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At Jean Chambers Vigil, Urgent Pleas for Action Before Another Life Is Lost

John Chambers addresses last light's vigil for his wife Jean, killed last week by a turning driver at West End Avenue and 95th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

John Chambers speaks at the vigil for his wife Jean, who was killed last week by a turning driver at West End Avenue and 95th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

Yesterday evening, more than 100 people gathered on the corner of 95th Street and West End Avenue to remember 61-year-old Jean Chambers, killed last week by a turning driver while she had the “walk” signal. Jean’s husband and other traffic violence victims spoke at the vigil, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal announced that in the wake of this latest death, DOT will soon redesign at least 10 blocks of West End Avenue.

Jean Chambers is the fourth person killed in traffic within a two-block radius on the Upper West Side since January. After two nearby deaths at 96th Street and Broadway, DOT quickly implemented recommendations that had been developed last year. But it took yet another death to bring more street safety changes to the neighborhood.

“Jean came to 95th Street expressly to avoid 96th Street, because 96th Street and West End is especially treacherous,” said John Chambers, Jean’s husband. “There’s an irony there. She was very conscientious.”

Last night, Rosenthal said DOT has committed to a redesign of West End Avenue, a wide street with ill-defined lanes that handles lots of car traffic going to and from the West Side Highway. ”It will be at least ten blocks, and I think it’s going to be longer,” she said, adding that DOT will be making big changes soon. ”It’s going to be faster than you’ve ever seen,” she said. DOT said it hopes to work with Rosenthal and Community Board 7 to develop the project in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, there are a number of smaller changes DOT is making. Another speed hump on 95th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive is planned, and a leading pedestrian interval at 95th Street and West End Avenue will be installed next week, DOT says. A ban on left turns from 95th to West End, the maneuver made by the driver who killed Chambers, was approved just days before Chambers’s death and implemented very recently [PDF]. The ban is only in effect from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays, however. Rosenthal hopes DOT will make it around-the-clock and install signs reminding drivers coming off the West Side Highway at 95th Street to drive carefully.

Many of these changes have been requested for years by parents at PS 75, where Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his Vision Zero action agenda in February. John Decatur is a father of three and has two children at PS 75, where he serves as co-president of the PTA. “Many parents have told me about nearly getting hit by cars. At the crosswalk where Jean was killed, I had my kids in the crosswalk. A driver leaned out and said, ‘Get your fucking kids out of the crosswalk,” he said. “I had the light.”

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State Panel OKs $255 Million Clean Water Raid for Tappan Zee Bridge

This afternoon, the Public Authorities Control Board signed off on a loan from the state’s clean water fund to help finance the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The board approved half of the $511 million loan that Governor Andrew Cuomo is seeking, but the administration called it “the first installment” of the loan, creating the expectation of more clean water money to finance the extra-wide highway bridge. The approval, likely to be further challenged by advocates, could set a dangerous precedent for other governors looking to raid clean water funds for highway construction.

Why is this man smiling? He just took a big chunk of change for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

Why is this man smiling? He just got money for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

The board’s three voting members – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator John DeFrancisco, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Megna — each could have vetoed the loan. Silver and DeFrancisco said today they voted for the smaller loan to limit the negative impact on the state’s clean water revolving fund.

“This will do nothing to impair the ability to make loans,” DeFrancisco said of the $255 million loan, which will fund, among other things, environmentally-harmful dredging, according to Bloomberg. “These things have to be done. Why not out of an environmental fund?”

Environmental advocates disagreed. “It is simply not true to say that the $255 million loan is ‘environmental’ funding, when the vast majority of that sum is for bridge construction and related work,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn. “Clean-water loans are meant for clean-water projects — not for a bridge — and today’s vote could set a dangerous precedent that will inspire states around the country to start diverting clean-water dollars.”

“A raid is a raid, and a quarter billion dollars in public money should not be bandied about behind closed doors without proper public scrutiny,” said Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz. “Using clean water funds to build a bridge is not creative leadership, it is behaving like a kid in a candy store.”

The state played down its use of a federally subsidized clean water loan on a highway project by insisting it would pay off the debt. “This loan will be repaid and then recycled to benefit other clean-water projects across the state,” said Environmental Facilities Corporation president and CEO Matthew J. Driscoll. The EFC’s board of Cuomo appointees approved the loan last month. Driscoll added that he hopes the bridge project can secure the other half of the loan in 2016.

