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NYPD and DOT Back Bill to Expand Right of Way for Pedestrians

Legislation proposed by Public Advocate Letitia James would ensure that pedestrians who enter during the "Pedestrian Change Interval" have the right of way against turning vehicles. Image: DOT

Intro 997 would ensure that pedestrians who enter a crosswalk during the flashing “Pedestrian Change Interval” have the right of way under New York City law. Image: DOT

NYPD and DOT both support a bill to give pedestrians more legal protection under the city’s Right of Way Law.

The Right of Way Law took effect in August 2014 and made it a misdemeanor to hit a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. But district attorneys and the police department often decline to bring charges under the law, citing a traffic rule that pedestrians who enter the crosswalk once the “Don’t Walk” warning begins to flash do not have the right of way. Compounding the problem, the flashing phase has become longer and the steady “Walk” phase has become shorter at many intersections where the city has installed countdown clocks.

Last fall, Public Advocate Letitia James sponsored Intro 997 to remedy the situation by extending the right of way to everyone in the crosswalk during both the steady “Walk” phase and the flashing phase.

In testimony today to the City Council transportation committee, James called the current rules a “fatal flaw” and “counterintuitive.” She argued that Intro 997 would bring the law in line with the standard practice of most New Yorkers. “At a time when our city is so rightfully concerned about addressing these avoidable deaths and injuries, fixing this problem seems like an obvious and important way to make meaningful progress,” James said.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo and Inspector Dennis Fulton of the NYPD Transportation Bureau expressed support for the bill, which Fulton said has “been the subject of robust discussions” between the James’s office, the City Council and the relevant city agencies. Russo told the committee that the bill would “align the law with the acknowledged reality on our streets and our concern for pedestrians’ safety.”

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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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Is DOT Setting Up the Amsterdam Avenue Bike Lane to Fail?

Up until a few years ago, when neighborhood residents approached DOT about redesigning a street for greater safety, they expected to get shot down by the agency’s top engineers. In 2004, one former DOT official summed up the department’s attitude as, “We will do pedestrian safety, but only when it doesn’t come at the expense of the flow of traffic.”

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo (top) is sounding a lot like CB 7 bike lane opponent Dan Zweig (bottom). Photos: Stephen Miller

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo (top) is sounding a lot like CB 7 bike lane opponent Dan Zweig (bottom). Photos: Stephen Miller

DOT has changed since then — there’s a greater recognition that moving cars should not take precedence over safety, economic vitality, and the efficient movement of people. But there are signs the agency is slipping back into old habits.

A test of the department’s commitment to safer street design is imminent on the Upper West Side, where persistent advocacy by local residents finally convinced DOT to develop a plan for a protected bike lane and pedestrian islands on Amsterdam Avenue. DOT is expected to present the plan to Community Board 7 in the near future. The trouble is, agency officials are talking as if they’ll frame the project as a choice between safety and traffic flow. That would be a page out of the old DOT playbook and a huge step backward.

When Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said DOT will come out with a plan for Amsterdam Avenue this fall, she added some caveats. “Amsterdam Avenue is challenging… Just the way the traffic moves and the configuration of the roadway do make it a more challenging road to redesign [than Columbus Avenue],” she said. “But we’re going to come up with some plans and we’re going to lay them out for the community board and for everyone who’s interested.”

Then at a press event late last month, DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo spoke candidly with me about how he views the politics of expanding the city’s bike network. At one point the conversation turned to the Upper West Side, where the agency had to be cajoled into proposing better bike lanes at the bowtie intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue last year. Russo defended the absence of bike lanes in DOT’s road diet plan for West End Avenue, saying they wouldn’t have been supported by residents of “green awning buildings” and local Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

I asked Russo why, in that case, Rosenthal is backing a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue. “I don’t know. She hasn’t seen the numbers yet,” he said with a laugh. What numbers? “Our analysis,” he replied. “We’re going to bring it to the community board and explain to people what the implications are, like the commissioner said.”

The implication is that DOT expects Rosenthal and CB 7’s support to wither after the agency presents its plan. And if DOT trots out traffic models that predict carmageddon when Amsterdam has a protected bike lane and one less car lane, the agency will certainly be leading the conversation in that direction.

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What Planet Is DOT Living On?

