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The Transformation of Queens Boulevard, Block By Block

For many years, New York City’s Queens Boulevard was known as the “Boulevard of Death.” The street cuts through the heart of the Queens, expanding at some points to a chaotic 12 to 16 lanes of traffic — which makes it extremely dangerous for human beings. From 2003 to 2013, 38 pedestrians and cyclists were killed and 450 suffered severe injuries.

Last year, the New York City DOT announced a $100 million dollar commitment from the de Blasio administration to humanize Queens Boulevard and make it safer, a flagship project in the city’s Vision Zero initiative. Instead of waiting until the planned permanent reconstruction in 2018 to make any changes, DOT wanted to build in safety improvements immediately. After holding public workshops with communities along the corridor, 1.3 miles of Queens Boulevard have been redesigned, and the changes are already making a huge difference.

If you’re an urban planner, transportation engineer, or advocate wondering just what can be done with what seems to be an irredeemably messed up street, then this is the Streetfilm for you. We got an exclusive tour of the changes with NYC DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo, going block-by-block over the creative solutions the DOT team implemented. Queens Boulevard is as complicated a roadway as there is: Nearly every block is different. To add a functional bike lane and pedestrian mall seemed highly unlikely. Yet here it is.

I’ll admit, I’m especially excited about this project since I’ve lived near Queens Boulevard for years. I was skeptical when the announcement was made that I would see any truly life-altering change, and even if the city pulled it off, it would take years and years. But the installation has been swift and extremely well thought out. The service road is noticeably slower, narrower, and easier to navigate for people walking or biking. So much so that I was motivated to document the transformation with this Streetfilm, which I hope will be a learning tool that people can put to use in their communities. If you can put a good protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard, then just about any street in America should be in play.

In 2015, no one was killed on Queens Boulevard.

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Public Advocate Tish James Wants More Movement on Vision Zero

As a council member representing Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights, Tish James was a vocal proponent of redesigning Grand Army Plaza and other street safety initiatives. Since her election to the public advocate’s office two years ago, James has amplified her message about the need to rethink city streets, advocating for better laws to safeguard pedestrians, more protected bike lanes, and bus rapid transit.

Public Advocate Tish James

In December, James called on the city to do more to prevent traffic fatalities at a memorial for Victoria Nicodemus, who was killed by a curb-jumping driver in Fort Greene. “It really isn’t enough to mourn and pray for Victoria, it’s not enough to attend vigils and it’s not enough to cry,” James said at the time. “We need to prevent these types of crashes from happening over and over again, which means that individuals who are responsible for this crime, for flouting the law, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Streetsblog caught up with James last week, soon after City Hall released its annual Vision Zero progress report, to hear more about her policy agenda for street safety. Here’s the interview, lightly edited for length.

As a council member and as candidate for public advocate, you made Vision Zero one of your main policy priorities. Shortly after you were elected public advocate, you said that “some politicians need to be educated about the serious nature of [traffic violence] offenses” and that Mayor de Blasio’s “first hundred days [would] determine whether or not he’s serious about this issue.”

Let me begin with some of my priorities. They date back to my days in city council, when I represented a district where we had a significant number of fatalities. One of my first priorities was to redesign Atlantic Avenue. We had a charette, we had discussions about it working with the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Association as well as with other civic associations and the community board, and as of today, Atlantic Avenue has not been redesigned. It should be a priority for this administration – particularly in light of the fact that the arena is now open and has been open for some time. And there was a recent fatality. We need to make this a priority corridor. We need to work with federal and state partners on identifying funding for lifesaving projects and we need to work obviously with the community, which obviously has a stake in making sure that we prevent pedestrian fatalities and traffic fatalities as well.

Another priority for me, and I’ve spoken about in the past as a city council member and now as public advocate I’ve stepped it up, is protected bike lanes.

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TA: Quicker Action on Vision Zero Can Save Thousands of Lives

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At the current rate of improvement, the de Blasio administration is 31 years behind schedule on Vision Zero. Image: Transportation Alternatives

The de Blasio administration is making progress on street safety, but not fast enough to achieve the mayor’s Vision Zero target of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024, Transportation Alternatives says in a new report. At the current rate of improvement, it will take nearly 40 years to reach that goal.

Advocates from TA, Families for Safe Streets, and other groups took to the steps of City Hall this morning to call for swifter, more aggressive action from city and state officials.

