Downtown Express | Volume 19 | Issue 30 | December 8 – 14, 2006
By Lincoln Anderson
In a city where speeding cars and trucks rule the road and bicyclists ride at their own risk, the Hudson River Park bike path would seem to offer one of the safest places to cycle.
Yet the death of bicyclist Eric Ng, a 22-year-old New York University graduate, on Friday night at Clarkson St., a block north of Houston St., after being struck head on by a drunken driver speeding down the Hudson River Park bike path, according to police, is the second fatality of a cyclist on the path in the last five months. According to reports, Ng (pronounced “Ing”), had left a concert at the Knitting Factory in Tribeca and was biking north. The car, a silver BMW, going southbound, was driven by Eugenio Cidron, 27, an East Village resident who had attended a party with co-workers at Chelsea Piers and turned onto the bike path, according to news reports.
Cidron had been driving at a high speed and Ng was killed instantly in the crash, according to police. Cidron was charged with drunken driving, manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
In June, Dr. Carl Nacht, 56, an avid marathoner, was cycling on the bike path at 11:30 p.m., when a Police Department tow truck struck him as it crossed the bike path while turning into the auto tow pound on Pier 76 at W. 36th St.; Nacht died three days later from head injuries suffered in the collision.
The Hudson River Park bike path is clearly separated from car traffic by a rock wall and planted median. Yet, it is intersected at various points by crossings for vehicles, such as at Gansevoort Peninsula, where the city has a garage for Sanitation Department trucks; as well as at W. Houston St. for the Pier 40 parking garage; and at destination points further to the north like the Circle Line and passenger ship piers.
As a result, bikers being struck by or colliding with vehicles crossing the bike path is not new, and has been an ongoing concern. In addition to the worst instance, Nacht’s death, bicycle collisions with vehicles crossing the path have resulted in more than a few close brushes and dislocated shoulders.
But the fact that a drunken driver so easily was able to get on the protected bike path — with lethal consequences — has heightened concerns to the point where something, at last, may now be done to correct the situation.
Currently, the only physical barriers to keep motorists from driving on the path are flexible yellow pylons screwed into the center of the path at spots such as just south of Chelsea Piers and at W. Houston St., near the entrance to Pier 40. Yet cyclists and others have noted there is a recurring problem with these bollards being unscrewed and removed by park workers. Indeed, the night Ng was struck, the bollard south of Chelsea Piers reportedly was not in place.
Jillian Mastroianni, a Chelsea Piers public relations associate, said, “There were barriers [the bollards] that the Department of Transportation places there, but they had been removed. It’s something we’ve brought up to D.O.T. and the Hudson River Park Trust numerous times. They were put up again on Saturday morning after the accident.”
Mastroianni said park workers remove the bollards so they can ride their small golf cart-style vehicles around more easily.
There are also special stoplights on the bike path with bike symbols on the lights — though these are not physical barriers to drivers.
The bike path was built by the State Department of Transportation as part of the Route 9A (West Side Highway) renovation project and is still owned by D.O.T. However, the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city authority that operates and is building the 5-mile-long park from Chambers St. to W. 59th St., next to which the bike path runs parallel, is in charge of the bike path’s daily maintenance, said Doug Currey, State D.O.T. regional director.
Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, said in a statement, “The staff and directors of the Hudson River Park Trust extend our deepest sympathies to the family of Eric Ng, who was fatally struck by a drunk driver on the Route 9A bike path… The bikeway…is an important part of the city’s transportation network and one of the nation’s busiest bikeways….The Trust is working closely with the relevant agencies to assist in any way possible.”
Indeed, Currey said D.O.T., the Trust, Transportation Alternatives — a nonprofit organization advocating for pedestrians and bicyclists — and the Parks Department will jointly review the bike path’s safety and see what can or should be done to improve it. Currey said they also plan to talk to businesses in the waterfront park, including Chelsea Piers, about what they can do to ensure the path’s safety.
Asked when they’ll announce any safety improvements they come up with, Currey said, “Very shortly — it’ll be a high priority.”
Yet, Currey said, the path is well marked now. Contradicting Mastroianni’s account regarding the bollard, he said, “There was a yellow bollard on the path, there were signals with bike symbols — you’d have to be completely callous” to go speeding down the bike path in a car.
As for why the yellow bollards are able to bend down, allowing vehicles to drive over them, Currey said his understanding was that that was done to allow snowplows to clear the bike path in the winter. A fixed pole, while stopping cars, could present a hazard to bikers and Rollerbladers, he said.
“There’s always a tradeoff,” Currey explained. “Look at the potential impact to thousands of riders [by a fixed pole versus] the occasional drunkard who goes to the path.
“New York City — it’s an area of as intense usage as there is. It’s been fortunate that for a number of years, it didn’t happen,” he said regarding bicyclist fatalities on the path.
“Maybe someone will come up with better ideas,” Currey said. “We’re open to any and all suggestions at this point.”
Mastroianni said that a good start would be to make sure the bollards are kept up.
Noting it has a double yellow line down the middle, Mastroianni said of the path, “We [Chelsea Piers] think that, right now, it looks too much like a service road right next to the highway. It’s where you make a turn onto the highway, so if you turn too soon, you’re turning onto the bike path.”
A double yellow line is not correct anyway for the bike path, since it indicates passing is not allowed, a transportation official told Downtown Express several years ago for an article on the path. Farther north on the bike path, starting above 100th St., there is a single green line — more appropriate for a greenway bike path — down the path’s middle.
The Trust’s Martin could not be reached by press time for answers regarding the problem with the bollards and who exactly is removing them and why.
Barbara Ross, a volunteer with Time’s Up!, the East Village-based environmental organization that helps promote the monthly Critical Mass bike rides, said she knew Ng by face from Time’s Up! rides and Critical Mass.
“He named his bike,” she noted. “He really was passionate about biking.” Ng had just started teaching math at Automotive High School in Brooklyn.
Ross said not long ago she was cycling on the Hudson River Park bike path and saw a cab driving along it. The driver, who luckily was going slowly, asked her for help to get off the path.
“Basically, we need more markings because people [drivers] are confused,” Ross said. “And Chelsea Piers should have some responsibility, because the person [Cidron] got drunk there. And we need enforcement: A lot of cyclists are seeing more cars out there on the bike path.”
Mastroianni, the Chelsea Piers public relations associate, said Cidron had been at Chelsea Piers, but she didn’t know at which venue. But she said all bartenders at Chelsea Piers are trained to recognize when customers have had too much to drink and then to cut them off.
After Mastroianni’s 15-minute telephone interview, her supervisor, Erica Schietinger, Chelsea Piers’ vice president of corporate communications, called to say Chelsea Piers employees have been directed not to comment because of the ongoing investigation. Schietinger disputed Mastroianni’s assertion that Chelsea Piers had complained to D.O.T. or the Trust about the yellow bollards on the bike path being frequently removed. Schietinger also said she could not even confirm whether Cidron had been at Chelsea Piers that night.
In a related story, according to the Washington Square News, Willa Thompson, an N.Y.U. junior, was in stable condition at St. Vincent’s Hospital following a Nov. 28 bike accident. She had been biking home — coincidentally like Ng returning from the Knitting Factory in Tribeca — when she was struck by a U.P.S. truck at 11:45 p.m., sending her flying over her bike’s handlebars. The accident left her with a shattered pelvis, five broken vertebrae, three broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
Yet she told the paper that once she’s healed, she plans to keep riding her bike.
With reporting by Lori Haught