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Alan Gerson

Rally for a Livable Houston Street

11:29 AM EDT on August 31, 2006

(Photo by Will Sherman of Transportation Alternatives)

As promised, members of Manhattan Community Board 2 and Transportation Alternatives held a rally yesterday where many elected officials spoke of the need for improved bicycling and pedestrian facilities on the Interstate Highway in our midst, Houston Street. Eighty years ago, Houston Street was a narrow street not much wider than Prince or Bleecker Streets are today. Since Robert Moses-era widening and reconfiguration, many pedestrians needing two traffic light cycles to cross have sought refuge on an eight-foot median as six or eight lanes worth of cars zoom by. Today, those refuge islands are being reduced in size in an effort to accommodate even more traffic and cyclists are being killed on Houston Street at a rate of about one every six months.

Streetfilms brings you video footage of the rally, including these words from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer:

Everybody who lives in this community knows Houston Street is a highway to hell. It's the death street. Children know it. Seniors know it, and tragically, cyclists know it. We do not need another Queens Boulevard in Manhattan. ... So as Borough President, I will tell you that the No. 1 issue facing Manhattan is traffic congestion, and pedestrian safety. This is a wake-up call to the city. If we don't do something proactive, we're going to have more people die under the crush of large vehicles, and that is totally unacceptable to the people who live in this community, and the people who live in this city, and I'm very pleased to join with this great coalition, and I'm looking forward to participating in a human chain that will make it very clear to the planners that this can be accomplished.

The video also features pointed remarks by State Senator Martin Connor, Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick (at lectern above), Councilman Alan Gerson, Philip Mouquinho of Community Board 2 and Kate Mikuliak representing Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.

To vividly demonstrate what's happening on Houston Street, another Streetfilm looks at the corner of Houston and Broadway, with footage that shows why it makes no sense to remove median space to encourage traffic. Community activist Charle-John Caffero, notes that most of the economic activity generated on Houston Street is from pedestrians, and explains how eight feet of pedestrian refuge island will be reduced,

Leaving pedestrians, which are the majority of street users here, having no space to stand or being able to cross Houston Street because the timing of the light is so short. They inevitably get caught on this pedestrian haven, which at least gives them a little protection. That protection is going to be taken away by DOT.

Mark Gorton of the Open Planning Project, explains a broad result of the creation of the left-hand turning bays:

They think Houston needs more traffic? It needs a lot less! I mean, they're just encouraging more driving.

One block south of Houston Street, Prince Street's one traffic lane and two parking lanes create a vastly different experience. Houston Street was originally laid out to be as wide as Prince Street, but was expanded to its present Interstate Highway width and feel relatively recently. As the New York Times explained in a 2004 article:

Houston's plainness stems from the 1930's, when it was widened to accommodate the digging of the IND subway line, and from the 1960's, when it was laid with a daunting eight lanes of traffic. Until these developments, Houston was just another pleasant crosstown street, the width of a Prince or a Bleecker. In an eerie set of photographs taken in 1929 to record pre-demolished Houston, a girl is shown stepping into shadow, toying with her hair, crossing the street casually near Mercer, the same way a girl might nowadays cross, say, West Broadway.

Contrast that image with the images in the film of clusters of people huddling together on an eight-foot median to avoid being hit by heavy, fast traffic.

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