Joe and his team got us as far as Queens and yet we still had 20 miles to go to get to the Brooklyn Bridge which separated us from Manhattan and City Hall. New York City is not only huge in population size at 8 million people, but it is huge in land mass at 309 square miles. Made up of three major islands, Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island, these are broken into the five counties (also referred to as burroughs) of Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, While Staten Island at less than half a million people is somewhat suburban, and only connected to Brooklyn by one very long bridge, the famous Verrazano Narrows, the rest of New York CIty is packed.
In fact, Manhattan, separated from the Bronx and the rest of mainland New York state by the Harlem River, at 1.5 million people is the most densely populated county in the United States. While Queens and Brooklyn, which make up the bottom one fourth of the whole of Long Island, are inhabited by almost five million people.
As the Brooklyn Bridge’s two towers rose nearly 300 feet above us and over the East River, I recalled from the documentaries I had watched about New York City, how crucially important this water crossing once had been. Back in 1870, when construction on it began, it was said that when the river froze and it could not be crossed by ferry, that it took less time for Brooklynites to get to the state capital in Albany than it did to get to nearby Manhattan located a mere stones throw away. It was this landmark span that helped to bring the expanding land mass that was New York City, together as one urban collective. Completed in 1883, after it had claimed the lives of both of its chief architects as well as a couple dozen of its builders, it is an engineering feat that is still revered even today.
We looked out on the grand New York skyline as we pedaled over what was once a promenade built over the top of train tracks that used to run down the middle. Below us roared the daily load of 145,000 cars and trucks that replaced the locomotives, carriages, people on horseback, and the occasional HIWheeler that it was originally designed for.
In New York City, HiWheel bikes were not as common as they had been up in Boston back in the late 19th Century, but what a feeling it must have been to be floating atop the skyscraper of the day on one of the few machines known to man at that time in history. Even now here a century and a quarter later, it still felt pretty spectacular.
Maybe it was a good thing that we we were on top of all the vehicles where they could not see us as we happily pedaled along. The sight of half a dozen HiWheel bikes leading a small army of regular bike riders would likely have caused a traffic jam. Even the pedestrians knew something special was taking place. They gave us a wide berth when they heard the jingle of our bells. And as we passed, they made innumerable thumbs up gestures. Everyone was smiling.
As for me, I felt happy for New York cyclists. It felt so invigorating to be riding such an historic structure above all the rush and hurry that symbolizes one of the biggest cities in the world. And yet it is just this basic joy of being able to pedal a few thousand car free feet that present day New York cyclists have to fight for each and every day. Fortunately for them they have Transportation Alternatives, without which there likely would not be bikes on any of the bridges in a city defined as much by water as it is by its crush of humanity.
To cross its many rivers, creeks, narrows, a harbor and a sound, New York City has hundreds of bridges, of which the majority can be used by cyclists and pedestrians. Besides the mammoth task of keeping New York’s water crossings open and safe for walkers and bike riders, TA also struggles to make them more easily accessible.
Having successfully managed to replace many of the stairwells that used to limit bridge access with ramps, TA has now turned its fight with the local bureaucracies and political leaders to making it safe for bike riders to get to them. Making it easier for bikes to merge with fast moving traffic is an every day struggle for TA. In fact, Noah Budnick, the man in charge of bridges and bridge access at TA, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he himself crashed on his way off of the Manhattan Bridge in the spring of 2005. Miraculously after a touch and go hospitalization and the torture of rehabilitation, he is back once again battling for the rights of New York cyclists to cross over the many waterways that stand in their way.
On the Manhattan side of the bridge, we stopped for a few minutes to regroup with the two bicycle police who were there waiting for us with a couple of photographers.
“Sorry we couldn’t get to you guys on the other side,” one of them began as we rolled to a stop. “Too much going on today.”
“That’s cool,” I said as one of the camera guys got himself into position to take a picture of me and the policeman talking.
“So is everyone here? I know the newspaper guys want to get lots of shots of you guys with the bridge in the background, but my boss doesn’t want us to take a lot of time with this,” the other officer said.
Looking around, I replied, “I think we’re all ready to go. Let’s hit it!”
Soon, after just a few blocks of riding, once we reached Manhattan, we arrived at a grand three story structure introduced by a small city park. The grand cupola that sat several stories tall atop it, also towered over its front yard, an oasis of shade trees and ornamental fountains. Finished in 1812, New York City Hall, is faced with large arched windows and supported by imposing Corinthian columns.
Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Big Apple’s official center of city business looked out of place in its surroundings. Dwarfed by a sea of skyscrapers, its once dominating majesty is lost on all the building that followed it. Even though New York is known for its Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, Verazano Narrows bridge, even Yankee Stadium and the UN Building, its first architectural wonder, its City Hall, is almost anonymous by comparison.