Queens Residents Press for Safety Fix at Car-Choked Sunnyside Intersection

Two cyclists heading northeast on Greenpoint Avenue cross Borden Avenue. One path is legal but conflicts with turning cars; the other is illegal but avoids these conflicts. Video: Jessame Hannus

Greenpoint Avenue has long been a dangerous connection between Queens and Brooklyn. The intersection with Borden Avenue in Sunnyside, where it crosses the Long Island Expressway, is often overrun with drivers heading toward an LIE onramp or exiting the highway so they can get to Manhattan via the free Queensboro Bridge. The waves of traffic make crossing Borden a dangerous mess for people trying to walk or bike around their neighborhood.

“It can be a pretty daunting intersection at the best of times,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who has lobbied for safety fixes.

In April 2012, a bike rider was struck and killed by a livery cab driver at the intersection, and months later another cyclist was killed in a hit-and-run just blocks away. The deaths spurred action from Queens residents who had long worried about traveling through the area. Steve Scofield and four other volunteers recorded conditions and behavior at the intersection, ultimately producing a list of recommendations to improve street safety. On December 18, they presented their findings to Queens Community Board 2′s transportation committee.

The group suggested adding lane markings on eastbound Greenpoint Avenue to mark where turning and through traffic should go. Currently, “it’s kind of a free for all,” Scofield said.

The group also proposed adding a dedicated left turn signal from westbound Greenpoint to eastbound Borden, as well as adding a leading signal for cyclists and pedestrians headed eastbound on Greenpoint, to give them a jump start on drivers turning to access the expressway. Currently, many cyclists heading east on Greenpoint Avenue illegally ride on the sidewalk on the other side of the street because they feel unsafe on the road, said Jessame Hannus, who presented with Scofield.

The problems at this intersection are also a symptom of the city’s lack of a coherent road pricing system. Much of the traffic is due to drivers using local streets as a shortcut between the Long Island Expressway and the Queensboro Bridge, instead of staying on the highway and paying a toll at the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Consistent tolls on the East River crossings would cut down on the traffic, Scofield noted. He often sees the intersection of Borden and Greenpoint gridlocked while traffic flows freely underneath on the expressway to the tunnel.

The recommendations from the Sunnyside group come after other efforts to secure street safety improvements on Greenpoint Avenue have stalled.

In 2011, DOT abandoned a proposal to extend bike lanes from Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn along the bridge across Newtown Creek after nearby industrial businesses opposed it.

Last year, DOT worked with CB 2 to identify streets for bike lanes in Sunnyside and Long Island City. Despite being at the top of the list at a community forum, Greenpoint Avenue was not included in DOT’s first round of bike lane installations. As part of its recommendations, the group studying the intersection with Borden Avenue suggested adding shared lane markings to Greenpoint Avenue.

In August, Van Bramer sent a letter to DOT asking for red light cameras and leading pedestrian intervals. Currently, only eastbound Borden Avenue has a red light camera, according to Van Bramer. DOT responded that due to the limit on the number of red light cameras the city can install (Albany, in its wisdom, has capped it at 150), it could not put another one at the intersection. The agency did not respond to other traffic calming measures mentioned in his letter, Van Bramer said.

The Sunnyside volunteers have other ideas in mind besides automated enforcement. ”I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,” Scofield said of the cameras, adding that the volunteers are focused on improving the street’s design.

The CB 2 committee did not take a vote on the recommendations, but members expressed interest in having DOT study the issue. Community Board Chair Joseph Conley said at the December meeting that he would draft a letter to DOT asking them to begin a formal study of the intersection, according to committee member Emilia Crotty.

“Generally we work well with DOT,” Van Bramer said. “I suspect we’ll be hearing more from them in the coming weeks on where we go from here.”