2017/09 – Safety, Litigation and the Demise of Cycling on the GWB

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 6.44.18 PM.jpgCommittee Meetings/Board Meeting 9/28/17, 0:54:08, PANYNJ Videos

Statement to the Port Authority of NY&NJ Board of Commissioners Meeting, September 28, 2017

Background. My name is Dennis O’Donnell. I am a bankruptcy attorney with a large firm in lower Manhattan. I live on the Upper East Side, with my wife and 13-year old son.  I am also an avid runner. I have run more than 20 marathons and hundreds of shorter races over the past seven years. I train regularly—in Central Park, on the streets of the five boroughs and throughout the NYC metropolitan area.

Early on the morning of May 27, 2017, I was returning from a long run out into Bergen County, coming back over the George Washington Bridge, when I was hit by a cyclist on the bridge’s shared pedestrian/cyclist pathway and knocked to the ground.   In addition to sustaining assorted cuts and bruises, my arm was broken in a way that required surgery and may result in long-term impairment of the use of my elbow. I suffered these injuries because, quite simply, there is not adequate space for large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians to safely co-exist on the bridge’s shared pedestrian/cyclist pathway.

GWB Safety Issues. I have since learned that I was not the first to be injured in this way on the GWB; nor does it appear that I will be last. According to the Port Authority’s Bicycle Master Plan, 39 cyclist-related accidents were reported on or in the vicinity of the GWB between 2010 and 2016.[1] Indeed, as the Bicycle Master Plan concedes, “[t]he majority of reported bicycle crashes on [all] Port Authority properties or facilities between 2010 and 2016 occurred on the GWB path, which is consistent with expectations based on ridership.”[2]

Based upon my own experience and what appears to be a long-standing public record about the unsafe conditions on the bridge’s pedestrian/cycle pathway, I am here today to urge the Authority to act promptly to remedy these conditions.

I understand that the Port Authority has agreed to take action with respect to this problem.[3] For years the Port Authority had had knowledge of safety issues on the GWB cycling path, but had refused to take action.  Numerous experts, public officials, and advocacy groups weighed in in a debate that went back more than a decade—to no immediate avail.

Remedy Proposed is Inadequate. The Port Authority finally decided to take action in 2014, but the measures it has committed to undertake fall well below national standards and will not be fully implemented until 2024—which means that the conditions that caused my injury continue to exist today and will continue to do so for up to an additional seven years.

Such a state of affairs is simply unacceptable. The Port Authority must act now. It must find the funds to bring the bicycle/pedestrian pathway into compliance with national standards as soon as possible.

If the funds can be found—as they apparently have been—to build a “suicide fence” on the GWB’s South path, funds must also be found to fully address the ever more dangerous pedestrian/cyclist experience on the GWB’s shared bicycle/pedestrian pathway.[4] Runners should not be compelled to put their own lives and bodily safety in jeopardy simply because they seek to share an inadequately designed and maintained pathway with cyclists. Cyclists, who are at an equal or greater risk of injury, are entitled to the same protections.

Indeed, the suicide and bicycle/pedestrian path issues run directly parallel to one another. Just as it was the increasing incidence of suicides and suicide attempts and the prospect of increasingly expensive lawsuits that ultimately compelled the Port Authority to take immediate action, it must be a recognition of comparable trends as to bicycle/pedestrian safety that must drive an immediate decision by the Board on this issue.

Bicycle usage of the GWB’s pedestrian walkway has increased in the past few years, and is expected to increase in the coming years, at an exponential rate.[5] Cyclists already comprise 75% of the Bridge’s users and pedestrian use shows no sign of declining. The convergence of these two trends is certain to result in additional injuries, to pedestrians and cyclists alike, and will lead to either (i) an increase in GWB-related litigation or (ii) the demise of the GWB as a viable cycling facility.

Increase in Expensive Litigation. The Port Authority has already acknowledged the potential for increased litigation by agreeing to segregate pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the GWB, with pedestrians remaining on the South path and cyclists assigned to a newly configured North path.[6] With this decision already made, for an abundance of well-articulated reasons, a flood of lawsuits is likely to follow if the Port Authority postpones action (i.e., simply sits on its hands) for the years required to complete the Restoring the George project. In this connection, keep in mind that the Port Authority will only be entitled to “governmental immunity” to the extent that it reasonably and expeditiously responds to an acknowledged threat of injury.[7]

Demise of Cycling on GWB. If the Port Authority will not or cannot find the funds required to take immediate action, the only other alternative would spell the end, for the foreseeable future, of the GWB as viable cycling facility. If allowing pedestrians and cyclists to co-mingle for seven years poses an untenable risk of injury (which it certainly would during periods of peak usage), then it follows that the Port Authority must require cyclists to “walk your bikes” until such time as it upgrades the paths to provide safe, discrete and adequate capacity to all users (AASHTO, not ADA).

This is an alternative that would be very disappointing and disruptive to the thousands of cyclists who have come to rely on open access to the GWB and in no way consistent with the Port Authority’s Bicycle Master Plan. If, as that Plan states, the Port Authority “supports bicycling as an important and sustainable mode of travel,” it will immediately take the steps necessary to the protect the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists on what it concedes to be the currently inadequate pedestrian/cycling path on the George Washington Bridge.[8]

Conclusion. In the end, the Board must step back and view the GWB safety issues in the proper perspective. While many complain that Penn Station, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and LaGuardia Airport are congested, uncomfortable, and not up to today’s mass transportation standards, none present users with same threat of bodily harm, if not death, in the normal course of use as does the pedestrian/cycling path on the GWB. Yet, billions of dollars have been, or are being, funded to address traveler concerns at these facilities. A much smaller sum must be found to take the steps required to address the much more serious safety concerns on the GWB.

Thank you.

NORTHWALK Darren Bartels2New York entrance to GWB North path viewed 11/21.  Image Darren Bartels.

[1] Port Authority of NY&NJ, Bicycle Master Plan (June 2017), at 42, https://tinyurl.com/2b8xfc94

[2] Id. at 41(emphasis added).

[3] Id. (“[T]he Restoring the George Program includes improvements to the path (i.e., the separation of cyclists from pedestrians and changes to the path’s geometry at the towers) that will mitigate bicycle crashes not involving motor vehicles.”)

[4] Port Authority To Install Temporary Safety Fence On George Washington Bridge’s South Sidewalk, PANYNJ Press Release (Sept. 18, 2017)

[5] Bicycle Master Plan, at 41 (“Between July 2014 and December 2016, nearly one million cyclists crossed the GWB.”)

[6] Id.

[7] See Tuturro v. City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 486, 45 N.Y.S.3d 87, 468 N.E.3d 693, 675 (2016); Friedman v. State, 67 N.Y.2d 281, 283, 502 N.Y.S.2d 669, 493 N.E.2d 893 (1986).

[8] Bicycle Master Plan at 1.

How You Can Help