give up their spots on the bridge. ‘I don’t want to move, I want to stay,” said M.D. Rahman, who was selling hot dogs and water on a recent afternoon.’‘I have my family to take care of — this is my bread. If I move, where do I go?’ “
Good for him! I hope the vendors prevail, but I am dubious about the prospect. The MTA did the same thing, opening subway stations without the usual newsstands selling newspapers, sodas, and candy which are missed by subway riders. Why are amenities such as vendors selling water and hot dogs and newsstands gotten rid of? Because the bloodless policy wonks could care less about what actual living, breathing people want. It’s a sort of perverse exercise in control and “crowd management” by efficiency experts run amok. As if crowds were a priori a problem in a metropolis. Crowds define it, make it what it is Crowds are the protoplasm of cities.
“… transportation officials have postponed any decision on whether to widen the promenade itself, including one option to build decks on top of the girders that run directly above the car lanes. The new report cited Aecom’s finding that a larger promenade would attract even more people and add more weight to the bridge, which could be a problem.”
The bridge was completed in 1883. Vehicles and walkers (yes, people!) have been crossing it ever since. It was and is an engineering marvel and is a beauty to behold. It doesn’t’ need fixing!
— Roger W. Smith
See also my previous posts:
“Is the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk too crowded?”
“New York’s Sidewalks Are So Packed, Pedestrians Are Taking to the Streets”
“A Plan to Destroy Fifth Avenue”