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Participatory Budgeting: Your Chance to Vote for Livable Streets

A record 24 City Council members have launched participatory budgeting efforts this year, giving local residents a say in how to spend a share of the council’s discretionary capital funds. Starting last fall, volunteers and staff spent months refining proposals and suggestions. Council members are now releasing sample ballots so the public can learn more about the projects before voting for their favorites in the coming weeks.

Of the City Council’s 51 districts, 24 (in black) have participatory budgeting ballots. Map: NYC Council

For a sample of what can be found on PB ballots, here are the livable streets projects up for a vote in two council districts in Western Queens.

We start in District 22, represented by Costa Constantinides, covering Astoria, Steinway, and the northwest corner of Jackson Heights. Voting will be open from April 13 to 19 and residents can vote for up to five of the 18 projects on the ballot [PDF]. There are two livable streets projects under consideration:

  • Newtown Plaza: This project would provide $400,000 to redesign Newtown Avenue between 32nd and 33rd streets to include a pedestrian plaza. A proposal from DOT to install a plaza at this location was rejected by Community Board 1 almost three years ago.
  • 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard: This project would provide $500,000 to fund the installation of curb extensions at this complex, multi-leg intersection. The Department of City Planning recommended neckdowns and pedestrian islands for this location, but they were not included in DOT’s safety plan for 21st Street.

Work on selecting which proposals would make it to the ballot began last October. “Our budget delegates have worked through the city budget process from a grassroots level and have been empowered to make decisions that will better our community,” Constantinides said in a press release. “For the first time, anyone in the district can directly make decisions about how taxpayer money is spent.”

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Ben Kallos Won’t Talk About Why He Wants to Gut the Right of Way Law

Ben Kallos. Photo: NYC Council

You can’t support Vision Zero, as Ben Kallos says he does, while gutting the laws behind it. Photo: NYC Council

On October 8, 2014, the driver of a Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation bus hit cyclist Anna Maria Moström while making a left turn. Moström was mortally injured. Two days later, a Coca-Cola truck driver hit an unidentified 86-year-old man in a crosswalk while turning from E. 96th Street onto Third Avenue. The senior died from his injuries. Both drivers reportedly failed to yield.

This is the type of collision the Right of Way Law is intended to prevent. But a group of City Council members wants to weaken the law by creating an exemption for MTA bus drivers. One of them is Ben Kallos, who represents the district where Anna Maria Moström and the Upper East Side senior were killed.

We attempted to contact Kallos about the Right of Way Law exemption bill. Last week, his office said they would call on Monday. The phone call never came and Streetsblog’s follow-up messages went unreturned.

The Right of Way Law is a key component of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. Before its adoption, all NYPD crash investigations were handled by the Collision Investigation Squad, a unit of around 20 detectives who work a few hundred cases a year. The Right of Way Law gives precinct officers a mechanism to hold drivers accountable in thousands of crashes that would not otherwise be investigated.

These are not hypothetical scenarios. In the past, New York City drivers were rarely penalized for killing and injuring people, even if they broke the law. This included MTA bus drivers, who in 2014 alone killed eight pedestrians while making turns.

The Right of Way Law is meant to deter reckless driving by showing motorists that there are consequences for harming people who are following all the rules. Kallos says he supports Vision Zero, but how does he square that with exemptions to the Right of Way Law? Does he think anyone should be allowed to hit people in crosswalks?

The public should know why Kallos wants to undermine this law, but apparently he doesn’t want to talk about it.

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With Traffic Deaths Trending Downward, Lancman Attacks Right of Way Law

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told the City Council today that NYC traffic fatalities have continued to drop in 2015, but not every council member is pleased with the city’s recent steps to deter dangerous driving.

Rory Lancman

In testimony to the public safety committee, Bratton said traffic deaths were down 43 percent as of mid-February, though he didn’t give exact figures or dates. NYPD collision data from January show overall fatalities were down 38 percent compared to January 2014, and pedestrian and cyclist deaths decreased by 46 percent compared to last year. Injuries to pedestrians and cyclists also declined relative to 2014. NYPD didn’t release January data until March, so February data likely won’t be available to the public for a few weeks.

