Streetscape Aesthetics vs. Pedestrian Safety


A sacrifice we were willing to make: Until 1922, much of Park Avenue was, in fact, a park. Looking north on Park Ave at about 50th Street. That’s Saint Bartholomew’s Church on the right.

Peter Hornbeck was killed on January 10th 2004 in a horrific hit and run crash on 96th and Park Avenue. The driver who killed him was speeding, had his license already revoked for prior speeding and the vehicle itself was stolen. The site of his death will be the memorial site for all pedestrians killed on city streets this Sunday at 1:30pm.

Last night I attended Community Board 8’s Transportation Committee meeting to propose the installation of basic pedestrian protections on the Park Avenue medians. As reported in this morning’s New York Sun, the idea was rejected for a variety of reasons. "Longtime neighborhood residents," the Sun reports, "said they hated to sacrifice the aesthetics of a landmark city street for a safety issue they felt was no big concern.

While I certainly don’t expect Park Avenue’s median to be restored to its verdant, pre-1922 width any time soon, the photo above illustrates the absurdity of pitting streetscape aesthetics against pedestrian safety. Clearly, Park Avenue was once a whole lot more beautiful and a whole lot more safe than it is today as a roaring six-lane parkway. As we’ve written before, there are lots of ways to make a street safer for pedestrians. Even bollards, the most basic and functional of pedestrian safety measures don’t have to be ugly.

Peter Hornbeck’s fiancee Rachael Myers volunteered to speak at the meeting. Rachael was walking with Peter the night that he was killed. With Rachael’s permission, I thought I would share with you what she said last night since it had a deep impact on me and many other people in the room:

peterhornbeck.jpg

In an article published in the New York Times this past week on the issue of installing barriers at the Park Avenue medians, it was reported that some residents were surprised that this issue had emerged. After all, only one person was killed while crossing Park Avenue in 2003 and another in 2004.

As the girlfriend of the person killed in 2004 and a witness to the crash, I can tell you that one person is too many. What exactly are we willing to sacrifice for the "touch of Paris" look of the medians on Park Avenue? Are we willing to sacrifice two human beings?

Those of us that were close to Peter will feel that loss forever. But the loss to our community is something that we will never know and never be able to calculate. Pete spent his free time volunteering to care for homeless dogs at a local animal shelter on East 92nd street. He was an outspoken environmentalist who was returning to graduate school at Hunter so that he could teach Earth Science to high school students. We will never know how he would have touched these lives if given the opportunity. It is important to try to keep this in mind when looking at statistics and numbers and trying make a cost/benefit analysis.

Some may think that we can solve this problem through increased traffic enforcement, and that is certainly part of the solution, but police cannot be everywhere at all times. In this case, the driver’s record indicates that he had little respect for police and traffic laws. He not only was driving a car that was uninsured and reported stolen, his driver’s license had been revoked due to prior speeding infractions. All previous efforts by the police to get this driver off the road were ineffective. When such drivers refuse to stay off the road, our only hope is that traffic-calming measures and pedestrian-friendly street design will be in place to protect our fellow citizens.

I can assure you that even if the proposed median barriers protect only one person in the future, it will be worth it. Not only for the friends and family, but for the countless lives who are affected by just one individual; it will be worth it for the entire community.

While we failed to win Community Board support for new pedestrian protections on the Park Avenue medians last night, Rachael’s statement made a difference, we got the discussion started, and this issue isn’t going away. Hopefully we can make some changes happen before the next horrific headline.

Photo: New York Historical Society via Jeff Prant

  • P

    The photograph really makes a mockery of the aesthetics issue. If we want beautiful streets we already know what to do: design them for pedestrians.

    Sadly, the fight between pedestrians and the City Beautiful advocates is another manifestation of the fight between pedestrians and cyclists: automobiles get priority and the rest can fight for the scraps.

  • SC

    Awesome photograph. It’s too bad we don’t enjoy Park Avenue today the same way residents did before 1922.

  • Aesthetics are critical. Jersey barriers transform all roads — streets, parkways, boulevards or country lanes — into expressways. They encourage cars to go faster. If you want to make Park Avenue safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, you need streetscaping that slows down traffic and protects pedestrians at the same time. For the particular situation here, I would think attractive bollards would work – as used on West Street. It is worth studying all of the traffic elements on West Street for they came with a struggle. When the proposed interstate Westway was defeated, the West Side Highway was reclassified as an urban boulevard and designed accordingly. Note the smaller size of the overhead signs and lights and their dark color. It still feels way too much like a highway, but it could have been so much worse.

