by Briana Warsing
A cyclist suffered a broken leg after a collision with a car on the helix ramp earlier this year, prompting the Public Safety Committee (PSC) of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) to tackle helix safety as an initiative.
Their response is a resolution banning bicycles, wheelchairs, and scooters from the helix. They’re concerned that it is narrow, with limited distance sightlines, and limited visibility due to glare. The full text of the resolution can be found at MainStreetWIRE.com.
Chair Erin Feely-Nahem explains, “The committee feels that, due to the [spatial] constraints of the helix, bike-riding up and down can be dangerous. Many a rider, unaware of how steep the helix is, can be found walking up, after being unable to handle the ride. Various blind spots due to the design, as well as sunlight glare at different times in the day, create hazardous conditions.”
The community is divided on this issue. Bike NY says they are aware of the resolution, but have declined to comment at this time.
Feely-Nahem says, “The recent increase of construction and truck traffic has added more concern with the limitations [that the helix] poses related to [getting] on and off [the] Island. The recent injury to the bicyclist on the helix ramp, a broken leg, after being swiped by a car, made us decide not to wait for a fatality or something worse to happen before we brought the issue to light.”
Of the PSC’s task, committee member Frank Farance says, “Largely, it’s about safety. The question is: with cyclists on the helix roadway, there are significant safety issues. So how do we fix the problem[?] Reconfigure the roadway? Nope, not enough room. Ban bicycles from the helix? Nope, where will they go? Force all bicycles to use the elevators? Nope, some bicycles don’t fit in the elevators and the elevators are unreliable. What about escalators? Nope, they won’t be rebuilt for a while. What about stairs? Doesn’t work for some bicycles, some can fall over the railing, and some people don’t have the strength.”
RIRA representative Susana del Campo Perea says tandem bicycles don’t fit in the Motorgate elevators and are too heavy to carry down the stairs. As a result, she says, “The helix ramp is the only way.” Like Farance, Perea doesn’t believe the issue has a simple solution. She suggests better lighting, and says that if RIRA votes to close the helix to cyclists, “PSD [the Public Safety Department] and RIOC [the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation] have to make an exemption for tandem bikes and escort them up and down the helix ramp when the families call them.”
RIRA representative Joyce Short disagrees. In her view, the helix should be closed to all bicycles. She says, “The helix was not designed for bikes. [Bicycles] were not permitted for several years. When the escalators stopped working, the signs [directing cyclists to the escalators and off the helix] were removed... They should have simply posted signs that directed riders to the elevator.”
Working escalators would be great, but they are not a right-now answer to this problem. For the future, Farance suggests, “A multi-purpose escalator like the kind they have at Home Depot or Walmart —you can ride the escalator, and your shopping cart, or bike in our case, rides next to you. Multi-purpose stairs would have a ramp outside the railing, with bumps for rest stops on the stairs; you’d walk the stairs and your bike would roll next to you on the ramp.” Farance says, “The City Planning Department in the Western Queens Transportation Study made this recommendation last year.”
Feely-Nahem can list all of the different ideas that people have had to solve this problem: “mirrors on the ramp, better lighting, signage regarding class of cyclist able to handle the difficulty of the helix, alternate ways on and off the Island, replacing the broken escalators with stairs, a large free-standing elevator like many airports have, located where the escalator currently is, allowing cyclists to utilize the lanes within Motorgate, closing traffic to bikes during the weekdays when truck traffic is heaviest, allowing bikes only on the weekend.”
None of those ideas was deemed effective enough by the committee. Feely-Nahem says she has seen “children walking bikes up and down the ramp, people jogging up and down the ramp, and motorized wheelchairs and scooters, as well as skateboarders. I was informed that Bike NY is teaching the children to ride up and down the helix as well.” She says, “This subject was opened up to the [RIRA] Common Council in the hopes that more ideas would be brought to the table, so we can figure out how to be proactive in addressing this safety issue.”
Farance says he has been working with RIOC staff on this issue, and he is incorporating their findings into a comprehensive report.
He says it’s a “complex topic with many related issues. And it’s not just the helix, it’s cyclists, it’s cyclist training, ... and it’s Cornell, too. And there are several solutions, each with [its] own constraints, like inadequate elevators, which must be properly understood. And there are other related topics, such as the City’s Planning Department and Citi Bike.”
Feely-Nahem also points out, “For many, it is hard to remember, but it was not too long ago that bikes were not allowed on the helix due to the constraints in its design. Bike lanes require a certain amount of space to be considered safe, and the space on the helix isn’t wide enough.”
“The cycling community is invited to participate in the discussion, and we figured [that] there are a few bike enthusiasts on the Common Council who will provide input when it is brought to them,” said Feely-Nahem. The resolution will be voted on at the next meeting (Wednesday, September 9, 8:00 p.m.). There’s a public comment session at the beginning of each meeting.