DOT Puts Big Changes on the Table for 181st Street

One option for 181st Street would create a two-way, separated transit mall. Image: NYC DOT.
One option for 181st Street would create a two-way, separated transit mall. Image: NYC DOT

Following a series of public workshops going back to 2008, DOT has put forward some big plans for Manhattan’s traffic-clogged 181st Street. Over the next few months, the department will choose one of three options to ease traffic and improve safety on the street. While every option offers some significant benefits for Washington Heights pedestrians, one keeps traffic patterns largely unchanged while the other two would truly transform the corridor.

At a public meeting on the project held last night, the testimony tended to support only the smallest changes and raise concerns about the effects of prioritizing transit or cycling on the area’s motorists. But Upper Manhattan residents who want to see significant improvements for walking, biking, and transit seem to have an ally in local Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who called on the community to embrace big changes.

181st Street needs a reboot. With one lane in each direction, it is clogged with traffic between the un-tolled Washington Bridge to the east and the George Washington Bridge to the west. Five bus lines carry riders to and from the Bronx, two subway stations disgorge straphangers, and the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians on the busy commercial strip. The street lacks loading zones, making double-parking a constant problem. And the only entrance to the Hudson River Greenway for blocks is at 181st Street.

On the four blocks between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, the differences in how DOT’s three options balance all these demands are substantial. (You can see the details in this PDF from June; the designs haven’t changed since then.) Alternative 1 only makes small changes to the status quo, most prominently by adding left turn lanes along 181st. In addition, medians in a few locations and restricted turning regulations would significantly improve pedestrian safety at the most dangerous locations, according to Atma Sookram, a consultant working on the project.

In contrast, the other two choices prioritize the majority of residents who don’t drive.

Alternative 2 would create a two-way, protected transit mall along this stretch, with raised medians serving as bus stops. Car traffic would be reduced from two-way to one-way westbound to make room for the buses. Because the transit mall is short, explained Sookram, the benefit to transit riders would be more in reliability than in speed. “It’s just not very long,” he said, “so there’s only so fast they can go.”

In Alternative 3, buses are given a single unprotected westbound lane, a buffered bike lane is included, and the sidewalks are widened by around a foot and a half (more at intersections). Both Alternatives 2 and 3 include the safety improvements in Alternative 1 as well.

Alternative 3. Image: NYC DOT
Alternative 3. Image: NYC DOT

West of Broadway, 181st Street narrows and the buses have completed their routes, so DOT offered less dramatic changes. Every alternative would look the same along that stretch, with some new turn lanes and a curb extension. Additionally, every alternative would replace some metered parking with loading zones — which should help with deliveries and reduce double-parking — and stripe a southbound bike lane on Fort Washington Avenue between 183rd and 181st.

DOT is still in the process of deciding which plan to implement, though a final report is expected in March, according to Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione. “We will not proceed with anything without community support,” she announced at the beginning of the meeting.

Many speakers at last night’s meeting were hesitant to disrupt vehicle traffic at all. “The two alternatives where cars have to go eastbound on alternative streets, in my view, sadly are non-starters” said a former chair of Community Board 12. “These one-way things scare the heck out of me.”

An aide for powerful Assembly Member Denny Farrell also preferred Alternative 1, worrying about displaced traffic.

An important counterweight to those arguments came from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who spoke eloquently in favor of thinking big. “We have to make a certain level of radical change in how traffic is organized in that area,” said Rodriguez. “I call for everyone in the whole community to understand that all of us sometimes have to sacrifice something.” Rodriguez didn’t specifically mention any of the alternatives, however.

As is typical at CB 12, which has scuttled plans for a greenmarket over concerns about the temporary unavailability of vehicle storage, parking also emerged as a flashpoint. The owner of a barbershop on 181st Street rose at one point to claim that if parking were removed from the street, 40 percent of businesses would close. In response, Forgione firmly explained that this was a common belief across the city, but that “sometimes we do surveys and what we find is that a very high percentage of the customers walk or come by public transportation.” She promised to work on the issue with the local BID, which also expressed concerns about losing parking.

Each of the alternatives eliminates some of the 183 parking spaces currently along the corridor. Alternative 3 actually removes the least parking, while Alternative 2 removes the most.