  • ABG

    I think the CB8 “aesthetics” people should be called on their bluff. You can’t protect everyone, but we (they) could be doing a lot better job. If they’re so concerned about aesthetics, then take a lane from each side of park avenue and widen the median back into a real park. That would slow down traffic and give pedestrians a better refuge, and the aesthetic effect would be tremendous. Their property values would go through the roof.

    If they say no, it means only one thing: they’re willing to sacrifice not just lives but aesthetics for the promise of a quicker cab ride to work.

  • P

    ABG- I love it.

  • ZK

    Come on now. All your examples of bicycle friendly cities have a dramatically lower population than NYC, with the largest being 3.3 million.
    In a city of 8 million, those changes are just not feasible.
    Lets see what examples you have of flowing traffic and bicycles and pedestrians in a similar sized city.

  • Steve

    One person stated at the CB8 meeting that the Park Avenue malls formerly had wrought-iron barriers which had been removed because they interfered with the ability of drivers to see pedestrians. I find it hard to believe that such barriers, if they ever existed, could have been high enough to interfere with pedestrian visibility, but then again I was surprised by the photo at the top of this post showing the 1922 Park Avenue. Do any of you archivists out there have any info/images that can shed light on this?

  • P

    They probably just got tired of repairing them after accidents.

  • B

    While I feel for this dead man’s fiancee and anyone who’s lost a loved one, the “how much are willing to pay to save one life?” argument is a weak one. How much are we willing to pay for healthcare to save lives? How many uninsured cancer, AIDs, etc. patients could be saved with the money we would spend adding pedestrian protection to Park Ave? How many starving children in Africa could be saved? Probably many more Africans would be saved wiht that money than NYers getting hit by cars on Park Ave. Or are we to say that middle-class NY lives, which we would never say are not as worthy as the asthetic enjoyment of the Park Avenue elites, are in fact worth more than the lives of 100 times more poor Africans? All Americans are equal regardless of wealth, but not all humans are equal regardless of nationality?

    The guy who killed Peter was going to strike again, whether on Park Ave.’s islands, or in a cross-section running a red light, or anywhere else. The fiancee said police can’t be everywhere to enforce traffic laws. Well, how much are we willing to spend on additional police to save more lives? At the end of the day, we have to make a calculation on where we can save the most lives with every dollar we spend. It may sound cold and calculating, but if we want to save the most lives, we have to make that calculation and not just be swayed by the most articulate proponents of a given cause. I’m sure more people have been killed crossing Queens Blvd than Park Ave, but Queens Blvd doesn’t present itself with a nice NYTimes-friendly “rich vs. everyone else” angle.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    ZK is simply factually incorrect. I hope some of you number nerds on here will call him on it. On the other hand I could Google for a couple minutes myself and prove him wrong but why bother. Typical of his sort of argument is to make an overly broad unsupportable assertion, usually mathematical, that will pass as fact. And, he will lure you into a mathematical, algebraic, system of formalized non-logic from which there is no return.

  • yeah, we talk about cities like Paris, London & Bogota…all +7 million metropolitan area residents

  • da

    I suspect the residents of Park Avenue are among the most conservative and hidebound in NYC. ANY CHANGE at all will be bad news for them, by definition.

  • Ed Ravin

    For those of you who want to take a firsthand look at a pre-1922 Park Ave median, guess what? There’s still one spot left, at 97th Street, that wasn’t completely converted into extra car lanes.

    Oooh, Google Image search turned up a few pix. Better get there soon, looks like NYC Parks has a capital project scheduled to completely rehab the area:

    http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_divisions/capital/pd_proj_month_feb_05.html

  • Rachael is my hero.

    The aesthetics issue is a dodge, the worst kind of NIMBYism. There are hundreds of examples of well-designed barriers. Maybe we can put Tom Otterness sculptures there and keep everyone happy. The resistance to any change — even one so modest and seemingly obvious as sidewalk bollards — is a symptom of snobbery.

    The “cost” argument raised by B is a dodge too, or at least a bad-faith argument. He’s assuming a zero-sum game where there is none. In fact, Transportation Alternatives and the broad coalition around bike/pedestrian safety has focused a lot of attention on Queens Boulevard, not to mention Houston St, Shorefront Parkway, the West Side greenway, Fifth Ave in Park Slope, and dozens of other spots.

  • Steve

    Ryan, love the Tom Otterness suggestion (though the Park Ave crowd may take the political message the sculptures send a bit more personally than the Broadway crowd did!).

