Friday, January 31, 2014

Big trucks on Northern Boulevard

As I wrote last month, there were multiple factors that all contributed to the death of eight-year old Noshat Nahian under the wheels of Mauricio Osorio-Palominos's truck on December 20. Commercial driving culture in general, and in Queens in particular, makes the lives of children a lower priority than the profits of the companies and the convenience of the drivers. The priority of pedestrians in crosswalks is routinely ignored. The excessive amount of street space allocated to driving encourages drivers to speed and take turns too fast.

Another factor is the very size of the trucks. The left and right hook deaths I cited before all involved large trucks. I had a hard time avoiding cars in a 35-foot rented moving van, and the number of deaths show that even professionals have difficulty avoiding pedestrians, especially in larger trucks.

The City recognizes this, with laws restricting trucks to designated routes, unless they have local business, and forbidding some trucks from entering the city at all. But the size of trucks making local deliveries has increased over the years. The supermarket in my neighborhood has a loading dock that is gated and locked, because it's never used. The trucks that deliver to that market today would not fit even if they blocked the entire street. Instead they line up on the avenue, and the store employees break the pallets on the sidewalk and handtruck everything in through the front door.

If you go out west things are worse, with gigantic double trailers barreling down the highway, and the trucking companies are lobbying for even bigger trucks to be allowed. We already restrict the size of trucks on our city streets, which means that there are warehouses to take things off of big trucks outside the city limits.

We should go further. We can't keep our kids safe with even 55-foot machines on the road. We need to envision a city without big trucks. I wouldn't be surprised if it drives up the cost of things we buy, and the cost of doing business in the city, but I know my son's life is worth it, and I hope you agree.

Monday, January 27, 2014

New transit and our goals

It's pretty much a no-brainer that anything that optimizes existing transit use will help us toward our goals. Getting people out of cars and onto existing bus runs, or out of buses and onto existing train runs, means less wasted resources, less pollution, less carnage and more transit riding voters. And as Eric Morris has pointed out, the other extreme is true: a hugely expensive, physically disruptive transit project that gets a few people out of their cars for a short period of time but continues to encourage sprawl development and driving is something that we're probably better off without.

The question then becomes: where do you draw the line? Which designs and configurations should we always say no to? If you have a limited pool of money, how do you decide between two new transit projects? First of all, we shouldn't back any project with a competing highway project. Beyond that, we can start with Alon Levy's "trip chaining" principles that I discussed in my "Carfree 24/7" post:

Short trips
Foot or bicycleCar
Long tripsTransitTransit/walkableCommuter suburbs
CarAuto-oriented denseSprawl

When we talk about getting people out of their cars, the goal should be to get them completely out of their cars. That means transit for long trips and walking (or cycling) for short trips. Transit without walkability means that people will be driving to the store and to drop their kids off at school. Walkability without transit means that people will be driving to work, major shopping and vacations.

Transit and walkability also reinforce each other, just as local and long-distance car dependence reinforce each other. Walkability solves the "last mile" problem for transit, and people in cars tend to stay in cars.

This means that the projects with the biggest bang for the buck are ones where there is walkability without transit, or transit without walkability. We build the transit to serve the walkable community, or upzone around the transit station, to bring the transit and walkability into balance.

The next most desirable transit projects are those that build transit and walkability together. I'm often skeptical of these, especially when they're greenfield developments, and that's another principle: infill is better than greenfield, all else being equal.

We can rule out projects that are neither walkable nor transit-oriented, but simply promote 24/7 car dependence. But what about sprawl transit proposals, like the Northern Branch, the Tappan Zee transit and extensions of Metro-North, which are at best accompanied by vague promises of rezoning? What about proposals for dense, walkable villages in locations underserved by transit, if they are served at all, like the Piermont pier and the Piscataquis Village Project?

In general I would say no to projects like these. If we wait a generation, people will probably be more open to transit and walkability, and we don't want to get locked into highways, garages and single-family sprawl. But there are circumstances where they might make sense. Sometimes you need to move fast to lock down a right-of-way. Sometimes you need to spend money on transit before the road people grab it.

There's an argument that's frequently made that park-and-ride transit can function as a ratchet. Get people on transit for a little while and they'll identify as transit riders and support transit expansion. Get people walking a little and they'll demand transit. I'm not convinced. I know too many transit-riding car owners who identify as drivers first and foremost, and vote that identification. If there was some kind of explicit time limit, where termites would gradually eat the park-and-ride or something, I might consider it.

