DOT: “Our Job is to Keep Traffic Moving, Not Pedestrian Safety”

scribner_ave.jpg
Scribner Avenue, New Brighton, Staten Island, formerly two- and now one-way, looking up the hill toward Bismarck Avenue from Westervelt Avenue

Streetsblog reader Dan Icolari became curious about changes that were being made on his neighborhood streets in Staten Island. In researching the issue he found that progressive policy statements coming out of Department of Transportation headquarters on Worth Street don’t appear to be filtering down to the agency’s borough offices. His own assumptions about what is "progressive" were challenged as well. Here is Dan’s story: 

Like other Streetsblog readers, I’ve been encouraged by DOT’s recent, more enlightened pronouncements. But not long ago, when I noticed that DOT had converted a number of two-way streets to one-way in my Staten Island neighborhood, all I could see, as an alternative transportation advocate, was that a traffic-calming arrangement had been replaced by one that practically guaranteed higher speeds and less safe streets.

I called DOT to find out if my own two-way through street was on the list for conversion. And who makes these decisions, anyway? And how, and why?

The first thing I found out is, there is no list. "We get change requests mostly from community groups," said the Staten Island DOT rep I spoke to, "usually through the community board, though some changes are made by the borough commissioner." I was assured no change was planned for my block.

I then brought up the serious lack of crosswalks in the neighborhood–specifically in the several-block area surrounding my corner, where speeding has become a significant problem. It’s an area where pedestrian traffic is not heavy but is constant throughout the day, and becomes heavier during rush hours and after school. I asked if the three-block stretch I referred to could be studied by DOT, possibly to introduce traffic-calming measures that might improve safety.

"No," the DOT rep replied, "that’s just not what we do here. If there’s a speeding problem you can ask NYPD to step up enforcement, but our job is to keep traffic moving efficiently, not to do studies on pedestrian safety." It wasn’t the answer I was hoping for, or even the one I expected, but at least it was clear.
 
But what did my neighbors think, I wondered–the people who live on the two blocks recently converted from one-ways to two-ways? I was pretty sure they’d be furious at the loss of their charming two-way streets.

I was wrong.

Not only were my neighbors not furious; they were actually delighted.

After years of driving on steep hills with limited visibility in bad weather, they told me they welcomed the change. Only one, Jonathan B., preferred the old two-way arrangement because it provided more options.

"My choices as a driver are more limited now," admitted Joanne S., "but I think both blocks are safer." Her husband Alan seemed relieved: "With the change, I don’t feel so tense behind the wheel." Harouna B. told me, "It’s much safer for my kids, and there’s finally a stop sign posted." Emily S. offered the most surprising observation: Speeding has actually declined, she said, and crossing the street is much safer.

As a committed walker and mass transit proponent, those were, once again, not the answers I was expecting. But when I visited the two now-one-way streets to take photos for this story, I could see my neighbors’ point: There were multiple places in the roadway on both streets where it would be impossible to see oncoming traffic. I began to think that maybe my two-way-good, one-way-bad orthodoxy might need a little revising.

So I wonder: At a time of peak oil, global warming and growing population, when we want to raise levels of consciousness and encourage more thoughtful transportation choices, how do we design transportation policy elastic enough to work not just in Manhattan and the brownstone belt of Brooklyn, but in the rest of the city, too?

That is, how do we address the traffic, land-use, congestion and pedestrian/cyclist safety problems of the city’s most dynamic areas, while devising practical alternatives that help outer-borough New Yorkers reduce private car use and make other environmentally conscious transportation choices, particularly in more suburban clusters not well served by public transit?

  • The short answer: Highly enlightened Community Boards and elected officials who understand how to look at a wide spectrum of complex issues and can find fairly simple solutions.

    I think Staten Island’s major problem right now is that it segregates land use too much and does not allow density around mass transportation hubs. Many “residential” areas have little commercial retail within walking distance. By encouraging a bit more mixed use blocks, you could see restaurants, conveniences stores opening up on corners of residential blocks that would provide good walkable alternatives to the current concentrated retail clusters and stripmalls along Streets like Forest Ave and Hyland Blvd.

    Aside from some of the steep hills, Staten Island is a wonderful place to bike in many areas. The problem is that the main commercial strips have too much automobile traffic.

    There need to be more reliable mass transit options and more intermodal transit hubs like the SI Ferry terminal. Creating a light rail link to Bayonne that provides a one seat ride to Manhattan would create wonderful transit hubs in Mid Island and could bolster those along the East Shore train line by providing another reason to take the train.

    And please, more crosswalks….

  • “No,” the DOT rep replied, “that’s just not what we do here. If there’s a speeding problem you can ask NYPD to step up enforcement, but our job is to keep traffic moving efficiently, not to do studies on pedestrian safety.”

    One of the first things I learned when I became interested in transportation issues is that it is not economically feasible to control speeding through police enforcement.

    We all know that DOT is taking a retrograde approach to its job. Traffic engineers are beginning to realize that they should design streets so they work for all of their users, including pedestrians.

  • Eric

    Didn’t someone in one of these threads post a suggestion that we trade Staten Island for Newark?

