In the Heights: City Aims to Make 181st a Complete Street

Buses and trucks jockey for position on 181st Street in Washington Heights

Less parking; safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists; fewer buses; improved traffic enforcement; designated commercial loading zones; control over street vendors; more parking.

Those were among the top suggestions offered to DOT staff and consultants last Thursday at a forum for planned improvements to 181st Street — one of 14 city corridors chosen for an overhaul under the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ). And 181 is indeed ripe for a revamp, as attested to by the roughly 35 Northern Manhattanites who made it to Community Board 12 headquarters in Washington Heights for the first in a year-long series of project meetings.

The Heights’ main drag is victim to a confluence of congestion-inducing conditions: it connects directly to the Bronx via the (free) Washington Bridge to the east, and indirectly to New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge to the west; it’s part of a local truck route; five bus lines run along most of its length. The street is also a commercial corridor without loading zones, where vendors and space-hogging retailers obstruct pedestrian traffic that flows at a volume rivaling some areas of Midtown.

Street vendors and retailers dominate the sidewalks

Here are some common complaints cited by residents at the forum:

  • Untenable conditions for pedestrians, including short walk signal times and intersections where drivers do not yield the right-of-way
  • Crowded sidewalks caused by street vendors and other clutter
  • Inordinate number of buses, many of which use 181 and nearby streets as staging areas
  • Rampant double parking
  • NYPD: reckless driving by police; lack of enforcement of double parking and other traffic violations; illegal parking by officers around the 34th Precinct station house two blocks to the north

And here are (often overlapping or conflicting) suggestions for improvement:

  • Remove all on-street parking east of Broadway and replace with loading zones
  • Eliminate private on-street parking between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.; have businesses validate for garage parking
  • Remove all parking from 181 and replace with muni-metered loading zones
  • Tow double-parked vehicles
  • Institute a shuttle bus or trolley route to the Bronx
  • Adjust bus routes to reduce bus congestion
  • Daylight corners and add turn lanes
  • Remove newsstands on "tight corners"
  • Install red light cameras
  • Make the street safer for cyclists

DOT’s stated intention is to make 181 a complete street, and while residents on hand seemed sympathetic to pedestrian and cyclist issues, the buck clearly stopped with residential parking. A common refrain was that there is not enough vehicle storage in Washington Heights, and that no residential on-street spaces should be sacrificed, even to improve traffic flow. This sentiment is likely to carry a lot of weight with CB 12, which will judge DOT’s ultimate proposal in December.

Staffers said they were expecting about 100 people at this forum, so there will probably be plenty of room for way-uptown livable streets advocates at the next one (date TBD). There will also be a 181st Street "walk-through" in the near future, with DOT, consultants and residents touring the corridor together. Streetsblog will keep you posted.

Buses park and idle near the George Washington Bridge terminal

Photos: Brad Aaron

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Here’s my take on it as a former resident of the area. If you look at the corridor on the Bronx bus map, you’ll find that there are five bus routes that run from the George Washington Bridge bus terminal down 181st Street and across the Washington Bridge to the Bronx. These are critical in connecting the Dominican neighborhoods in the Bronx with the center of the Dominican community in Washington Heights. Go to the bridge on any day and you’ll see heavy pedestrian traffic across it for the same reason.

    I used to take the Bx36 fairly frequently, and it always took twice as long to get across those few blocks of 181st Street as to get from Amsterdam Avenue to the Grand Concourse. I had plenty of time to observe the various causes of delays. The rampant double-parking was the main cause of problems.

    At a minimum, dedicated loading zones would be a big improvement. Shoupian market-rate parking fees would make a huge improvement. Bus bulbs would also help. And before you say that we can’t charge market parking rates to the poor Dominicans, keep in mind that as in most cases in NYC, the number of parking shoppers was tiny compared to the number who came on foot, by bus and by subway.

    If the DOT does remove all parking on the street, they should not devote the space to more cars, but to dedicated, separated busways.