One thing that everyone in the room could agree on is that doing nothing is not an option. “It’s not acceptable the way it is and it’s only going to get worse,” said Forgione. “We need to keep a little momentum with this.” Rodriguez repeatedly said that he wanted to see a new 181st Street included in the city’s 2011-2012 capital plan, which would require swift action.

  • This should not just be up to the community board. As you can tell from the map PDF, there are five buses that use this corridor, and connect a huge section of the western Bronx with the A and 1 trains. Right now these buses are very popular (the Bx3 and the Bx35 earn an operating surplus), even though they crawl along 181st Street past double-parked cars.

    Alternative 2 would be a huge transit improvement for one of the poorest parts of the city, and would reduce the cost to the MTA to operate these routes. This is not just about Washington Heights; it affects a very large area, and this community board should not be allowed to hold the project hostage to their parochial whims.

  • There isn’t much for pedestrians here, who are crowded out on both sides of the street by illegal vendors from Wadsworth to Audubon. Other than that, I’m glad to see more advanced ideas than they had at the meetings last fall.

  • Kate

    I completely agree with Cap’n Transit re: community board. In general they seem overly concerned with parking and much less concerned with progress and the safety and enjoyment of those who prefer not to spend their time doing laps looking for said parking space. We are not our own little universe up there and it would be great to be doing something positive that would appeal to anyone who finds themselves in the area. I vote for number 3 with the protected bike lanes.

  • CB12 is parking-obsessed despite the fact that the majority of Washington Heights and Inwood residents don’t own a car. Any potential loss of parking (even if only for a half a day) is viewed with horror–to the point that they scuttled a greenmarket, which would have benefited so many in our community.

  • I also vote for design 3 with the buffered bike lanes.

  • Ed Ravin

    There is another access to the Hudson River Greenway at West 177th St and Haven Ave – inconvenient and somewhat sketchy due to homeless people and garbage, but W 181st is not the only Greenway access in the immediate area.

  • Mike

    Doesn’t the access at 177th involve a bunch of stairs?

  • eLK

    Sketchy? Dangerous and FOOLISH. The only other entrances that the City recognizes are 158th and Dyckmann.

  • J

    These streets are really important in the regional transportation network. They connect the many different parts of the Bronx (Kingsbridge, U Heights, Fordham, Highbridge, Morris Heights, Melrose, Morrisania, East Tremont, West Farms, & Parkchester) to west side subways (A/C/1) and the vast network of NJ buses which service most of Bergen County.

    In my opinion, alternative 2 provides by far the most bang for the buck, and therefore wins my support. Alt 3 screws bus riders by detouring them, and the bike lane would be a de facto double parking lane unless enforcement magically improves.

    Of course the local business owners should be consulted and their views taken into account. However, these bus links are vital to many people beyond the business owners – people who ride the bus every day to get to jobs in New Jersey and don’t have time to go to long community board meetings in other boroughs. These unrepresented people matter, and the incredible ridership statistics should be considered when deciding on this project. Alternative 2 looks like a giant leap forward for transit in the area. Kudos to DOT for proposing this, and to Council Member Rodriguez for his support.

  • Personally, I like Alternative #2 for the fact that not only does it allow for a dedicated busway, but it also allows westbound drivers to stay along 181st Street.

    As for eastbound drivers, the only improvement that should be done on side streets is to synchronize traffic lights to allow more drivers through intersections (like 180th/Amsterdam, 178th/Amsterdam, 180th/St. Nick, 180th/Bway, just to name a few). This would reduce delays for drivers heading to the Bronx.

    As for the loss of parking, most of the other cars that use 181st St are Taxicabs. Hopefully, with this improvement, it can encourage would-be taxicab passengers to take the cheaper buses.

  • Ian Turner

    I guarantee that barber shop owner drives to work. As far as I can tell, merchants’ whinging about parking throughout the city is about their own parking desires — not those of their customers.

  • I agree with you Ian 100%. Most of the businesses on 181st Street would probably care more for their personal desires. And the messed up part is that it often comes at the expense of most of their TRUE customers (which often arrive either via Taxi, Bus, or Subway!).

