The definitive ranking of Brooklyn’s East River bridge bike paths

(Relatively) smooth sailing. By Sam Corbin

(Relatively) smooth sailing. Photo by Sam Corbin

Bike month may be coming to a close, but riding season is just beginning. In that spirit, we wanted to bring you some cyclist-friendly service information. If you’re a two-wheeled commuter, you begin every day with the same dilemma: which bike lane should you take to Manhattan? It’s not so straightforward, after all. Three bridges, three bike paths, all of which leave you generally downtown—but is one really better than the other? Brokelyn’s here to help. We’ve broken down the pros and cons of each bridge and ranked them best-to-worst, so you know exactly what you’re getting into before you start the climb.

BEST: THE WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE
Ah, this bridge. A wide, wistful overpass with an iconography all of its own. Caked in graffiti that evokes the tries of hapless generations, framed in faded red. This is the romantic road you ride in order to wink at your fellow cyclists as you lock eyes and cross paths with them. Affirmations are ever in your path—like “You Got This” decals on the cement, and smiles from handsome passersby as you chug your legs up the hefty incline in either direction.

What’s great: this bike path runs in both directions on one side of the bridge. The pedestrian walkway moves onto the opposite side of the bridge, so there’s less chance of running someone over. If something should ever happen to you on your bike, though, you can cross over to the pedestrian side at a few different points along the way. This bridge picks up in South Williamsburg and drops you off in the LES, so there’s anytime hip-ness in either direction. Much like the ‘burg itself, this bridge still feels alive at night.

What sucks: OK, there’s really not much. But one annoyance is all the hilly fake-outs on this bridge. It climbs, then flattens, then climbs again. For some, this is interval training. For me, it’s kind of annoying. I like a good, long uphill jaunt followed by a single downhill slide. Also, the path itself is very bumpy. The city is great about paving potholes so there’s nothing downright dangerous, but I start to feel like I have a flat tire as the bumpity-bumps increase in frequency. And be careful getting off in Manhattan! Merging onto Delancey Street definitely requires waiting for the green light so you don’t get flattened by the cars coming off the bridge at high speeds.

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The bridge may be young, but it’s got an old soul. Photo by Sam Corbin

RUNNER-UP: THE MANHATTAN BRIDGE
Second place goes to the Manhattan Bridge, which is like Williamsburg Bridge’s serious older brother. I mean it’s technically younger in years, but it has the sobriety of someone who went to grad school. It just hasn’t got nearly the same réjouissance as the others. This is the bridge you take when you live farther south or west in BK, because it picks up right at the top of Downtown Brooklyn (at Sands Street). It drops you off right at Chrystie and Canal, so you can jump right into a smooth green bike lane and eventually cross over to 1st avenue if you want to ride uptown.

What’s great:  The pedestrian lane is also on the opposite side of the thoroughfare, so again, no foot traffic to contend with. The bridge itself is majestic and quieter than the others, which makes for a peaceful ride to think your thoughts and feel your feels. There are lovely scenic points along the ride, including two cement colonnades to sit and toke catch your breath, and a lookout point halfway along, so you can take a selfie against the backdrop of the East River before riding down. The ramp coming from Brooklyn is a lot of fun: it’s a long, whirly ramp and if you can get your legs going before it steepens on the way up, you’re golden. On the way down, the wind in your hair feels amazing.

What sucks: There’s no pavement over the raised deck beams along the bike path, which means you and your wheels have to deal with the periodic, rhythmic ka-chunk of metal every few seconds as you descend. There’s also not much opportunity for momentum on either side of this bridge. Coming from Brooklyn, the raised path along Sands Street is steep enough to knock the wind out of you before you even get to the ramp. And in Manhattan, the ramp onto the bridge is skate-park steep; you inevitably slow to a snail’s pace as you push to crest the sideways slant. There’s no walkway to cross over to the pedestrian path, which is terrible news for cyclists when foreign tourists stumble into it by accident. Lastly, there’s the deadman’s curve on the Manhattan side. You can’t see a damn thing around that corner! That’s worse only when climbing up out of Manhattan than when coming down into it, since at least the possibility of crashing into someone as you go down is more within your control. 

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See that bike lane? See any bikes? via Flickr user Zack Lee

See that bike lane? See any bikes? via Flickr user Zack Lee

WORST: THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
The shortest of the three, this hybrid suspension/cable-stay bridge is the one tourists are always looking for when they visit. Probably because it’s also one of the oldest bridges in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Unfortunately, that also makes it the worst choice for a bike path. The Brooklyn Bridge drops you much lower in Manhattan, right at South Ferry. This maaay be a good bet if you’re a stockbroker with an early start, but we do mean early. Because as soon as the sun is up, you better believe this bridge becomes a living hell.

What’s great: This is a great place to let some rage out. Not kidding. If you had a bad day and you just want to ring your cute little steel bell at the world, ride the bridge and give self-righteous hate glares to people who don’t live here, condemning their presence and thereby boosting your own self-esteem. What? Okay, okay. There’s a nice thing, too. If you’re riding home at 3AM then this bridge is actually really pretty. The lights, and the peace, and all that. But only in contrast to what you see during the day.

What sucks: Literally everything else. The entire thoroughfare is packed at all waking hours with visiting foot traffic that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your inertia. The slatted wooden walkway makes for a tooth-rattling ride. The narrow curves are manned by policemen and traffic cones, both of which only make things narrower a more nerve-wracking for a two-wheeler. You’ve been warned: if you take this bridge, you’ll spend fifteen minutes ringing your bell at everything with a pulse, swerving and screaming to caution foreigners as they giddily run back and forth between sides of the bridge to snap photos of the skyline and illicitly padlock their affection to the fences.

What do you think, cyclists? Got a different ranking? Post it in the comments section.

6 Comment

  • Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Bridge is the best option to get to my office. It is terrible, however, in the morning, it is less terrible, even at 9:30am. During the evening rush hour tho? Don’t even think about, detour to the Manhattan Bridge or enter a world of pain.

  • Yowzers! the BKB is not that bad. I take it nearly every day. The view in the morning is the best. You’re mostly right that it’s pretty bad in the evening. You just need to take it slow and anticipate tourists coming into your lane. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the construction going on at the overlooks. It creates another chokepoint and I’ve seen many a yogger run out in front without looking behind. Those pedestrian crosswalk people that the DOT placed their do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

  • Your grumpy cyclist editor would like to make the case for the Pulaski Bridge bike lane being the worst of all.

    What’s great: it’s not that steep. It brings you to Queens and near Gantry State Park.

    What sucks: Oh you think competing for space with clueless selfie-takers on the Brooklyn Bridge is bad? Try competing for space on the thin strip of pavement that is the Pulaski Bridge’s bike/pedestrian lane. It’s so narrow that your chances of passing someone are just as good as running into someone. Cyclists and pedestrians have to exercise extreme caution and hesitancy to the point of absurdity, but this is still the safest way to bike into Queens. The Bike Lobby finally taking a lane away from cars, giving one to bikes and returning the sidewalk to pedestrians can’t happen soon enough.

  • I realize this is Brokelyn but most of us who ride also ride into and out of Queens. You omitted half of East River bridges: The Queensboro, The Triboro (RFK) Bridge, even the little Roosevelt Island Bridge.

    • Agreed! Where are the other half of the bridges?? I’d also love to know which bridge is the hardest/easiest (ie. most incline /gain) for those times when I don’t want to get too sweaty.