Deadly Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park Poised to Get Life-Saving Road Diet

It’s hard to imagine a street in more dire need of a safety upgrade than Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Lined with schools, senior centers, subway stations, churches and stores — and situated in one of the city’s top walk-to-work neighborhoods — the street is a magnet for pedestrians of all ages. It’s also a speedway for motorists. Now it looks like this part of Fourth Avenue will get a safety-minded makeover as soon as this fall.

Image: NYC DOT

With six lanes of moving traffic, plus left-turn bays, Fourth Avenue is wide and dangerous to cross. From 2006 to 2011, seven people were killed while walking on the stretch between 65th Street and 15th Street. Dozens more were seriously injured. Pressure to reduce the death toll has been mounting in recent years, and Borough President Marty Markowitz’s Fourth Avenue Task Force has helped raise the profile of the street’s shortcomings and its potential.

Earlier this week, NYC DOT staff presented a package of safety improvements [PDF] for this two-and-a-half mile section to Brooklyn Community Board 7’s Fourth Avenue working group. The recommendations would essentially slim the street down from six lanes to four lanes and add pedestrian space in the median using low-cost materials like paint, epoxy, and gravel.

DOT has been holding workshops on Fourth Avenue with CB 7 and local organizations since last year, and the recommendations were well-received by the working group. “These workshops with the DOT have been very good, and they’ve listened to us,” said CB 7 chair Fred Xuereb.

Currently, outside of rush hour, most motorists speed on the wide expanse of Fourth Avenue, and in the evening the figure is as high as 80 percent of southbound drivers, according to DOT. By expanding medians (some of which are now only a meager two-feet wide), adding left turn restrictions and slimming down the right-of-way for traffic, the project would shorten crossing distances, reduce conflicts between pedestrians and motorists, and at least partially remedy the street’s out-of-control speeding problem.

The added space for pedestrians comes from converting the 17-foot wide combined parking-and-traffic lanes to 13-foot wide parking lanes. Interestingly, DOT staff said this wide parking lane, an increasingly common design feature, will serve as a de facto safety enhancement for cycling, providing a modicum of space to ride between moving traffic and parked cars. One or two locations on the corridor could also see dedicated pedestrian space extended all the way through the intersection, similar to the new plaza spaces on Allen Street in the Lower East Side, though the sites haven’t been selected yet. (The intersection of 25th Street was a candidate but Greenwood Cemetery objected on the grounds that it would interfere with funeral processions.)

The road diet would be compromised during morning commute hours, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., when the northbound side of the street would retain three traffic lanes from 38th Street to 17th Street. That segment sees cut-through commuter traffic as drivers shunt onto Fourth Avenue from the BQE before entering the Prospect Expressway. After the morning rush, the curb lane will revert back to parking.

Only one board member, Tom Murphy, took issue with the plan, arguing that Fourth Avenue should keep six lanes of traffic to serve as a release valve for the BQE and Gowanus Expressway. No one else seemed to share the sentiment.

“This is something that we’ve been trying to have happen in this neighborhood for a long time,” said Moe Awawdeh, environmental justice coordinator at the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE). “Let’s move forward.”

DOT can implement the plan starting this summer and have it in place by the fall. The agency will begin outreach on redesigning other sections of Fourth Avenue, in Bay Ridge and Park Slope, later this year.

CB 7 member Joan Botti, who chairs the working group, said she expected the proposal to meet with approval from the full board. “I’m sure our members will be in favor of fixing the problems with Fourth Avenue,” she said. “You try standing in the middle of those islands.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is an extensive drop off and pick up queue at the 36th Street express BMT station.  Hopefully that will be taken into account.

  • krstrois

    The idea that neighborhood streets can or should serve as “release valves” [blerg] needs to die. 

  • Eric McClure

    If they’re going to stripe a widened median guarded by flexible bollards down the middle, why not just make those bike paths instead? Yeah, there’ll be some turning movements to negotiate, but it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out.

  • Danny G

    @EricMcClure:disqus Subway vents.

  • Ace

    I was almost run down in a cross walk with the light by a driver maintaining his excessive speed from 4th Ave onto a side street yesterday evening. When is the city going to address the fact that pedestrians should not have to share cross walks with moving autos driven by (seemingly) demented idiots?

  • J

    @EricMcClure:disqus I agree, but I’ll take the road diet for now. Otherwise, this becomes a “bike project” instead of a pedestrian safety project, and the crazies anti-bike nuts rise from their slumber. I think that the benefits of this are extremely important for pedestrian safety, and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize them by overreaching now. Also, for bikes this does change a terrifying street into just a slightly frightening street, with a de facto bike lane. It also sets aside the space needed for a future protected bike lane. Eventually we’ll get there, but I’ll definitely take these improvements for now.

  • Eric McClure

    @36056f95783f8cfb512e9d49d4187ce6:disqus , no, not subway vents.  Look at the illustration.  They’re proposing adding a striped and flex-bollard protected section adjacent to the center medians where the subway vents reside.  I don’t know if this treatment would be uniform along the entire stretch, but if it is, rather than create a no-man’s land, why not make it a wheelman’s (or wheelwoman’s) land?

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Agreed with Eric McClure. A bit of clever design/ engineering could overcome subway vents and even turn conflicts. Who do we contact to suggest changes/improvements to this proposed design?

  • Eric McClure

    @Uptowner13:disqus , agreed; this would be a big step in the right direction with or without a bike lane.  However, every time an opportunity to stripe a bike lane is passed up, I feel the crazy anti-bike nuts have have been kowtowed to at the expense of cyclists’ safety.

