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Traffic Lights Don’t Belong on a Park Loop

It's full of cyclists and joggers, but Amsterdam's Vondelpark loop is designed differently than the one in Central Park. Photo: Jannes Glas/Flickr

Cyclists, joggers, and walkers coexist on the loop in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. Photo: Jannes Glas/Flickr

Two separate crashes in which cyclists struck and killed pedestrians on the Central Park loop have garnered more media attention than any other traffic safety issue in the past two months. In addition to the inevitable reemergence of a few bikelash trolls, the collisions have led to a round of less spiteful stories that still miss the mark, framing the whole issue in terms of adherence to traffic lights. Collisions on the loop roads in both Central Park and Prospect Park are preventable, but trying to compel pedestrians and cyclists to obey signals won’t get the job done.

It’s easy to gather a ton of B-roll of cyclists in the parks proceeding through red lights and pedestrians crossing against the signal or outside crosswalks. This type of coverage, however, misses the point: The problem in the park isn’t that people are disobeying the stop lights. The problem is the traffic lights themselves, which cause more conflict than they prevent.

Traffic signals came to New York in 1920, to impose order on what the New York Times recently called “the growing onslaught of automobiles” navigating the city’s right-angled intersections. On the park loops, conditions are quite different: People crossing on foot, no longer on the lookout for high-speed motorized traffic, expect greater freedom of movement, while the stream of joggers and cyclists on the road, unencumbered by bulky metal cages and generally moving at speeds that enable eye contact with other people, can engage with their surroundings in a way that drivers cannot. It’s nothing like the intersection of two city streets, yet it has similar traffic control devices.

Expecting pedestrians and cyclists in Central Park to obey traffic lights is like expecting drivers on the Belt Parkway to use hand signals before they change lanes. It’s the wrong technique, applied to a situation where it just won’t work.

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Car Commuting Still Rules, But New Census Data Reveals Important Shifts

Metropolitan Share of Non-Car Commuters, 2007 to 2013

Source: Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data

Cross-posted from Brookings’ The Avenue blog.

Driving to work has been a staple in the American commute for decades, but it appears the country’s love affair with cars is stalling in many places. After years of sustained growth, driving levels are flat-lining, while more young people are opting for alternative transportation modes.

Newly released Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey offers additional insight into the shifting nature of our daily commutes.

To be sure, the car is still king for the United States as a whole. Based on the new Census estimates, over 85 percent of all workers still get to their jobs by private automobile. That amounts to over 122 million commuters, the vast majority of whom travel alone rather than in a carpool. It’s also relatively consistent with our commuting patterns from 1980, when nearly the same percentage of workers commuted by car.

But those long-term trends mask real changes over the past few years. The share of national commuters traveling by private vehicle is edging down for the first time in decades — from 86.5 percent in 2007 to 85.8 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, other transportation modes have grown in relative importance. Public transportation, which just recorded the most passenger trips since 1956, saw its share jump to over 5 percent, reaching levels not seen since 1990. The share of those bicycling and walking to work also continued to rise, now representing nearly 4 percent of all commuters. The biggest gain, however, came from those workers who didn’t technically commute at all. With the help of burgeoning broadband coverage, nearly as many people now work from home as ride public transportation to their jobs.

Leading these national trends are the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.* Over two-thirds of these places experienced driving declines between 2007 and 2013, while also simultaneously seeing a rise in commuters walking, bicycling or working at home.

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Vance Brings Manslaughter Charge in Death of Pedestrian Charity Hicks

A motorist charged with manslaughter for the death of a Manhattan pedestrian is scheduled to appear in court later this week.

Charity Hicks. Photo via Gothamist

Charity Hicks. Photo via Gothamist

Thomas Shanley, 35, was texting when he drove a Dodge SUV onto the curb on 10th Avenue near W. 34th Street at around 8:20 a.m. on May 31, striking a fire hydrant and a bus stop signpost and mortally wounding Charity Hicks, according to a criminal court complaint and reports from Gothamist and the Daily News. A second pedestrian was also injured.

The criminal court complaint says video reviewed by NYPD showed the SUV moving northbound on 10th Avenue when the driver “swerve[d] across two lanes of traffic and onto the sidewalk.” Records from Shanley’s iPhone, found at the scene, indicated that the user was sending a text message at the time of the collision, according to the complaint.

Hicks was policy director for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, according to a Detroit news outlet, and was visiting NYC for a conference. She suffered severe head trauma, broken ribs, and injuries to her lungs. Hicks died on July 8.

Shanley fled the scene on foot, reports said, and was arrested in New Jersey on August 1. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance charged Shanley with one count of manslaughter and one count of felony leaving the scene, according to court records.

Whether or not they remain at the scene, sober drivers are not usually charged with manslaughter, or the less serious charge of vehicular homicide, for killing New York City pedestrians. There are exceptions, but it’s difficult to discern why some drivers involved in serious crashes are prosecuted while others are not, since city district attorneys do not generally discuss vehicular crimes cases, even when cases are closed or no charges are brought.

