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Sunnyside Becomes a Bike-Friendly Business District

Transportation Alternatives has been working all across NYC to foster goodwill for bicycling in the business community. Recently, TA has begun to award Bike-Friendly Business District designations in neighborhoods where local merchants support bicycling and safer streets. The first one outside Manhattan is Sunnyside, Queens.

Come along on this group ride that toured six of Sunnyside’s 70 bike-friendly businesses, with a special guest appearance by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.

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Eyes on the Street: Bliss Plaza Shines Under the 7 Train in Sunnyside

Photos: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

Photos: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Two weeks ago, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer cut the ribbon on Bliss Plaza, a new public space created with a few simple changes to the area under the 7 train viaduct at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard. Clarence sends these photos of the plaza in action this weekend: A nicer sidewalk surface, a few planters, and some moveable tables and chairs were all it took to turn this spot into a people magnet.

The Sunnyside Shines BID worked with DOT’s plaza program to make this intersection a usable public space. It was already car-free but there was no place to sit until the BID came along. After hosting a few successful events at 46th Street and another car-free area beneath the viaduct at 40th Street, the BID knew it was onto something. A second plaza at 40th Street, to be known as Lowery Plaza, is in the works.

sunnyside_plaza2

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Council Bill Would Fine Drivers for Leaving the Scene of a Crash

Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez have introduced a bill that would impose civil penalties for hit-and-run crashes.

Intro 371 would attach escalating fines, based on injury severity, for violating Section 600 of the state traffic code, which deals with leaving the scene. Fines would begin at “not more than” $250 for drivers who leave the scene of a crash, $500 to $1,000 for a crash resulting in physical injury, $1,000 to $5,000 for a serious injury crash, and $2,000 to $5,000 for a fatal crash.

The bill refers to Article 10 of the state penal law for definitions of injury — “impairment of physical condition or substantial pain” — and serious injury — “injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.”

Unlike Intro 238, a bill passed by the council last week that applies a strict liability standard to cases where motorists strike pedestrians or cyclists who have the right of way, Intro 371 would apply only when a driver ”knows or has cause to know that physical injury has occurred.” This burden of proof gives rise to the “I didn’t see her” defense, often employed by hit-and-run drivers who avoid prosecution, even in cases where the victim dies.

Current state law gives drivers who have been drinking an incentive to flee the scene, as the criminal penalty for hit-and-run can be less severe than for causing injury while driving drunk. Albany has repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would toughen criminal penalties for leaving the scene.

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Queens Blvd Gets “Slow Zone” Label, But Speed Limit Remains the Same

Yesterday, DOT announced that Queens Boulevard, one of the city’s deadliest streets, would be part of its arterial slow zone initiative that reduces speed limits from 30 to 25 mph. But unlike other streets in the program, Queens Boulevard would have its limit dropped from 35 to 30 mph. Trouble is, the speed limit on Queens Boulevard is already 30 mph, and it’s been that way since 2001.

Nisath Hossain, 58, was killed by a hit-and-run driver last year on Queens Boulevard. DOT says the "Boulevard of Death" will be a "slow zone" -- but the speed limit will remain the same. Photo via WABC

Nisath Hossain, 58, was killed by a hit-and-run driver last year on Queens Boulevard. DOT says the “Boulevard of Death” will be a “slow zone” — but the speed limit will stay the same. Photo via WABC

The discrepancy was spotted by Peter Beadle, a Rego Park resident active in efforts to get DOT to study a street safety redesign for Queens Boulevard. “It’s very strange,” Beadle said. ”I’m hoping it’s just an error. I’m hoping that it isn’t someone trying to be clever.”

The arterial slow zone program “reduces posted speed limits from 30 to 25 mph” on the city’s most dangerous streets, reads DOT’s press release for yesterday’s announcement. “Queens Boulevard, which was previously signed for 35 mph, is similarly reduced by five to 30 mph.” The street is included as one of the 25 corridors in the program.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer’s office asked DOT before yesterday’s announcement why Queens Boulevard wouldn’t get a 25 mph limit like the other streets. According to Van Bramer’s staff, DOT said it is lowering the Queens Boulevard speed limit to 30 mph because it is currently set at 35 mph in some sections.

