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Levine Stands Up for Riverside Drive Road Diet Under Attack By CB 9

A road diet for the speeding-plagued Riverside Drive viaduct is already missing bike lanes. Community Board 9 members want DOT to scrap the road diet, too, but Council Member Mark Levine backs it. Image: DOT [PDF]

A plan to calm traffic on a speeding-plagued stretch of Riverside Drive in West Harlem would be gutted if Community Board 9 members get their way, but Council Member Mark Levine, who represents the area, wants DOT to move ahead with the safety plan.

“It’s all really sensible stuff that’s been succeeding in other parts of this district and this city,” Levine said. “I certainly value all the community input, and it needs to go through all the steps on the community board, but… I think DOT should move forward.”

Council Member Mark Levine.

The proposal features a mix of curb extensions and pedestrian islands on Riverside Drive between 116th and 135th Streets. Between 2008 and 2012, there were 20 serious injuries on this stretch of Riverside, including one pedestrian and 19 motor vehicle occupants [PDF].

The most dangerous section, according to DOT project manager Dan Wagner, is the Riverside Drive viaduct, which runs from just north of the General Grant National Memorial to 135th Street.

The average speed on the viaduct is 36.5 mph, according to DOT, with 79 percent of drivers clocking in above the posted 30 mph limit. In December, Levine and fellow Council Member Helen Rosenthal asked DOT to bring Riverside’s speed limit in line with the citywide 25 mph default [PDF].

DOT says it will do that, but only if the street is also redesigned to reduce speeds. Under the agency’s proposal, the viaduct from the Grant Memorial to 135th Street would be slimmed from two lanes in each direction to one, with the remaining space used for wide striped buffers. (Though Riverside is already a busy cycling route, DOT has refused to propose bike lanes.)

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West Harlem CB Members to DOT: Let Drivers Use Neighborhood as Shortcut

Key community board members in West Harlem say having anything less than two lanes in each direction will gridlock Riverside Drive. Photo: Google Maps

Key community board members in West Harlem say anything less than two lanes in each direction will gridlock the Riverside Drive viaduct. Photo: Google Maps

Riverside Drive in West Harlem is shaping up to be another test case for DOT’s commitment to safety improvements, and whether the agency will allow ignorance of basic street design principles and fear of change guide its decisions.

DOT didn’t put bike lanes in its road diet plan for Riverside Drive. Now, key members of Community Board 9 don’t want a road diet in the plan, either. DOT says that without the lane reduction, which will lower the design speed of the street, it won’t go along with requests to reduce the speed limit on Riverside to 25 mph.

The project includes pedestrian islands and curb extensions along Riverside Drive, 116th Street, and 120th Streets between 116th and 135th Streets. Its centerpiece is a road diet, from two lanes in each direction to one, on the viaduct that carries Riverside over West Harlem [PDF].

CB 9 transportation committee chair Carolyn Thompson and Ted Kovaleff, who served as CB 9 chair in the 1990s, spent much of Wednesday night’s meeting trying to maintain as many car lanes as possible on Riverside Drive.

Kovaleff said that he used to frequently drive to Vermont on Friday afternoons, and found that spillover traffic from the West Side Highway would clog Riverside, backing up on the viaduct. Removing one lane, he said, would lead to total gridlock. DOT project manager Dan Wagner said his analysis showed the viaduct road diet would slow driver speeds without leading to excessive back-ups, but Kovaleff wasn’t convinced. It would become a terminal bottleneck,” he said, “and that bottleneck would lead to increased pollution.”

“The asthma rate in this community, it’s horrible,” Thompson added. She also claimed that buses wouldn’t be able to operate on the viaduct with one lane in each direction.

Kovaleff didn’t evince much concern about dangerous speeding on the viaduct — and wasn’t convinced, despite ample evidence, that road diets work. “If people are gonna speed, whether it’s one lane in each direction, or two lanes in each direction, they’re gonna press down on the accelerator,” Kovaleff said. “And, you know, I don’t really care if people go 50 miles an hour on the viaduct.”

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Bus Lanes Worked Wonders on East 125th. Now What About the West Side?

