Rally for a Livable Houston Street

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(Photo by Will Sherman of Transportation Alternatives)

As promised, members of Manhattan Community Board 2 and Transportation Alternatives held a rally yesterday where many elected officials spoke of the need for improved bicycling and pedestrian facilities on the Interstate Highway in our midst, Houston Street. Eighty years ago, Houston Street was a narrow street not much wider than Prince or Bleecker Streets are today. Since Robert Moses-era widening and reconfiguration, many pedestrians needing two traffic light cycles to cross have sought refuge on an eight-foot median as six or eight lanes worth of cars zoom by. Today, those refuge islands are being reduced in size in an effort to accommodate even more traffic and cyclists are being killed on Houston Street at a rate of about one every six months.

Streetfilms brings you video footage of the rally, including these words from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer:

Everybody who lives in this community knows Houston Street is a highway to hell. It’s the death street. Children know it. Seniors know it, and tragically, cyclists know it. We do not need another Queens Boulevard in Manhattan. … So as Borough President, I will tell you that the No. 1 issue facing Manhattan is traffic congestion, and pedestrian safety. This is a wake-up call to the city. If we don’t do something proactive, we’re going to have more people die under the crush of large vehicles, and that is totally unacceptable to the people who live in this community, and the people who live in this city, and I’m very pleased to join with this great coalition, and I’m looking forward to participating in a human chain that will make it very clear to the planners that this can be accomplished.

The video also features pointed remarks by State Senator Martin Connor, Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick (at lectern above), Councilman Alan Gerson, Philip Mouquinho of Community Board 2 and Kate Mikuliak representing Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.

To vividly demonstrate what’s happening on Houston Street, another Streetfilm looks at the corner of Houston and Broadway, with footage that shows why it makes no sense to remove median space to encourage traffic. Community activist Charle-John Caffero, notes that most of the economic activity generated on Houston Street is from pedestrians, and explains how eight feet of pedestrian refuge island will be reduced,

Leaving pedestrians, which are the majority of street users here, having no space to stand or being able to cross Houston Street because the timing of the light is so short. They inevitably get caught on this pedestrian haven, which at least gives them a little protection. That protection is going to be taken away by DOT.

Mark Gorton of the Open Planning Project, explains a broad result of the creation of the left-hand turning bays:

They think Houston needs more traffic? It needs a lot less! I mean, they’re just encouraging more driving.

One block south of Houston Street, Prince Street’s one traffic lane and two parking lanes create a vastly different experience. Houston Street was originally laid out to be as wide as Prince Street, but was expanded to its present Interstate Highway width and feel relatively recently. As the New York Times explained in a 2004 article:

Houston’s plainness stems from the 1930’s, when it was widened to accommodate the digging of the IND subway line, and from the 1960’s, when it was laid with a daunting eight lanes of traffic. Until these developments, Houston was just another pleasant crosstown street, the width of a Prince or a Bleecker. In an eerie set of photographs taken in 1929 to record pre-demolished Houston, a girl is shown stepping into shadow, toying with her hair, crossing the street casually near Mercer, the same way a girl might nowadays cross, say, West Broadway.

Contrast that image with the images in the film of clusters of people huddling together on an eight-foot median to avoid being hit by heavy, fast traffic.

  • Clarence

    Let me add that since the Houston/Broadway video was completed last year that after many months of trying to get access to the Houston Street plans, Transportation Alternatives was able to confirm that the medians would be shortened to only 4 feet, not 2 as Charle says in the video.

    Yet, I think it is apparent that any amount of truncating is unacceptable. If you stand at the intersection on any rush hour or weekend shopping time, you’ll see the medians should be enlarged, not cut back for faster car through put. Particularly since the people who get stranded out there tend to be seniors, disabled and parents with children.

    I found it amazing standing out there and observing all of this. I felt that if anyone at DOT had done the same there is no way in good conscience they could cut back the medians for left turn bays.

  • Ben

    As awful as DOT’s plans for Houston Street may be, it is really encouraging to see this kind of political support for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. Congrats to TA for getting this issue in the spotlight. Now if only someone with the actual power to make decision (Doctoroff, Bloomberg) would step in and do something…

  • I agree with Ben – it’s really encouraging. If anything happens it will only be good.

    And those videos are awesome – keep up the good work!

    I have to say, however, it’s really sad that everything in New York seems to always be reactionary in nature. Where are our proactive visionaries, planning for the future? Why do residents have to have a defensive rally against the operations of the DOT who should be working for them in the first place? The mind reels…

  • md

    yes! houston street is the worst! i live at first ave + houston and i cross it every day. you need every second of the light – if you aren’t at the median by the time the light changes to a blinking hand, you won’t make it across. and i walk really fast too.

    as for cycling, forget about it — it feels like suicide.

    the noise and air pollution is quite bad as well – our windows and sills get sooty black and i sleep with earplugs in. this neighborhood really isn’t worth it.

  • ddartley

    We should all write to each of those participants (and Scott Stringer) and thank them for their participation, and ask them not to give up that fight!

    (Might as well also CC your own Council Members and John Liu!)

    Note: your link in the text to Alan Gerson’s page actually goes to Deborah Glick’s.

  • A.S.

    I ABSOLUTELY must second the sentiments about 1st Avenue & Houston Street voiced in the above comment number 4.)…

    ===============================================
    “yes! houston street is the worst! i live at first ave + houston and i cross it every day. you need every second of the light – if you aren’t at the median by the time the light changes to a blinking hand, you won’t make it across. and i walk really fast too.”
    ===============================================

    Making matters even worse is a frighteningly uneven section of roadway in the very middle of the easternmost north/south crosswalk across Houston (as 1st Street becomes Allen Street).

    Completely unvisible to the eye untill one is (almost invaribly) made to stumble by it, this ‘concave’ area followed by a ‘convex’ bump-all within perhaps two average pedestrian strides-has caused many a fall. God forbid when such a stumble and fall happens in conjunction with busy vehicle traffic…

    I’ve always wondered if I was the only person aware of this aggravating particularity that seriously further complicates an already dangerous pedestrian throughfare?!?

  • David

    I’ve just started following this site and have to commend you guys — the blog/video combination is really effective.

    Broadening the subject a bit, can anybody tell me if DOT plans for sidewalk capacity? The problems at Houston Street are only compounded by the greatly increased number of pedestrians crossing on Broadway as a result of the retail expansion in Soho/Noho. Similar problems are happening at Union Square, where the sidewalks especially along 14th Street are incredibly congested. Does anybody measure Levels of Service on sidewalks the way that is done on streets? (Many of these places would surely be F’s.) Do they even recognize the big increases in sidewalk demand, as opposed to travel demand from motorized vehicles?

    Would appreciate any info.

  • someguy

    David,
    NYCDOT generally doesn’t consider pedestrian LOS except in very rare cases where DOT actually wants to make the case that existing sidewalks are too narrow. HCM (the Highway Capacity Manual that NYC follows for many engineering guidelines) does have a pedestrian LOS method. It would behoove activists like Trans Alt and NYCSRC to develop the capability to calculate sidewalk LOS themselves as evidence when they are advocating for sidewalk widenings. All you need are two pieces of data: effective width of sidewalk (which the HCM describes how to get) and the pedestrian volumes.

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