Here’s the rub: Queens Boulevard did have a 35 mph limit between Roosevelt and 51st Avenues, but then-Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall lowered it to 30 mph in February 2001 [PDF]. (A Daily News report from the time says the 35 mph zone ran only from Roosevelt to 63rd Street.)

DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel said the press release refers to Weinshall’s action more than a decade ago.

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said that while the arterial slow zone program won’t lower the speed limit on Queens Boulevard, it will bring other components like signs and increased enforcement from NYPD. She added that DOT will take a look at adjusting the signal timing on Queens Boulevard, though its speed limit will remain at 30 mph.

“Our engineers felt like 30 was really the right speed for that street,” she said. “At this time, we are not going to change the speed limit.” A DOT spokesperson later followed up via email to say that the agency is not ruling out reducing speed limits on Queens Boulevard below 30 mph in the future.

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Plaza Upgrades Planned Beneath Train Viaduct on Queens Blvd in Sunnyside

Roberto Buscarsi plays during Make Music New York at 40th Street and Queens Boulevard. The parking in the background will remain, but space beneath the elevated 7 train in Sunnyside is set for some plaza improvements. Photo courtesy Sunnyside Shines BID

Roberto Buscarsi plays during Make Music New York at 40th Street and Queens Boulevard. The parking in the background will remain, but space beneath the elevated 7 train in Sunnyside is set for some plaza improvements. Photo courtesy Sunnyside Shines BID

The parking-flanked space in the middle of Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, beneath the vaulted elevated train viaduct at 40th and 46th Streets, today looks more forgotten than fun. The Sunnyside Shines BID is hoping to change that, and their plan to upgrade the pedestrian space was recently accepted by NYC DOT’s pedestrian plaza program.

While these two plazas will not reclaim any space from motor vehicles, they will turn the area from a drab concrete zone into a more inviting place to sit. The spaces are already busy with pedestrians walking to the subway and across Queens Boulevard, which Tri-State Transportation Campaign ranks as the borough’s third most-dangerous street for pedestrians.

“They’re already plaza-like. They’re closed off to car traffic,” Sunnyside Shines BID executive director Rachel Thieme said of the spaces. “Through the plaza program, we are going to get things like planters and benches.” The location at 40th Street will be called Lowery Plaza, and the space at 46th Street will be called Bliss Plaza, Thieme said, referencing historic street names in the neighborhood.

The BID has already hosted some events in the pedestrian zones, including concerts as part of Make Music New York. “No one’s ever utilized these spaces before in any kind of active way, that we’re aware of,” Thieme said. “People really responded well to that concept.”

Sunnyside Shines applied to the plaza program last year, gathering 13 letters of support from elected officials, business owners, and community groups. The BID received word from DOT a couple of weeks ago that both applications had been accepted.

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Pedestrian Islands Coming to Deadly Northern Boulevard Intersection

The striped median on Northern Boulevard at 61st Street, right, is set to receive concrete pedestrian islands, like those on Hillside Avenue, right. Image: DOT

The striped median on Northern Boulevard at 61st Street, right, is set to receive concrete pedestrian islands, like those on Hillside Avenue, right. Image: DOT

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and 61st Street in Woodside, where an unlicensed truck driver making a left turn through a crosswalk killed 8-year-old Noshat Nahian on his way to school last December, is set for some pedestrian safety fixes after months of work by elected officials and street safety advocates.

Members of Make Queens Safer said they hoped it was the first of many design changes DOT would make to Northern Boulevard, which ranks as one of the most dangerous streets for pedestrians in Queens.

The plan for the 61st Street intersection, first reported by the Daily News, includes the addition of concrete pedestrian islands and the elimination of left turns from westbound Northern Boulevard to southbound 61st Street. It will also adjust signals to increase crossing time for pedestrians and feature new school zone crosswalk markings and signage. DOT has already restricted some on-street parking to “daylight” the intersection’s northeast corner and improve visibility for pedestrians and drivers. Construction is set to begin this month and wrap up within weeks.