Cell phone evidence and video of the crash may have factored into the DA’s decision in this case, as could leaving the scene. In addition, Shanley was reportedly on parole at the time of the crash. Other New York City DAs — former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes especially — seemed more inclined to issue felony charges against drivers with criminal records.

Manslaughter is a class C felony with possible sentences ranging from probation to 15 years in prison. Shanley’s next court appearance is set for Friday.

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To Destabilize Detroit’s Fragile Renaissance, Go Ahead and Widen I-94

Several historic buildings, including Detroit's oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Several historic buildings, including Detroit’s oldest recording studio, would be mowed down to widen I-94 for no reason. Photo: Mode Shift via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Michigan highway planners want to spend $2.7 billion to widen Interstate 94 through the heart of Detroit, saying that the existing road needs not just resurfacing and better bridges, but also more space for traffic. State officials continue to push forward with the project despite Detroit’s rapid population loss and other woes, and despite the fact that traffic volume on the stretch being considered for expansion is no higher than it was in 2005. Expanding the highway might even make Detroit’s economic recovery more difficult by further separating two neighborhoods that have been leading the city’s nascent revitalization.

The proposal would widen a seven-mile segment of I-94 called the Edsel Ford Expressway, which runs in a trench through the center of the city between the Midtown and New Center neighborhoods. Those areas are important for the city’s revitalization because of their central location. Efforts there to boost arts and culture, retail and commercial space, and downtown living have been gaining steam in recent years.

In fact, better connecting the neighborhoods is one reason for a $140 million streetcar project that broke ground this July. Officials have already begun calling for expansion of that project, but funds are currently lacking.

The proposed expansion of the highway would have the opposite effect, widening the physical trench between the neighborhoods and removing 11 bridges across the freeway that would not be replaced. As a result, walking and biking in the area would become much less convenient, forcing people to travel as much as six blocks out of their way to reach destinations.

Transportation officials say many buildings would have to be removed to make room for the wider road. The project requires displacing or demolishing 12 commercial buildings, 14 single-family homes, two duplexes and two apartment buildings with 14 units between them, as well as three buildings either on or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, including the city’s oldest recording studio.

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Eyes on the Street: Brooklyn Hit-and-Run Aftermath at 4th Ave and Degraw

An officer from the 78th Precinct inspects the vehicle on Degraw Street after its driver fled yesterday morning. Photo: Mike Donohue

After the driver fled the scene, a 78th Precinct officer inspects a car on Degraw Street. Photo: Mike Donohue

Reader Mike Donohue sends this eyewitness account of a driver who fled the scene of a crash in Park Slope Sunday morning.

At about 9:45 a.m., Donohue was on his bike, stopped at a red light on Degraw Street at Fourth Avenue. When the light turned green for traffic on Degraw, a driver heading north on Fourth Avenue ran the light and made a high-speed left turn onto Degraw, crashing into a road construction site and hitting a parked car. With airbags deployed and steam rising from the engine, Donohue says the driver got out “and started slowly jogging away.”

A group of people, including Donohue and members of the construction crew, began following the driver before he disappeared near the Wyckoff Gardens housing complex at Third Avenue and Baltic Street. Donohue called 911 while trailing the suspect before returning to the crash scene to snap a photo.

“I’m pretty sure criminality is suspected,” Donohue said. “At one point, the cops told me that he’d run over a little girl, and they were going to do everything they could to catch the guy.”

NYPD’s press office did not immediately have any information on the crash, and could not confirm that a child was injured. FDNY said it responded to a call at 9:52 a.m. of a pedestrian struck on Fourth Avenue at Union Street, two blocks south of Degraw. One person was transported to Methodist Hospital, but the fire department did not have information available on the victim’s age or condition.

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Mapping Accessibility: What Can You Get to in 20 Minutes?

The map on the left shows the number of destinations available in the Minneapolis region in 20 minutes by car. The map on the right shows the same data but by 20-minute transit trip. Image: Streets.mn

The map on the left shows the density of destinations accessible in the Minneapolis region in a 20-minute car trip. The redder the map, the more stuff you can reach. The map on the right shows what’s accessible in a 20-minute transit trip. Maps: Streets.mn

In the U.S., one metric dominates the public discussion about transportation: traffic congestion. Rankings are published every year assessing how clogged the streets are in different cities, and transportation agencies devote a great deal of resources trying to reduce congestion.

The outcome of all this effort, however, doesn’t even help people get places. In metro areas like St. Louis, for example, average commute times have increased as congestion has fallen. That’s because all the infrastructure devoted to relieving congestion also encouraged people to live farther from work. So now people drive longer, faster — not much of a win no matter how you slice it.

David Levinson, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has developed a different metric — a way to assess “accessibility,” or the ease of reaching destinations.

