A dangerous Upper Manhattan intersection could get pedestrian safety upgrades [PDF], if three community boards can agree on a plan. Wednesday evening, DOT invited neighborhood residents and members of Community Boards 9, 10, and 12 to a meeting that resulted in some consensus, though implementation remains about a year away. As at last year’s meeting, however, the show was stolen by local Assembly Member Herman “Denny” Farrell, the powerful chair of the Ways and Means Committee, who critiqued the project from a windshield perspective.
The junction of 155th Street, Edgecombe Avenue, St. Nicholas Place, and Harlem River Driveway is a six-legged intersection with crosswalks that stretch up to 95 feet. With drivers coming from what can often feel like all directions, crossing the street is a challenge. From 2008 to 2012, there were 72 injuries at the intersection, including eight severe injuries. Three of the severe injuries were pedestrians; the remainder were motor vehicle occupants, according to DOT. In 38 percent of pedestrian crashes, the pedestrian was crossing with the signal.
Both former Council Member Robert Jackson and the 30th Precinct requested safety improvements, and DOT held site walk-throughs and meetings with the public in 2012 and 2013. DOT’s plan would add curb extensions at all six corners of the intersection and a concrete pedestrian island on the southern side of the intersection on St. Nicholas Place. It would also add up to four turn bans to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and turning drivers.
The plan presented this week is slightly different than the one presented last year, which would have prevented drivers from exiting the intersection onto southbound Edgecombe Avenue. Under that plan, the only way to access southbound Edgecombe would have been to travel north on St. Nicholas Place first. DOT said that after consultation with residents on Edgecombe Avenue and the fire department, they adjusted the plan to allow drivers to access southbound Edgecombe from the intersection.
DOT is also proposing the closure of the “slip lane” from westbound 155th Street to Edgecombe Avenue, but staff said they were willing to jettison the closure if people opposed it. A group of residents at the meeting was vehemently against the idea, and instead asked DOT to install a stop sign for drivers, which had been removed years before, as they exit the slip lane onto Edgecombe Avenue.
The left turn ban from 155th Street to St. Nicholas Place was a popular safety improvement, though many attendees were concerned that diverted traffic would clog St. Nicholas Avenue, one block west. DOT said that the avenue has sufficient capacity, and it would add a turn lane to westbound 155th Street and adjust signal timing at the intersection of 155th and St. Nicholas Avenue for the additional traffic.
St. Nicholas Place itself is also slated to receive some upgrades. The street, which has already received a road diet but lacks stop signs, traffic signals, or crosswalks, is particularly dangerous: The three blocks between 150th and 153rd Streets had 35 injuries from 2008 to 2012. The vast majority, including all six severe injuries, were to motor vehicle occupants.
“It’s basically being used as a cut-through for people trying to speed through the neighborhood,” said DOT’s Sean Quinn. The agency proposes adding three concrete pedestrian islands to this three-block stretch, as well as crosswalks at 152nd Street that will feature “yield to pedestrian” signage, but no stop signs or traffic signals.
During his comments on the plan, Assembly Member Farrell acknowledged the pedestrian safety problems with the intersection at 155th Street, but approached them primarily from the perspective of a driver. Farrell said he regularly drove through the intersection on his commute from his Riverside Drive home to his office on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
“I have no problem with you squaring off the streets a little more,” Farrell said of the crosswalk adjustments, but he urged DOT to consider leading pedestrian intervals instead of turn restrictions. DOT said that the high volume of car traffic on this multi-leg intersection leaves little room for signal adjustments without creating further traffic backups that spill over to nearby intersections. Farrell wasn’t satisfied. “I have a lot of concerns about this,” he said. “I still would like to see more work done on this.” (Farrell also expressed dissatisfaction with the protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue, which lies outside his district. “You can’t come down that street,” he told the audience.)
Much of the audience took a similar perspective as Farrell: Worried about pedestrian safety but also not very willing to achieve that goal through major changes to tame car traffic.
Danita Hammock, director of the Wilson Major Morris Community Center, offered a different view. She lives near the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue, Amsterdam Avenue, and 162nd Street, which received a major redesign a few years ago. “When they first cut it up, drivers were very angry, but pedestrians were a lot safer,” she said. “I think we have to get out of our cars and we have to do a little more walking… We have to compromise. It cannot just be driver safety. It has to be pedestrian safety as well.”
The adjustments DOT is proposing at 155th Street are not nearly as comprehensive as the changes it made at 162nd Street. The agency said that it could implement turn restrictions as soon as the three boards pass resolutions of support, but that street redesign work, including the concrete islands and curb extensions, would have to wait until next year.