New Yorkers, the ones who like it anyway, love to celebrate their “walking city.” It’s so much better than cities like L.A. where cars are essential and fatties are everywhere! It’s so much better than the suburbs, where you have to pile into a station wagon and drive for five minutes just to get a gallon of milk. And what a rarity it is: this city allows you to smell the roses and exercise while you approach your destination! Right?
Perhaps. But why is it, then, that the simple act of crossing the street here often resembles a bad game of Frogger?
According to Transportation Alternatives, the pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group, seven pedestrians were killed and four were injured by cars on city streets between the weeks of February 25th and March 11th.
These crashes, and a crash earlier in February, in which a Hummer hit and killed 4-year-old James Jacaricce in Brooklyn, prompted the group to hold a pedestrian safety rally at City Hall on March 4th.
Over the past several years, there has been an average of 160 pedestrian crash deaths and 10,000 injuries a year. Amy Pfeiffer, a program director for Transportation Alternatives, says the current figures for 2007 are “sort of on track,” with those rates. And she acknowledges that with the re-engineering of problem intersections and streets like Queens Boulevard, and quicker first-response times, there has been a significant drop in the number of pedestrian crashes over the past ten years. But she says these improvements came only after years of public outrage, and safer though the streets are, they aren’t safe enough.
Pfeiffer mentions, and Streetsblog reports, that the Department of Transportation (DOT) had a redesign plan for the intersection in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn where Jacarrice was hit, in 2004, but never implemented it.
To get the DOT to put its already existing plans into action and to create what Transportation Alternatives is calling a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan were the principal demands the group made at the rally, with the overarching goal of reducing the number of annual pedestrian crash injuries and deaths by 2,000, in two years.
Pfeiffer and other advocates like her say the city does not recognize these deaths and injuries for the problem that they are or give them the attention that other, equally serious issues get.
“The city … doesn’t say anything about these crashes. Like, if three people had been shot this weekend, the city might say something about [it]. But three people are killed by cars and they don’t have any response.”
Two yuppies in a shiny black Nissan Armada are on Bowery at Delancey Street and the light is yellow.
They’re only about seven blocks from the intersection of Essex and Delancey, which Transportation Alternatives’ most recent figures for pedestrian crashes identify as downtown’s most dangerous location.
“Come on. Please, please, please!” The passenger side window is open and with his arm on the door and his head sticking out, Yuppie Number Two is begging the traffic cop standing on the other side of the light to let him through.
She lets him go and the Armada zips ahead, disappearing into the depths of Bowery.
Moments later, another traffic cop nearby helps a cement truck, its tank painted like Old Glory, make an awkward right turn out of the Williamsburg Bridge-supplied mess that is Delancey, onto Bowery.
On Essex between the northeast and northwest corners of Delancey, an elderly man pushes a cart with a small pet container as he crosses slowly, and a woman with a pronounced limp does the same. A biker going west on Delancey waves her hand to let the bus directly behind her know she’s about to lean left, into the next lane.
During the Giuliani Administration there was an office set up to deal specifically with traffic-related issues, and there were more related committees, Pfeiffer says.
In 2006, the city put out a bike safety action plan, which identified the most dangerous places around the city for bicycle crashes. It was significant, she says, because it was a rare collaboration of the DOT, the police department and the department of health.
Still, Mayor Bloomberg has not made these issues a priority. “I wouldn’t say either mayor has been particularly great on this issue. It’s just that Giuliani saw it as something … The City of New York, they don’t refuse to see it as an issue. But they don’t acknowledge [it] as severe a problem as it is.”
She says some inexpensive things the DOT could do to improve traffic conditions for pedestrians would be to give them more time to cross the street; give them exclusive time to cross the street (“exclusive time” is usually a five or six second but preferably nine or ten second walking period when there is no green light for drivers in either direction); and install bollards, the steel posts all over the courthouse area for example, at curbs.