In any case, these "maybe" proposals should be lower priorities than the other ones, in terms of land, money and activist time. So to sum up:

  • Use existing capacity
  • Build transit to serve existing walkable communities
  • Upzone existing transit-oriented communities
  • Infill transit and walkability
  • Greenfield transit and walkability
  • Lock down an existing right of way
  • Spend money while it's there
  • Sunsets
  • Anything with a competing highway investment
  • Park-and-rides
  • Transit-inaccessible walkable villages
  • Ratchet arguments
  • Autosprawl

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?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Ten things Trottenberg can do for pedestrians

Back in 2009, when Janette Sadik-Khan had only been New York City Transportation Commissioner for a year, I offered five things that she could do to improve the pedestrian environment. She left office on January 1, and from what I can tell she only did one of the five things I asked: the hated Midtown pedestrian barricades put in under Giuliani's acting commissioner Richard Malchow, are gone. There was no fanfare, but I'm thinking about places where I knew there were barricades, like Sixth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, and they're gone.

I'm not complaining that Sadik-Khan only did one thing I asked. The things she did do for pedestrians - adding pedestrian space in plazas, calming streets with road diets and protected bike lanes - have made the city a much more pleasant place to walk. But I would like to see the other four things happen, and I have a few more. So here's the updated list, and I hope our new Commissioner Polly Trottenberg can make them happen.

  1. Make sidewalk extensions standard. They're documented to make streets safer for pedestrians. They should probably be on every corner. In 2002, Bloomberg and Commissioner Weinshall missed a golden opportunity: they spent $218 million to install curb cuts at corners throughout the city, bowing to years of sustained pressure from disability rights advocates. They could have installed extensions at many of those corners, but of course they didn't. Trottenberg could make up for that by setting a policy that in the future any corners that are rebuilt will be rebuilt with extensions by default. Those extensions should only be omitted if circumstances argue against them, not the other way around.

  2. Summer Streets across the Manhattan Bridge. Summer Streets has proven to be wildly popular for six years running, rain or shine, and it's time to extend it. A large number of livable streets advocates live in Brooklyn and already travel to Manhattan for the event. We could make it easier for them to attend, and bring some tourist dollars and recreation to Brooklyn, by extending Summer Streets east on Canal Street, across the upper deck of the Manhattan Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Park. Trottenberg may need some help from the NYPD on this: I've heard that the policing costs are very expensive, but that the police staffing levels are very much overkill, and many of those cops could be replaced by event staff with no decrease in safety.

  3. Widen Penn Station sidewalks. Sadik-Khan has done great things for pedestrians in Herald and Times Squares, but it's well-documented that there's a heavy crush of pedestrians around Penn Station during weekday rush hours. That's where pedestrian improvements are needed the most. If you ride a CitiBike up Eighth Avenue at rush hour you'll see tons of pedestrians walking in the bike lane and buffer zone. Why not take a lane or two out of Seventh and Eighth Avenues and make them available for pedestrians?

  4. Loading zones on every block. I've made the case that the lack of dedicated loading zones makes the city much more dangerous. The city's culture of double-parking, where "everyone does" something that's illegal and dangerous, poisons the relationship between motorists and traffic enforcement agents. Rampant double-parking encourages negligent idling practices. It also pits motorists defending their "right" to double-park against pedestrians who want narrower streets to discourage speeding, and cyclists who want protected bike lanes. The DOT is constantly reconfiguring parking on blocks around the city. What if every time they did that they set aside a space or two that was only available for loading and unloading, maximum occupancy fifteen minutes?

  5. Allocate street space for food trucks and carts. In Midtown where sidewalk space is already scarce, there is often a bad crush around food carts. The food carts and trucks used to operate out of the street, but NYPD "crackdowns" have forced them onto the sidewalk. This is nuts. If people are upset that these carts are parking for free, or for meter rates, then the DOT can set aside some spaces where food truck operators can pay market rates for the space.

  6. Reexamine parking restrictions. One awful legacy from earlier administrations is parking restrictions that add a travel lane or two to a street, but make it dangerous and inhospitable for pedestrians. Trottenberg could order a citywide reexamination of these zones and eliminate those that are most dangerous and least warranted.

  7. Restore crosswalks. Similarly, there are several street crossings that are missing one or more crosswalks. Parts of Seventh Avenue South feel like a highway instead of a boulevard because there are no crosswalks for streets like Leroy Street and Waverly Place. There are other intersections - the corner of Forty-Eighth and Northern here in Queens comes to mind - where there are crosswalks on only three sides. Trottenberg should have the DOT staff look at all intersections that don't have crosswalks at all sides, and see if restoring the crosswalks could make the intersections safer and more comfortable for pedestrians

  8. .
  9. Restore two-way flow. When Bloomberg hired Sadik-Khan, he told her that she could change the traffic flow on Fifth Avenue. This was supposedly a big joke, but I totally think Trottenberg should do it, and De Blasio should back her up. The city's avenues were converted to one-way for one reason only: to give the city's driving elite priority over its walking majority. If we no longer want to do that - if De Blasio wants to end that "tale of two cities" - then the single biggest change that will make our streets livable again is to eliminate all multi-lane one-way streets.