    With regard to the idling buses, the main problem is that the GWB Port Authority Bus Terminal only faces west, and there’s no integration. There is a large number of buses that go west to New Jersey, and many of them serve similar populations in places like North Bergen and Paterson. Imagine if things weren’t so balkanized and the MTA could run through buses from Yankee Stadium to Englewood, from Kingsbridge to Paterson, from West Farms to Hackensack?

    My wife works in the Bronx, and at one point we considered living in someplace like Fairview, and she would have taken buses to work. There were two concerns: the unreliability of the MTA-private van connections, and the slog through 181st Street. We’re glad we wound up in Queens, but if the DOT can make buses run fast on 181st, they’d have a lot of happy people on their hands.

  • jd

    ah, the mess that is 181. As a longtime heights resident (and pedestrian) and only a relatively recent driver, I try to avoid 181 at all costs. Also, it is really more than just 181 that has problems: Broadway and St. Nick as well as 179 an 178 (the actual approach and exit streets from the GWB) all have serious issues. Frankly, I imagine any solution will be quite painful for some.

  • jd

    ah, the mess that is 181. As a longtime heights resident (and pedestrian) and only a relatively recent driver, I try to avoid 181 at all costs. One thing to realize is that it is not just 181. Any changes have to be made considering B’way, St. Nick, 178 and 179 (the latter 2 are the exit/approach street to the GWB) and other streets as well.

    Here are some thoughts:

    the buses: the buses are a real pain mostly because they have to turn around on what are very crowded streets. Pedestrians stream across during greens, buses cant turn and then block travel lanes, especially as they often try to turn right from the left lane due to double parking. Fixing this will depend on changing the bus routes, bus timing, light timing (dedicated time for cars and dedicated time for peds — like that will ever work in NYC, right), turn lanes (streets are not wide enough), etc. Routewise, a solution may be to have the buses use the GWB bus terminal and make no street stops at all till the Bronx. Alternatively, terminate at Amsterdam and dont come as far as Broadway.

    parking: parking is pretty bad in the neighborhood, but this is moreso at night. Daytime parking restrictions on 181 may make sense. Also, take some spots from the cops, maybe. If this is not gonna happen, at least change the restrictions to have police parking only 7am-7pm. No reason neighborhood residents shouldnt use the spots at night when they are underutilized. Maybe this can be a carrot to removing spots on 181 itself.

    double parking, blocking the box: enforce this. ticket like crazy. The whole neighborhood gridlocks near the bridge at times.

  • Hilary

    Does anyone think that keeping the entrance to the parkway closed could improve 181st Street as a bus/pedestrian/commercially vital corridor? This would allow there to turn the lane between the wall that collapsed and the lanes of parkway traffic to be restored as a buffer. Vibration and lack of water filtration may well have contributed to the wall’s failure. In any case, they’ve been surviving without this entrance for 2 years. Do they need it? Could life in the neighborhood be better without it? Just throwing it out there..

  • eLK

    As the only cyclist at this meeting I’d like to encourage any others to attend future meetings. The DOT was very responsive to my comments and not so with the “we need more parking” crowd.

    181 is very much a free-for-all. No look u-turns, double parking, driving in the opposite lane, double parking in the bicycle lane on Ft Washington, car service cars parked at fire hydrants. There’s no turn over of parking anywhere in the neighborhood.

    The newly reopened entrance to the Henry Hudson is not great. Northbound cars are often in the southbound lane (which I use), exacerbated by double parked vehicles in front of the buildings on Riverside Dr.

  • upstate manhattan

    If cycling is on the agenda, than Bennett Avenue deserves discussion in addition to 181st. Bennett runs parallel to Broadway (b/w 181st & Inwood), which often seems like a drag-strip in that stretch. Consequently Bennett is used as a calmer alternative to Broadway by many (most?) cyclists traveling between 181st and Inwood, both in the direction of traffic (southbound) or against. As it stands, this is a hazardous situation for all street users.