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, bus trips are now a third faster than before. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, transit speeds increased by a third. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Since debuting last year, Select Bus Service on 125th Street has dramatically improved transit speeds, especially on the section with dedicated bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue, according to NYC DOT and the MTA. The results strengthen the case for adding bus lanes west of Lenox, which DOT had scuttled in 2013 in response to resistance from local electeds. With more favorable politics prevailing today, the agency could revive bus lanes for West Harlem and greatly extend the impact of 125th Street SBS.

The improvement in bus service thanks to camera-enforced transit lanes, off-board fare collection, and other SBS features is impressive [PDF]. From end to end, the M60 bus from 110th Street to LaGuardia Airport now travels 11 to 14 percent faster than it did before. On 125th Street between Second and Lenox Avenues, the only part of 125th to receive dedicated bus lanes, the M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster, an improvement that MTA bus planner Evan Bialostozky called “shocking, to even me.”

The M60 isn’t the only route to benefit from the new bus lanes: Local bus trips on the M100 and Bx15 are 7 to 20 percent faster between Second and Lenox.

“That’s helping a lot of people,” Bialostozky told the Community Board 9 transportation committee last Thursday. Crosstown buses on 125th Street serve more than more than 32,000 riders every day. Before the dedicated transit lanes debuted last year, these routes had been among the city’s slowest buses, crawling through traffic and around double-parked cars.

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DOT Proposes Riverside Drive Traffic Calming, But Not Bike Lanes

Riverside Drive is getting a road diet and a 25 mph speed limit, but bike lanes? Fuhgeddaboudit. Image: DOT [PDF]

Riverside Drive is getting a road diet and a 25 mph speed limit, but bike lanes? Fuhgeddaboudit. Image: DOT [PDF]

Last night, DOT presented a plan to the Manhattan Community Board 9 transportation committee that would bring pedestrian safety improvements and a road diet to Riverside Drive, but DOT is proposing no bike lanes for the popular cycling route [PDF].

The plan for Riverside Drive stretches from 116th to 135th Streets, which ranks in the top third of high-crash Manhattan corridors and was the site of 20 serious injuries from 2008 to 2012. Of those injuries, 19 were motor vehicle occupants and one was a pedestrian.

The average midday speed on the Riverside Drive viaduct in West Harlem is 36.5 miles per hour, according to DOT, with 75 percent of all drivers exceeding the street’s current 30 mph limit. Council Members Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal asked DOT last month to lower the speed limit on Riverside to the new citywide default of 25 mph [PDF]. The agency said last night that the speed limit on all of Riverside Drive will soon drop to 25 mph, with signals retimed to match the change.

The project also includes two blocks of 116th and 120th Streets between Riverside and Broadway. East of Broadway, 120th Street is already one lane in each direction and 116th Street is a pedestrian walkway on the Columbia University campus. Due to low traffic volumes, those two east-west streets will receive road diets, dropping them from two lanes in each direction to three, including a center turning lane with pedestrian safety islands. The road diet includes an extra-wide parking lane to provide breathing room for cyclists, but no bike lanes.

On 120th, four refuge islands would be installed — one each at Riverside and Broadway, plus two at Claremont Avenue — while on 116th, just two refuge islands would be installed at Riverside and Broadway, with none at Claremont to accommodate trucks that would be unable to turn around them.

An audience member suggested closing the curved “slip lane” from Claremont Avenue to 116th Street, but DOT said that roadwork would exceed the project’s budget. Instead, the department is proposing adding a sidewalk and parking to the eastern side of the triangle at 116th and Claremont. Parking would also be added to the southern side, though some residents worried it might impact visibility for drivers going from Claremont to 116th.

The plan as currently designed results in a net gain of six parking spaces, but some community board members wanted more. “We need to be finding extra spaces to take care of people who are not well enough off to have a garage and the luxury of a garage,” said CB 9 member Ted Kovaleff, who asked that DOT add angled parking to 116th and 120th Streets to squeeze in more cars. DOT project manager Dan Wagner explained that adding diagonal parking would mean there wouldn’t be space for pedestrian islands.

“Do you prefer more parking or do you prefer pedestrian safety? I think that’s the debate,” Wagner said.