This is too small a sample to draw hard conclusions. But it could be an indication that NYC’s speed camera program, coupled with NYPD enforcement of speeding and failure to yield — which is inconsistent among precincts but trending upward overall — is paying dividends.

Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said enforcement of the Right of Way Law, which made it a misdemeanor for drivers to harm someone with the right of way, continues to be limited to the Collision Investigation Squad, as the department is still developing a protocol for precinct officers to apply it. Council Member Rory Lancman, who in February asked Chan how police determine whether a driver who failed to yield also failed to exercise due care, again questioned whether NYPD is applying the law correctly.

“I get it that you’re formulating a procedure for the rest of the force, but you’re arresting people now,” Lancman said. “And so those arrests need to be done in conformance with the law, which requires not merely failure to yield, but also the failure to exercise due care. So for the group of officers, the CIS team, that are authorizing those arrests, what standards are they applying to whether or not somebody not just failed to yield, but also failed to exercise due care?”

Chan laid out the procedure. “What happens is that the CIS officers and investigators will conduct a thorough investigation, and taking a look at the totality of the evidence, whether it be video tape, an interview with witnesses, the right of way of the pedestrian who was crossing at the time, and doing a full investigation and taking all those circumstances into consideration,” he said. “And if we do find that the individual failed to use due care when they struck the pedestrian in the crosswalk, then they will make the arrest for that particular violation.”

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The New York City Parking Rule That Makes Intersections More Dangerous

Parking at the edge of a crosswalk hinders visibility but is condoned under city traffic rules. Photos: Brad Aaron

Parking at the edge of a crosswalk hinders visibility but is condoned under city traffic rules. Photos: Brad Aaron

We’ve reported before how certain New York City parking rules are designed to cram a little more free car storage onto the street at the expense of pedestrian safety. In 2009, DOT removed parking restrictions on unmarked crosswalks at T intersections, and the city allows drivers with disability permits to block curb ramps that were intended to help pedestrians with disabilities cross the street.

Here’s another example of how the city prioritizes parking over life and limb. This photo shows Seaman Avenue in Inwood where it intersects with Isham Street at the entrance to Inwood Hill Park. For at least five days this SUV was parked right at the edge of this crosswalk, blocking sight lines for pedestrians as well as drivers turning right from Seaman onto Isham.

Parking right up against the crosswalk is dangerous enough that some states and cities, including New Jersey and Portland, forbid it. Drivers hurt and kill thousands of people in New York City crosswalks every year, and most victims are crossing with the signal. Poor visibility at intersections contributes to the problem, but NYC law makes it perfectly legal to obstruct sight lines with parked cars.

A parking rule fix would daylight intersections citywide, making motorists and pedestrians more visible to each other.

A parking rule fix would daylight intersections citywide, making motorists and pedestrians more visible to each other.

NACTO guidelines suggest 20 to 25 feet of clearance around crosswalks. New York City law, however, only prohibits parking within a crosswalk itself (unmarked crosswalks at T intersections excepted, of course). By allowing motorists to park where their vehicles reduce visibility at intersections, this city traffic rule is in direct conflict with the city’s Vision Zero goals.

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Ydanis Rodriguez Bill Would Open Residential Elevators to Bikes

The City Council is poised to eliminate a major hassle for many New Yorkers who own bikes. A bill from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez would mandate that all residential buildings in the city allow residents to use elevators to transport their bikes to and from their apartments.

Council Member Ydanis Rodroguez

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez

Rodriguez, who chairs the council transportation committee, introduced the bill today. It is co-sponsored by Antonio Reynoso, Carlos Menchaca, Brad Lander, Helen Rosenthal, and Ben Kallos.

From a Rodriguez press release:

Currently, many residential buildings have policies that prevent a resident from transporting their bicycle via the elevator. In some cases, the effects of these policies are as egregious as forcing residents to walk up ten flights of stairs with a bicycle on their back. Upon enactment, [the bill] would render these policies and lease agreements null and void and in violation of the Administrative Code.