“The Thruway Authority is committed to an unprecedented level of environmental stewardship,” said Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison, “and also to keeping tolls on the new spans as low as possible.”

The financing plan for the Tappan Zee remains a mystery to the public, and many opposed to the loan hoped the control board would use its power to wrest some more information from the Cuomo administration about how the state is going to pay for the bridge. That didn’t happen today. “We are no closer to knowing the Governor’s math for this loan or this bridge than we were a month ago,” Iwanowicz said.

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Hints About Woodhaven BRT at MTA Reinvention Commission Panel

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

The “transportation reinvention commission” convened at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off its public hearings yesterday with a panel of experts at MTA headquarters. Appointees, still trying to figure out the commission’s exact role, chewed over some of the region’s big transportation issues in a discussion that mostly lacked specifics. Still, there were a few notable comments, including new information about Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard from NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

BRT featured prominently yesterday, as panelists highlighted the need for closer collaboration between the MTA, NYC DOT, and other government agencies to bring robust transit improvements to low-income workers with long commutes in the outer boroughs.

“It seems that the less that you make, the further you have to travel,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told the commission. ”My union agrees with the BRT for NYC coalition that we can improve the situation.”

“We are going to look at going to a more full-blown BRT model, let’s say for Woodhaven Boulevard,” said Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member. After the meeting, she said the budget for the project is close to $200 million, higher than the $100 million she put forward at the end of May and suggesting a more ambitious allocation of space for surface transit. Previous Select Bus Service projects, with painted bus lanes, signal improvements, and sidewalk extensions at bus stops, have cost between $7 million and $27 million to build [PDF]. (The full Woodhaven project corridor is about 14 miles — longer than other SBS routes but not dramatically so.)

It’s too early to say what the Woodhaven BRT project will look like — DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton said the agency does not yet have a design for Woodhaven and is continuing to meet with local communities. But in another indication that the city is serious about pursuing a robust configuration for transit lanes on Woodhaven, Beaton said costs for Woodhaven should be compared with projects like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, or Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Those projects feature center-running lanes (the SF busways have yet to be built).

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Stringer: Complete Streets Save NYC Taxpayers Money

Each year, the city comptroller issues a report on claims settled for and against the city, showing how much New York spends on personal injury and property-damage judgments. Every year, there’s a similar story: Damages from crashes involving drivers of city vehicles rank as one of the top money-losers for taxpayers. A report issued this week by Comptroller Scott Stringer [PDF] is no exception, singling out complete streets as a tool to reduce claims.

Crash claims cost the city $91.2 million last year, but it's hard to get much more information than that. Photo: dfirecop/Flickr

Crash claims cost the city $91 million last year, but it’s hard to get more information about them. Photo: dfirecop/Flickr

While claims against the city have held mostly steady since 2003, motor vehicle claims are down 13 percent to $91.2 million during fiscal year 2013. One potential factor: street design. “NYC DOT has been a national leader in working to transform our roads into ‘complete streets’ that serve a variety of users,” the report says. ”This is not only smart transportation policy, it is also an intelligent way to drive down claims costs.”

Stringer cites a 2006 Federal Highway Administration report on risk management:  ”With every passing year, the courts become less and less sympathetic to agencies that have not understood the message: bicyclists and pedestrians are intended users of the roadway.”

Defective sidewalk claims against DOT are also down more than 40 percent since 2003, though this could be attributed in part to a 2008 decision by the state’s top court in favor of the city, making it harder for trial lawyers to win claims over sidewalk defects.

Claims costs are only a fraction of the total cost of crashes, the report notes, with costs from workers’ compensation, sick leave, settlements, and repairing or replacing vehicles straining the city budget. Like a report last year from then-Comptroller John Liu, this year’s document urges the city to be proactive about reducing motor vehicle claims by identifying and addressing problem streets and areas.

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Two Men Can Stop Cuomo From Building a Highway With Clean Water Funds

Two men — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator John DeFrancisco – stand between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his plan to use the state’s clean water fund to finance construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

It's up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo's clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

It’s up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo’s clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

The $511 million low-interest loan for the Tappan Zee (stated goal: “keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible”) uses money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund reserved for New York City. Although the fund is meant to finance things like wastewater treatment plants, not highway construction, the loan was approved late last month by the Cuomo-controlled Environmental Facilities Corporation.

