Denny Farrell at Uptown Ped Safety Meeting: “I Drive Everywhere”

A DOT plan for a complex intersection on 155th Street includes three major components: 1) closing a "slip lane," 2) new pedestrian islands and curb extensions, and 3) "squaring off" crosswalks. Original image: ##http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=qt4jdc8v4gdz&lvl=18.27&dir=269.97&sty=u&form=LMLTCC##Bing Maps##

The intersection of 155th Street, Edgecombe Avenue, St. Nicholas Place, and Harlem River Driveway is a busy, complex web where pedestrians jockey with turning drivers to cross wide expanses of asphalt. DOT began studying the location after a request from Council Member Robert Jackson. A final design and community board review is months away, but at a meeting two weeks ago, DOT outlined some suggested fixes. Another notable development at the meeting: The Assembly member representing the area — Herman “Denny” Farrell, the powerful chair of the Ways and Means Committee — declared that he drives everywhere in his transit-dependent district.

Crash statistics for the intersection are relatively good, compared to other major intersections in the area. “Surprisingly, for the craziness of this intersection, these numbers are pretty low,” said DOT’s Kelly Yemen. However, 26 percent of crashes involve left-turning drivers, far higher than the Manhattan average of 10 percent. “It’s just a very wide-open intersection,” she told the audience of about 20 people.

Denny Farrell in his days on the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission. He was one of two commission members to vote against congestion pricing. Photo: Aaron Naparstek

“Not surprisingly, it’s failing. We can make it fail a little bit less,” said Sean Quinn of DOT’s pedestrian projects group.

DOT has not released a copy of the presentation at that meeting or its current proposal for the intersection, despite multiple requests from Streetsblog. As explained at the meeting, the plan includes three major changes to the intersection’s layout:

  1. Closing the Edgecombe Avenue slip lane: Currently, westbound drivers on 155th Street turning south on Edgecombe Avenue use a “slip lane,” making a left turn before the intersection and cutting across a triangle-shaped sidewalk on a short, one-lane roadway next to a heavily-used bus stop. DOT would close the slip lane and eliminate this turn, cutting down on conflicts between drivers and pedestrians. The left turn from westbound 155th Street to southbound St. Nicholas Place would also be eliminated.
  2. Adding pedestrian islands and curb extensions: In addition to the new pedestrian space created by the closure of the slip lane, the southern side of the intersection would also receive a curb extension on the triangle-shaped sidewalk between Edgecombe and 155th, as well as two pedestrian islands. One pedestrian island would be located between northbound and southbound traffic on St. Nicholas Place. The second would be carved out of what is currently open asphalt, forming the edge of a new right-turn and slip lane for drivers turning from eastbound 155th to southbound St. Nicholas Place. Other corners of the intersection, including the northeast corner, would receive smaller curb extensions.
  3. “Squaring off” the intersection’s crosswalks: Some of the intersection’s crosswalks are angled, lengthening crossing distances — currently 95 feet on the intersection’s southern side — and positioning pedestrians at locations where drivers are already beginning to speed up as they come out of a turn. This adds risk for pedestrians, especially on the intersection’s west side, crossing 155th Street, and on its southern side, crossing St. Nicholas Place. Both of these crosswalks will be “squared off” so they meet the intersection’s corners at 90-degree angles.

The proposal received a generally positive reaction from the audience, with Bernadette McNear, president of the Rangel Houses Resident Association, and Barbara Williams, president of the Polo Grounds Towers Resident Association, telling DOT that many of the proposals would make it safer for people going to and from the bus stops on 155th Street.

Most of the meeting’s question and answer session was dominated by Farrell, who represents a district where, according to 2009 Census data, 74 percent of households do not own a car. Farrell began with a simple statement about how he gets around the neighborhood. “I drive everywhere,” he said.

In fairness to Farrell, who came to embody the complete disconnect between state legislators and their transit-riding constituents during the fight over congestion pricing in Albany, his windshield perspective didn’t seem to lead him to oppose this project. Noting that the intersection handles a lot of through traffic between the Bronx and the rest of Manhattan, Farrell said that he is often worried about pedestrians when he drives through the intersection from Midtown.

Farrell also asked about possible adjustments to signal timing for drivers, explaining to DOT staffers that it can take a long time for drivers to begin moving after a light turns green. DOT staff said that because the intersection handles a high volume of traffic and has five legs instead of the typical four, there was little room for major changes to traffic lights, such as a dedicated or delayed left-turn signals.

The project can be implemented in phases, starting with flexible barriers to restrict turns and channelize traffic. Other components, such as concrete pedestrian islands, would take longer. DOT staff declined to provide a timeline at the meeting.