Transportation Alternatives has an uneasy relationship with the DOT. “It’s a reactive organization,” Pfeiffer says when I ask her whether they are responsive to the concerns of pedestrians and bikers. “Our main sort of mission is to watchdog the DOT to make sure they’re actually using monies the way they’re supposed to.” She describes the relationship as one in which the DOT responds to requests, but only after ignoring activists for a long time on a given issue.
She understands that DOT money needs to go into rehabbing bridges, but thinks that they could make more “piecemeal changes, like changing one intersection at a time.”
The idea of introducing some form of congestion charging, which London introduced in 2003, obviously intrigues Pfeiffer. “Their asthma rates were incredible … their fatalities have been down significantly … If you had congestion pricing in New York City you would see an immediate drop in injury and fatality, you would see an immediate drop in rates of asthma … it would be just amazing.” She also thinks it would “generate a lot of money for the city.”
A city official close to the Mayor’s Long Term Planning and Sustainability Office confirmed that the office is “considering” congestion pricing.
The World Health Organization has called road traffic accidents, including pedestrian crashes, “a public problem requiring concerted multi-sectoral prevention efforts.”
Michael King, an architect with transportation consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard, says pedestrian crashes are a public health issue. This is why he doesn’t refer to them as “accidents.”
“There’s so many incidents, and they’re predictable, that it’s hard to call them accidents … Epidemiologists don’t look at cancer … or broken bones or things like that as ‘accidents.’ They look at them as predictable occurrences with measurable outcomes.” To look at pedestrian crashes in this way, he says, is the first step to really reducing them.
When talking about what needs to be done, he alludes to the “Broken Windows” approach to policing that the NYPD adopted during the 1990s and says that in order to fix the crash problem, the city needs to focus on the “equivalent of turnstile jumping with drivers,” which would be “something like” not yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks, then find the locations where it’s happening most often, and flood those areas with countermeasures.
To do this he suggests signal timing changes – “turning the walk light on first, five seconds ahead of the green light” a.k.a. a “leading pedestrian interval”; narrowing the roadway near playgrounds, like Washington Market Park, for example, so kids and nannies can reach the end of the crosswalk in less time.
“The little things … that’s where you’re going to start to [see changes.] And fatalities for pedestrians have been cut in half for the last fifteen years in New York City … But there’s no reason why they couldn’t go even lower.”
King also thinks that the questions the DOT asks need to be reframed. A typical DOT study would ask something like “how fast you can drive from 1st to 12th Avenue at 55th Street,” he says. This could be useful for bus drivers or drivers of commercial vehicles, but “is it really fundamental to the health of the city?” He suggests changing the “performance measure, something like ‘buses going across midtown or going across downtown, or … getting from
Battery Park City to Chinatown faster than walking … it’s always in the question you ask … is it the bane of existence to facilitate traffic between the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg Bridge?”
The DOT has done some good things like widening Broadway at City Hall, and widening the sidewalk on Chambers Street to the back of the steps of the current board of education building, King says. But their work won’t be done “until there’s zero fatalities caused by traffic,” which he compares to the NYPD’s mission. “I don’t think the police will ever be happy until there’s zero murders, or zero rapes” … “Are they [the DOT] trying to set a progressive agenda? It could be more progressive.”
After repeated attempts to get someone from the DOT on the phone to discuss these issues, Downtown received an e-mail from Ted Timbers, a spokesperson for the DOT. Asked what the DOT’s position is with regard to the demand for a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan, he writes that “though 2006 was one of the safest years on record for pedestrians in New York City, in the wake of several tragic accidents it is clear that more needs to be done and DOT is committed to taking further steps to make the streets as safe as possible.”
About the possibility of increasing signal times at crosswalks, Timbers says that there are 147 “leading pedestrian intervals,” which give the walk signal 6-10 seconds before the parallel movement of traffic gets a green light citywide. He says there are approximately 75 “Barnes Dance” intersections, where traffic is stopped in all directions and pedestrians can cross on every side of an intersection, citywide. And there are approximately 43 “split phase locations,” which are “where we separate the turning movement from the parallel pedestrian crossings with a right or left arrow signal display,” so pedestrians can cross while “the parallel movement of traffic is held with a red arrow signal display.” But all of the split phase locations are in Midtown.
