Getting Around East Harlem

Much of the transportation infrastructure in East Harlem has long been equated with poor public and environmental health and creates physical and mental barriers from scarce open space.

Bus depot and thru-traffic–particularly on the FDR– are thought to contribute towards the neighborhood’s poor air quality and high asthma rates. Infrastructure such as the Metro North viaduct and the FDR Drive seemingly block East Harlem residents from nearby Central Park to the west and the East River Esplanade to the east.

Recent developments in promoting active transportation modes such as walking and bicycling, combined with public transit use throughout East Harlem are helping to undo some of the harm of the aforementioned obstacles.

With support from Community Board 11,City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, and from advocacy groups like CIVITAS and Transportation Alternatives grassroots support for more complete streets is beginning to take hold.

Streetfilms: East Harlem Complete Streets

Despite this progress, pedestrians still remain the most vulnerable street user. According to Transportation Alternatives, 106th, 116th and 125th Streets are hotspots for crashes, with 125th Street and Lexington Avenue ranking the most dangerous intersection in Community District 11, and second most on the East Side.

Safe Routes to Transit improvements that are accompanying updates to the streetscape along 1st and 2nd Aves in conjunction with M15 SBS service can provide more space for pedestrians and decrease crossing distances at intersections to improve safety and convenience for neighborhood pedestrians. Similar treatments should be expected when bus improvements along 125th St. come online.

Perhaps more alarming is the disparity between the Upper East Side and East Harlem.  Children under 18 make up about 30% of residents in both East Harlem and the Upper East Side.  However, in East Harlem children account for 43% of crash victims between cars and pedestrians or cyclists, while Upper East Side children represent less than 15%. The intersections where children were most likely to be struck are clustered around public housing.  This is not only an issue of traffic justice, but also of social justice and public health.

Access to recreational space along the East River Esplanade is somewhat difficult. Though the path is popular among bikers and runners, only three pedestrian bridges over the FDR Drive to the esplanade at 102nd Street, 111th Street and 120th Street.  Few signs point to these access point on the neighborhood side of the highway and the fly-over walkways are uninviting.

The esplanade itself is in a deteriorated condition, particularly compared to lower sections or similar paths on the west side of Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront and even along the Harlem River.  There are many sink holes, indicative of the wearing away of the bulk head.  Many of the trees and plants are dead, the railings are rusted and the pavement is cracked.

Pedestrian access to Randall’s Island–supposedly the bulk of East Harlem’s open space– is available from the 103rd and 125th St bridges.  Just last year, the 103rd St. bridge re-opened after undergoing a two-year and $16.8 million renovation.  Previously, the bridge was only open parts of the year and limited hour, and had become a magnate for crime. The 125th St access point remains rarely used and seemingly unsafe.

Advancements have been made in improving open space access and safety in the neighborhood, but work remains. We hope to use this plan to leverage further improvements in East Harlem by using all the tools in the NYC DOT toolbox to improve quality of life in this neighborhood.

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