TA Executive Director Paul Steely White said the city needs to cut traffic fatalities by 40 percent per year — as opposed to the present rate of 10 percent.

“We’re here to say that Vision Zero is working, but Vision Zero isn’t working fast enough,” White said, adding that there are “scores of ways the mayor, his agencies, and other key players can do a better job implementing Vision Zero and deliver Vision Zero on time so we can save lines.” Among those recommendations — budgeting more resources for DOT to implement street redesigns.

Released this morning, TA’s 2015 Vision Zero Report Card grades elected officials and public agencies on their street safety performance.

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On Queens Boulevard, de Blasio Lays Out 2016 Street Safety Agenda

This morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the recently-redesigned Queens Boulevard with DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

This morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the recently-redesigned Queens Boulevard with DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Photo: David Meyer

Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined his 2016 street safety agenda to the City Hall press corps this morning, after DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg led a short walk by a redesigned section of Queens Boulevard. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was a no-show for the second year running.

Noting that traffic deaths declined to a historic low in 2015, the mayor listed $115 million in capital projects to improve street safety on the docket for this year and said the city would push for legislation in Albany to lift restrictions on automated speed enforcement.

Last year, 231 people were killed in New York City traffic, according to preliminary figures in the city’s Vision Zero Year Two Report, which was also released today [PDF]. That’s down from 257 in 2014 and an improvement on the previous low of 249 fatalities in 2011. A citywide tally of severe traffic injuries in 2014 is just now available and also shows a significant improvement, declining about 12 percent from the previous year.

The most significant citywide change over the past two years has been the deployment of 140 speed cameras in combination with the lower default speed limit of 25 mph. State law, however, still limits the number of speed cameras NYC can deploy and restricts their use to areas near schools, during school activities. This means camera enforcement doesn’t happen at night, when speeding tends to be most prevalent.

It’s not clear exactly what the city will ask for in Albany, but de Blasio indicated that increasing the hours that speed cameras can operate is a high priority. The mayor said he hopes state electeds will put aside other political disagreements for the sake of safer streets.

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Atlantic Avenue Speedway Claims Life of Rodney Graham, 49

Early Sunday morning, Rodney Graham was killed while crossing Atlantic Avenue when he was struck twice by separate motorists. Street safety advocates are calling on the city to implement significant design changes to prevent more loss of life.

Graham, 49, was crossing Atlantic at Rockaway Avenue in East New York at around 4:20 a.m. Citing unnamed police sources, the Daily News reported that he was crossing against the light. Graham was rushed to a nearby hospital but did not survive. The first driver who hit him faces no charges and the second fled the scene.

Rodney Graham, 49, was killed early Sunday while crossing this dangerous intersection on Atlantic Avenue in the rain. Image: Google Maps

Rodney Graham, 49, was killed early Sunday while crossing this dangerous intersection on Atlantic Avenue in the rain. Image: Google Maps

Atlantic Avenue is one of the most dangerous streets in the city, with 25 fatal crashes from the beginning of 2011 through the end of November. Speeding is the norm, crossing on foot is risky, and the whole corridor divides neighborhoods and stunts development.

Yesterday’s crash occurred about 15 blocks west of a DOT “Vision Zero Great Streets” project that will do very little to change the underlying design that leads to excessive speeds. DOT intends to build sturdier medians in East New York between Pennsylvania Avenue and Conduit Boulevard but hasn’t proposed a significant repurposing of street space for safer walking and biking. The plan is expected to be finalized in August and built in 2017. The section of Atlantic Avenue to the east, between Conduit Boulevard and Rockaway Boulevard, is slated to be part of a second phase.

Transportation Alternatives released a statement today calling for a complete redesign of Atlantic’s entire distance “with expanded safe space for pedestrians, along with protected bike lanes.” TA’s “People First on Atlantic Avenue” campaign has over 5,000 signatures in support of such improvements. As lives continue to be lost on Atlantic, all eyes are on the city to put forward more ambitious proposals to keep people safe.

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Criminal Court Judge Upholds Constitutionality of Right of Way Law

A judge ruled against a motorist who filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Right of Way Law.

