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Streetscape Aesthetics vs. Pedestrian Safety

A sacrifice we were willing to make: Until 1922, much of Park Avenue was, in fact, a park. Looking north on Park Ave at about 50th Street. That's Saint Bartholomew's Church on the right.

Peter Hornbeck was killed on January 10th 2004 in a horrific hit and run crash on 96th and Park Avenue. The driver who killed him was speeding, had his license already revoked for prior speeding and the vehicle itself was stolen. The site of his death will be the memorial site for all pedestrians killed on city streets this Sunday at 1:30pm.

Last night I attended Community Board 8's Transportation Committee meeting to propose the installation of basic pedestrian protections on the Park Avenue medians. As reported in this morning's New York Sun, the idea was rejected for a variety of reasons. "Longtime neighborhood residents," the Sun reports, "said they hated to sacrifice the aesthetics of a landmark city street for a safety issue they felt was no big concern.

While I certainly don't expect Park Avenue's median to be restored to its verdant, pre-1922 width any time soon, the photo above illustrates the absurdity of pitting streetscape aesthetics against pedestrian safety. Clearly, Park Avenue was once a whole lot more beautiful and a whole lot more safe than it is today as a roaring six-lane parkway. As we've written before, there are lots of ways to make a street safer for pedestrians. Even bollards, the most basic and functional of pedestrian safety measures don't have to be ugly.

Peter Hornbeck's fiancee Rachael Myers volunteered to speak at the meeting. Rachael was walking with Peter the night that he was killed. With Rachael's permission, I thought I would share with you what she said last night since it had a deep impact on me and many other people in the room:


In an article published in the New York Times this past week on the issue of installing barriers at the Park Avenue medians, it was reported that some residents were surprised that this issue had emerged. After all, only one person was killed while crossing Park Avenue in 2003 and another in 2004.

As the girlfriend of the person killed in 2004 and a witness to the crash, I can tell you that one person is too many. What exactly are we willing to sacrifice for the "touch of Paris" look of the medians on Park Avenue? Are we willing to sacrifice two human beings?

Those of us that were close to Peter will feel that loss forever. But the loss to our community is something that we will never know and never be able to calculate. Pete spent his free time volunteering to care for homeless dogs at a local animal shelter on East 92nd street. He was an outspoken environmentalist who was returning to graduate school at Hunter so that he could teach Earth Science to high school students. We will never know how he would have touched these lives if given the opportunity. It is important to try to keep this in mind when looking at statistics and numbers and trying make a cost/benefit analysis.

Some may think that we can solve this problem through increased traffic enforcement, and that is certainly part of the solution, but police cannot be everywhere at all times. In this case, the driver's record indicates that he had little respect for police and traffic laws. He not only was driving a car that was uninsured and reported stolen, his driver's license had been revoked due to prior speeding infractions. All previous efforts by the police to get this driver off the road were ineffective. When such drivers refuse to stay off the road, our only hope is that traffic-calming measures and pedestrian-friendly street design will be in place to protect our fellow citizens.

I can assure you that even if the proposed median barriers protect only one person in the future, it will be worth it. Not only for the friends and family, but for the countless lives who are affected by just one individual; it will be worth it for the entire community.

While we failed to win Community Board support for new pedestrian protections on the Park Avenue medians last night, Rachael's statement made a difference, we got the discussion started, and this issue isn't going away. Hopefully we can make some changes happen before the next horrific headline.

Photo: New York Historical Society via Jeff Prant

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