It still needs final sign-off from the Public Authorities Control Board, where three members each wield veto power over new debt issued by state authorities. The loan is on the agenda for the board’s meeting on Wednesday, and either Silver or DeFrancisco could stop, or at least delay, its approval. (The other member, state budget director Robert Menga, is a Cuomo appointee and supports the loan, according to Bloomberg.)

A coalition of environmental, transportation, and good-government groups — including the Regional Plan Association, which has generally supported the TZB project — are calling on control board members to use their veto power. “This loan could set a dangerous precedent and lead other states into using these funds for projects with little or no connection to the protection of water quality and water resources,” the advocates wrote in a letter to the board [PDF]. “At a minimum, we request that the Board delay a vote on the loan.”

“We don’t think this is a good idea,” RPA spokeswoman Wendy Pollack said. “Or a good precedent.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking supporters to contact board members and urge them to vote against the loan.

Silver remains noncommittal, even though the Tappan Zee loan would use funds intended for New York City clean water projects. ”We are reviewing the matter,” spokesperson Mike Whyland said in an email.

DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, is giving a similar line. “He’s still examining the issue. He hasn’t made a decision yet,” said spokesperson Tiffany Latino.

Last week, DeFrancisco said that he wouldn’t hesitate to stop the loan without more answers from the Cuomo administration. “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing,” he told Capital Tonight. “If I got a vote, I’m gonna use it.”

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What We Know So Far About Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission

In early May, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the MTA to create a “transportation reinvention” panel as the authority prepared its next five-year capital plan. Members were appointed late last month, and the commission has launched Facebook and Twitter accounts. But details about its agenda and how open it will be to the public are scant. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The MTA capital plan has to be finalized by October 1.

Think big, act fast: Details are still murky on Andrew Cuomo's MTA reinvention commission. Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr

Think big, act fast: Andrew Cuomo’s MTA reinvention commission doesn’t have much time to come up with its recommendations. joiseyshowaa/Flickr

The MTA says it will announce public meetings by the end of this week, and commission members say those sessions are likely to happen next week, just days after being announced. Beyond that, things are hazy: There is no agenda for future commission meetings and no schedule for reporting the commission’s recommendations.

The 24-member panel, chaired by former US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, is being advised by MTA staff as well as mega-consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is already working on the Fulton Street Transit Center, East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, and 7 train extension to Hudson Yards — all of which are in various states of budget overrun or delay.

Advocates on the commission say it’s off to a good start, however, and they’re optimistic about what will emerge from the process.

The panel met for the first time late last month and members have been broken into five subcommittees:

  • Operating and Maintaining the Existing System
  • Meeting and Exceeding Customer Needs
  • Spurring the Continued Growth of New York’s Economy
  • Financing Investments into the Future
  • Expediting Processes, Procedures and Project Delivery of Capital Infrastructure

The subcommittees, which have weighty issues to consider, have each met at least once, sometimes via conference call. Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says members haven’t been afraid to think big. ”Many of us are taking it to heart that this is a reinvention commission, and that things that have not been discussed before really should be on the table going forward, even if they’re just ideas,” she said. ”It’s sort of rethinking our transportation network in this region.”

“The whole thing feels like it has more energy than the typical fare or service hearing,” said commission member Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. “I’m hoping the commission finds a serious way to get people to think along with it about how we improve on transit.”

How that will happen remains to be seen, even to commission members. “It’s hard to talk specifics,” Vanterpool said. ”I’m assuming this is going to be due this summer, but I don’t have any firm dates.”

“The commission hasn’t yet established a specific date by which it expects to conclude and/or report its work,” said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. There is one final deadline: The MTA will submit its five-year capital plan to the governor and the legislature by October 1.

The MTA reinvention commission isn’t the first transit panel created in New York state, but the three most recent examples all had more time to deliberate publicly and come up with recommendations than the MTA reinvention commission.

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Chin Asks de Blasio to Choose Affordable Housing Over Cheap Parking

Council Member Margaret Chin has set up a simple choice for Mayor Bill de Blasio: Which is the higher priority, affordable housing or cheap parking?

