Is Another Stop Light the Best Fix for Livable Streets?

Last week, the New York Times profiled David Bookstaver, who after six years succeeded in getting DOT to install a stop light at East 85th Street and East End Avenue. Whether Mr. Bookstaver’s victory will result in a safer crossing remains to be seen, and stop lights, though popular with the public, are not the only tool the city can use to slow traffic.

Is that new stop light really the best way to make it safer to cross the street? Photo: New York Times

Bookstaver’s campaign began in 2006. Not wanting to “wait like we normally do in New York for a kid to get run over or an old lady to get crushed,” he began his quest for a stop sign at the only East End Avenue intersection without any stop signs or signals.

After what Bookstaver describes as a frustrating meeting with the Community Board 8 transportation committee in 2008, he learned that a stop sign would not be considered for the intersection. He shifted his focus to getting a stop light, but DOT determined that the intersection did not meet the necessary criteria. DOT offered to install yellow signage altering drivers to the crosswalk, but Bookstaver balked, according to the Times.

Bookstaver then worked with Council Member Jessica Lappin’s office to request another study. A traffic signal was finally installed in late August.

Streetsblog asked Bookstaver if he or DOT considered other traffic-calming measures, such as pedestrian refuge islands or curb extensions. “That never came up,” he said. “What came up was me asking for a stop sign, because I thought it was realistic. And I got something better.”

East End Avenue isn’t the only street to have traffic signals installed in the name of pedestrian safety. When Kent Avenue in Williamsburg was redesigned in 2009, DOT didn’t stripe crosswalks at intersections without traffic signals, which cut off the redeveloping waterfront from the rest of the neighborhood. The street received additional stop lights this year after residents complained that it was difficult to cross. Last February, Tribeca residents won a signal light at the intersection of Greenwich and Duane Streets after a child was struck by a cab driver. DOT had previously determined that the intersection was not busy enough for a light.

Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives, which was not involved in the campaign for a traffic signal on East End Avenue, welcomed Bookstaver’s neighborhood advocacy. “It goes to show that the demand for safe streets has penetrated deep into blocks and neighborhoods all around the city,” he said.

At the same time, there are a number of options in addition to traffic signals that are available to calm traffic. “It allows a much more tailored approach to unique neighborhoods around the city,” Budnick said. “New Yorkers would really benefit from learning about all of the different options that we have now.”

Traffic signals are not a panacea. Although there are many cases where stop lights are necessary, they are often requested when other interventions would be better for pedestrians, and for drivers. Red-light running killed 762 and injured 165,000 nationwide in 2008. In addition to costing tens of thousands of dollars to install, traffic engineers warn that they can actually lead to an increase in crashes when placed at inappropriate locations. The intersection of East 85th Street and East End Avenue had failed to meet requirements for a traffic light at least twice before DOT approved the project.

DOT already has a number of other tools it uses regularly, including speed humps, slow zones, road diets, lane narrowing and curb extensions. But there are also tried-and-true interventions employed in other U.S. cities that the agency isn’t using. Many would fit in well on the city’s wide variety of streets, and though many make appearances in DOT’s Street Design Manual, you’d be hard-pressed to find them in New York neighborhoods.

New York has few raised crosswalks, for example, which have a proven track record of getting more drivers to stop for pedestrians. Many cities have also installed chicanes, which encourage drivers to slalom slowly, rather than gun it to the next intersection. There are many quieter New York streets that could gain from this effective intervention.

With separated bike lanes, slow zones, public plazas and other improvements, there can be no doubt that DOT has raised the bar over the last five years. In an effort to bridge the gap between experts and the public, the Planning Fellowship Program pairs city planning students with community boards, which for better or worse are allowed by the city to hold sway over neighborhood street design. A bill introduced by Council Member Leroy Comrie would provide planning assistance to all community boards through a pool of professionals and students in each borough.

In the future, maybe the public won’t view the ubiquitous stop light as the only way to keep themselves and their families safe from reckless motorists. “I don’t know what a curb extension is,” said Bookstaver. “I just wanted something to stop cars.”

  • carma

    Traffic lights need to be smart if they are installed.  If there is a stop light and nobody is at the intersection, does it make sense to stop?
    Im not saying lets get rid of all traffic lights and replace them with (roundabouts, raised sidewalks, blah blah blah) but there are better ways.

