Time to Expand DOT’s Toolbox Beyond Signs and Signals?


A Streetsblog reader reports from Lower Manhattan:

DOT is removing a series of stop signs from a five block street along the river in Battery Park City for reasons explained below. The street is lined on one side by a heavily-used waterfront park, and the other by residential apartment buildings and entrances to other parks. The area is home to many small children and seniors, who are fighting the DOT change. My instinct is to agree, but I also know that some new thinking favors fewer traffic controls. Are there any examples around the city where both approaches have been tested? (Editors note: there was this in Red Hook last summer and last fall this same issue came up in Boerum Hill)

The following is the text of a memo sent by the NYC Dept. of Transportation to concerned residents in response to their input about the changes in traffic calming measures around the northern neighborhood of Battery Park City:

To Whom It May Concern:

This is in response to your concerns regarding the intersection controls in the north neighborhood of Battery Park City. The Department of Transportation shares your concern for pedestrian and vehicular safety on the streets of Battery Park City. However, the installation of inappropriate traffic controls does not make streets safer but can, in fact, compromise safety for all.

Unwarranted stop signs create problems at both the intersection and along the roadway by:

* encouraging motorists to drive faster between intersections. Placing stop signs on very low-volume streets promotes speeding between the stop signs as drivers try to offset delays caused by stopping at every intersection;

* encouraging violation of traffic laws since as the number of stop signs increase (so that nearly every intersection has one) the rate of stop sign violations tends to increase;

* increasing the chances that drivers will disregard conflicting vehicle and pedestrian traffic, which raises the risk of collisions.

Multi-way stop signs on all approaches do not necessarily improve pedestrian safety. Pedestrians in stop sign-congested neighborhoods often have a false sense of security about crossing streets with multi-way stop signs. They can create confusion between the pedestrian and driver as to who has the right-of-way, thereby increasing the risk that one will make an improper decision.

Stop signs are never installed as a routine cure-all approach to prevent collisions at intersections. They are only installed after an engineering study determines that a need exists.

It is with this concern for traffic safety that we have made several adjustments to controls that were inappropriately installed in the past.

When the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) built and opened the streets in Battery Park City, they improperly installed intersection controls throughout the neighborhood. This included the installation of multi-way stop signs without performing standard traffic engineering studies to determine whether such controls were proper.

Last year the department was asked to meet with the BPCA to discuss their security concerns. At that time, we re-iterated (with BPCA and their traffic consultant) our objections regarding the stop signs and other intersection controls that had been improperly installed. At that meeting BPCA directed their consultant to provide the department with data and an analysis from which it could determine if the multi-way stop signs were installed properly. The data include information regarding the number of pedestrians and vehicles traveling through the intersections, the number of gaps in the traffic stream to safely accommodate pedestrian crossings and relevant crash history. Using this data, and applying the federal warrants in as broad a manner as possible, DOT along with BPCA’s consultant made the following determinations:

Ten intersections were analyzed:

* Four intersections met the warrants for stop signs and the existing signs would be upgraded and remain.

* Three intersections (River Terrace at Warren and at Murray Streets and North End Avenue at Murray Street) did not meet warrants and the stop signs would be removed.

* Three intersections met the warrants for a traffic signal and the existing stop signs would be retained until such time as the signals are installed.

It is our ongoing goal to provide for the safest streets possible citywide. In that regard we will continue to work with the BPCA to monitor conditions to ensure that all intersections are regulated appropriately.

Sincerely yours, 

Lori Ardito
Lower Manhattan Borough Commissioner

Image: Darius + Downey via Good Magazine 

  • It’s good that DOT spoke with the BPC and listened to their concerns. What I wonder is if either side ever considered that the streets should be designed to support a variety of types of activity, and that the pedestrian issues could in fact be far more important than the mobility issue for motorists.

    In this case, we have a large park and lots of apartments, with a road in-between. So is the goal of this street to move cars through, or to facilitate community activity? If a neighborhood wants people to go slowly and respect pedestrians than there are lots of ways to change the street to get that kind of behavior—through lane widths, medians, sidewalk activity, pavement treatments, etc. Changing or eliminating controls at intersections is only a small part of that equation.

    In Battery Park City, with it’s limited through-traffic and local destinations, you have a good place to try out more innovative treatments. Considering that we are talking about a street that is in between a large park and a bunch of houses, this would seem to be a great opportunity to traffic-calm through a variety of measures. Design speed on a street like this should be incredibly slow, but here the city and BPCA are only considering changing the intersections to control driver behavior. If people are speeding in between intersections, than the street should be redesigned to move cars very slowly all along. Then the “confusion” at the stop-controlled intersections would not be a problem. In fact, engineers in Europe are telling us that this confusion is exactly what heightens safety, because drivers and pedestrians have to negotiate with each other. Signals increase predictability through and makes drivers and pedestrians LESS conscious that they need to be looking out for each other at all.