Immediately prior to announcing his Vision Zero agenda last January at PS 152, where Nahian was walking to school before he was killed, Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the intersection with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

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Who Killed Kumar Ragunath? Police Seek Suspect as Advocates Call for Action

Photo: Jimmy Van Bramer/Twitter

State Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer join neighborhood and street safety advocates to call for the arrest of the hit-and-run driver who killed Kumar Ragunath. Photo: Jimmy Van Bramer/Twitter

Kumar Ragunath, 64, came to New York from Guyana in 1987. Five years later, he and his wife bought a house in Jamaica near Richmond Hill. He loved to play cricket and listen to Indian music, and he kept working through his retirement to help fund college for his six grandchildren. Ragunath had been out of work since August, but recently found a job at the Queens Plaza Holiday Inn.

Photo: Nasha Ragunath via DNAinfo

Photo: Nasha Ragunath via DNAinfo

On March 7 at about 10:25 p.m., he was on his way to his second day of work at the hotel when he crossed Northern Boulevard near 40th Road in Long Island City. Ragunath was outside the crosswalk when the driver of a dark-colored Chevy Blazer in the westbound right-hand lane hit him. The driver kept going. Ragunath was taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center, where he was put into a medically-induced coma and died the next day.

Now, police are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the driver who killed Ragunath. Local elected officials, neighborhood advocates and street safety activists gathered today at the crash site to call for Ragunath’s killer to be brought to justice and for safer streets, especially in the growing Long Island City neighborhood and along Northern Boulevard.

Northern Boulevard has a long record of fatalities and injuries: Last year, 8-year-old Noshat Nahian and 3-year-old Olvin Jahir Figueroa were both killed by drivers on the street. Tri-State Transportation Campaign ranked it as the second most deadly street in Queens for pedestrians. Last month, after a curb-jumping hit-and-run driver seriously injured five people at a Northern Boulevard bus shelter, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer called on DOT to make the street a priority in its Vision Zero initiative. As at last month’s event, Van Bramer was joined by State Senator Michael Gianaris today.

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Council Members Say DOT Needs Funds for Vision Zero, Bike-Share Expansion

City Council members today expressed strong support for Vision Zero, bike-share expansion, and other safe streets initiatives, but it’s not clear how they will be funded.

At a transportation committee budget hearing, council members heard from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the MTA, and DOT. Among other issues, reps from each agency were asked how they planned to help reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

“Vision Zero is already underway at DOT,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Among other projects, work on the Brooklyn Greenway and new public plazas in Bushwick and Washington Heights are on the agenda for FY 2015.

In response to questions about the Vision Zero time frame from chair Ydanis Rodriguez and committee member Jimmy Van Bramer, Trottenberg said DOT is planning a series of borough town hall meetings, followed by more localized forums, to gather citizen input. Still, she said, “Our goal is 50 projects per year,” in keeping with Mayor de Blasio’s pledge for citywide pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure improvements.

Van Bramer, of Queens, and Brooklyn rep Brad Lander asked Trottenberg about bike-share expansion. Lander said he would like to see a “full build-out” of the system, with city funds if needed. While DOT is “very keen” to develop a long-term expansion plan, Trottenberg said, “We’re not there yet.” On a couple of occasions Trottenberg referred to issues caused by the Bixi bankruptcy as one obstacle to overcome. “We’re going to get there as quickly as we can,” she said.

When Van Bramer asked if DOT could more quickly respond to requests for stop signs and speed bumps, which he said can take years to address, Trottenberg said the agency doesn’t have the funds to process all requests at once.

Council members Margaret Chin and Debi Rose complained about through traffic on Canal Street, with Rose citing the Sam Schwartz fair toll plan as a potential solution. Chin also asked if DOT could deploy “pedestrian managers” as an antidote to NYPD TEA agents, who tend to prioritize vehicle throughput over pedestrian safety.

In addition to supporting bike-share, Lander said the city should come up with funds for DOT to devote to Vision Zero initiatives in general. Steve Levin, of Brooklyn, asked if more money is needed for Slow Zones. More resources are always helpful, Trottenberg said.