    In this advanced world of technology, i cant see a reason why we shouldnt invest in camera based traffic lights for major streets, and less restrictive ways for vehicles to slow down for crossing traffic through physical road modifications.

    lets face it, this is NYC, and pedestrians will cross whether they have the light or not.

  • JK

    This seems like a timewarp backwards. Mr. Bookstaver says DOT didn’t propose any alternatives to a traffic signal or even tell him what was possible? That’s surprising since DOT traffic engineers are well aware of the toolbox of traffic calming measures, and are clearly  seeking opportunities to use them.  Not far uptown and crosstown, DOT has installed protected bike lanes which incorporate pedestrian medians, and new pedestrian median refuges protected by
    rounded bollards crosstown on West End Ave and Riverside Drive, as well as widening the median on Adam Clayton Powell, and installing speed humps near schools and dicey crossings.  

  • Anonymous

    I was one of the two spearheads of the long campaign that finally brought a stoplight, in February, to the Tribeca intersection you mentioned. (The other was Nelle Fortenberry, indomitable chair of Friends of Washington Market Park, for which I was traffic-safety honcho).

    Everyone loves our stoplight. Neighbors still stop to thank me. The security it offers seems real — I have yet to see a single driver blow through it. And as a bonus, we got the second of the two crosswalks striped.

    That neither location (on the UES or in Tribeca) met the federal warrants that NYCDOT still insists on, should be irrelevant. Forcing New Yorkers on foot, many with kids in tow, to gauge and brave ‘traffic gaps” is demeaning and unsafe.

    I’m conversant with and supportive of the traffic-calming paradigm and toolbook. But I can’t imagine what would have served my Tribeca neighborhood better than the stoplight we now have, at long last.

  • Ty

    I am *definitely* not a fan of stop signs at every intersection… i.e., making every intersection an all-way stop.  The constant stop and go is absurd in quiet residential streets.  And it just induces the more jerk-like drivers to “gun it” between stop signs and brake hard. 

    Honestly, I actually DO think replacing all intersections with roundabouts IS the answer.  Driving in smaller cities in Britain (e.g., Edinburgh) is almost dreamy. (Almost)

  • Ty

    I should say… drivers tend to actually look out for and stop for pedestrians in Britain.  So, that’s a fairly significant difference.

  • Joe R.

    The problem with installing traffic signals (besides the fact that NYC doesn’t use pedestrian or vehicle detectors to ensure a light always remains green unless something is crossing) is that there is no mechanism for removing them later on should they prove redundant, or should traffic levels fall. As a result, we have “traffic signal creep”, with 12,000+ signalized intersections. Chicago, which is actually larger in area than NYC, only has about 1/10th that many. The more traffic signals you have, the more casually they are likely to be taken by all users. As it is, in NYC most pedestrians don’t even bother to notice the state of the signal when crossing.

    The victory celebration in this case might be short-lived. 70 years of studies show that traffic signals make things no safer for pedestrians even though it may not seem that way to laypeople. The first order of business if pedestrians have trouble crossing is to see if traffic volumes can be reduced so as to allow more gaps in which to cross. If that’s not possible, then you can install traffic calming measures like speed humps, pedestrian refuges, or roundabouts (both regular and mini). A traffic signal should be installed only as a last resort (i.e. poor lines of sight which can’t be easily corrected, or very large traffic volumes through much of the day). And while a signal might sometimes be needed for pedestrians to cross, do we really need signals every 250′? I would think a signal every 10 blocks would be sufficient. This would create enough gaps on the unsignalized streets to allow people to cross.

    NYC DOT unfortunately seems to design things for the busiest hour or two of the day. As a result, the rest of the time red light cycles are too long. And as I said earlier, we really need to start using pedestrian and vehicle detectors. Outside of peak hours, on many streets the end result of using dumb, timed signals is that vehicles stop for absolutely nothing 95% of the time. It’s incumbent upon NYC DOT to engineer safety in the least intrusive manner possible. That goes double now that we’re trying to encourage more bicycle use. Bicycles by their nature just can’t stop and start repeatedly. The infrastructure and laws shouldn’t require them to.