  • That letter is as good an explanation as I’ve seen for the counter-intuitive notion that stop signs aren’t that helpful.

    But, a 2 point deduction for using the traffic engineer-ese “warrant.” How does “criteria” work for ya?

  • epc

    Although they removed the stop signs, they left the street markings implying that there were stop signs leading to confusion (this is as of two weeks ago, so they may have ground off the paint by now).

  • “They can create confusion between the pedestrian and driver as to who has the right-of-way, thereby increasing the risk that one will make an improper decision.”

    Given the laws of the city and the physical universe, it is only the driver that can be at fault in this scenario. Running down a walking person after a stop sign means either the driver didn’t stop, or didn’t see a pedestrian who had already begun to cross. I can’t walk fast enough to put my body in front of a car that’s already in the intersection, yet daily I’m cut off by (confused?) cars blowing through stop signs between Washington Sq. and Broadway.

    Of course the signs don’t work as well when drivers ignore them, but capitulating to scofflaws is no answer. (And how useless are those crosswalks with no stop sign or signal up against wilfully accelerating SUVs?) It would make more sense to entirely close these low-traffic streets to cars until they can be made to slow down and allow the streets’ living and breathing majority users to cross. Faced with that happy alternative, I’m sure the automobile interests would find a way to comply.

  • MLR

    Might it matter that in Europe they actually have laws that make motorists responsible for hitting pedestrians? Morningside Drive in northern Manhattan is an uncontrolled, two-way, two lane street. Motorists drive 40plus and will not yield. There is no “negotiation.” The motorists assume right of way and drive straight at you. They do not care if you wave your arms, cross with kids in groups and are firmly established in the unmarked crosswalk. They drive right at you and fast. The number of ped crashes is probably low because pedestrians are scared and scurry across in survival mode. Safe? Maybe. A nice place to walk? No way. Safety does not equal a nice walking environment. Traffic calming does.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I think MLR hits the nail on the head. The “removal of signs” strategy only helps if it’s interpreted by motorists as a sign of caution and a signal to negotiate.

    Here in Western Queens there are tons of intersections with no crosswalks and only stop signs on the side streets. I’m not 100% sure on the legalities, but I think in the past that was legally interpreted to mean that pedestrians had NO right to cross the street.

    Under the letter of the current traffic laws (as far as I can tell), it means that drivers are required to yield to pedestrians, but the drivers clearly aren’t aware of that fact. There are no signs and no enforcement, and the result (as before) is that pedestrians cross in perpetual fear of drivers. In rush hours it can be several minutes before it is clear to cross. I once requested a “Yield to pedestrians” sign on my old corner, and DOT engineers came and did a study and told me it wasn’t “warranted.”

    Four-way stop signs are a marginal improvement (because of the chronic “California stop”), but still an improvement. If the DOT is removing the stop signs from those intersections, they need to put in traffic calming devices like neckdowns and raised intersections, or the drivers will assume they can blow through the intersections and the pedestrians will be at their mercy.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    In the last paragraph of my post above, that should be “raised crosswalks,” not “raised intersections.”

  • Comentz

    I had some suspicion that DOT purposely did not apply crosswalks throughout the City. For example, an intersection west of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, controlled by a stop sign, lacked a crosswalk for many years during which pedestrians had to snake between parked trucks to get to the sidewalk south of the roadway.

  • Comentz

    Design+Enforcement is the salvation as educating selfish drivers is futile. Driving in European cities is a special experience as respect to everyone around you begins at the driver’s seat.

    Call me crazy but reducing the speed limit to 20mph throughout the city could also be considered. I test the idea whenever I am behind the wheel and like the feeling unlike those drivers anxious to pass me (and get behind stopped cars ahead). At slower speeds my response time is better as there is an inherent connection to vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

  • crzwdjk

    Stop signs aren’t always helpful. Four way stops can be more dangerous for pedestrians, depending on the volume and type of traffic. If there is one car and one pedestrian, then yes, negotiation happens, and the pedestrian has an opportunity to cross safely. But if the driver is busy negotiating with three other cars as to who goes first, pedestrians are easily forgotten, and so the situation becomes potentially more dangerous. And a pedestrian is no less dead for being right.

    As for regular crosswalks, unprotected by a stop sign or traffic light, I personally think NYC has a problem with those, with drivers never stopping. Most other states will put out signs that say something along the lines of “STATE LAW STOP FOR PEDS IN XING”, which I’ve seen in a few other states but never in NYC. In California, there are even crosswalks pedestrian-activated flashing yellow lights embedded in the road.

