Death of Staten Island Student R.J. Tillman Stokes Call for Safer Howard Ave

Two colleges and two high schools are located on Howard Avenue, which is plagued by deadly speeding. Photo: Erika Reinhart

Staten Island’s Howard Avenue was once known as Serpentine Road. Though the moniker was mostly due to the serpentinite in the hill’s bedrock, the road also winds and writhes up Grymes Hill, the second highest point on Staten Island. The neighborhood is home to two college campuses, Wagner and St. John’s, the secondary schools Notre Dame Academy and P.S. 35, century-old homes and breathtaking views stretching beyond the north shore to encompass Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Bayonne.

Howard Avenue is also plagued by rampant speeding and careless driving, with poor accommodations for walking and biking. According to Crashstat, since 1997, 17 pedestrians and two bicyclists have been injured along Howard from Arlo Road to Clove Road — a span of less than a mile. Now, after a hit-and-run crash claimed the life of Wagner nursing student R.J. Tillman, a budding local movement for safer walking and biking is poised to make a difference in a borough where politicians are notoriously loath to buy into complete streets.

It was on Howard Avenue that Tillman was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle on February 12. During the memorial ride tribute to Tillman that I participated in last month, the crowd of 50 had to congregate on the asphalt roadway, since there was no sidewalk on the side of the street where the ghost bike was placed. Two participants had to direct oncoming traffic around us, as cars sped around the curve and honked during the proceedings.

Last Wednesday, a group determined to improve safety along on the street gathered at the Wagner College campus for the Howard Avenue Traffic Safety Community Forum. The workshop was the latest effort in a years-long campaign to get the city to make Howard Avenue a better street for walking and biking. While several requests for safety improvements from Wagner staff had been rebuffed by Staten Island DOT Commissioner Thomas Cocola over the last three years, momentum for change is growing.

Recently Cocola has signaled greater willingness to work with community members concerned about safety; two weeks ago he agreed to tour Wagner to assess dangerous locations. And Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro and local City Council Member Debi Rose both sent representatives to last week’s workshop.

They heard Wagner students and staff and local residents describe the dangerous speeding and disregard for public safety that prevails on Howard Avenue today. Laura Barlament, who works for Wagner doing communications and marketing, has taken a leading role in advocating for safer conditions. Barlament was struck by a driver while biking on Howard in June 2011. “This is just a neighborhood,” she said. “To feel unsafe on a daily basis is just not right.”

Barlament has been collecting feedback from residents, students, and employees in Grymes Hill, and at the workshop she presented a vision for Howard Avenue as a safe and pleasant environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and everyone who travels through that area. She identified problem areas along the length of the street where better pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, bicycle markings, traffic-calming measures, and traffic enforcement are badly needed.

I also spoke, on behalf of Transportation Alternatives’ Staten Island Volunteer Committee, explaining how traffic-calming devices work and how Howard Avenue can become a complete street. I emphasized that it’s up to the community, and Staten Island drivers as a whole, to not only become involved in their community boards and contact their elected officials in favor of safer streets, but to become aware of their own behavior while driving. We must end the “me first” attitude that fuels the rampant flouting of traffic laws, as well as the attitude that “accidents happen” and needless traffic deaths cannot be prevented, to truly achieve safer streets on Staten Island.

Joe Sciortino, representing Molinaro’s office, reassured the group that the borough president is aware of Howard Avenue’s problems, but he added that certain improvements cost millions of dollars and require years of studies and approval. He mentioned that constructing sidewalks on the side of a hill requires extra stabilization, and that shortly there will be an announcement about what will be done on Grymes Hill.

When the floor was opened to the audience, representatives from the Van Duzer Civic Association, the Grymes Hill Neighborhood Association, and the Grymes Hill Manor Estate Co-op all shared their frustrations with the dangerous conditions on Howard. Wagner President Dr. Richard Guarasci voiced his concern for the safety of Notre Dame Academy students who have to walk to school alongside speeding cars, and cited the beneficial effect that red light cameras had on his own driving habits.

The group that gathered last week will continue to press forward. Barlament has created a petition calling for a safer Grymes Hill for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. The group has also created “Share the Road” yard signs, which they sold for $1, and intend to use the profits for a scholarship fund in R.J. Tillman’s name. Donations to the fund will also be collected online; specify “R.J. Tillman Memorial Scholarship” in the “Other” box under the “About Your Gift” section.

Meredith Sladek is the chair of Transportation Alternatives’ Staten Island Volunteer Committee.