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Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today's event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today’s event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Behind the podium are City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Mark Levine, Carmen Bianco of New York City Transit, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, and City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Photo: Stephen Miller

On Sunday, Select Bus Service launched on a route that stretches from 125th Street in Harlem to LaGuardia Airport. Public officials marked the occasion — the first SBS route to debut during the de Blasio era — at a Harlem press conference today. With off-board fare collection and dedicated bus lanes (on part of the route), the upgrades will speed cross-town trips for 33,000 bus riders daily, on both the M60 SBS route and local routes that will benefit from the bus lanes only.

Not that long ago, it seemed like SBS on 125th Street might never happen. The bus lanes were originally planned to extend between Second and Morningside Avenues, but after State Senator Bill Perkins led objections to the planning process, the plan was scaled back, calling for bus lanes between Second Avenue and Lenox. The entire project appeared dead soon after, then was revived in October after closed-door meetings with Perkins and other erstwhile opponents.

At today’s press conference, elected officials made the case for extending the bus lanes west to Morningside.

“While it’s a fabulous day for East Harlem, it’s a slightly less wonderful day for Central and West Harlem, because a key feature of this route, which is the bus-only lane you see right here, stops — comes to an abrupt halt — at Lenox Avenue,” said Council Member Mark Levine. “That’s simply not fair to residents in the western part of this wonderful street.”

Levine, whose call for extending the bus lane was echoed by State Senator Adriano Espaillat, said he hoped that it could be implemented as soon as this fall.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito thinks success on the initial segment will lead to westward expansion. “Once people start using this and really seeing the benefits, you’re going to start getting the support of people asking and clamoring for more,” she said. “Some of us, we thought this wouldn’t move forward.”

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New CM Mark Levine Will Push NYC DOT for Full 125th Street SBS Route

The deal that brought 125th Street Select Bus Service back to life last fall didn’t revive the full, cross-town enhanced bus route that was originally on the table. With the current plan calling for bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue only, bus riders who travel to or from West Harlem would still get the short end of the stick. Freshman Council Member Mark Levine wants to change that.

Levine, elected this fall to an Upper Manhattan district that includes West Harlem, made full-length SBS a staple of his campaign. Now that he’s in office, he’s banging the drum for his district’s bus riders. In an interview published on DNAinfo today, reporter Jeff Mays asked Levine, “Where will residents first see your mark as a councilman?”

He responded:

Council Member Mark Levine

Council Member Mark Levine

125th Street is a vital commercial spine and transportation corridor for Upper Manhattan…But the [east-west] bus speed is approximately 3.5 miles per hour. It’s slower than walking. Mass transit is moving at a crawl. This has to change.

There’s a [DOT] proposal out there that could significantly improve transit. [With Select Bus Service], buses get a dedicated lane. Riders pay before they get on the bus and there are other enhancements of speed. Unfortunately the plan they’re implementing has an [SBS] bus only east of Lenox Avenue…the plan is crazy and it’s simply not justifiable based on public policy. I am committed to making the DOT make the bus lane the whole length of 125th Street. I think we could see impact on that early in 2014.

Beyond being a positive sign from an incoming council member, Levine’s push for a better SBS route offers a test for Mayor Bill de Blasio and incoming Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. To make make river-to-river bus lanes happen on 125th Street, City Hall and DOT will run up against the neighborhood’s political establishment, particularly its Albany delegation, which attempted to scuttle SBS in the first place.

De Blasio’s mayoral campaign was all about the hurdles faced by working-class New Yorkers. In his transportation platform, he pledged to build at least 20 “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit lines, and on the air he made the connection between transportation and economic opportunity.

The partial 125th Street SBS route is scheduled for implementation in April. Restoring the full route to West Harlem would be a big improvement, though the bus lanes, which will just be paint on the road, won’t qualify as great BRT. If Trottenberg’s DOT is going to pursue “world-class” BRT in the future, though, a simple first step would be standing up for a complete bus lane on 125th Street sooner rather than later.

Update: If she wants to fast-track West Harlem bus lanes, Trottenberg will have to change DOT’s status quo position when she takes over later this month: “There are no plans to alter these [plans] prior to implementation,” a department spokesperson said in an email. “We welcome the input of Councilmember Levine and will work closely with him…holding discussions on potential for changes west of Lenox in the future.”