Last week, Henry Melcher at the Architect’s Newspaper ran a thoughtful piece about the state of NYC DOT’s bike program that got buried almost immediately by comments from Bill Bratton and Mayor de Blasio about the Times Square plazas.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo. Photo: Stephen Miller

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo. Photo: Stephen Miller

Melcher asked why DOT so often passes up the chance to add bike lanes in its street safety projects. He elicited this response from DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo:

Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.

At a press conference where Russo announced safety improvements at an Atlantic Avenue intersection earlier this week, Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller questioned this line of thinking. In the exchange, Russo repeatedly asserted that DOT is doing everything it feasibly can to make streets safer for biking given the local politics of community boards and City Council members.

Before I get to the specifics of what was said, it’s important to keep in mind that Ryan Russo has been instrumental to the street design renaissance that began at DOT with the appointment of commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in 2007. He played a leading role in introducing protected bike lanes to New York City streets and in major projects like the Times Square plazas. After Bill de Blasio was elected and put Polly Trottenberg in charge of DOT, advocates saw Russo’s elevation to deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management — a post second only to the commissioner — as an important sign that the agency would retain its capacity to make change happen.

And when it wants to, DOT remains perfectly capable of putting out great street redesigns — the changes this month on Queens Boulevard are proof of that. But there’s a huge gap between the de Blasio administration’s ambitious Vision Zero goals and DOT’s tentative decisions about bike infrastructure. Getting the agency to, for instance, propose a protected bike lane for Amsterdam Avenue — a major void in the bike network with a high injury rate — has been like pulling teeth, despite ample support from local electeds. There’s a political calculus behind these DOT decisions, and as deputy commissioner Russo is more responsible than ever for formulating it.

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Streetfilms: The Sands Street Bike Path, a New Kind of Bridge Approach

Chalk up more bikeway innovation to the folks at the NYC Department of Transportation. Nearly complete, the Sands Street approach to the Manhattan Bridge is now safer and more enjoyable thanks to a New York City first: a center-median, two-way protected bike path. The facility is a perfect solution to counter the dangers posed by a tangle of roads and highway on-ramps that burden the area. Dramatic before-and-afters tell the delicious story.

We'll also take you back into the archives to April 2005, when, following a severe injury to Transportation Alternatives' Noah Budnick, advocates held a passionate rally asking Mayor Bloomberg to not only improve bike access to the Manhattan Bridge, but to all East River bridges. Four years later, there's much to be proud of. As DOT Assistant Commissioner for Traffic Management Ryan Russo points out, back in 2005 about 800 cyclists used the bridge daily. In 2009, those numbers have soared to over 2,600. That gives us a serious case of happiness.

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A Conversation About New York Streets — Get In Free

The Museum of the City of New York is offering Streetsblog readers free admission to what should be an interesting panel discussion tomorrow evening: "Spotlight on Design: Innovation in New York's Streets." Here's more on the event:

Join Deborah Marton, Executive Director of the Design Trust for Public Space, for a dynamic conversation exploring the intersection of design, innovation, sustainability, and accessibility in New York's public realm. From bicycle-friendly streets and redesigned taxis to blossoming arts and cultural neighborhoods, this is your chance to speak with the experts about the latest projects and innovations shaping our lives. Panelists include: Ryan Russo, Director of the Bike and Pedestrian Planning Unit of NYC Department of Transportation; Andrew Salkin, First Deputy Commissioner, NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission; Davin Stowell, CEO and founder of Smart Design; Susan Chin, FAIA, Assistant Commissioner, Capital Projects, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs; and Mary Ceruti, Executive Director, Long Island City Sculpture Center.

The event kicks off at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street. General admission is $9, but to get in free, make an advance reservation by calling (212) 534-1672, ext. 3395.

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DOT Minds the GAP


With city workers pouring concrete in the background (and StreetFilms' cameras rolling), New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced pedestrian and cyclist improvements for Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza yesterday. The plan calls for 11,000 square feet of new, landscaped pedestrian islands, a separated bike path, new crosswalks and pedestrian signals.

The redesign should do a lot to help make pedestrian and bike crossings safer and more convenient, particularly on the Prospect Heights side of the Plaza. With new crosswalks connecting Prospect Heights residents directly to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch and Bailey Fountain, two of the city's most truly awesome historic monuments, DOT's plan may also help activate the beautiful but under-used public space in the center of GAP's traffic maelstrom.