    Ed, thanks for the link–I live just yards from this little patch of green and have used it with my kids (although not since it was refurbished) last year. It never occurred to me that it reflect the former street design (I always assumed it was somehow made necessary due to the emergence of Metro North trains across 97th Street from the space).

    This park never got much use historically, but one of the key attractions had always been the swarms of pigeons attracted by a handful of neighborhood residents that liked to feed the birds. The pigeons were always there and my kids liked to observe and chase them around. Now my kids are too old to be interested in pigeons, but the refurbished park has very stern signs against pigeon feeding and many other activities that seem to have worked (the old laminated signs were ignored). I’m not necessarily advocating pigeon-feeding in parks, but it does seem to have cut down on park use.

    This little park could become a popular destination with the installation of train-themed features for kids apropos of the Metro-North trains that emerge from the ground on 97th Street. one block north. Many, many parents with little kids like to hang out on the sidewalk on 97th between the northbound and southbound lanes of Park Ave., watching the trains come and go all the way up to the distant 125th Street Station. You could erect a modest platform at the northern end of the little park that allowed you to see the action north of 97th Street; maybe add some benches so the parents could sit while the kids watched; even put in one of those fixed binoculars on a pedestal like they have on the Empire State building Observation Deck; and perhaps add a small train shaped climbing structure in the park for toddlers. This would turn the Metro North emergence point at 97th Street into an even greater attraction, perhaps please those who view that emergence point as merely an eyesore, and at least conceptually provide a link between heavily divided Carnegie Hill and Harlem. But it might be too much of a stretch for the “aestheticians of Park Ave” to celebrate/accentuate what lies to the dreaded north of 96th Street.

  • In Berkeley, the city has installed very nice looking neo-traditional bollards. I can send you a picture if you are interested. It might help to convince the Park Ave. residents that bollards could be an improvement. (If you want pictures, contact me through my web site, http://www.preservenet.com.)

    I think the modernist bollards in your picture of the Brooklyn museum are sterile and ugly – but I suppose that is a matter of taste.

  • residents object to bollards?

    maybe one day park ave can get some bollards and be as ugly as paris.

  • eric

    rachael is my hero too.

  • Steve

    As far as Rachael is concerned, you don’t know the half of it, ryan and eric. Although several of the CB members expressed apparently sincere regret and sympathy for her loss, one of the CB members sitting only two seat away from Rachael, repeatedly interrupted her testimony audibly with snide comments such as “Oh, come on!” and “Do we have to listen to this?” (even though I and others admonished her to stop). I don’t think I would have been able to finish giving the testimony with grace and poise as Rachael had I been in her shoes, in the face of this intolerably rude conduct.

  • ABG

    What disgusting behavior, Steve! Don’t CB members serve at the borough president’s pleasure? Is there any precedent for removal on the basis of conduct unbecoming?

  • MLG

    Need a list of all new developments in New York City worth Looking at… Can anyone help?

    MLG

  • Steve,

    I suspected something like that would happen, based on past experiences with community boards. Very unfriendly rooms, no matter what the subject.

    It’s very difficult when you’ve lost a loved one in a preventable crash to argue with people whose objections to prevention efforts are so incredibly petty. Some people don’t understand the weight of these issues until, God forbid, it hits too close to home.

  • MLG,

    Google up Brian Ketcham at Community Consulting Services for a Brooklyn list. Should be on their web site. Kind of odd that such a list can’t be found on an NYC.gov City Planning web site, eh?

  • Asdf Jkl

    It’s not really the government’s job to tattle tale every private development to other citizens, though.. although I guess you could argue that it should be, since every dev’t affects the public interest..

  • Steve

    For a photo essay of sorts on this small park, some of the design issues it raises, and its historic significance for livable streets advocates, go here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/43954081@N00/

    (just start with the photo of the granite tablet first and work your way to the most recent photo).

  • Christian

    You want to ADD barriers to Park Ave?

    Talk about looking backward. In the UK which has always loved barriers and the separation of vehicles and pedestrians many roads are being reconfigured to allow crossing at any point, removal of barriers and blurring the pavement (sidewalk) and roads. The effect is astounding. In West London, the RBK&C removed most of the boundaries between pedestrians and cars on Kensington High Street and saw a 69% reduction in accidents. This is not an isolated example. Just check out google: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-US%3Aofficial&hs=nxS&q=barriers+pedestrians+kensington+remove+accidents+fatalities&btnG=Search

  • ABG

    Good point, Christian, and in the long term that would definitely be the best thing for Park Avenue. But in the short-term it’d be a very hard sell. It’s currently what, four lanes plus parking in each direction in Midtown, and three lanes plus parking on the Upper East Side?