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Harlem CBs Dither on Pedestrian Safety While SI Board Begs for Bike Lanes

Four-lane roads in need of traffic calming: Staten Island Community Board 1 voted to support a community request for bike lanes and traffic calming on Clove Road, left, while Manhattan Community Boards 9 and 10 delayed a community-driven road diet plan for pedestrian islands on Morningside Avenue, right. Photos: Google Maps (left, right)

Last week, Staten Island Community Board 1 passed a resolution asking DOT to install bike lanes, while in Manhattan, a community-requested plan for a road diet and pedestrian islands continues to be delayed by two Harlem community boards.

After months of organizing by Transportation Alternatives — resulting in more than 260 petition signatures and 22 partners signing onto a letter in support [PDF] — as well as a supportive vote from the board’s area committee, CB 1 passed a resolution Thursday asking DOT to bring bike lanes and traffic calming to 2.5 miles of Clove Road from Richmond Terrace to the Staten Island Expressway. This section Clove Road currently has two lanes in each direction for most of its length.

The advocates’ letter recommends protected bike lanes, which would be a first for Staten Island. The text of the CB 1 resolution was not available, so it’s unclear if the community board specifically asked DOT for protected lanes.

The board also requested that DOT investigate “smart traffic lights,” which automatically adjust signal timing in real-time to respond to traffic volumes, and the district manager invited bike lane supporters to join the board for its next budget committee meeting on October 3.

Next, local advocates will try to win the support of Council Member Debi Rose and get a proposal from DOT. Update: “We have not yet received this resolution, but we will review any request we receive from the community,” DOT spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said in an e-mail.

Update:  “I am a strong proponent of safe streets and of reducing the city’s carbon footprint; this DOT study would be a good first step in seeing how we can achieve both goals,” Rose said in a statement.

While CB 1 is taking action on Staten Island, it’s a different story in Manhattan. On Thursday evening, Manhattan Community Board 9 failed to advance a resolution in support of a plan for pedestrian islands and a road diet on Morningside Avenue, which would cut down on speeding near Morningside Park.

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Tonight: Community Boards Weigh Harlem and Staten Island Traffic Calming

Last week, DOT presented a plan to calm traffic on Morningside Avenue in Harlem [PDF] with a road diet and pedestrian islands. Community Board 10’s transportation committee, which has a track record of dithering on and opposing livable streets projects, asked DOT for more data. Tonight, the action shifts to adjacent Community Board 9, which also covers the project area and could be poised to pass a resolution in support of the project.

Pedestrian islands and a road diet like this one on Macombs Avenue in the Bronx could come to Morningside Avenue. Photo: DOT

“I wouldn’t want to predict how the board will vote,” CB 9 member and Friends of Morningside Park president Brad Taylor said. Earlier this month, DOT presented its plan to CB 9’s transportation committee. Although the committee lacked a quorum at that meeting and could not pass a resolution in support, Taylor said the proposal was received favorably and moved forward to the executive committee, which was supportive of a full board resolution. Tonight’s CB 9 meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at the Fortune Society, 630 Riverside Drive.

If CB 9 passes a resolution in support of the Morningside Avenue traffic calming plan tonight, there will be greater pressure for CB 10 pass a resolution, as well. Activists have told Streetsblog that DOT is unlikely to move forward on the plan without community board support. The next CB 10 full board meeting is October 2; the next transportation committee meeting is scheduled for October 9.

On Staten Island, a proposal championed by Transportation Alternatives [PDF] to bring bike lanes, crosswalks, and other traffic calming interventions to Clove Road between Richmond Terrace and the Staten Island Expressway passed CB 1’s Silver Lake/Sunnyside/Westerleigh area committee last night. Tonight, it heads to the full board, which meets at 8:00 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church, 2329 Victory Boulevard.

“I am optimistic that the vote will be positive,” TA’s Meredith Sladek said, adding that CB 1 chair Leticia Remauro even suggested a protected on-street bike lane, which would be a first for Staten Island. The next step for TA activists, who have gathered a coalition of community groups in support [PDF], is getting the support of Council Member Debi Rose and DOT.

Also tonight, DOT will update the Brooklyn CB 6 transportation committee on a design for a capital project [PDF] to bring pedestrian improvements to North Flatbush Avenue. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.

