Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Walking Across the George Washington Bridge

For the past 5 years or so, I have made regular trips to Fort Lee, NJ, which is just a short trip over the George Washington Bridge (GWB) from Manhattan. For 5 years I've been meaning to walk across this bridge, to see it in more than just a 2 minute long blur at highway speeds. For 5 years I've found convenient excuses not to do it including bad weather, injuries and just plain laziness. For 5 years the GWB mocked me every time that I saw it out of the window of my in law’s apartment or when we drove over it.

"You have no idea", it seemed to say as we took the jitney across to catch the subway. It bothered me that something as simple as walking across a bridge had haunted me in such a way for such a long time. It was kind of like when you see an older person on the bus, you know that they've led an interesting life and you want to ask about their story, but you don't because it seems like a strange thing to do while riding the bus.

This past Memorial Day weekend, I put my 5 year long procrastination streak to rest and, along with my wife, walked the length of the GWB from New Jersey to New York.

As soon as we left the apartment building, we knew that we were in for a treat as the wind was blowing quite stiffly in the parking lot. Without any wind breaks around, we would surely encounter some impressive gusts once on the bridge.

We made our way to the GWB pedestrian walkway access point and noticed that there were a lot of cyclists about. These weren't the kind of casual cyclists that have a basket on the front of their bike that could hold something as practical as groceries or something as inviting as a puppy. These were the weekend warrior type cyclists that don't believe in kickstands, eat power gel and wear lycra riding suits plastered with corporate logos and team names. As far as I can tell, these cyclists use the GWB for training on how to deal with gusts of wind while cycling.

The cyclists were riding in groups of four or more and I knew that the walking path couldn't be very wide so I mentally prepared for a bit of bicycle dodging. At points, the walking path narrows, so that pedestrians and cyclists engage in a complicated dance of sorts where the cyclist tries not to fall down while the pedestrian tries not to get knocked over. Amazingly, everyone’s self preservation instincts kicked in during these dances, and I didn’t see anyone sustain any injuries.

The GWB is one of the busiest bridges in the world, spanning the gap between Fort Lee, NJ (home to more banks than you can shake a stick at) and Washington Heights, NY for nearly 30,0000 vehicles daily. The toll to cross the bridge from NJ to NY is currently $8 for 2 axle vehicles paying in cash (crossing the other way is free), so that would be close to $120,000 daily income before maintenance, payroll and those sorts of things. Still, that's not too shabby. There is no fee to cross the bridge on foot or bicycle.

The GWB is an industrial gray that you can't quite appreciate until you are right there walking it. It's almost as if it could completely disappear against the sky if the conditions were right. Walking to the first tower, the enormity of the bridge finally started to sink in.

As I craned my neck back in order to see the top of the tower from where I was standing at its base, I remember thinking how amazing it is that something like this could ever be built in the first place. I don't know how much steel and concrete are in the GWB, but I'm sure that the statistic would be impressive.

After the novelty of walking on the bridge started to fade into the background, I was able to focus on the scenery beyond the steel around me. The Palisades Interstate Park which runs along the Hudson River on the NJ side, gently jutted out, buildings emerging beyond the slope of trees, just past the cliffs while Manhattan, still in the distance, came just a little closer with each passing step. Nothing of the famous skyline stood out to me aside from the enormity of it all along with the smallness of myself.

At about the halfway point on our journey across the bridge, my wife casually mentioned that jumpers sometimes come to the GWB to end their lives. The practical downside of this is that whenever a jumper is present, it brings traffic on one of the busiest bridges in the world to a crawl.

My mind began to wander and I looked over the edge of the railing, thinking that this is the view that people have seen right before they ended it all: the noise of the cars, the gusts of wind and the unrelenting water of the Hudson so very far below. A jump from this height would certainly do the trick.

While doing a bit of research for this article, I thought I'd look up how many suicides per year took place on the GWB, but I didn't find anything very helpful. There was reference to some 2003 data that mentioned the figure 10 jumpers per year, but I couldn't find anything more recent or more concrete.

What I did find was an article about suicide tourism. It turns out that about 10% of the suicides in Manhattan are by non-residents. It's believed that not all of these people traveled with the intention to kill themselves, but I'm sure that some of them do. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that suicide tourism sounded like a plot from a science fiction movie about a dystopian future. The tag line could be: Suicide Tourism- It’s the way to go!

As the walk continued, we realized that, due to an unfortunate footwear choice, we would be unable to walk across the bridge to return to Fort Lee. On the short walk to the GWB bus terminal at W 175th Street to pick up the jitney back, I saw a dead pigeon in a gutter while across the street I saw a miniature schnauzer that was just happy to have a building to pee on.

After catching the first jitney across the GWB, we sat in reflection of our small adventure. The small bus starkly contrasted the airiness of the walk that we had just taken. The smells of a thousand people, accumulated over untold time, confined to the small bus attacked us while we remained captive in our uncomfortable seats. Being there just didn't feel right while the wind was blowing outside; it didn't feel natural. I looked out to the pedestrian/biking path at the cyclists and I fully appreciated what they had.

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  1. Very bag and attractive bridge, I will go 100% to see it. If your interest to visiting the world and looking information. Handsupholidays is providing information, cheap and safe travel in worldwide.

  2. I appreciate the labour you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

  3. Great Post Graham. I am the bicyclist with a basket for a puppy or groceries, not that fancy stuff and I do have a kickstand. Sounds like a neat walk across and that is very cool that your family lives so close to the bridge. So you have the best of 2 great cities, NY and Boston. I didn't know about the jumper stats either and that there was such thing as tourist suicide. I saw a jumper once over the Beltway here in DC but he did not succeed as he had big men holding him in a bear hug before the police could get him. Shudder.

  4. Thanks for the blog and the photos. I love the bridge walking I've done--Brooklyn Bridge and Golden Gate in San Francisco--but have never walked the Geo Washington. That, despite having lived in Washington Heights from 1948 t0 1960. But I still have a longing to do so, and your column may finally give me the push I need!

  5. When you walk the GW you take the chance of being run down by bicyclists who don't give a damn. Several times while walking in the PEDESTRIAN lane I was screamed at by bikers for being in the wronf lane. The biekrs think they own the road. Right after being screamed at a young boy was walking with his father and got slammed on the cheek by a cyclists racing by who didn't even stop. The kid was screaming. They need to make biking illegal on the bridge. Pedestrians have the right of way but not in the cyclits minds. Either that or open the north walkway for cyclits only, just as they do on the Manhattan Bridge.

  6. I walk across the bridge all the time. It is a unknown and underserved walk. My sense is if they publicized it more it would be unbearable.

  7. I walk cross every Saturday to Fort Lee. I feel that Cyclists behave well and I did not feel any frictions from them although it is pretty dangerous.
    They should open the other lane.

  8. I used to hitchhike down route 9W from West Point, NY to Fort Lee. Then we would walk accross the bridge...(10 cents) and then we would take the subway to the Polo Grounds to see the NY Giants play.(We went in with the bakery man saved us 55 cents...and sat in Center Field)500 feet from home plate. We knew how to sneak in most kids usually do. Sometimes we would go under the turnstile on the subway.
    Oh, what fun to be a the late 30's.