Unwarranted Traffic Chaos in Red Hook


Not surprisingly, the opening of the popular new Fairway Market in Red Hook, has significantly increased daily motor vehicle mayhem in this formerly moribund corner of Brooklyn.

Last Thursday evening, July 6, at about 10 pm, Red Hook suffered its first-known Fairway casualty when a woman was hit by a gray minivan at the intersection of Van Brunt and Wolcott Streets. The van had just exited the Fairway parking lot five blocks away. Her name and condition has not been released, though, hospital officials say that she is alive.

For months prior to the opening of the new Fairway, Red Hook residents clamored for DOT to do something to prevent the expected traffic crush. The 16-block stretch of Van Brunt from the waterfront to Hamilton Avenue has only one traffic signal and that was installed with the opening of the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in April.

The Daily News spoke with some of the locals about the situation:

"We need a damn light," said Madigan Shive, 29, a waitress at the Hope and Anchor diner just steps from the [crash] scene.

"This neighborhood is just not ready for the traffic," she said, adding two weeks ago she saw a car strike a kid on a bicycle at the same intersection.

Red Hook Civic Association President John McGettrick has also been pressing the city for a traffic signal at Van Brunt and Wolcott Streets.

DOT refuses to install one and has chosen to wait until the Fall before doing any analysis of or planning for the traffic problems created by the new grocery store and the neighborhood’s booming development.

Agency spokesperson Kay Sarlin told the Daily News that traffic signals could not be installed on Van Brunt because the area’s traffic counts did not meet federal guidelines. She said:

There also must be a certain number of cars traveling through the area to meet federal standards for new traffic lights, she said, and added that as recently as this winter – when DOT studied the need for cars – "the traffic didn’t warrant it."

This line about adhering to federal standards is something that DOT often tells community groups when DOT does not want to do what the community is asking it to do.

The federal guideline that Sarlin is referring to is the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD.

MUTCD is just a guidline. It is not law. The manual provides a set of recommendations that municipalities around the country can choose to follow or not. Very often, these guidelines are completely irrelevant to New York City, which has a very different transportation environment than most of the rest of the sprawling, suburban United States.

But don’t take it from me. Let Michael Primeggia, DOT’s Deputy Commissioner for Traffic Operations explain it to you himself:

Below is a one-minute video clip filmed at a Union Square community meeting in October, 2005:

DOT Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia 
Running time: 1 minute. QuickTime

For some time now, community and business groups around Union Square have been pushing to make a number of improvements to the area. One of the smaller items on their list is a mid-block crosswalk connecting the north side of Union Square Park to the entrance of the Barnes & Noble on 17th Street.

In this video clip you will first see DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione telling the communty that federal guidelines prevent the city from installing a mid-block crosswalk on 17th Street, the same thing Sarlin told the Daily News.

Next, an audience member, off camera, asks whether these federal guidelines "are a legal requirement or not."

Primeggia, who rarely speaks in public, jumps in to answer the question. He says, "None of the warrants are legal requirements. They all are guidelines that we use and that we choose to follow."

Just as there is no federal rule or law preventing DOT from installing a midblock crosswalk at Union Square, there is no law preventing DOT from installing traffic signals in Red Hook. As Primeggia says, The federal standards are just "guidelines." DOT can "choose to follow" them or not.

Clearly, it is important for a big city transportation agency to have a strong set of policies and to implement them consistently. But when DOT tells New York City communities that a federal "warrant" prevents the installation of traffic signals, crosswalks, or anything else, DOT is trying to pass the buck and avoid accountability. Federal guidelines are not forcing these policies on New York City’s streets. These are policies that DOT is choosing to implement.

If you are interested in delving into this issue further, check out this fascinating 15-minute video clip in which The Open Planning Project‘s Mark Gorton, a professional engineer himself, breaks down DOT’s engineering methodology and shows how it harms New York City:

Mark Gorton on DOT’s Engineering Methodology
Running time: 15 minutes. QuickTime

(Photo: Bluesage on Flickr)

  • AD

    Kudos to Bluesage for managing to score that photograph.

    I was just at the Red Hook Fairway on Sunday to enjoy a meal out back while looking out to the bay and the Statue of Liberty. While waiting (for an hour) for the Water Taxi, I went out front to snap a few pictures for a blog post I was thinking about writing on multi-modal transportation planning. I took some photos of the well-used bike racks installed in front of the Fairway, and of the ferry dock out back (adjacent to Bob Diamond’s unused trolley connection), and of the parking lot. Parking was just one of the many modes people were using to get to the Fairway. I was preparing to write a laudatory post in favor of balanced multi-modalism.

    To round out the blog post that was forming in my mind, I thought I’d take the picture that Bluesage took above. That was until a beefy security guard comes over and says, “No pictures.” I walked three feet over onto the sidewalk, and asked, “How about now?”

    “You can do whatever you want, but no pictures of the store.”

    “Why not?”

    “It’s against the law.”

    Of course it isn’t against the law, but I decided not to mess with this guy. I also put the kibosh on ever writing anything praising Fairway.

    Transportation issued aside for a moment: The store is a fantastic adaptive reuse of what had been a marginally used if not vacant building. It is so much more pleasant to be in there than in a typical newly built big-box supermarket that you find out in the suburbs and exurbs. So what is Fairway ashamed of?

  • columbia street

    I ride my bike all the time in Red Hook, and I honestly don’t think a traffic light will work. I don’t think it would have prevented the girl from getting hit, but I don’t know for sure. What Van Brunt Street needs is a bike lane, although that won’t happen, because the street is too narrow. The next best option is a stop sign. Everyone, hopefully, will stop at a stop sign. Traffic lights usually make people drive faster to beat the light.

    Columbia St.

  • annonymous

    You really undermine the credibility of the good work you do here by featuring a video in which B/C Forgione says one thing and then in your text is quoted as saying something else. She never says that MUTCD is a requirement that DOT must adhere to. She says that DOT complies with the guidlines set forth by MUTCD. Therefore, she is not being contradicted when Mr. Primeggia answers a later question – and answers it in a way that leaves some room for flexibility in dealing with an immensely complicated tangle of conflicting street use priorities. Anyway, think about, if there is only 317 feet between corners then by adding a mid block crossing, you now have two sections of less than 150 feet each bookended by complex and unique intersections. The disruption caused at these intersections by spillback of cars stopped at the new mid-block intersection is an undesired effect that ought to be considered by mid-block crossing proponents. Compare the

  • Anon,

    I’d be curious to see the rest of your posting. I hope the WordPress system didn’t cut you off.

    I think I characterized the Forgione quote accurately. She says, “We comply with… a federal guideline.” I say that she tells the community “federal guidelines prevent the city…” Fortunately, it’s the Internet so I can fix that if people think it’s unfair.

    But I think there is a much bigger and more interesting point that your comment touches on: In lots of great cities around the world a street like 17th between Park and Bway wouldn’t even be open to regular traffic. The street would be a formal part of Union Square. It is not hard to imagine Union Square extending all the way to the front step of B&N and the relatively small amount of traffic that crosses the north side of the square making its way across town via other routes.

    The midblock crosswalk was actually a pretty small item on the community’s list of requests. A number of folks were pushing for 17th Street to be made one-way with east-bound traffic eliminated altogether. Lots of people liked the idea of pedestrianizing 17th Street but in the current transpo/land use climate no one felt it was at all realistic. So, the community ended up fighting for a midblock crosswalk.

    Some of these ideas may be good, some bad. The point is: We could be thinking a lot bigger about how we use our public space and our street space in NYC. But when DOT traffic engineers are in the room the answer always seems to be, “No.” Even for the small ideas.

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