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Friday's Verrazano Bridge Protesters Join a Long History of Pro-Bike Activism

New Yorkers have been advocating for a bike and walking path for as long as the bridge has been around: 50 years.

New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority celebrated the 50th birthday of the Verrazano Bridge Friday, the iconic 4,260-foot suspension bridge that connects the boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn. Citing ongoing battles with the MTA over toll hikes, both borough presidents refused to show up to the ceremony. Here's what did: an ironworker who helped build the bridge, retired bridge and tunnel cops who helped guard it, a 50-gun salute, a fire boat display, and a plane trailing a 200-foot-long banner that read: "50 YRS & NO BIKE/PED PATHS? OPEN THE VERRAZANO NOW!"

Pedestrian advocacy takes to the skies. (Flickr/Rabi Abanour c/o Right of Way)

The "photobomb" is the work of activist group Right of Way, which advocates for pedestrian and cyclist rights. The group argues that the bridge's lack of alternative transportation symbolizes a larger city failure to permit its growing bicycle culture penetrate into the outer boroughs.

"South Brooklyn and Staten Island have been excluded from the boom in cycling infrastructure that is paying health and transportation dividends to other New York City neighborhoods and residents," organizer Keegan Stephan said in a statement. "Much of Manhattan and parts of north Brooklyn have Bike Share, sections of Queens are being added soon, and the Bronx has miles of new bike paths."

Of course, Right of Way is far from the first group to agitate for cyclist and pedestrian-friendly routes on the 50 year-old bridge. In October, The New York Times profiled a number of grassroots activists fighting for the Harbor Ring, a 50-mile cycling and pedestrian path that would start in Staten Island, cross into New Jersey, then hop the Hudson River into Manhattan via ferry before leading over the Manhattan Bridge to conclude in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The biggest missing piece? Arguably the nearly mile-long Verrazano. A 1997 study by the bridge's original engineer found that putting in the bridge portion would cost less than $27 million, or $40 million in 2014 dollars. That's chump change for a transit authority that's set to spend $14.4 billion in 2015, advocates argue.

The proposed Harbor Ring in green, with alternate routes in purple. (Google Maps via the Harbor Ring Committee)

But it turns out these arguments pre-date October, and even 1997. The first Verrazano bike path protest happened the day the bridge opened in 1964. According to The New York Times, in a larger piece on the opening published 50 years ago this Sunday, "the lack of a pedestrian crosswalk" was the most common complaint heard that day. Teenagers picketed the opening ceremony, the paper reported. "How's a Brooklyn lady who likes to walk supposed to enjoy the country life of Staten Island?" one woman asked, reminding us that time passes, but cranky Brooklyn ladies stay the same.

The children revolted, too.

Dozens of children, on foot and on bicycle, tried to cross illegally from the unguarded Brooklyn side. They were quickly rounded up and moved off the bridge in authority trucks.

So happy birthday to the Verrazano Bridge, but also to the bridge's first act of bicycle activism, which ended not with a bang, but the sound of children being herded into police paddy wagons.

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