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Ace: maybe you could reach out to the Fourth Ave task force and suggest neck-downs and daylighting for the sidestreet crosswalks where turning trucks endanger ped’s. Also, if you feel like the place in question is always dangerous, maybe if you look on Crashstat, you can identify if people have been hurt or killed on some of those dangerous intersections. That could help convince those on the task force to include some more traffic calming measures on the intersections with certain side streets.

  • rlb

    Why does DOT seem to prefer widening no man’s land pedestrian refuges as opposed to sidewalks?

  • J and Eric both make great points about the anti-bike lane crazies. It’s a delicate balance, trying to fly under their radar on the one hand but not cowering before them on the other. Regardless, I can’t wait for these improvements to come to the Park Slope section that includes the intersection at Prospect Ave. It’s a death trap for pedestrians with drivers speeding off the Prospect Expressway and making tight turns onto 4th Ave. We definitely need traffic calming there.

  • J

    @d6cca2e0e5ddeeb01a1a4d7cca553f7e:disqus Expanding sidewalks is VERY expensive, as it requires much utility relocation, concrete, etc. This project will effectively shorten crossing distances for a tiny fraction of the cost of sidewalk expansion.

  • J

    @EricMcClure:disqus I agree with you, and I hate it every single time that we compromise on safety and miss obvious opportunities just because a few people don’t like bikes. However, I think that we are making steady progress, and are getting much closer to the point where protected bike lanes have widespread appeal to overcome the crazies. I think it’s already happening in parts of Manhattan, and it will spread from there, especially with the arrival of bikeshare. That said, I don’t think we’re quite there yet in most of Brooklyn.

  • Danny G

    @EricMcClure:disqus Good point. I checked the plans of that PDF and the part you’re talking about is a 4 foot wide area. If they don’t do the 13′ wide double parking/fake bike lane but instead do a normal 8′ parking lane, they’ll have room to do something a la Allen-Pike, though it’d be a tighter fit.
    The downside of the center median bikeway is that it’d be really hot in the summertime because it’s tough for trees to grow nice foliage when there’s a subway where their roots should be.

  • rlb

    J, they could do the exact same thing that they are doing now, but at the sidewalk instead of the median. That seems like a better place for it. 

  • 4ther

    “Only one board member, Tom Murphy, took issue with the plan, arguing
    that Fourth Avenue should keep six lanes of traffic to serve as a
    release valve for the BQE and Gowanus Expressway. No one else seemed to
    share the sentiment.”

    The logic astounds. And since 4th Avenue is jammed with traffic during certain hours of the day, maybe we should tear down homes and build roadways to serve as a “release valve” during those times as well.

    Thankfully, Tom Murphy was alone on this one.  It’s an encouraging sign that the future belongs to safer streets.

  • I like the road narrowing, but what’s with those ugly bollards being used everywhere? Why can’t they just extend the curb instead of having these stupid things sticking out of the ground?

  • Mike

    Great plan.

    Comments can also be sent to 4thAvenue@dot.nyc.gov as well as to the task force as Ben suggested.

  • I honestly don’t understand why taking away two lanes from cars and _not_ replacing them with anything is an easier political sell than replacing them with cycletracks. With this, you’re basically announcing, “We intend to make drivers’ lives hell. Just for the fun of it.”

    The goal should not be “making driving more difficult” — it should be “make it possible for people to get around by walking and biking, which necessarily/automatically will make everyone attempting these modes (and all others) safer”.

    I mean, you have _all_ this real estate — why not actually use it for something…useful? Add something to 4th Street instead of just take it away.

    The term ‘road diet’ is still a disaster, for exactly this reason — if we all conceptualize the slimming of roads as something that is good or decent or whatever, then that’s all we see — that’s our hammer, so everything starts to look like a nail.

    On the other hand, if we use a term that Jane Jacobs (birthday tomorrow) might be proud of — “rechanneling” — we can start to think of projects in terms that she urged us to — not because it’s more politically viable (tho, it’s that, too), but because it’s the only way to think correctly about the city — increasing mobility, increasing independence, increasing economic opportunity, increasing safety — not decreasing cars.

    If you want to increase the safety of pedestrians (and all other road users), the formula is proven — add cycletracks. 

    And if you don’t want to spend money (capital expenditures) twice, then go ahead and do things right the first time. If, on the other hand, you have tons of time and money and no need to allow people to bike anywhere, then continue to think of ‘road diets’ and spend your money without any notion of effectiveness/ROI. Transit fares and gas prices keep going up, but we can continue to spend frivolously on ‘road diets’? What’s up? Why not just light piles of money on fire?

    Want to improve pedestrian safety and comfort? Easy — just add cycletracks, so cyclists can get off the sidewalk.

    And if your holy grail happens to be smaller/slimmer roads, for whatever reason(s) you may want that, fine — you can achieve that too, by replacing a lane of car traffic/parking with cycletracks — everybody wins.

    As far as “anti-bike crazies” — they’re not completely irrelevant, but those folks have about as much influence today as “vehicular cycling crazies” — why so worried? Make a determination about what you want and expect to happen to 4th Street (make it walkable and bikeable) and NYC (keep it above the waterline), and demand it. Every major corridor in, through, to, from, and around NYC must have a cycletrack — simple. 

  •  That’s great! It’ll be more safer.

  • Anonymous

    get lost with this you have no right to take our parking away  where do you expect the cars that
    park there now get lost you bums

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