Silvia Gallo and her son, former MMA star Jorge Gurgel. Photo: Cage Potato

Silvia Gallo and her son, former MMA star Jorge Gurgel. Photo: Cage Potato

MD Hossain, a yellow cab driver, was the first person charged after the law took effect in August 2014, when he drove a taxi into 58-year-old Silvia Gallo, killing her, while turning into a crosswalk at Madison Avenue and E. 79th Street.

According to a ruling by New York City Criminal Court Judge Ann E. Scherzer, Hossain claimed the law violates the state and U.S. constitutions by “undermin[ing] the very concept of innocent until proven guilty” and “purport[ing] to regulate alleged reckless driving ‘by imposing criminal penalties on a strict liability’ basis.” Hossain also challenged the law as it was applied in his case.

Hossain claimed the Right of Way Law does not require proof of driver negligence, or proof that a driver committed “any other traffic violations,” in order to be held liable for harming people, and therefore improperly shifts the burden of proof to motorists who are charged under the law.

Scherzer ruled that strict liability laws are authorized by the New York State code, and rejected Hossain’s assertion that the Right of Way Law presumes driver guilt.

In fact, to sustain a conviction for this charge the People would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) defendant operated a motor vehicle, (2) that defendant’s motor vehicle caused contact with a pedestrian or cyclist, (3) that the pedestrian or cyclist had the right of way at the time of the impact … and (4) suffered physical injury as a result of the collision.

In addition to the elements listed above, the statute provides that physical injury that was not caused by a driver’s failure to exercise due care does not violate the statute.

“None of [the] defendant’s arguments come close” to demonstrating that the law is unconstitutional, Scherzer wrote.

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Will the City Council Press NYPD to Enforce the Right of Way Law?

NYPD is barely enforcing a key Vision Zero law more than a year after it took effect, and it seems the City Council isn’t planning to do anything about it.

He's the Energizer bunny of car-centric thinking. Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr

The pressure is not on Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to take pedestrian safety seriously. Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr

The aim of the Right of Way Law, also known as Administrative Code Section 19-190, was to give NYPD precinct officers a tool to penalize motorists who injure or kill. The law made it a misdemeanor for drivers to strike pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. After it took effect, NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said all 35,000 uniformed officers would be trained to enforce it.

The Right of Way Law is a centerpiece of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. Failure to yield is the top contributing factor in 27 percent of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries, according to DOT’s 2010 pedestrian safety study. But NYPD is not applying the law in proportion to the scale of damage caused by drivers who fail to yield.

Precinct cops are starting to use the Right of Way Law, but mostly to issue traffic summonses, not misdemeanor charges. The misdemeanor provision remains the province of the Collision Investigation Squad — and CIS has applied it in just a handful of cases.

Last fall Mayor de Blasio’s office told Streetsblog that, in addition to misdemeanor cases handled by CIS, precinct cops are issuing Section 19-190 summonses for failure-to-yield violations that don’t result in physical harm. The violations are classified as traffic infractions, not crimes, and are subject to a $250 fine.

According to the city’s open data portal (enter “19-190” in the search field), NYPD cited 145 drivers for traffic infractions under Section 19-190 from September 2015, when NYPD began tracking the summonses, through mid-December. Of those 145 cases, 31 were dismissed.

Meanwhile, the number of Right of Way Law misdemeanor cases is stuck in double digits — DNAinfo reported Monday that 31 drivers who killed people were charged criminally in the first 16 months the law was on the books — though New York City drivers injured thousands of people in that time. Nearly all reported charges were filed after crashes worked by CIS, which handles only the most severe collisions, causing critical injury or death.

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DOT Weakened Riverside Drive Plan to Appease Manhattan CB 9 [Updated]

A DOT road diet for the Riverside Drive viaduct, where the majority of drivers speed, will keep two lanes for northbound drivers and will have no lanes for cyclists. Image: Google Maps

A DOT road diet for the Riverside Drive viaduct, where most drivers speed, will keep two lanes for northbound drivers and will have no dedicated lanes for cyclists. Image: Google Maps

DOT watered down and delayed an already half-hearted plan to make Riverside Drive safer for walking in deference to opposition from Manhattan Community Board 9.

Riverside is a neighborhood street, lined by apartment buildings and parks. It also ranks in the top third of Manhattan streets in terms of the number of collisions, which is supposed to mean it’s a high priority for DOT to redesign under Vision Zero. From 2009 to 2013, crashes on Riverside resulted in 74 injuries, including 23 severe injuries, according to DOT.

