vertigo

Don’t Look Down: Short Fencing Makes RFK Bridge Path High Risk, Critics Say

A cyclist rides over a portion of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge lacking security fencing, Sept. 5, 2019.
A cyclist rides over a portion of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge lacking security fencing, Sept. 5, 2019. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

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The Robert F. Kennedy Bridge boasts panoramic, nearly unobstructed waterfront views from its pedestrian and cyclist path. The East River crossing, with its spans connecting Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan, offers vistas of Astoria, the Hellgate Bridge and the leafy fields of Randall’s Island.

But many say the vertigo-inducing scenery isn’t worth it: Walking or biking along the narrow path — which is mostly guarded by a four-foot barrier, topped by a railing — could cost the ultimate toll.

“It literally feels like one mistake and you’re going into the East River,” said Juan Restrepo, a cyclist and organizer with advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

Signs posted by the MTA instruct riders not to bike on the path, and riders caught in the act are subject to a fine. Yet streams of cyclists cross the bridge daily, sometimes walking their bikes, sometimes not.

“It’s not going to stop, so you might as well protect them,” said Restrepo, adding that when perched atop his bike, his hip was just a few inches shy from the top of the railing.

Looking to Prevent a Tragedy

Councilmember Costa Constantinides (D-Queens) recently sent a letter to the acting president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels, asking for a study on the feasibility of marking separate cycle and pedestrian lanes on the path. He also requested fencing for the path’s full length.

“Just because something horrible hasn’t happened doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” said Constantinides, who represents the Astoria side of the bridge. “Government shouldn’t always act after something happens,”

The bridge, one of seven overseen by the MTA, is among four — the Marine Parkway, Cross Bay and Henry Hudson — with similarly narrow pedestrian walkways that the authority warns cyclists should avoid. The Cross Bay and Marine Parkway Bridges both have railings, but no fencing.

“Providing a safe environment on and around our facilities is an essential priority at MTA Bridges and Tunnels,” said Christopher McKniff, an MTA spokesperson. “As we constantly review our practices and procedures, we appreciate the Council member’s concerns and will review the proposals he has put forth.”

The RFK Bridge’s Queens span stretches about 2,700 feet, with fencing above the railing only in the areas over Astoria Park and Randall’s Island Park. The portions of the pathway directly gazing over the East River, running about a fifth of a mile, are exposed to thin air.

‘Mixture of Fear and Excitement’

On Thursday morning, more than a dozen people — cyclists, pedestrians and even one person on an e-scooter — were traversing the pathway. Most took precautions, sticking close to the left side of the barrier and away from the river.

Christopher Young, 24, lives on Randall’s Island and walks the bridge daily to commute to his job in Queens. Young said that the narrow path, combining both cyclists and pedestrians, made him nervous.

Kevin Connolly and Murphy at the fenced-in section of the RFK.
Kevin Connolly and Murphy at the fenced-in section of the RFK. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

“In stormy conditions, with a lot of wind, I crouch down,” Young said. “I try to stay away from the barrier.”

But the shortage of fencing didn’t bother Toby Crane, 54, of Chelsea, an avid cyclist.

“I find it thrilling myself. It’s a mixture of fear and excitement,” Crane said, demonstrating what he called the proper position to assume should one tumble over the barrier, with arms crossed over chest. “But it’s conceivable you could end up in the river.”

Others said the fencing was necessary to save lives. Four people — one this year— have committed suicide on the RFK bridge since 2015. The span didn’t install a long-advertised suicide-prevention hotline on the pedestrian path until a July story by THE CITY noted the phone’s absence.

Kevin Connolly, 58, of Astoria, was smoking a cigar and walking his neighbor’s dog, Murphy, over the span as he contemplated the low fence.

“I feel safe. This one, he loves it,” Connolly said. “But I just noticed the suicide hotline sign. It’s a good idea for it to be fenced in.”

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