  10. Rebuild the Queensboro Bridge pedestrian paths. This is a big, expensive project, but it would be a lot cheaper than the hundreds of millions the DOT has spent making the Brooklyn Bridge and the Belt Parkway easier for drivers. Right now we have a sidepath that is bearable if you're on a bike, but once I walked it with my son and the noise was really unpleasant. Compare the Queensboro Bridge experience to that on the Brooklyn or Williamsburg Bridges and you see that the grade separation makes a huge difference. But this should only be done if the outer decks are both returned to exclusive transit use.

  11. Cherish our Really Narrow Streets. Nathan Lewis argues that Really Narrow Streets privilege the pedestrian and create an opportunity for intense commerce that cannot be matched by any street wide enough to handle cars and pedestrians together. We've got some of those here, but we give cars priority and cover them in scaffolding. Trottenberg should take a look at some of Lewis's examples and see what we can do to make them places where New Yorkers want to be.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Leading pedestrian intervals and the left hook of death

On the morning of December 20, Mauricio Osorio-Palominos drove his truck south on 61st Street here in Queens and turned left onto Northern Boulevard. Eight-year-old Noshat Nahian was crossing the boulevard with his older sister and a number of other children bound for P.S. 152. The law says that as the driver of a turning vehicle, Osorio-Palominos did not have the right of way, and should have waited until all the pedestrians were clear of the crosswalk before attempting to turn. Instead, he turned in front of them, and crushed Nahian under his rear wheels.

Last week I talked about the "safety culture," or lack thereof, on Northern Boulevard, which is one of the factors in the death of this boy. The culture that puts adults before children, work before school, drivers before pedestrians and trucks before all is what gave Osorio-Palominos the license to get behind the wheel even though the state of New York had forbidden him to drive a truck, and the state of New Jersey had punished him numerous times for dangerous conduct. It is what pushed him to drive his truck in front of the children, even though the law obligated him to wait for them. But that is only one factor.

Another factor is the left hook of death. When I heard about the death of this boy, only slightly younger than my own son, it brought to mind another death. In 1997, Jill Solomon was killed under the rear wheels of a truck turning left from Second Avenue in Manhattan onto the Queensboro Bridge. As activists gathered to mourn her death, they saw a car crushed in the exact same way at the exact same spot, fortunately with no deaths that time.

I remembered hearing about Solomon's death from Transportation Alternatives shortly after it happened, and recently when I went to research it, I found other stories. Another, unidentified cyclist was killed a week before her on Broadway at 86th Street. T.A. has been calling attention to these crashes at least since the deaths of 80-year-old Eugenia Renom and her daughter, 55-year-old Angelica Chorberg, in 1995, at Seventh Avenue and Central Park South. More recently, Streetsblog reported on the death of 58-year-old Jessica Dworkin at the corner of Sixth and Houston in August 2012.

Noshat Nahian is not the first young person to be killed this way. In 2003, eleven-year-old Victor Flores and ten-year-old Juan Estrada were killed at the corner of Ninth Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn. And just this past July 31, sixteen-year-old Renee Thompson was killed at Third Avenue and Sixtieth Street in Manhattan.

In their reports and press releases, Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog recommend a number of worthy measures, like sidewalk extensions and enforcement of laws restricting the movement of long trucks and requiring the installation of crossover mirrors. I want to focus on one change advocated by T.A. and Streetsblog that could have made a difference at the corner of 61st and Northern, and that could prevent future deaths and injuries: leading pedestrian intervals.

A leading pedestrian interval is a way of configuring a traffic light to give the "white man" to pedestrians for a few seconds before giving the green light to drivers. This allows pedestrians to occupy the crosswalk before a driver has a chance to turn. The DOT has installed several on Queens Boulevard, and the intersections feel much safer with them. If there had been a leading pedestrian interval at 61st and Northern, Osorio-Palominos might have waited before turning in front of the children going to school.

The DOT is rolling out leading pedestrian intervals at dangerous intersections across the city. Unfortunately, the pace is slow, and none of the intersections I've mentioned in this post currently have them. This may be because LPIs require more sophisticated control devices, and those cost money. When Ben Fried reported in 2008, the DOT required time-consuming studies to determine whether an LPI is "warranted" at an intersection; it's not clear if that's changed since then.

We have ample proof that leading pedestrian intervals save lives. We need to streamline the process to install them. Our new Transportation Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, talked with street safety advocates at the inauguration ceremony for her boss, Mayor De Blasio. One of the best ways she can build on the work of her predecessor, Janette Sadik-Khan, is to speed up the rollout of leading pedestrian intervals citywide. If it is a question of money, we need to find that money. I think our children's lives are worth it.