  • lee

    At North End and Murray St. since it is a multi-way stop the threshhold for placing a stop sign would be either 300 vehicles per hour for an 8 hour period, or a combination of at least 200 vehicles, peds, bicycles, for an 8 hour period.

    since DOT saw fit to remove the stop sign I would not expect so many instances of cars bearing down on pedestrians or it taking minutes to find clear crossing of the street because there are so few cars. nevertheless some of those Yield to Pedestrians signs in Section 2B.11 would be nice.

    removal of the signs at River Terrace and Warren and Murray worry me a little more as it would seem to create an opportunity for speeding on the street. but the street is already pretty narrow, and it is one way which, although conducive to faster speeds, means peds only have to worry about one direction of traffic when crossing. Again volume should be so low that it won;t be a problem. Whenever I’ve spend time in the area it seemed like there gaps in traffic of at least a minute.

    As far as ped/vehicle confusion or conflict at a stop sign goes, I think the confusion argument is bunk. One problem is that at many stop signs, and especially when turning, a car must stop twice. Once at the stop line to let pedestrians cross, and then again after creeping into the intersection to see around the cars parked on the corner to see if traffic is coming.

    saying selfish drivers are the problem doesnt really help. it seems to me that everyone using the roads is selfish. from the motorists who speed up to turn between crossing peds, to the pedestrians who insist on crossing against the light in the face of a turning phase to the cyclist riding in the middle lane of Atlantic ave with his crack showing.

    there should be no such thing as an unmarked croswalk. Either mark them all or only permit crossing where the crosswalk is marked.

    as much as the european conception of driving is different than the american so is european pedestrian behavior.
    we should all follow the rules.

  • Walk Firster

    Sorry Lee

    Asking pedestrians to obey traffic signals designed to facilitate the flow of motor vehicles is not fair or sensible. On low traffic side streets no pedestrian in their right mind is going to wait for the walk signal when no vehicles are present. It’s because the rules do not make sense for pedestrians, not because everyone on foot is
    an impatient jerk. The RPA Spotlight had a good piece about how little sense it made for pedestrians to have to take off their iPod at every street crossing (20x a mile or once every 45 seconds.) The same is true of stopping for every DONT WALK sign when no cars are there.

  • lee

    Why isn’t it fair? are walk/don’t walk signals primarily for vehicular movement or pedestrian safety? Isn’t it a little of both? All movements must have some regulation if we really want safe streets.
    what rules, if any, should pedestrians have to obey?
    In reality i don’t expect pedestrians will, or should be made to wait at a corner when there are no cars in sight. (Although it seems to happen all over the world with no problem.)
    But I didn’t identify people crossing desolate intersections as a problem. The problem is when there are a lot of cars and a lot of pedestrians at the same intersection. And in such case its best for all to follow the rules and not accelerate through a yellow light, run a red make an illegal turn, or cross against the don’t walk.

    and waiting 45-60 seconds at an intersection for your turn to cross is not at all comparable to the ipod legislation which everyone realizes was ridiculous on its face.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Crzwdjk wrote:

    As for regular crosswalks, unprotected by a stop sign or traffic light, I personally think NYC has a problem with those, with drivers never stopping. Most other states will put out signs that say something along the lines of “STATE LAW STOP FOR PEDS IN XING”, which I’ve seen in a few other states but never in NYC.

    It was a big awakening for me, back in 1987, to see those signs in Great Barrington, MA, and to discover that the drivers actually stopped, and waited. For years I wished New York would adopt a law like that – anyone remember the signs that said “YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS IN YOUR PART OF ROAD“?

    It was another big awakening when New York actually adopted a law like that in 2003 – and there was no publicity, no education campaign, no additional signage, just business as usual.

    I’ve seen signs like Lee mentions in some towns upstate – I think Tarrytown has a couple. But not in NYC.

  • “what rules, if any, should pedestrians have to obey?
    In reality i don’t expect pedestrians will, or should be made to wait at a corner when there are no cars in sight.”

    So this is mostly about crossing against a don’t walk in a green left turning phase? (Otherwise, when do pedestrians commonly, illegaly hold up drivers?) A good bad example is the south side of the Houston/Broadway intersection. Basically no one is obeying any laws, nor is anyone happy. I’ve found it’s safest to jaunt across the street after the last southbound car passes, so yes against the don’t walk sign and theoretically during the left turning phase, but I’m across long before the turning cars have time to get there. I do this because inevitably cars will continue to turn left after the turning phase and block eastbound traffic to play chicken with pedestrians who DO have a brief walk sign, a stressful and easily deadly situation. Moments prior, walkers unfamiliar with the intersection will have dawdled across following those who dart, blocking the legitimately left turning cars.

    With intersections as broken as Houston/Broadway is (and has been since before Houston’s gutting), the greatest fault lies neither with the law breaking pedestrians nor the law breaking drivers but the DOT that has allowed the deadly situation to fester for years (decades?). Giving the multitudes of pedestrians a safe 30 seconds to cross first, as a group and with no turning cars from any direction, would be better for all parties than the current everyone-vs-everyone gridlock.


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