DOT owns 39 parking lots and garages in all five boroughs. Many of them could be affordable housing sites, if Mayor de Blasio follows through on his plan. Image: DOT

DOT owns 39 parking lots and garages in all five boroughs. Many of them could be affordable housing, if Mayor de Blasio decides to prioritize housing over car storage. Image: DOT

In a letter to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg first reported by the Wall Street Journal [PDF], Chin urged the de Blasio administration to redevelop the city-owned parking garage on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, calling it a “great opportunity for the development of affordable housing” in an area with “an urgent need for more.”

According to an analysis by the City Council’s land use division, it could accommodate 89 housing units under current zoning.

Chin’s request comes two months after de Blasio released his affordable housing plan, which singled out municipal parking lots as a type of city-owned property ripe for affordable housing development.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is charged with coming up with a list of suitable city-owned properties. Last month, an HPD spokesperson said the effort was in the early stages and it was still reaching out to other agencies. The department offered a similar line today.

After an event in May, I asked Trottenberg whether DOT would get out of the parking lot business to help the mayor achieve the his affordable housing goals. “It’s too soon to say,” she said. “I can’t pre-judge that now.” Trottenberg would only say that DOT is “ready to do whatever we can to help,” including creating an inventory of its developable properties.

DOT has not replied to questions today about Chin’s proposal to redevelop the Ludlow Street garage, but did tell the Journal that it “serves a significant community need for parking” and is undergoing a $5.8 million renovation.

The garage is is one of 39 DOT-managed garages and lots, accounting for more than 8,100 spaces citywide. Many of those municipal lots offer cheap parking well below the going rate. The Ludlow Street garage, for example, charges $4.50 for the first hour and $2 for each additional hour. Nearby garages start at $10 for the first hour.

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Shared Space: The Street Design NYC’s Financial District Was Made For

Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP

Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP

For people in cars, the Financial District is a slow-speed maze. For everyone else, it is one of the city’s most transit-rich destinations. Despite this, most of the street space in the area is devoted to cars.

The Financial District is an ideal candidate for pedestrianization, but while it has seen redesigns on a handful of streets, it has yet to see the large-scale creation of car-free space that has been studied and talked about for ages. Could introducing shared space to the mix help transform some of New York’s oldest streets into truly people-first places?

If not for the the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Financial District would effectively be a large cul-de-sac — there is no reason for through traffic to use its local streets. The evil twins of West Street and the FDR Drive feed cars to the tunnel and ring off the neighborhood from the waterfront. But within the Financial District itself, most of the streets are narrow and have far more pedestrians than cars.

There are a few places in the Financial District where car-free streets have taken hold over the years. Too often, the goal has been not to create an open, accessible city, but to build a fortress against the threat of truck bombs.

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Talking Shared Space With Ben Hamilton-Baillie

Winthrop St, Harvard Square

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the only city in America with a city law that defines “shared streets,” passed to provide wider walkways along Winthrop Street near Harvard Square. Photo: Leslee/Flickr

“Recovering architect” and street design expert Ben Hamilton-Baillie launched a broadside against the rules of traffic engineering during a plenary speech to the Congress for the New Urbanism’s recent annual meeting in Buffalo. Baillie urges widespread adoption of “shared space” — a design concept popularized by Hans Monderman over the past generation in the Netherlands that has only just begun to make headway in the United States.

Hamilton-Baillie argues that current street design practices unsuccessfully try to blend the concepts of highways and public space, through wide lanes, broad curves, and signs too numerous to count (much less read). The solution, he says, is to create a different set of expectations: “Don’t treat drivers as idiots, because then you’ll get idiots.” Instead of relying on an endless set of instructions, he suggests that humans instinctively understand how to move through public space.

Marshall Street

Shared spaces like Marshall Street in Boston were once the rule, rather than the exception, even in American cities. Photo: Payton Chung

That instinctive understanding worked on city streets for thousands of years, and was upended by cars less than a century ago. Hamilton-Baillie points to the experience of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei-Brak, Israel, whose religious traditions extend to their understanding of how streets work. As researcher Tova Rosenbloom observed, “Drivers who get to Bnei-Brak complain that they need seven eyes. People walk on the roads as if they were footpaths.”

