New York City Council Parks and Recreation Committee Oversight Hearing on NYC Greenway Master Plan and High Bridge Park Testimony of Noah Budnick, Projects Director for Transportation Alternatives
December 14, 2004
Good morning Chairman Addabbo, Councilmember Foster and members of the Parks Committee. Thank you for scheduling this hearing on New York City’s Greenway Master Plan. My name is Noah Budnick. I am Projects Director for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Greenways are fueling a surge in bike riding in New York City. New Yorkers love them because greenways are car-free paths where they do not contend with dangerous and unpleasant traffic. In the last ten years, the number of New Yorkers who ride bikes everyday has increased from 88,000 to 112,000 thanks in part to the creation and improvement of these car-free walking and biking routes.
New York City’s greenway network—a system of off-street, traffic-free biking and walking paths—has grown considerably in size and popularity since the nationally-recognized A Greenway Plan for New York City was created by the Department of City Planning a decade ago. In 1993, when the City’s greenway master plan was released, fifty-nine miles of the proposed 350-mile off-street biking and walking network were built. Today, there are over 150-miles of off-street greenway paths in New York City, connected by another fifty-miles of on-street bike lanes and signed routes that connect the paths in what amounts to a growing greenway network.
Greenways are important in encouraging biking because they encourage recreational riding, and the jump from recreational riding to riding to the store or to work is easier to make than the one from taking the subway or driving to work to riding to work. Greenways that are well connected to other greenways, bridges and major cycling thoroughfares have been wildly successful at increasing all forms of bike riding.
The Hudson River Greenway on Manhattan’s West Side stands out as an example of the power of greenways to encourage bicycling. According to City bike counts, the number of people biking there on an average weekday increased over three-fold, from roughly 800 in 2000 to 2,700 in 2004. During this time, gaps in the greenway were filled to create an eighteen-mile, nearly car-free route up and down the West Side.
In every borough, there are examples of popular greenways and greenway plans that would meet equal success if they were built. The proposed Bronx River Greenway and the Staten Island Greenbelt serve as examples of how government and communities can work together to plan and build greenways.
Standing in the way of constructing other greenways are bureaucratic disputes that often hold-up planning and the flow of Federal funding and a lack of local funds to match Federal grants. Many Federal bicycle and pedestrian project grants are apportioned as eighty-twenty matches, where the Federal government provides eighty-percent of the capital funding and the other twenty-percent is matched by local dollars. Most projects cannot be built without the local match.
The High Bridge aqueduct—the only car-free Harlem River crossing—is such an example. The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has received a Federal grant to improve pedestrian and bicyclist access on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge and make connections to the Harlem River waterfront. This project needs local matching funds to be completed.
The City and State have already completed much work to connect the un-opened High Bridge to the City’s greenway network. The City has completed projects on the Bronx and Manhattan sides to connect the High Bridge to existing greenways like the Mosholu-Pelham Greenway in the Bronx and the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. These paths connect to existing greenways and bike lanes and parks, shopping and cultural and educational institutions in both boroughs.
In Brooklyn and Queens there are greenways in similar situations where City agencies and community and civic groups have completed much planning and lined up possible funding sources, but progress is delayed, often by inter-agency disagreements. The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, the Shore Parkway Connector in Brooklyn, the Queens East River-North Shore Greenway, the Jamaica Long Island Railroad greenway in Queens need an infusion of energy to overcome bureaucratic inertia.
Until there is serious political support to iron out differences and secure funding, many of the City’s greenways will remain a patchwork of discontinuous paths, bike lanes and marks on maps.
Though visionary, the Greenway Master Plan describes only the physical network of potential paths that the City should build. Experience has shown that building the paths is only one part of making the overall greenway network work.
The City needs to convene a citywide working group of agencies and stakeholder groups to establish uniform policies that address the bicycle and pedestrian conflicts and frequent special event closures that plague the city's beautiful car-free paths. Proper oversight of greenways is debilitated by the lack of a coordinating body. For example, on just one five mile stretch of the Hudson River Greenway, fourteen City and State agencies and public authorities have some power over what path users can do and how the path is designed and marked. As a result, these agencies issue a mish-mash of bicycling rules and policies, some contradictory. Such a working group would also help improve communication between the various City and State agencies (City Parks, DOT, Planning, DDC, EDC and State DOT) that plan and build greenway and the public. The Giuliani, Dinkins and Kotch administrations all had bicycle advisory groups, and so should Bloomberg’s.
Citywide greenway rules are badly needed to keep greenways safe, clear and keep them open to the public. In a crowded city like New York, there is intense competition for space between fast and slow, wheeled and non-wheeled and stationary and moving greenway users. This competition is exacerbated by special events, motorists parking and driving on the paths and other ad hoc and, unfortunately, regular obstructions that block greenways and essentially close them to the public. And, in light of the many rezoning and development projects under consideration right now that could bring more foot, bike and motor vehicle traffic to greenways and their surrounding neighborhoods, these guidelines must be a political priority.
For starters, greenways are traffic-free biking and walking paths, and non-emergency vehicles should never be allowed to drive or park on greenways. Period.
Like streets, the City must establish rules that require safe and well signed greenway detours in the event that a path is closed. A strict permitting and enforcement process is also needed to make sure that special events adjacent to greenways do block paths and close them. For the past two years, the NYPD created a safe and convenient detour for Hudson River Greenway users during Fleet Week. This should be standard practice for the hundreds of festivals, charity races and exhibitions that take place on or near greenway paths each year.
Given the huge growth in cycling, the City's big investment in bike paths and bike lanes, and widespread support for biking from elected officials, community and civic groups and health professionals, now is the time to solidify policies that will make greenways safe and keep them open.