In January, DOT released a road diet plan for Riverside that was weak to begin with. By omitting bike lanes where there is clearly ample room, DOT passed on an opportunity to make the street safer for cyclists and pedestrians. But that wasn’t enough to placate CB 9, which refused to endorse the plan as drivers continued to injure people.

The original DOT plan called for reducing through-lanes on the Riverside Drive viaduct, where DOT says the majority of drivers speed, from two to one in each direction. But under the amended plan endorsed by CB 9 last May, the viaduct will remain two lanes on the northbound side, according to the office of City Council Member Mark Levine.

DOT dropped pedestrian islands planned for W. 120th Street after CB 9 objected to them.

DOT reportedly dropped pedestrian islands planned for W. 120th Street after CB 9 objected to them.

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TA Report: NYC District Attorneys Are Failing to Lead on Vision Zero

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Prosecutions by NYC district attorneys in 2014 reflect a failure to prioritize deterrence of driver behavior that causes the most harm. Chart: Transportation Alternatives, based on data from NYS DMV and NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services [PDF]

New York City district attorneys are not using the power of their offices to deter acts of traffic violence by holding reckless drivers accountable for harming innocent people, according to a new report from Transportation Alternatives.

TA researchers worked with representatives from all five DA’s offices for “Justice Denied: New York City’s District Attorneys Plead Out of Vision Zero” [PDF]. They found that while most motorists who injure and kill people are sober, DAs rarely bring charges for crashes that don’t involve driver impairment.

The report says that over the past year, city DAs prosecuted at least 10,000 drivers for DWI, and fewer than 40 drivers for failing to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist, though failing to yield “led to more than six times as many crashes” as DWI. Driver impairment was a factor in 897 fatal and injury crashes, TA found, while failing to yield was a factor in 5,966 collisions. Prosecutors used the Right of Way Law in just 3 percent of applicable cases, according to TA.

TA found that hit-and-run drivers are almost never held accountable in NYC. Of 4,000 hit-and-run crashes in 2015 that resulted in injury and death, fewer than 1 percent of drivers were prosecuted, the report says, with just 50 cases handled by trained NYPD crash investigators leading to 28 arrests.

While 70 percent of pedestrian deaths in 2014 were caused by driver behavior, according to New York State DMV data, the report says DAs brought homicide charges in less than 7 percent of fatal crashes. TA found that prosecutors brought charges in fewer than 2 percent of crashes where drivers were not impaired, fleeing police, or intentionally attacking the victim.

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To Make NYC Streets Safer, Focus on the Cause of 98 Percent of Harm

Graph: Google Docs

Source data: DOT and NYPD. Chart by Streetsblog

On Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke in support of legislation that would create a “bicycle safety task force.” The language of the bill, introduced by Council Member Rosie Mendez at Brewer’s request, says the task force would make recommendations for improving bike infrastructure. But in testimony to the council transportation committee, Brewer suggested the panel would also provide a venue for people to gripe about cyclists.

“My office fields nearly daily complaints, many from seniors, who experience near misses with bikers, many of [whom] are breaking the law in some fashion,” Brewer said.

Earlier in the week Mendez staffer Matt Viggiano said basically the same thing to AMNY: “We have a lot of seniors who have called our office with complaints when cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road, and present dangerous conditions for pedestrians.”

There’s no way to pinpoint the extent of the problem described by Brewer and Viggiano. The city does not track near-collisions between cyclists and pedestrians, just like it doesn’t track near-collisions involving motorists or the actual incidence of traffic law-breaking. But for the past few years the city has collected data on reported collisions between people biking and walking. The numbers show that targeting bikes can’t achieve major gains in pedestrian safety, because nearly all pedestrian injuries and deaths are caused by motorists.

DOT recently released 2014 figures on cyclist-pedestrian collisions [PDF] reported to NYPD. People on bikes struck and killed three NYC pedestrians last year, according to DOT, and injured 305 people walking. By comparison, motorists killed 134 pedestrians in 2014, and injured 10,981. So last year cyclists were accountable for just over 2 percent of pedestrian deaths, and less than 3 percent of injuries. And that year was an outlier for fatalities.

From 2000 through 2014, cyclists killed 11 people in NYC, while motorists killed 2,425 pedestrians, making cyclists accountable for .4 percent of deaths over 15 years.

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