Once drivers have been jarred into understanding that the post-1920s order of the roads no longer applies, streets can function as they have for millennia. Hamilton-Baillie insists that the cultural context matters less than one might expect: “Human social behavior is the same” across cultures, he says. “Shared space builds on that wonderful civility and those social gestures with which humans are blessed.” Nor does he think there’s a substantial trans-Atlantic divide: “European Union shared space research could find no difference in applicability across cultures. People are the same all over the world… American drivers are not necessarily less aware or alert.”

Hamilton-Baillie cites ice rinks as a present-day example of spontaneous, “remarkable adaptation.” A typical American ice rink features crowds of poorly-behaved teenagers, many quite unsure of their footing, all wielding blades on their feet — and yet people rarely crash with serious consequences. The slow speeds are one factor, but Hamilton-Baillie argues that equally important is that the ice rink is a deliberately defined space. Numerous subtle cues instruct people to be careful even before arriving, from the wobbly walk to the rink to the gate you have to surmount before getting on the ice.

Besides ice rinks, most everyday environments exert powerful influences on our behavior. Hamilton-Baillie points out that “there’s no law against farting in church, but you just don’t do it.” Our homes have a similar effect, he says. Once you enter “the front door, your behavior changes. You become very aware of the host’s circumstances, the way they decorate their room. Your living room immediately tells me whether I can smoke or not,” for instance.

One key to all of these spaces is that the entry threshold tells people they are crossing into a different realm. Streets that use a shared space approach need strong gateways at their edges, and distinctive surfaces within, which all instruct drivers that a different set of rules and expectations apply. Hamilton-Baillie urges “clear transition points,” with vertical elements that visually narrow the space. On the surface, changes to pavement color and texture can demarcate or blur boundaries where necessary to encourage or discourage people from crossing lines.

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Serial Unlicensed Driver Gets Misdemeanor Charge in Brooklyn Death

A man with an outstanding charge for driving without a license fatally struck a pedestrian in Brooklyn last December but faces only a second charge of unlicensed driving after taking someone’s life.

Two drivers hit Nicole Detweiler as she crossed McGuinness Boulevard at Nassau Avenue in the early evening hours of December 29, 2013. Detweiler, 32, died at the scene.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson. Image: ##http://www.ny1.com/content/politics/inside_city_hall/190291/ny1-online--brooklyn-da-candidate-thompson-responds-to-attacks##NY1##

Since charges filed by former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes were not upgraded by current DA Ken Thompson (pictured), a man who reportedly killed a pedestrian six days after an arrest for driving without a license faces a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Image: NY1

Reports said the second driver to strike Detweiler was Roberto Amador, then 35. Amador, who was driving a box truck, was arrested and charged for driving without a license.

According to DNAinfo, Amador had been arrested less than a week earlier for driving with a suspended license after he collided with a cab on the Upper West Side. His license was suspended last May, the report said, because he didn’t pay “a recurring fee drivers pay the DMV for various infractions.” DMV imposed the fee after Amador accumulated six license points between December 2011 and May 2013, DNAinfo reported.

Court records say Amador was charged by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance last December 23 with second degree unlicensed operation, a charge that may be applied when a defendant is caught driving without a license after prior convictions for unlicensed driving, or when the defendant’s license was previously suspended or revoked pursuant to a drug or alcohol related driving offense. Despite the outstanding unlicensed driving charge when he hit Nicole Detweiler six days later, and Amador’s driving history, former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes levied a top charge of third degree unlicensed operation — a less severe charge than the one applied by Vance — according to court records.

In other words, after being involved in a fatal crash while driving without a license, Amador was simply charged again for unlicensed driving, with no additional charges for killing a pedestrian. Charges against Amador were not upgraded by Hynes’s successor, current Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.

Aggravated unlicensed operation tends to be the default top charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians. It’s also applied against unlicensed drivers who commit non-criminal traffic infractions. Third degree unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. State lawmakers failed this year to pass legislation to make it a felony to kill or injure someone while driving without a license.

Roberto Amador was released without bail the day after the crash that killed Nicole Detweiler, according to court records. He is scheduled to appear in court for the Manhattan unlicensed driving charge later this month, and is due back before a judge in Brooklyn in August. In the meantime, he remains free to drive.