Andrew Owen, a graduate researcher at UMN, writes at Streets.mn about efforts to formalize the concept so it can be used by local transportation agencies:

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Today’s Headlines

  • Dana Lerner: DAs and NYPD Must Enforce the Laws Against Deadly Driving (NYT)
  • Since April, TLC Enforcement Against Dangerous Cabbies Has Skyrocketed (Post)
  • Council Member Miller Wants More TLC Enforcement Against Dangerous Dollar Vans (TL)
  • A Brooklyn Speed Camera Is Catching Speeders, and WPIX Is Outraged
  • Times Union Wants Cuomo to “Be the Adult in the Room” and Reveal Reliable TZB Funding Plan
  • Bikelash Media Coverage Boomlet Continues (Crain’s, WNBC), Spreads to Prospect Park (NY1)
  • WCBS Questions the “Zero” in Vision Zero, and de Blasio Focuses on Individual Behavior
  • Queens CB 11 Battles Car Dealership That Stores Vehicles on Sidewalk (Queens Chronicle)
  • Queens Chronicle Documents Dangers at Woodhaven Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue
  • Port Richmond Residents Angered by Influx of Commuter Cars Into Neighborhood (NY1)
  • New Plaza Opens Next to Douglaston LIRR Station (Queens Courier)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Madrid Moves Toward a Car-Free Center City

Drivers who don't live in the center city will no longer be able to drive through Madrid's core neighborhoods. Image: City of Madrid

Drivers who don’t live in the center city will no longer be able to drive through Madrid’s core neighborhoods. Map: City of Madrid

Beginning in January, Madrid will enact new policies to keep cars out of almost 500 acres in the core of the city, part of a long-term plan to entirely pedestrianize the center city.

El Pais in Spain is reporting that, unless they live there, drivers will no longer be allowed to enter the city’s four most central neighborhoods. Instead, all outside traffic will be routed along a select few major avenues. The penalty for driving into one of the restricted zones without permission will be 90 Euros, Architecture Daily reports.

The new rule is expected to reduce traffic in the affected areas by at least one third. Motorcycles and delivery vehicles will be able to enter the zones at certain hours.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón told El Pais, “The main objective is to reduce traffic passing through neighborhoods and looking for parking agitation, while increasing parking spaces for residents.”

The measure is in keeping with the city’s 2020 Mobility Plan, which aims to gradually pedestrianize the city center. Madrid has also raised on-street parking rates and increased the use of speed enforcement cameras in an effort to encourage walking, biking, and transit.

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No Charges for Bus Driver Who Killed Pedestrian Jennifer White-Estick

Police filed no charges against the MTA bus driver who killed a pedestrian in Bedford-Stuyvesant two weeks ago. Instead, NYPD and the tabloids put the victim on trial.

At around 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 17, Jennifer White-Estick was run over while trying to retrieve her cell phone from underneath a B44 bus she had just exited at Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street.

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

By the time the Post published its extremely graphic report on the crash at around 4 p.m., police had declared “no criminality suspected.” Reporters from the Post and the Daily News focused on the actions of the victim, but abetted by NYPD, the Daily News took its reportage to new depths.

White-Estick had no ID on her, but the day after the crash, the Daily News reported that police found a crack pipe in her bra. Along with her identity, the Daily News announced last Wednesday that, according to unnamed sources, White-Estick had “a prior criminal record.” The paper also reminded readers about the crack pipe.

MTA bus drivers have killed at least four pedestrians and one cyclist this year; last year’s death toll was seven pedestrians and one man on a skateboard. Over half of those 13 crashes occurred as the bus driver was making a turn.

While the tabloids focused on the more salacious aspects of White-Estick’s personal life, and the gory details of her death, less attention was given to factors that might prevent the next MTA-involved pedestrian fatality.

“The bus driver, James Maxwell, told cops he didn’t see the woman,” the Daily News reported. Maxwell’s safety record was not mentioned, and there was only a passing reference to the role vehicle design may have played in the crash.

The front of the bus was equipped with a driver-assisting video camera, but a transit investigator who saw the video said it could not have provided a warning.

“You can’t see nothing,” the investigator said.

Earlier this month, Melania Ward was struck by the driver of the Q47 she’d been riding as she crossed Astoria Boulevard in Elmhurst. NYPD did not reveal who had the right of way, and no charges were filed.

Last March, an MTA bus driver turned into a crosswalk occupied by three people, striking and killing 21-year-old Marisol Martinez. After Martinez’s death, City Council Member Steve Levin called for changes to bus design, including guards that keep pedestrians away from the rear wheels. An MTA rep later said the agency had decided against installing such guards.

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Livable Streets Events

This Week: Flushing-Jamaica BRT, Bike Corral in LIC, CNU to NYC

Eastern Brooklyn and Queens rule the Streetsblog calendar this week. Make your voice heard as efforts move forward to improve street safety in the Rockaways, launch Select Bus Service between Flushing and Jamaica, and build a greenway in Canarsie along the Jamaica Bay shoreline.

Also, it’s not on the calendar, but if you live in Long Island City or environs and want more on-street bike parking, now is the time to send a letter to Queens Community Board 1 supporting a bike corral by Dutch Kills Centraal on 29th Street. The community board is expected to weigh in on the bike corral next week.

Here are the highlights. Check the Streetsblog calendar for the full slate of events:

Keep an eye on the calendar for updated listings. Got an event we should know about? Drop us a line.