    Finally, traffic signals are NOT a traffic calming device, and should never be used as such. Same thing with stop signs.

  • Joe R.

    @305d3b6f6091f854b4e345fd551a93e7:disqus DOT probably didn’t propose any alternative measures in this case because they’re used to dealing with ignorant community boards who insist on a traffic signal or nothing, even though most other solutions may actually be better. I feel anyone on a community board shouldn’t be allowed to propose any specific solution unless they’re thoroughly versed in transportation engineering. Rather, community boards should just tell DOT such and such corner is dangerous, fix it.

  • Anonymous

    I like roundabouts, but I think putting one on every intersection is crazy. They don’t do that anywhere, even in Edinburgh. As much as I like them, I would go crazy if I had to drive, say, 100 blocks in a place like Manhattan, with a roundabout every 0.05 miles. It would be dizzying, to say the least.

    What some cities do to avoid the huge number of signalized intersections that Manhattan has is to have a median on avenues and have only a small fraction of streets cross through the median. Lights or roundabouts are mostly only on the “major” streets that cross the avenue, instead of at every single corner. The other, “minor”, streets end at T-intersections at the avenue, without a light, and with an implied stop sign. The turning traffic does OK without signals, especially because, since the minor streets are short and you can’t use them to go all the way across town, the traffic on them is light and local.

    Other cities, instead of putting a median, flip the direction of a one-way street when it crosses an avenue, but I don’t like that because it’s disconcerting and a distracted driver can easily end up driving the wrong way.

  • Joe R.

    @0cb5a5d1acdc536518491db8f69af89e:disqus You’re absolutely right about stop signs. In my neighborhood the cross streets usually have stop signs every block. End result is cars going 40 mph between stop signs. Traffic signals are even worse. There have been quite a few new traffic signals installed near me in the last decade. In every case, they make things worse, not better, as motorists gun it or speed to make the lights. Roundabouts really are the best solution in the vast majority of cases, especially on less busy streets.

  • Joe R.

    I forgot to mention it earlier but if you’re going to have a signalized crossing, then the best place to put the crossing is midblock. Even though in theory turning vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians crossing, I find that I need to look over my shoulder for the times when they don’t. Midblock crossings eliminate the turning vehicle hazard by design.

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Midblock crossings have a problem: they increase walking distances considerably. That is, unless the block itself is “porous” to pedestrians, as in 6 1/2 Avenue.

  • Joe R.

    @qrt145:disqus Actually, an even better idea to your proposal is to just ban motor traffic from all except major cross streets. Remember the Manhattan grid was designed when traffic moved at maybe 3 mph. One block represented the distance you could travel in maybe one minute. Now that vehicles move 10 times as fast, a grid with 10 block spacing on the minor streets would be equivalent. Vehicles can still use the avenues to drop people off at the exact block they’re going to. The only difference is you now would need to walk along that cross street to reach your final destination instead of being dropped off at the front door. By getting rid of motor traffic on 9 out of 10 cross streets, you get rid of the traffic signals. The intersections every ten blocks with the major cross streets can be converted to roundabouts.

  • Joe R.

    @qrt145:disqus I’m thinking midblock crossings along busy avenues, not along longer cross streets where the turning vehicle hazard isn’t as acute. That means you go an extra 125′ each way only when you’re crossing an avenue. I find in Manhattan 99% of the time I’m crossing numbered streets, not avenues.

  • John

    Kudos to the DOT for not installing multi-way stop signs on major streets.

  • Waste

    There’s signal 215 feet away in either direction. Why couldn’t this guy cross there?  How much money did they spend because he couldn’t walk 0.04 miles?

  • fj

    D
    Don’t need studies; just make the streets safe; typical pandering to car power.

  • Eric McClure

    How about a moat? Yeah, a moat would do the trick.

  • fj
  • Miles Bader

    @0cb5a5d1acdc536518491db8f69af89e:disqus 

    Honestly, I actually DO think replacing all intersections with
    roundabouts IS the answer.  Driving in smaller cities in Britain (e.g.,
    Edinburgh) is almost dreamy.

    Driving through roundabouts may be “dreamy”, but they’re dreadful for pedestrians.

