Connecting Communities: A Vision for the Harlem River Bridges, released by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) in May 2018, is a launching pad for city and community groups to mobilize on the State of Play: Harlem Game Changer opportunity, highlighting active transportation around bridge access to Randall’s Island as key in growing access to quality play spaces for East Harlem youth. The initiative is led by the Office of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs to improve continuity across boroughs. Active transportation through bike lanes and improved walkability and strategies to help pedestrians orient themselves in the neighborhood (wayfinding) is a key priority for the DOT’s health and mobility initiatives. As a potential activation towards growing youth access to quality sport opportunities, a focus on active transportation can encourage healthy habits among East Harlem youth while exposing them to nearby play resources such as Randall’s Island.
Connecting Communities aims to improve safe mobility and access across the Harlem River, promoting active transportation options over 13 bridges between Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, including the two main connectors to Randall’s Island. The East Harlem-based connection, Wards Island Bridge, has seen recent renovation as of 2012, opening the walkway 24 hours a day and restoring frequent bike and pedestrian access. The Randall’s Island Connector, based in the South Bronx, is another key access point that has been identified as one of the DOT’s proposed beneficiaries for bike lane upgrades, including the surrounding roads that lead to the connector.
The first phase of Connecting Communities in 2015 included pedestrian survey collection. DOT hosted community workshops and meetings with the community board and across city agencies to assess the priority points of activation. Planning goals outlined in the study are to “achieve Vision Zero, enhance mobility across the Harlem River, create a continuous cross-borough experience, and increase waterfront access.” As a result, East Harlem has seen new crosstown bike paths paved across 110th and 111th streets, connecting pedestrians with Esplanade towards the Wards Island Bridge and the Harlem Greenway leading to the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Bridge. In spring 2018, new fingerpost signs were installed on 2nd Avenue between 101st and 102nd Streets, pointing pedestrians in the direction of Randall’s Island and Central Park. This is the first of two signs to be installed in East Harlem (refer to East Harlem Rezoning Commitment Tracker for more information). WalkNYC kiosks are planned around the neighborhood, but their installations are currently pending. Any projects to the RFK Bridge, connecting East Harlem to Randall’s Island, are solely under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), excluding them from the scope of the proposed initiative.While most impact in the neighborhood has been cosmetic to this point, such as upgrading or paving new bike paths, the potential of future capital projects is being further evaluated to enhance cross-river access. Meanwhile, the proposed projects on the Wards Island Bridge and Randall’s Island Connector from the Bronx have been completed.
Biking to Randall’s Island can make all the Island has to offer more accessible for East Harlem residents living above 125th Street. However, as a recent New York Times article highlights, bikers face danger against the frequent traffic over the RFK Bridge without a designated space to ride. This makes the safest point of bike access through the Randall’s Island connector in the Bronx. Through the lens of an East Harlem teen commuting to play with his friends, the journey begins first across the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, riding south 10 blocks across two highways to reach the Randall’s Island Connector. Similarly, to stay on the Manhattan side would require those riding from the most northern part of East Harlem, at 142nd Street, to bike down almost three miles to the Wards Island Bridge.
Groups like El Barrio Bikes have started the movement, playing a significant role in activating bike pools and neighborhood walking trails over bridges to bring youth to Randall’s Island, encouraging collaboration among community physical activity and transportation efforts.