    The unfortunate part of this is that the taxi drivers often have local pols (like Ydanis Rodriguez) in a chokehold. Whatever things that favor the cabs and drivers are usually what ends up winning every transportation battle in Upper Manhattan. And it always comes at the expense of pedestrians and transit commuters, who always suffer because of the always-congested traffic on 181st Street (as well as nearby ones like 178th St), as well as the vendors blocking most of the sidewalks.

  • Louis

    Why does NYCDOT never ever combine bus and bike lanes?

  • Louis, being stuck behind a city bus, even a “clean energy” one, is no treat, and since it’s not too difficult to ride faster than a bus, it happens quite frequently.

  • This “piecemeal” strategy of DOT to address traffic/transportation problems in Upper Manhattan is ridiculous.

    We need a full 197-a study of transportation infrastructure to address the HUGE congestion, parking, cycling, pedestrian, and double-parking issues in WaHI. Here are just a few issues the community needs to address:

    – sidewalks are generally far too wide and are clogged, as a result, with dozens of vendors. These vendors need to be reminded that the city has set aside for them an area on 175th Street, and to GET OFF THE SIDEWALKS. Police need to enforce these laws.

    – the 181st Street study totally ignored any sidewalk revisions, which could have added one full lane, for buses or bikes, to 181st Street.

    – the existence of the GWB Bus Terminal has likewise been ignored; with rehabilitation or renovation stalled pretty much indefinitely — one of the finance groups backed out — WaHI should be taking advantage of its presence and EXISTING bus traffic to help deal with Bronx-bound buses, which are now clogging 181st Street. The difference is only a couple of blocks for pedestrians — but could mean a MAJOR change in congestion.

    – western Dyckman Street has become party city on the weekends and late nights. This area needs some kind of mall/protected bike lanes to calm traffic, which is congested and noisy, especially in the summer (but on any nice evening) with traffic from beyond WaHI.

    – too many tractor-trailers are coming down 181, turning left onto Fort Washington Avenue for the GWB… WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM? It is illegal to use city streets as a thoroughfare for trucks… are they coming off one highway, and bypassing traffic by using WaHI as a go-around?

    – too many single-passenger vehicles from Riverdale are using Inwood to avoid tolls on the Hudson Bridge. Perhaps “congestion pricing” needs to be instituted further north than the Mayor’s pet projects, Midtown and the NUWS? The single-passenger Riverdale/Westchester traffic is one of the reasons we have such a bad parking/double parking problem.

    – there is virtually NO traffic enforcement of double-parking. In one night alone, at the corner of 181 and FWA, the westbound lane of 181 had two (2) UPS trucks parked nose-to-tail, an ambulette, and a car waiting for someone; traffic was backed up for blocks as a result. (This is not unusual. It is typical.) If the City needs income, I suggest police start with enforcing double-parking laws — and NOT just on cars temporarily unloading stroller and luggage. On delivery vehicles on Broadway, 181st Street, Dyckman… wherever. On TLC vehicles which idle at street corners. And on drivers who insist upon turning into crossing pedestrians when the signals say “WALK.” Too many elderly are being hurt.

    – Police angle parking on Broadway around the 34th Precinct narrows Broadway to two lanes just where traffic becomes MOST congested.

    – WaHI has virtually no parking structures. No new building, commercial or residential, should be approved unless the builders include sufficient onsite parking.

    Lots more – love to hear other people’s thoughts.

  • – sidewalks are generally far too wide and are clogged, as a result, with dozens of vendors. These vendors need to be reminded that the city has set aside for them an area on 175th Street, and to GET OFF THE SIDEWALKS. Police need to enforce these laws.

    Not everyone agrees that sidewalk vendors are a problem. If they’re not blocking pedestrian flow, what’s the problem? What laws are they breaking?

    – the 181st Street study totally ignored any sidewalk revisions, which could have added one full lane, for buses or bikes, to 181st Street.

    Most of us here want to see more people walking. If we realize our goals, then the wide sidewalks will be needed. But if you narrow the sidewalks, it could take years to get that width back.

    – WaHI has virtually no parking structures. No new building, commercial or residential, should be approved unless the builders include sufficient onsite parking.

    You might want to read about the trouble with minimum parking requirements, in this PDF.

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