    I lived in Edinburgh for five years, and I learned to dread crossing near a roundabout (of any size… they’ve got both huge ones and tiny little ones) because drivers seemed to consider them a “go!-go!-go!” signal (if they stop, it’s for a microsecond, during which their foot is hovering over the accelerator).

    It’s the same in other Scottish towns (they luuuuuv roundabouts 🙁 ), although many of the smaller ones benefit from a simple lack of traffic.

    Now, considering that cities like Edinburgh are far better suited for walking or bicycling than driving, they should be optimizing it for pedestrians, not drivers—and that means traffic-calming, not speed-encouraging devices like roundabouts.

    That said, roundabouts are very fun if you’re on a bicycle, and riding in the street.  Maybe there’s some compromise solution that’s well-suited for bicycles, but still sends a strong signal to cars to slow down and stop.  I dunno.

    [and as for drivers in Edinburgh, well…. better than in the U.S. on average, maybe, and at least the number of car-drivers is less (historically anyway, I dunno what it’s like in the last decade or so since they git the Scottish parliament), but the place is absolutely chock-full of entitled-douche-in-an-expensive-car types.  This is made worse the by the fundamentally pedestrian nature of the city itself, because these morons imagine themselves at the raceway no matter how ill-suited the environment.]

  • vnm

    Lets not forget simply daylighting intersections so kids and adults can easily see oncoming cars instead of peering around huge SUVs.  Yes, this requires removing a parking space or two. It’s a small price to pay for safety. 

  • USbike

    Miles Bader A lot of the smaller roundabouts I’ve seen in Holland give cyclists and pedestrians priority over cars, whether the drivers are exiting and entering the roundabout.  In this case, the cyclists also have their own separated lanes.  Obvious good design will only work as well as people let it, so without a driving culture like in Holland (which I’m doubtful any city in the US has currently) there’s going to be problems even if we emulated their designs perfectly.  Roundabouts don’t work in every situation of course, and there are still a good amount of stoplights in Holland.  Here’s a video from Mark’s blog, BicycleDutch:  

    On a similar note, I’ve noticed that compared to many European countries, the US has an obsession with putting in stop signs everywhere; for these cases they use the white triangles and so you don’t have to come to complete stop legally unless there’s traffic approaching that has the right of way.  It’s used only when necessary, such as an intersection with blind corners (I rarely saw any abroad, but also very common in the US).  Here’s another video which shows this on sidestreets in Amsterdam:
    http://schlijper.nl/120710-00-amsterdam-city-center-tour.photo 

  • Miles Bader

    @52388b1fc9cb07c785d5c81faf150e28:disqus Giving priority to pedestrians (etc) is good, but it’s also a very weak tool.  If the physical infrastructure and culture encourages speeding and dangerous driving, there will be speeding and dangerous driving.

  • Joe R.

    I think the major issue here is finding ways to allow pedestrians to safely cross without at the same time making streets unfriendly for cyclists. Stop lights don’t cut it for obvious reasons. The number of stop lights present in NYC make the streets downright hostile for cycling unless you illegally treat red lights as yields. Same thing with stop signs. As USbike said, stop signs (and traffic signals) should only be used at intersections with blind corners. If the blind corners are due to parked cars, then eliminate parking first. It’s not fashionable to say it here on Streetsblog, but the more you impede motor vehicles, the more dangerous you make things for pedestrians and cyclists because you get motorists into “war mode” with constant stop and go. You want to have generally free-flowing traffic conditions so yielding here and there to vulnerable users isn’t seen as yet another needless delay compounding the multiple delays already caused by needless stop signs and stop lights.

    The second problem is reducing the speeds of free-flowing traffic. Free-flowing traffic shouldn’t be moving at 50 mph on local roads with pedestrians and cyclists. Road design should reduce free-flowing speeds so they’re inversely proportional to pedestrian/cyclist density. You want to have free-flowing traffic going at no more than 20 mph in the densest areas. With low speeds but generally free-flowing conditions, you can still have reasonable average travel speeds of 15 mph. And pedestrians can safely cross without stoplights. Moreover, journey times are more reliable if mandatory stops are cut to the bare minimum. These same conditions (low motor vehicle speeds, very little stopping) are also good for cyclists. As a result, you might actually get a good many drivers to bike instead, further increasing pedestrian safety.

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