DOT's plan for the Plaza is a direct result of work done by the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, a group of community organizations that myself and others started up back in the spring of 2005 to begin to reclaim and re-envision Grand Army Plaza as the great public space that it was originally designed to be.

Yesterday's press conference was notable not just for the physical changes taking place in the Plaza but for the changes that have taken place at New York City's transportation agency. When we started GAPco, DOT staffers weren't permitted to attend our meetings or even speak at our press conference with Danish urban designer Jan Gehl (Dalila Hall from the Brooklyn Borough office disobeyed the ridiculous order and said a few words anyway).

Yesterday, Grand Army Plaza Coalition organizer Rob Witherwax stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the podium with Sadik-Khan, Borough President Marty Markowitz, Council member Tish James and Prospect Park Alliance president Tupper Thomas. The press conference, staged in front of the Brooklyn Public Library, was probably visible from the apartment window of former Commissioner Iris Weinshall who lives on Prospect Park West.

While the news at GAP yesterday was all positive, GAPco organizer Michael Cairl still qualifies DOT's work as "a good first step." To get a sense of what he means by that, immediately after the press conference Sadik-Khan and DOT Alternative Modes Director Ryan Russo were peppered with questions from Park Slope Civic Council member Ezra Goldstein about why the agency still hasn't done anything to change the seemingly malicious traffic signal timing that traps pedestrians -- often dozens of them at a time -- on a tiny strip of concrete in the middle of Flatbush Avenue between Prospect Park and the Library. Russo said DOT wanted to see how the new crosswalks worked before making any more changes in the Plaza.

For a "before," an "after," and one very compelling "long-term vision" plan, click through to the jump below.

Related:

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Meatpacking District Will Get a Makeover

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A rendering of the proposed Gansevoort Plaza, looking southbound.


Major public space improvements are on the drawing board for Lower Manhattan's old Meat-Packing District. Ian Dutton, Houston Street bike safety organizer, professional airline pilot and Streetsblog reader has the report: 

Last year, community groups came together as the Greater Gansevoort Urban Improvement Project to develop a vision to rein in chaotic traffic and create a great new public space for Lower Manhattan's old Meatpacking District. Only a few months later -- a virtual blink of the eye by city bureaucracy standards -- New York City's Dept. of Transportation has already stepped forward with a detailed plan that would create a new public plaza, a buffered bike lane, simplified pedestrian crossings, and a new road configuration designed to reduce the area's traffic chaos (download the plan here).

As Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan stalls in Albany gridlock, DOT's Office of Alternative Modes is showing one way for City Hall to take control of New York City's streets regardless of what Sheldon Silver or any other New York State Assembly member has to say about it.

DOT presented its renovation plan for the intersection of Ninth Ave. and 14th St. to Manhattan Community Board 4 on Wednesday evening. Ryan Russo, DOT's Director for Street Management and Safety, explained that the agency is taking advantage of a scheduled repaving of Ninth Ave. in mid-July to respond to long-standing community request to remove the two-block northbound contra-flow traffic lane from the avenue, which has been blamed for several pedestrian fatalities, most recently in February.

DOT's plan also includes the conversion of one southbound lane on Ninth Ave. to a buffered-bike lane. The expectation is that by year's end, this bike lane will extend down Hudson St. and Bleecker St., eventually linking up with the recently-approved Bleecker St. bike lane, providing a continuous bike route across Lower Manhattan, all the way to the East Village.

Russo explained that there are many collateral benefits of removing the northbound lane and reconfiguring southbound traffic. Most notably, DOT is creating a 4,500 sq. ft. plaza just above 14th Street. To the east of this plaza will be two traffic lanes and the new bike lane. To the west will be a single lane for traffic making the right turn onto westbound 14th Street. The new plaza island also breaks up the lengthy, treacherous 120' crosswalk into two manageable crossings of 34' and 24'.



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DOT Called Out for Lacking Clear Ped Safety Plan

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While acknowledging that casualties have dropped overall in recent years, safety advocates and government officials are calling on the DOT to establish measurable benchmarks for further reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths in the city, and want the agency to get moving on relatively minor improvements that would help meet those goals.

