Saturday, January 30, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge vs. Manhattan Bridge: Which route into the City?

Anyone ever notice that the Brooklyn Bridge is a rustbucket? It’s true. Corrosion oozes from every bolt, girder and cable on the 127-year-old Gotham landmark. I’ve watched the bridge’s slow deterioration on countless rides into and out of the city, and a fold deep in my brain prays that the whole thing won’t come tumbling down, Minnesota Highway I-35 style, forcing me and hundreds of other bikers, pedestrians and drivers to swim for our lives in the East River.

My neurotic caveat about the Brooklyn Bridge aside, I’ll add that it’s THE commuting route for beautiful cityscapes, including a view of imposing lower Manhattan, and for people-watching. Bikers get to use the narrow upper level above most of the traffic noise, leaving us free to enjoy the view and dodge the tourists that invariably stand in the bike lane to take photos.

While the Brooklyn Bridge oozes 19th century romance, its neighbor a few hundred yards to the North, the Manhattan Bridge, is best described as industrial. The Manhattan Bridge was completed in 1909, when America’s steel industry was running full steam. The bridge is almost all metal and it has an Erector Set look. (The Brooklyn Bridge, by contrast, has stone towers, and the bike path is made of suspended wooden planks).

I always feel a bit caged in when I ride over the Manhattan Bridge bike path, which is located on the north side of the bridge. Maybe I feel that way because there actually is a cage over the path (to prevent folks from jumping off). The bridge is LOUD, especially when the Q train passes just feet away, and there’s no view to New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty to the South.

But the Manhattan Bridge is in much better shape than it’s neighbor (no obvious rust) and it’s a much quicker ride that’s smoothly paved and lightly traveled. If you’re into fitness, it also provides what may be the longest uphill ride in New York City as you come from the Brooklyn side. I can tell who’s in shape as I pass/ get passed on that incline. I get to work and my legs are pumped up. It’s kind of cool to know I got a real workout in the morning.

Aesthetics aside, there is a practical consideration when choosing which bridge to take into the City: where do you want to go? The Brooklyn Bridge ends at City Hall Park. From there it’s a short ride to the bottom tip of Manhattan and views of the Harbor.

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If you’re commuting uptown there are two basic ways to go. One, take an immediate right off of the bridge onto Centre Street. It’ll take you in front of the Justice Department and Court House where there’s a ton of traffic, but at least there’s a bike lane through the busiest bits. If you’re going to the West Side or just looking for a leisurely ride, take the first left off of Centre onto Chambers Street and ride clear across the island (which is narrow at this point) to the West Side bike path. It’s set apart from traffic and extends 15 miles to the top of Manhattan.

The Manhattan Bridge ends up on the edge of Chinatown (and passes over a good chunk of it). If you’re looking for a cultural experience, cruise through the neighborhood but realize that the narrow, heavily trafficked streets of Chinatown rival the Brooklyn Queens Expressway for bike unfriendliness. But the bridge does dump you into Manhattan a good deal farther north than the Brooklyn Bridge.

Two good ways to head uptown are to go straight off the bridge exit ramp onto Canal Street and head east. Go two blocks to Allen Street and turn left to follow the bike lane uptown (Allen turns into 1st Ave. when it crosses Houston Street). The second way north is to turn left uphill when you get to the end of the bridge ramp and continue straight across town on Canal Street, or turn right onto Chrystie Street, which has a bike lane and will direct you up into Little Italy, Soho and the Village.

Location is less of a deal in Brooklyn, since both bridges start in pretty much the same area (their entry ramps are maybe a three minute ride apart, at most). I choose which bridge to take based upon my mood (do I prefer a view or a less congested ride) and, depending on my destination in Manhattan, which bridge will get me there faster.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fast vs. Clean Travel Routes Brooklyn > Manhattan

Okay, okay, I don't have a new job yet, which means I'm not technically a "bike commuter" since I don't have anywhere to commute to. But I do like to think of myself as a wellspring of practical information on riding the streets of Gotham, wisdom that I've gained on hundreds of round-trip commutes through the city in all seasons. I'm going to lay out my accumulated wisdom bit by bit in coming posts.

Today's topic: the quickest, safest and least air polluted routes from Brooklyn into the City (that's Manhattan for those who aren't intimate with NYC). First of all I'll say that riding in New York presents fundamental compromises for a bike commuter: in other words, a Gotham cyclist is not likely to find a single route that fulfills the criteria "quick", "safe" and "clean air".