These antiquated building policies cause an undue burden on cyclists. This bill would better the quality of life for the over 200,000 people who bike each day or the more than 500,000 adults use their bike at least twice month for exercise or transportation.

The last big move the City Council made to improve bike access was a 2009 bill that gave New Yorkers legal grounds to petition commercial landlords for bicycle access to their workplaces. That was a huge step, yet even now cyclists still have to deal with hostile landlords and building personnel. In 2014 Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer introduced legislation to permit folding bikes on passenger elevators in commercial buildings, but the bill stalled in the housing and buildings committee.

By passing both of these bills, the City Council would remove pointless barriers that keep people from cycling.

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Margaret Chin: Toll Reform Will Protect New Yorkers From Truck Traffic

Photo: Brad Aaron

Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Margaret Chin today introduced legislation to require the city to examine the effects of New York City’s dysfunctional bridge toll system on traffic safety. The bill would also mandate regular DOT safety audits for all city truck routes.

Trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles on city streets but are involved in 32 percent and 12 percent of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities, respectively, according to city data cited by Chin. At a press conference outside City Hall this morning, Chin said her bill “should be welcomed by the [de Blasio] administration as a component of Vision Zero.”

Chin cited the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge as a major cause of traffic chaos on Canal Street, which cuts through her district. Drivers have killed at least four pedestrians on Canal Street since 2012, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog.

Chin’s bill would have DOT conduct studies at five-year intervals to “examine the impact of tolling policies on the city’s network of truck routes,” according to a press release. Crashes and traffic violations would be measured, with information collected on whatever street safety measures are implemented on each route. DOT’s last comprehensive truck route study dates to 2007, the press release said.

It's free

Trucker’s special: It’s free to drive over the East River, barrel across local Manhattan streets, and take a tunnel under the Hudson, but sticking to the highway and going over the Verrazano will cost a five-axle truck $80. Map: MoveNY

DOT would also be required to “develop new strategies” to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety along the city’s 1,000-plus miles of truck routes. Council Member Brad Lander pointed out that current truck route design — speed-inducing expanses of asphalt — leads to reckless driving regardless of vehicle type. Chin emphasized that the reports should lead to physical street safety improvements. 

City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez joined Chin to announce the legislation, along with Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer. Representatives from Transportation Alternatives, Families For Safe Streets, Move NY, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 also appeared in support of the bill.

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Progressive Caucus to de Blasio: Let Us Help Build New York’s BRT Network

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Select Bus Service has made a big difference for bus riders, but it could be better. Now 17 City Council members are asking Mayor de Blasio for bolder bus improvements. Photo: MTA/Flickr

As a mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio promised a citywide network of more than 20 “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit routes within four years. More than a year into his term, bus riders are still waiting. Now 17 City Council members are asking the administration to take bolder action on BRT and offering to help NYC DOT and the MTA bring the projects to fruition.

Today council members from all five boroughs aligned with the influential Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and MTA Chair Tom Prendergast [PDF] in anticipation of a council hearing on BRT this afternoon.

“The physical and demographic patterns of the city have changed and the transit system is not changing with it fast enough to ensure equal access,” reads the letter. “Building on the successes of the Select Bus Service program, full-featured BRT is a cost-effective, efficient way of making [the city] more equitable, just, and sustainable.”

The council members offered to meet with Trottenberg, Prendergast, and their staffs to discuss how they “can help bring a network of BRT routes to New York City.”

Studies from the Pratt Center and New York University show that huge swaths of New York City’s low- and moderate-income residents live beyond the reach of the subway, but struggle with the high cost of car ownership. Bus Rapid Transit would be a lifeline to these New Yorkers.

To build effective busways where transit riders don’t get bogged down in traffic, the city will have to claim space from general traffic lanes and parking lanes. Inevitably, some elected officials will fight against prioritizing transit on the street. Today’s letter is the counterpoint showing that many council members want City Hall to act boldly and improve bus service for their constituents. Will de Blasio listen to them?