The intersection lies at the juncture of Community Boards 9, 10, and 12, and DOT is looking to make adjustments to the plan over the coming months before presenting it to the boards.

  • Anonymous

    Man, I hate this intersection, whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car.

    You missed one of its most “delightful” features: the gas station with curb cuts feeding motor vehicle traffic straight into the crosswalk! I’ve never such a ridiculous “design” anywhere else:

    https://maps.google.com/?ll=40.830538,-73.940489&spn=0.000842,0.001009&t=h&z=20&layer=c&cbll=40.830494,-73.940386&panoid=ZKU21o3fmwCwZ3EDSgTSOw&cbp=12,190.72,,0,6.46

  • Joe R.

    It seems like a roundabout would be a perfect solution here. Traffic signals at intersections like this end up with ridiculously complex patterns, lengthy red cycles, etc. Any solution which totally avoids the need for signals is the best one.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll welcome these changes. I use Edgcombe Avenue and therefore this intersection very often as a route from the GW Bridge to points east.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds good as long as it doesn’t make it harder for pedestrians to cross. Motorists seem to think that when they are turning less than 90 degrees, they don’t need to yield to pedestrians, and roundabouts often contribute to these kinds of turns because they increase the turning radius (especially with big roundabouts). Or we may end up with monstrosities such as the intersections at the corners of Central Park, which look like a roundabouts but have so many traffic lights that it’s actually more confusing and less efficient, or you end up with places where a pedestrian has to walk half a block to find a straight stretch of road to cross without having to worry about turning cars.

    Of course, where drivers yield when required, roundabouts work like a charm.

  • Joe R.

    The way a proper roundabout (i.e. one without traffic signals) works is drivers entering the roundabout are required to yield to both vehicles already in the roundabout AND pedestrians crossing at the crosswalk. While I’m skeptical about motorists yielding to pedestrians, they will yield to other motor vehicles out of self-interest. If traffic levels in the roundabout are high enough so that motorists have to stop most of the time before entering, then pedestrians should be OK. A motorist may not yield for a pedestrian, but if they yield for motor vehicles and a pdestrian starts crossing while they’re stopped, then usually won’t try to drive right through the person crossing. At the very least a roundabout forces speeds down to ~15 mph or less, so any collisions with pedestrians aren’t likely to be fatal.

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    I find that on bike or on foot coming from the greenway/Harlem River Drive, there’s no way to cross on foot or by bike that feels remotely safe without doing it in two stages — and that’s just crossing 155th. I would probably use this as a less hilly alternate to the Hudson River Greenway to midtown at least some of the time if this was less horrendous. So, yes, these are welcome changes.

  • JK

    Denny Farrell is chair of the Ways and Means Committee and one of the most powerful players in the state assembly. He could be a very important voice for transit funding. But he isn’t.

  • Ian Turner

    That sounds pretty terrifying to me, especially crossing the lane of traffic which is exiting the roundabout (which does not have to yield to any vehicles). Has anyone tried roundabouts with speed tables?

    A quick Google revelealed this study, which suggests that roundabouts are no better for pedestrians, and are far worse for cyclists: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/intersection/resources/fhwasa09027/resources/Bicycle%20and%20Pedestrian%20Considerations%20at%20Roundabouts.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Take it with a grain of salt. How can you study roundabouts in a country where there are so few, and particularly so few that are properly designed? The author admits as much: “due to the dearth of modern roundabouts in South Florida, several observations were made at traffic circles. Also, the values for average speeds and follow-up time were observed at only one roundabout located in Boca Raton. Thus, further work is recommended to determine precisely the impact of different bicycle and pedestrian treatment at roundabouts.”

    That said, from personal experience I agree strongly with what the author says about multi-lane roundabouts. I think they should be avoided unless they are absolutely necessary. Lane changes while circling a roundabout are difficult and often lead to crashes. Mild crashes, admittedly, which typically only result in minor vehicle damage–at least when the crash is between two cars).

  • Anonymous

    I love this intersection. I don’t even know the light signals. I just wait for every car to be stopped at the light, count a full second, and then just go for it. Works every time. Nobody seems to know who should be going. I think.

  • vnm

    This is all the more welcome because the parking garage at the center-top in the aerial pic has — in a very welcome development — been replaced with affordable housing. http://www.broadwayhousing.org/housing/sugarhill/

  • vnm

    . . . which will bring more pedestrians and hopefully fewer cars to this intersection.

  • Guest

    I used to live up here and went through this intersection on one of my running routes. It has always been a mess, so I’m glad to see something is being done. More awesome work by Sean Quinn!

  • Andrew

    A roundabout at this location would undoubtedly be multilane. Look at the width of 155th Street, which feeds into a bridge.