Looking for a safe ride? That means you'll likely have to avoid the major Brooklyn thoroughfares and ride a more roundabout route through Brooklyn to either the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridge, the only links between the two boros. Looking for a fast ride? Then take the major roads, but realize you're putting your life in increasing danger. Your lungs won't appreciate the added pollution from multitudes of busses, semi-trucks and general traffic jamming on the big roads, either.

My pick for the FASTEST RIDE from the south Park Slope neighborhood to either of the bridges (which originate in pretty much the same place along the bank of the East River):

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1. Ride 9th Street (bike lane) west (downhill) to 3rd Avenue and turn right. Ride along 3rd Avenue until Bergen Street. 9th Street and 3rd Avenue are both wide open thoroughfares (by Brooklyn standards) with heavy traffic and well synchronized traffic lights that require relatively few stops. Drivers tend to drive so fast along these roads that you, as a bicyclist, will discover that you ride faster than you thought possible as you attempt to go with the flow and minimize yourself as a traffic target.

2. Turn left onto Bergen (it’s a one-way street, as are most non-major roads in this part of Brooklyn), which gets you back onto a designated bike lane. Take Bergen all the way to Smith Street, where you turn right. Smith isn’t the widest street, but it does have bike lanes that should provide a modicum of protection from frequent heavy traffic. Smith will change names as it crosses Fulton Street, becoming Jay Street. Jay will take you through the heart of “downtown” Brooklyn, a jungle of soot-spewing busses, rush hour drivers and pedestrians that venture onto the pot-holed road at will. Ride fast but keep a couple of fingers on the brake levers at all times.

3. Following three or four minutes along Jay you’ll come to Tillary St., where you’ll have to make a decision: ride straight ahead and take the Manhattan Bridge, or take a left and merge onto the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ll discuss the relative merits of travel along each bridge in a future post.

The total travel time getting out of Brooklyn is about 15 to 20 minutes. If you’ve made it without a scratch, your lungs will nevertheless be aching from all the crap you’ve breathed in, which brings me to my FIRST RULE OF COMMUTING IN GOTHAM: Get started early.

Rush hour traffic picks up significantly by about 7:45 AM as drivers rush to make it to their offices by 8. Plan to finish your commute before rush hour takes hold. A 40 minute ride into the Village dictates leaving home by 7:15 or so. Take this recommendation seriously.

SLOWER, CLEANER RIDES: If you’re not particularly competitive, type A or in a general hurry, you can avoid traffic by taking smaller roads and an enjoy a more leisurely commute through historic brownstone neighborhoods.

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1. Take 6th Avenue through Park Slope, rather than 3rd Ave. 6th Avenue is a residential street through the heart of picturesque Park Slope. Thus, there are relatively few trucks although you might find yourself stuck behind the odd school bus. The drawback to this road is that it’s relatively narrow so you’re more likely to get stuck if and when traffic piles up, slowing your commute. Ride along 6th until Prospect (the last place you can turn left before getting to Flatbush Ave, a major congested artery). Turn left on Prospect, ride one block to 5th Ave and turn right.

You’ll ride along 5th Avenue, a relatively narrow, heavily trafficked commercial street, for just a couple of minutes until you get to Bergen Street, where you’ll hang a left and join the bike lane. Ride Bergen all the way to Smith.

2. Remember, Smith is the main, polluted artery I discussed in the fast route. Smith is commercial and mega-urban, not a pretty site. It gets worse once it changes into Jay Street and enters downtown Brooklyn.

So, take this route (a painted bike lane the whole way - a Gotham city planner knew what he/she was doing): Once you get to Smith, turn right and ride 2 blocks to Pacific Street, where you’ll turn left (as I said, the bike lane will follow). You’ll ride two blocks to Clinton Street, where you’ll dog leg to the left to cross Clinton and pick up Pacific again on the other side of the street.

You’re now entering Brooklyn Heights, the chi-chi neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s full of luxurious Brownstones that are furnished with the money of investment bankers.
Ride along Pacific two blocks ‘till Clinton Street and turn right. You’ll ride Clinton all the way through Brooklyn Heights, including its cafĂ©-lined downtown, until the bike path dumps you onto Tillary Street. Ride Tillary downhill until you get to the bridges, where you’ll get to make the Brooklyn-or-Manhattan Bridge decision.

You’ll see that this ride is a bit longer and slower than the faster option, but it’s a whole lot prettier. If you’ve got the time, I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

No Job, No Commute

As of late October I'm out of my job as a journalist at a big time (but numbered days?) biz mag/web site in Manhattan. When I get a new job (hopefully one that I can bike to), I'll get on the blog.