Sunday, January 19, 2014

How safe is your hundred foot avenue?

The stretch of Northern Boulevard where Noshat Nahian was killed last month has always felt dangerous to me, and not just because of its "safety culture" that places little value on the lives of pedestrians, even children. Not just because of the widespread practice of turning drivers cutting pedestrians off at intersections. It's partly the width, also: it feels like a dangerous stroad, not a comfortable street.

The funny thing is that Northern Boulevard is not actually that wide. It’s a hundred feet from one building to the other. By comparison, Queens Boulevard at 61st street is 195 feet wide, 32th Avenue at 61st Street is 70 feet wide, 61st Street itself is 55 feet wide, and a Really Narrow Street like New Street Manhattan is only fifteen feet wide.

We have a lot of these hundred foot avenues in New York. Main Street and Little Neck Parkway here in Queens are the same width. Atlantic and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn, Third and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan, Bedford Park Boulevard and Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Hylan Boulevard and Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, all are a hundred feet wide. I was surprised when I first realized that Northern Boulevard itself is a hundred feet wide from the city line in Little Neck to its western end in Long Island City, which kept the old name of Jackson Avenue.

Many of our neighbors are killed on these hundred foot avenues. Recent deadly stroads in the news are West End Avenue, where Cooper Stock, age 9, was killed on January 10; East Tremont Avenue, where Nydja Herring was killed the next day; 65th Street in Brooklyn, where Xiaoci Hu was killed on January 2.

Despite the danger we feel on Northern Boulevard and East Tremont Avenue, other hundred foot avenues feel much safer. The difference is that within those hundred feet there are different ways of allocating the space. Some designs encourage speeding and reckless driving, others encourage safe driving, and even walking. These differences can be made with signs, paint or concrete.

Concrete is the hardest to change. One of the biggest difference between Northern Boulevard and safer-feeling streets like Jackson Avenue and Seventh Avenue is that it has fifteen-foot-wide sidewalks, five feet narrower than the others. Those ten feet are taken out of the width of every lane on Seventh Avenue. The drivers have less space to maneuver, and go slower as a result. In the past ten years, the DOT has also installed a planted median strip in the middle of Jackson Avenue, removing an additional lane of traffic.

Paint is easier, but still has its difficulties. Seventh Avenue is one-way, while the Bowery is two-way. It’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison, but the overall effect of one-way traffic is to decrease safety; the deaths on Northern Boulevard are in spite of its two-way configuration, not because of it. The DOT has proposed reconfiguring the lanes of hundred-foot Morningside Avenue with paint, but the local Community Board wants safety to remain a low priority.

The easiest change to make is to the signs, and here’s one that could pay off big. There are stretches of Northern that feel slightly safer, in Jackson Heights, Bayside and Douglaston for example. The difference is simply that people are allowed to park on both sides of the road. On the block where Nahian was killed, there is no standing during rush hours. In other parts, there is no standing at all, ever, with three lanes available in each direction for driving. That is where it feels the most like a speedway.

The reason for these narrow sidewalks and parking restrictions, as on Queens Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, is that the DOT engineers have sought to preserve and encourage access from central and eastern Queens to the “free” bridges to Manhattan (paid for by your tax dollars). Drivers coming from the east on the Grand Central Parkway could pay a toll to cross the Triboro Bridge, but many of them would rather sit in traffic on Northern Boulevard. The traffic engineers were told not to let anyone sit in traffic, so they narrowed the sidewalks and banned parking from long stretches of the boulevard.

To implement Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero of eliminating pedestrian deaths, spelled out at the site of Nahian's death, we need to reverse that priority. We need to tolerate drivers sitting in traffic, because that saves lives. The first step should be eliminating the parking restrictions the entire length of Northern Boulevard, and in fact throughout the city. When money is available, the sidewalks on Northern Boulevard should be widened again to twenty feet.

These changes will take courage. They will slow drivers down, and that’s one thing traffic engineers are taught to avoid at all costs. Drivers in the neighborhood will complain at community board meetings and in letters to the editor. The very day that Nahian was killed, some drivers tried to blame him for his own death, and they will try again. They will try to hide behind weasel words, but their point will be that deaths like Nahian’s are necessary sacrifices for mobility and commerce, and politicians will be tempted to give in.

One possible concern is that Northern Boulevard is designated as a New York State highway. If history is any guide, the drivers who want to put their convenience over children’s lives will have allies at the State Department of Transportation. We should bring in Governor Cuomo and Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald and make sure that they are just as committed to safety on Northern Boulevard as we are.

Do you know another dangerous hundred-foot stroad like Northern Boulevard? Do you know a hundred-foot street that’s a good example for how Northern could be? How safe are the hundred-foot avenues where you live and work and shop?

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