    I share qrt145 and Ian Turner’s fears. All drivers understand that they’re supposed to stop for red lights, and while some are less cautious than others to do so, the compliance rate is pretty high. Many drivers either have no idea that they’re supposed to yield to pedestrians on any other occasion or simply don’t care. While entering a roundabout, most drivers will be watching for an opening in traffic to their left – they won’t be looking for pedestrians, and while they might see pedestrians approaching from the left, they won’t even see pedestrians approaching from the right. And while exiting, drivers don’t have to yield to anyone except pedestrians, which means that many if not most will not yield at all.

    I would have no objection to a roundabout here if a police officer were stationed here 24/7 for the sole purpose of arresting (and sending to jail) every driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian. Otherwise, no thanks.

  • Joe R.

    Remember most pedestrians are killed crossing in crosswalks with the walk signal. The yielding issues you mention are similar to the yielding issues when drivers are turning on a green light. They’re supposed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk but many don’t. In both cases, it’s a problem which could be solved with enforcement. As both a pedestrian and a cyclist, I would much rather see liberal use of roundabouts, especially where arterials meet. From a pedestrian standpoint, the vehicles are moving slow enough so that a collision generally won’t be fatal. From a cyclist standpoint, I would probably rarely need to stop or even slow down much at intersections. A bike can “sneak” into the traffic flow in a roundabout by using the far right. In fact, space specifically for bicycles can be provided in the far right.

    Remember NYC has grossly overused both traffic signals and stop signs to the point that drivers treat both casually. I’m regularly seeing motorists treat red lights by me as yields during my late night rides, for example. That’s what happens when you use traffic controls even when it’s not appropriate.

  • Ian Turner

    Joe, I think when it comes to traffic design in NYC you have to assume there will not be any enforcement.

  • Miles Bader

    I lived in the UK for about 5 years, and got the chance to experience huge numbers of roundabouts (they seem to be very popular there).

    As a pedestrian, they were pretty much universally terrifying, regardless of size. Even tiny roundabouts on 1-2 lane roads seemed to be treated by drivers as an excuse to be careless… Cars might stop upon entering, but was it was pretty much always a sort of “screech to stop, wait .1 sec, top acceleration” stop, with no sense that the driver was prepared for any conflicts. Presumably such drivers might also be careless at normal (unsignalled) intersections, but the “faster-faster” geometry of the roundabout seemed really encourage and foster the behavior.

    As a bicyclist they were nice because there was less stopping, and the gentle curves made it genuinely fun to go through them.

    So when I read these threads where people (often “enthusiast bicylists”) blather on about how great roundabouts would be, how they would make traffic more efficient without hurting pedestrians, I roll my eyes, because my experience suggests exactly the opposite: Roundabouts suck for pedestrians.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly what is a good solution for pedestrians then? Signalized intersections only work when they’re used sparingly, not every 250 feet as they are on many NYC streets. Same thing with stop signs. Overuse either then drivers will tend to treat them casually. And both are absolutely *horrible* for cyclists if used in large numbers, particularly if police enforcement is heavy enough so that you can’t take “liberties”.

    It sounds like roundabouts are only a problem if there is so much traffic that a gap long enough for pedestrians to cross rarely occurs. When traffic is light, even if vehicles fail to yield to crossing pedestrians, it’s not terribly inconvenient to wait a few seconds for a gap in traffic before crossing. If traffic is heavy and vehicles habitually fail to yield, then you need other measures, such as pedestrian tunnels, in order to cross (my understanding is these are in fact used sometimes in conjunction with roundabouts).

    Anyway, I’m not saying roundabouts are the answer everywhere, but for complex intersections like the one shown above, they’re really the only logical solution. Signalizing these types of intersections results in horribly complex, confusing signal patterns, very long waits if you happen to get stuck at a red, and generally also very long waits for pedestrians to cross unless they happen to arrive right when the walk signal starts. It frankly sucks for everyone. Roundabouts in general work fine for two out of three groups nearly all the time. They work well enough for pedestrians if traffic is light. Worst case, you may need pedestrian underpasses (which only need to be used during times of day when traffic is too heavy).

    As an addendum, signals wouldn’t suck as much if NYC stopped using dumb, timed signals. We need to install both pedestrian and vehicle detectors at every signal. Lights should remain green all the time on major arterials unless a vehicle or pedestrian is detected, in which case the light should go red only long enough for either to clear the intersection (we easily have the technology to do this at nominal cost). This gives the best of all worlds. Elderly pedestrians get a green signal for as long as they need to cross the street. When nobody is crossing traffic flows non-stop on arterials. This might discourage speeding to make lights. It will certainly result in less stress for everyone.

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