  • ddartley

    Those barriers (pretty as they might be) drove me nuts in London. They force you to walk sometimes quite far out of your way just to cross the street. Somehow I never got trapped by the similarly annoying ones at Herald Square until more recently. They certainly seem to have been designed with safety in mind, but sure enough, they stifle peds and accommodate cars. If it’s a choice between them and bollards, I’m for the latter. (As long as they’re not those sneaky retractable ones in Yucatan County, Oregon.)

  • Steve

    Christian’s materials are interesting; this sample give the flavor:

    “Research and practice, both here
    and abroad, suggests that fewer signs
    and less control by authority allows social
    and cultural constraints to be more
    effective. Drivers become politer and rely
    more on eye contact to avoid other drivers.”

    I have heard some comment that stop signs are preferable to traffic signals for exactly the reason stated above. That makes sense to me. However removal of all traffic devices at Park Ave. intersections would, at least in the near term, result in more collisions, injuries and deaths. Here’s a grim reminder I spotted yesterday:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/43954081@N00/365974322/

  • m

    I’d wholeheartedly favor going back to something like the pre-1922 design shown above, not because it physically separates pedestrians from traffic but because it is pretty, green, and gives peds *more space*. However, just putting in barriers on a given refuge to me sounds very bad. I live in London, where most big intersections have huge iron barriers that run around the sidewalk at each corner. These are not there for ped safety. They are there to prevent peds crossing anywhere other than at the traffic light. Traffic lights often literally have a 4-sec green phase for peds *in both directions at the same time* in a 90 sec light sequence. So if you want to cross in two directions, you usually have to (a) go out of your way around a barrier to the first ped crossing, (b) wait for your 4-sec green light, dash across, (c) walk around a long barrier to get to the ped crossing for the other intersection arm, (d) wait for the next 4-sec green light, which will be at the end of the entire light phase. In addition, barriers are often put in on traffic refuges at the middle of the crossing on a not-so-wide street, but in this way:
    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    ________________
    ______________

    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    where xxxx are the sidewalks. So you have to cross once, walk all the way around the next barrier, by which point (not kidding) the light is no longer green, wait for the next green phase. So you need two green phases to cross the road! this is v frequent.

    All this leads to is extreme inconvenience to peds and more speeding cars, who feel safe from peds stepping out into the street. Moreover, the barriers are very dangerous to cyclists in case they get the left-hook (U.S. right hook), i.e. vehicle turning across their path, e.g. a truck, one of the leading causes of cyclist fatalities in London. When there’s a barrier, there is no escape route to the sidewalk — the barriers are too high to jump over from a bicycle.

    I really think slowing down traffic and giving peds simply more space in relation to cars is the answer. Barriers alone often do more harm than good by giving cars the perception that they are in their own well cordoned-off racetrack and causing them to speed accordingly.

    If they make walking less convenient for pedestrians, they will also lead to fewer pedestrians and more cars, which in turn will lead to a more dangerous road environment.

  • ddartley

    M-

    Precisely. They have almost identical barriers here in Herald Square and around Madison Square Park, and they do all the harm you describe in your comment. Sure enough, they look kind of nice, and well, “English” looking, but they create a (positively charming) pedestrian ghetto.

  • ABG

    The DOT has put in anti-“jaywalking” barriers practically the whole length of Queens Boulevard. They feel very dangerous.

    The worst part of their pedestrian safety plan for Queens Boulevard in Community Board 2 (Sunnyside, Woodside and Elmhurst) was the “Z crossing” intended for the 61st Street crossing, by the Big Six towers. That’s exactly the “feature” described by M: it would force pedestrians to walk half a block out of their way and cross the boulevard in two cycles. The last time I was out that way it hadn’t been implemented, and we can hope that they were persuaded to ditch it.

  • Ryan Lee

    The way the Park Avenue image was framed, it looks like the whole street is a park–it wasn’t.

    Source: NYPL Digital Collection.
    http://images.nypl.org/index.php?id=722239F&t=w

  • Ryan, thanks for sharing this image, which provides a more complete picture of what the pre-1922 Park Avenue looked like. While there is a road running on each side, the pedestrian malls seem park-like, restful, and form a grand promenade running to the north. It would be delightful to stroll up Park Avenue this way!

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