  • crzwdjk

    “I began to think that maybe my two-way-good, one-way-bad orthodoxy might need a little revising.”
    Good that you realize this. Orthodoxy in general is bad, and one needs to use the right tool for the right job. Any transportation policies need to acknowledge this, and offer a range of solutions, and some guidelines on when to use which. There is no silver bullet magical solution that will work everywhere and solve all problems, and I don’t even think that there is a solution that is an improvement no matter where it is applied.

  • Dan Icolari

    Glenn:

    Thanks for your comment.

    During a recent call-in on the Brian Lehrer show, I questioned new MTA chair Lee Sander about his views on reinstituting service on Staten Island’s long-dormant North Shore rail line.

    I laid out my case, talking about major population increases on the North Shore; increasingly strong support for North Shore rail service from Staten Island’s political and business communities; and a surprisingly positive view of mass transit among Staten Islanders in general ((though certainly not as a replacement for private transport).

    After a few preliminary qualifying statements about the recent Staten Island traffic initiatives and the promise of Bus Rapid Transit, Sander said he questioned whether ridership would justify the costs associated with reinstitution of North Shore rail service. (We didn’t even get to potential connections over time to Bergen-Hudson Light Rail, PATH, NJ Transit, and maybe even Newark Airport, opening up a severely underserved sector of the region).

    Sander’s farebox view appears not to recognize public transit as a public good and ignores the fact that the introduction of any new product or service requires massive communications support for a sustained introductory period–much as was done for MetroCard–in order to build a constituency (in this case, ridership). It’s a cost you budget for.

    I wrote to Councilman Mike McMahon, asking whether we weren’t farther along in the process of getting North Shore rail service restored than Sander’s comment seemed to indicate. So far, no reply.

  • Tut tut, Glenn,
    You know the dangers to the space-time continuum when linking “Highly Enlightened” and “Community Board” in the same sentence.

    Please refrain from tinkering with the order of the universe by suggesting that CBs could achieve such a state. “Stupefyingly stoopid,” maybe. Incorrigibly incompetant, sure.

  • Dan Icolari

    I think the link to the Hudson Bergen line might actually be more likely to occur than the north shore rail. Still, I think both ideas are very much on the table with major political support for expanding rail access on Staten Island.

    http://www.plannyc.org/project-77-Staten-Island-North-Shore-Light-Rail

    http://nyc.theoildrum.com/story/2006/9/11/142513/122

    http://www.statenislandusa.com/2006/bayonne.html

    And here’s an interesting tidbit I recently came across: http://www.nycsubway.org/nyc/sirt/

    The operation of the original Staten Island Railroad was from Cranford Junction, NJ to St. George, Staten Island via the North Shore line, and then on to Tottenville or South Beach. The passenger operation on the North Shore (Arlington–St. George) and South Beach line (St. George–Wentworth Ave) was eliminated in 1953. All of the bridges over the North Shore line remain, and were recently rebuilt by NYC DOT.

    I hope Sanders can put this on the front burner soon.

  • ABG

    Not just SIRT, but trolleys until the 1930s and trolleybuses after that, all over the North Shore and elsewhere, feeding the SIR and the ferries. All torn down in the fifties. You can get the layout in something called BAHN format here:

    http://www.thejoekorner.com/indexrail.shtm#bahn

  • Dan Icolari

    Thank you so much for that link, ABG.

    What I’m particularly interested in is the model I’ve seen in St. Louis and in Lafayette (Boulder County), Colorado, where park-and-ride lots serve as regional (and in St. Louis, neighborhood) hubs for bus service.

    If this approach were part of restored service on Staten Island’s North Shore line, it would yield substantial efficiencies in surface transit, eliminate some redundancies and, presumably, reduce emissions as well.

  • tartufo

    I think Dan makes a good point. Park & Rides might be a great, overlooked “interim” option for converting more trips to transit. Granted space is hard to find in the city, but park & rides in a few strategic locations (adjacent to fast transit connections to the CBD) could go a long way to reducing trips to Manhattan, and/or mitigating those priced off the road under congestion pricing.

  • Dan Icolari

    Thanks, tartufo.

    Actually, especially in the westernmost stretch of the North Shore rail line, land acquisition costs might be lower than in the other boroughs. Available sites include brownfields; marginal or unused manufacturing or commercial sites; sites associated with automotive uses, and vacant lots considered unsuitale for residential development.

  • Dan Icolari

    Glenn McAnanama

    This just in from Councilman Mike McMahon (a letter in today’s mail):

    [Despite new MTA Executive Director and CEO Sander’s comments], “I remain optimistic that under Governor Spitzer’s leadership, transportation issues on Staten Island will receive a greater level of attention.

    “Enclosed you will find a letter [no letter was enclosed, but I’m requesting another copy–D.I.] I sent to Governor Spitzer and new appointees in the state transportation agencies, which requests that a ‘transportation summit’ be held to brief Staten Island elected officials on the status of transportation initiatives [and] to forge a dialoguye on pressing transportation problems throughout the borough. I encourage you to also send a letter in support of my proposal [which I will do, once I have a chance to read the letter, which I assume contains the substance of McMahon’s proposal–D.I.].

    I’ll keep Streetsblog posted.

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