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Morningside Avenue Traffic Calming Awaits Support From Two Harlem CBs

The plan for Morningside Avenue would add pedestrian islands, left turn lanes, wider parking lanes, and reduce the number of through lanes from two in each direction to one. Image: DOT

From 116th Street to 126th Street, Morningside Avenue is known as a speedway between Harlem’s residential streets to the east and Morningside Park to the west. A traffic calming plan from DOT [PDF] now waits while Community Boards 9 and 10 weigh in. Transportation committees of both boards received presentations from DOT, followed by question-and-answer sessions, but so far, there have been no resolutions advanced from the boards and Council Member Inez Dickens remains supportive of traffic calming in concept but noncommittal about the proposal on the table.

The plan, developed after the North Star Neighborhood Association was unsuccessful in winning a Slow Zone for a larger section of the neighborhood, would transform the avenue from two lanes in each direction to a narrower single lane in each direction, with a center striped median that would include concrete pedestrian islands and left turn lanes. Parking lanes would be widened, creating space for cyclists and double-parked drivers. At park entrances, DOT is proposing painted curb extensions on the west side of the avenue in the parking lane.

The border between Community Boards 9 and 10 runs down the middle of Morningside Avenue from south to north until 123rd Street, at which point CB 9 jogs east by one block to St. Nicholas Avenue and continues north. Within this area covered exclusively by CB 9, the plan includes changes to Hancock Place, a diagonal that crosses Morningside between 125th and 124th Streets, with a new pedestrian signal and crosswalk, left turn lanes, and curb extensions.

Although those changes are beyond CB 10’s borders, that didn’t stop committee members and the public from debating their merits at Wednesday’s meeting. DOT noted that the block serves as many pedestrians as it does drivers (about 500 during the peak evening hour), and that pedestrians looking to continue along 125th Street deserve a safe crossing.

The plan was presented to CB 9’s transportation committee last week. Although the committee did not advance a resolution, advocates say they expect the full board to come out in support during its next meeting on September 19, and they hope to use CB 9’s resolution as a model for CB 10. The next CB 10 full board meeting is October 2; the next transportation committee meeting is scheduled for October 9.

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Will Letters From Two Uptown Electeds Get DOT to Restart 125th Street SBS?

The plan for 125th Street Select Bus Service died on the vine after a lack of support from community boards and elected officials. But now, Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito [PDF] and State Senator Adriano Espaillat [PDF], along with council candidate Mark Levine, are asking Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to restart plans to bring SBS to the crosstown route.

Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, and council candidate Mark Levine are urging DOT to restart planning for SBS on 125th Street. Photo: Benjamin Engle/Instagram

In their letters, all three note that the vast majority of area residents are car-free, that SBS would deliver significant improvements to thousands of crosstown bus riders on a notoriously slow route, and that SBS has the potential to bring more customers to businesses along 125th Street.

Shortly before DOT and the MTA pulled the plug on the SBS project last month, Community Board 11’s transportation committee voted [PDF] to reverse a supportive resolution it had passed earlier in the spring, rejecting SBS unless the M35 bus to Randalls Island — an unrelated bus line — was rerouted. Neighbors had long complained about the route’s passengers hanging out at the busy corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street.

In her letter urging DOT to restart SBS planning, Mark-Viverito backed a proposal to move this bus stop, though she did not condition her support of SBS on the stop’s relocation. “I have heard the concerns of El Barrio/East Harlem residents regarding the placement of the M35 bus stop,” she wrote. “The alternate proposal to move the stop in front of the Pathmark is one that I support.”

I asked Mark-Viverito why she had not spoken out publicly in support of SBS as the project was being attacked and scaled back earlier this year. “We had made very clear in conversations throughout the debate around the 125th Street SBS that we supported the project,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement. “When the DOT released a scaled back proposal for SBS, it still kept the project whole in El Barrio/East Harlem, which is the area that I represent.”

When DOT cancelled SBS, the agency said it would be implementing other bus improvements on 125th Street, but there has been no further information about what those changes might be or when they would be implemented. “We received the letters from the elected officials and will be responding,” DOT spokesperson Nicole Garcia said via e-mail. “We still hope to work to improve bus service throughout the corridor in dialog with the community.”

This post has been corrected to note that CB 11’s transportation committee, and not the full board, voted on resolutions regarding 125th Street SBS. At no time did CB 11’s full board express an opinion on the project.