At a hearing of the City Council's Transportation Committee at City Hall on Wednesday, DOT Deputy Commissioner David Woloch and Director for Street Management and Safety Ryan Russo caught an earful from council members, transportation watchdogs, community board leaders and members of the public who have lost loved ones.

The protracted exchange between the committee and Woloch and Russo, during which even the simplest of questions couldn't elicit a straightforward response, began when Chairman John Liu asked if the DOT has a systemic master plan for pedestrian safety enhancements.

The answer, which Liu never received in so many words, might be summed up as "Not exactly."

For example, the DOT is just now assembling its first-ever comprehensive study of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, which total some 10,000 and 150 per year, respectively. And though it is rote knowledge to many ordinary citizens, the agency seems stymied by the fact that the vast number of serious collisions occur at a relatively small number of intersections.

In testimony before the committee, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White pointed out that the DOT can readily recite the number of potholes and stoplights it plans to address during a given period, but that it has no target for reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths -- a task White said should be "job one" for the agency that declares pedestrian safety its "most critical mission." The "real story," White said, is that DOT has reduced auto-pedestrian collisions by improving a small number of intersections, and could replicate that success elsewhere at little cost.

"Signal timing is cheap," said White.

The new collision study, expected to be ready sometime later this year, will help the DOT in the future, Woloch and Russo said. But as of now pedestrian fatalities are "diffuse" and current stats don't indicate "where to go" to make changes, a situation further complicated by the agency's "limited resources."

The committee also learned, among other things, that the DOT does not investigate every auto-pedestrian collision; that there is no formal process for analyzing the site of a fatality in order to prevent future collisions; that there is no set process for gauging input that might remedy dangerous conditions before a collision occurs; and that three years after launching the Safe Routes to School program, in 2007 the DOT will complete improvements at 12 of 135 high-priority schools -- not a "very ambitious goal," said Liu.

Teresa Toro, NYC Coordinator of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, testified that the city should mandate physical improvements by DOT, as well as procedural changes by the NYPD. While DOT has an "obsessive preoccupation with traffic flow," Toro said, the police are "not even comfortable" enforcing laws on the books designed to protect pedestrians.

Without citing specifics, Liu said the committee has "a number of ideas" for bills that are "passable."

Photo: sc_UK/Flickr

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Take Action: Support the Prince/Bleecker Bike Route Plan

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Ian Dutton and community leaders speak out at an August 30, 2006 rally for bike safety on Houston Street.

This comes from Ian Dutton, a member of Manhattan's Community Board 2 who has been fighting to improve bicyclist safety on Houston Street:

Those of you who have been following the saga know that last year, Manhattan's CB2 and neighborhood residents called for DOT to implement safe space for bicyclists into the reconstruction project for W. Houston St.

At last month's CB2 Traffic & Transportation Committee meeting, Ryan Russo and Josh Benson of DOT presented an alternative proposal for a bike route based on parallel streets, Bleecker St. and Prince St., citing safety concerns particularly involving turning traffic and trucks on W. Houston St. The board initially was skeptical that there was nothing DOT could envision to make W. Houston St. safe for the many cyclists that use Houston St., but Russo and Benson were firm that the reason they could not propose a plan for Houston St. was safety-based and not on DOT's insistence of accommodating increasingly heavy traffic volumes.

Now this month, at the Tuesday, April 10 meeting of the CB2 Traffic & Transportation Committee, the second item on the agenda is a public discussion of the DOT's proposed alternative plan.

It is crucial that supporters of the plan make their feelings clear at this committee meeting to counter arguments that no one favors this plan for bike lanes or that there will be negative effects of removing parking from several blocks. This alternative plan in fact has many benefits for cyclists, allowing for designated space on streets that are much more pleasant to ride on than Houston St. while still creating a crosstown corridor that links to the Hudson River Greenway.

What you can do:

1. Attend the committee meeting and make sure that you voice your support! The meeting is on Tuesday, April 10, at 6:30pm, at the LGBT Community Services Center, 208 W. 13th St. between 7th Ave. and Greenwich Ave. (ask at the front desk for the room assignment).

2. Write a letter to DOT and CB2. Visit http://www.bikehoustonst.net to download a Word file -- the first page gives you some suggested points and the second page is an outline that you can fill in with a few sentences of your own. Then email it back to info@bikehoustonst.net.