While it was generally agreed that it will take additional funds to carry out Vision Zero, no specific figures were discussed.

We’ll have more on the hearing tomorrow.

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Van Bramer: Deadly Northern Boulevard Should Be a Vision Zero Priority

Advocates and fellow electeds with City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer on Northern Boulevard, in front of a bus stop where five people were injured by a curb-jumping driver this month. Photo: Brad Aaron

Advocates and fellow electeds with City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer on Northern Boulevard, in front of a bus stop where five people were injured by a curb-jumping driver this month. Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, state electeds, and advocates gathered in Queens this morning to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to make Northern Boulevard a Vision Zero priority by making hazardous intersections safer for pedestrians.

Standing next to a recently repaired bus shelter at Northern and 48th Street, which was nearly destroyed by a curb-jumping hit-and-run driver who seriously injured five people on February 1, Van Bramer also singled out dangerous crossings at Northern and 42nd Street, 43rd Street, 52nd Street, and 62nd Street, where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was killed by an unlicensed truck driver.

“We’re asking the administration today to include this series of intersections on Northern Boulevard so that no child is ever killed trying to cross the street to go to school, that no 7-year-old girl is ever sent to Elmhurst Hospital waiting for a bus, or excited to have just come out of Old Navy with some new clothes,” said Van Bramer, referring to Nahian and one of the victims struck last weekend.

De Blasio has said he wants to revamp at least 50 corridors and intersections a year, but has not yet announced where the first round of improvements will take place. Van Bramer said the administration has asked for recommendations from council members. De Blasio has also directed the city’s police, transportation, taxi, and health commissioners to produce a pedestrian safety plan by February 15. De Blasio’s Vision Zero launch event was held at PS 152, where Nahian attended school.

Northern Boulevard is a hostile, wide street lined with retail and grocery stores. Throughout today’s street safety presser, speakers were drowned out or interrupted by loud trucks and honking motorists, who whipped by just a few feet away. Van Bramer cited a report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign that found that five pedestrians were killed on the boulevard from 2010 to 2012. That number does not include Nahian or Olvin Jahir Figueroa, age 3, who was hit by an alleged drunk driver while crossing with his mother at Northern and Junction Boulevard in 2013. Since 2011, NYPD data reports put the number of pedestrians injured by drivers on Northern Boulevard in the hundreds.

“As we often say, ‘It is too late to wait,’” said Van Bramer. “The time to act is now.” Van Bramer said he has a ”pretty extensive list” of streets targeted for improvement in his district, and would make it available to the public soon. ”There are far more than 50 [intersections] that deserve this recognition,” he said.

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Prompted By Jimmy Van Bramer, CBS 2 Files a Decent Street Safety Story


We wrote last week how Lou Young of CBS 2 blew an opportunity to educate viewers on the merits of potential safe street improvements on the Upper West Side. In covering a press conference in Queens convened by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, Young’s colleague Andrea Grymes filed a story that does a much better job reflecting the perils posed by reckless drivers.

Grymes reports that pedestrians on 47th Avenue in Woodside, including seniors and kids at the Towers Play and Learn school, are endangered by speeding motorists looking to avoid Queens Boulevard, many of whom don’t slow down even when children are present. Van Bramer and students temporarily hoisted a DIY stop sign to draw attention to the problem, and he and locals are calling on DOT to calm traffic on the street.

This story definitely has the “little guy fights City Hall” angle, which is probably why Grymes played it straight. It would also have been useful if she had pointed out that the 108th Precinct isn’t doing much in the way of traffic enforcement, having issued just 322 speeding tickets this year as of September. But pieces like this pointing out the dangers of the status quo should be far more common. Whether or not local electeds are attuned to the situation, a New York neighborhood besieged by dangerous drivers is a story that can be told again and again. Consider the DOT Slow Zone waiting list if you doubt it.

If a stop sign isn’t the right solution here, maybe a neckdown or a chicane would solve the problem instead. DOT told CBS 2 the segment of 47th Avenue in question does not meet federal guidelines for a new stop sign, but said it is taking another look at conditions there.