The mayor did highlight BRT as a component of his affordable housing plan during his State of the City address last week, but it played second fiddle to the headline-grabbing initiative to subsidize ferries.

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Council Members Grill Uber on Prices, But What About Safety?

The City Council transportation committee heard testimony today on a bill to prohibit for-hire vehicle companies from “charging excessive rates.” Council members made no bones about the fact that they are taking aim at Uber, which raises and lowers fares in response to demand. Uber calls it “dynamic pricing.” It’s also known as “surge pricing” and, to some council members and Uber competitors, “price-gouging.”

Council Member David Greenfield, the bill’s primary sponsor, screamed at Uber reps for a good five minutes this afternoon over the prospect of a flip-flop-clad New Yorker fresh off the plane from Miami paying more than the prescribed amount for a ride home from the airport. Greenfield tweeted that traditional cab fleet owners, who donate heavily to local political campaigns, want a 20 percent cap on Uber “surge” rates. His bill would cap them at double the company’s normal price range.

Though it was the first time council members spoke publicly with Uber since company driver Aliou Diallo hit two pedestrians on the Upper East Side, killing Wesley Mensing and injuring Erin Sauchelli, legislators barely touched on the issue of street safety. Transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez told Meera Joshi, chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, that he wants to talk more about the chain of accountability following cab-involved crashes, and a representative from Lyft (to whom Greenfield was far more cordial) said trip data requested by the TLC, and currently withheld by Uber, can help with crash probes. But no one asked the Uber spokespeople about the Upper East Side crash or the company’s safety practices in general.

The next time the council invites Uber to testify at a hearing, here are some things the public needs to know.

  • Does the Uber ride-hailing system create distraction for company drivers?
  • Does Uber collect EDR “black box” readings to ascertain speed and other data after a serious crash?
  • Was the Diallo crash the first fatality involving an Uber driver in NYC?
  • Does Uber keep data on the number and severity of crashes involving Uber drivers?
  • If so, is that data available to the TLC and/or the public?
  • Are Uber drivers trained by Uber for safe driving in urban environments?
  • Are drivers who are involved in serious crashes allowed to keep driving for Uber?
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Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.

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Large trucks operating in NYC are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, however, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from Albany look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

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Trottenberg: DOT Will Make It Safer to Bike Across the Harlem River

Photo: Brad Lander/Twitter

DOT officials, including Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, center background, answer questions from Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, right, this afternoon. Photo: Brad Lander/Twitter

This afternoon, officials from DOT and Citi Bike testified before the City Council transportation committee on the state of bicycling in New York. How will NYC DOT make it safer to bike in the city and design streets where more New Yorkers feel comfortable biking? Today’s hearing featured a glimpse into the bike policy initiatives the de Blasio administration is developing.

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a new DOT “Bikes on Bridges” program to create safer access to and across the city’s network of bridges. The agency will focus first on the Harlem River crossings, which local residents and Transportation Alternatives have been campaigning to improve for walking and biking. There’s no timeline for implementation, but Trottenberg said that the effort will result in short-term recommendations and guide future long-term capital investments on the bridges.

Trottenberg also restated the city’s commitment to expand the bike network with 50 miles of bike lanes each year, including five miles of protected bike lanes. She noted that more than 340,000 trips are taken by bike each day in NYC, and said the city aims to double bicycling by 2020. That would not exceed the growth rate in recent years, and may actually be a step back from prior goals stated by the administration. In September, Trottenberg had reiterated a campaign pledge by Mayor de Blasio to raise NYC’s bike mode share to 6 percent. According to the most recent Census data, the current bicycle commute mode share in the city is 1.2 percent.

Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez asked if the city could pick up the pace of protected bike lane installation. “If we’re going to take it to the next level, then we’re going to have to talk about additional resources and additional personnel,” Trottenberg said, adding that protected bike lane projects consume a significant amount of time as the city works with local merchantsresidents, and community boards.

Here are more highlights from the hearing:

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