According to Pfeiffer, seniors, who make up 13 percent of the population, account for 30 percent of pedestrian fatalities and injuries each year, citywide. Because seniors who get hit by cars often die in hospitals, there’s a lot of underreporting, and there are probably a lot more fatalities among seniors than the statistics reflect.
They often have trouble perceiving the crossing distance and knowing how much time there is to cross the street. So, very often, Pfeiffer says, they step into the street and are overtaken by the rear wheels of a truck or bus as it jumps the curb. They also tend to be on the short side so it’s harder for truck drivers to see them in their mirrors. But she says there are simple things the city could do to prevent them from getting hit as often as they do, like extending these curbs and putting bollards on them.
It is a problem, particularly in Chinatown, where there is a very high concentration of seniors, including a large number who are very elderly. Because so many of them like to spend their days outdoors they are forced to contend with high truck traffic and people driving at high speeds on streets like Bowery and Canal. And because the streets in the area are so old, many of the curbs do not have ramps or cuts.
Pfeiffer thinks Chinatown is an area that “could probably benefit from street closures,” that would exclude noncommercial vehicles.
After a Stuyvesant Town senior was killed after being struck by an MTA bus on 20th Street and 1st Avenue last year, an intersection that was known to be dangerous for years, residents were able to have the city lengthen the leading pedestrian interval. Now, no cars can turn for 19 seconds. The crosswalk on 20th Street, east of First Avenue, which had been angled away from
First, was made parallel with First, and a service road on the avenue was replaced with a pedestrian friendly green street.
In a telephone interview, Councilperson Dan Garodnick, who worked with the DOT and community groups to make these changes, says he thinks there needs to be a “wholescale review of the most dangerous intersections in the city.”
The intersection of Chambers and West Street (the West Side Highway) is massive. Overhead there’s a pedestrian bridge, but underneath there are four lanes of traffic streaming in both directions, and four nearby schools (Stuyvesant High, IS 189, PS 234 and Borough of Manhattan Community College).
Battery Park City resident and Community Board 1 member Linda Belfer, who is wheelchair bound, worries about getting hit while trying to cross West Street. “Frequently the sequence of the lights is not long enough in order for someone to get across all the way to the other side in one sequence. So you get stuck in the middle, in the median,” she says in a telephone interview. “Now the problem with that is, in many instances, the median’s very narrow. And of course you’re a sitting target for any car that jumps the median.”
Belfer says the infrastructure in Lower Manhattan “stinks.” And she says the broken up, bumpy pavement in the area pre-dates 9/11. “It’s too old and you know, everything’s caving in.”
As a disabled resident, one thing that really troubles her is what she says is a lack of curb cuts, and curb cuts that are in poor condition, in places like Chambers and West Broadway, and Broadway and Fulton Street.
She’s had problems with dips in the pavement on Chambers, Broadway and Nassau. Though she now uses a motorized chair, Belfer, who has been in a wheelchair since 2004, originally used a manual chair and says she was pitched from it after the wheels hit a depression in the pavement in the Seaport area. “I took the number 9 bus and got off at Fulton … and when [my aide] went to push me across the street, we hit a ditch and I went flying.” The disrepair that a lot of Lower Manhattan’s streets are in also affects mothers with baby carriages, seniors who walk with canes and people pushing shopping carts, Belfer says.
Anthony G., who chooses not to give his last name, is waiting for a bus on the northwest corner of East Houston Street and Avenue A. He says he isn’t surprised to learn that this intersection was tied for downtown’s fourth worst, on Transportation Alternatives’ list of Manhattan intersections with high numbers of pedestrian crashes. (It shared this dubious honor with West 17th Street and 8th Avenue.)
Only six months ago, Anthony explains, he was hit by a cab on 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street at about 8:50 a.m. He was fortunate enough to leave the scene with some bruised ribs and a sprained ankle.
-- Matt Elzweig