    Compounding the problem, Bennett has no signals or stop-signs between Broadway (@ Hillside/Nagel Aves, roughly where 194th would be) and 187th. Many drivers speed up this stretch of Bennett to avoid the lights (and double parking, etc.) on Broadway, leading to many near collisions.

    These factors lead me to think that Bennett would be an excellent candidate for a traffic calming / livable streets initiative. Bennett is an almost exclusively residential street with no value as a thoroughfare, as Broadway is right adjacent. Furthermore, portions of Bennett are already closed to through traffic during potions of the school day to allow students from two religious schools to play. A dutch-style shared street would be perfect here!

  • Jonathan

    (Posting from my temporary home in New Mexico, where auto traffic on the main street is limited to 15 mph) I fondly remember driving east on 181st one weekend morning around 5 am, and seeing three young women get in a fight while boarding a triple-parked taxi.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that a busway along the middle of 181st would be the best thing; it would speed up the buses and keep them from blocking the box because the curbside bus stops are full of illegally standing vehicles.

  • I don’t know where you are, Jonathan, but I lived in New Mexico for two years and I don’t think they’ve built a livable street since they got statehood in 1912.

    Is there enough room in the middle of 181st Street for a busway – with boarding areas? I like busways, but I don’t know what you’d have to do to fit one into that street. Bus bulbs would be a big help, though.

  • Carolyn Konheim

    About a month ago, Brian Ketch am sent the Mayor a copy of a 2003 study that Konheim & Ketcham did with Michael King, traffic calming pioneer, for the Manhattan Borough President that produced a detailed block by block action plum, which was widely supported by CB 12, businesses and agencies. since there was no follow up funding, Transportation Alternatives was planning to build it into their work. We’re trying to post it–it is chock a block with good ideas and solutions that encompass the feeder routes to 181st Street.

  • Jennifer

    I wish they’d close the northbound entrance to the Henry Hudson. They just reopened it a month ago after the wall collapse was finally repaired. I fear for my life and for my child’s life and my dog’s life as I live in the building near the entrance. People now turn onto Riverside Drive from 181st and it’s like a racing straightaway/speedway. It’s scary and many people have had close brushes with the cars. I feel like things were less congested on 181 west of broadway while the entrance was closed. And I certainly felt a lot safer.

    Control over street vendors and double parking would be the BIGGEST help of all east of Broadway. Right now, I never go on 181st east or Broadway because I can’t get anywhere in a car–even on foot it’s tough!

  • Eliza

    I live right there too (181 and Riverside) and I agree about the entrance to the HH Parkway being super dangerous. A speed bump or two would really help but I think they won’t do it because of the grade of the hill. There’s already a stop sign but people completely ignore it. Could there be a traffic light put in?

    As for the rest of 181st… it’s a complete nightmare. Loading zones would probably help. The car service cars are the worst for double parking.

  • Liz

    i don’t know what you all are talking about in terms of traffic on 181st street. traffic flows smoothly and not a blocked-box in sight. oh, wait a sec, i forgot: it was only like that during the four-day transit strike in december ’05. hmmm… i guess that means that buses really ARE the problem, huh?

    lack of enforcement also is another huge contributor to the problem, but it’s not just double-parked cars on 181; it’s also the complete absence of traffic control at the GWB, esp during rush hour. seems odd, given that there are more cars crossing the GWB than any other bridge/tunnel into/out-of manhattan, and yet they all have TEAs (traffic enforcement agents). i wonder why that is…?

  • northern Manhattanite

    Liz, You must be joking that buses are the problem. If you imagine each of their riders in a personal car, you see that buses (and their riders) are the solution we’ve been waiting for. Clear the road for them and do what’s necessary to make them compatible with pedestrians that are also a heavy and wanted presence on 181st Street.
    (Forgive me if you were joking. It’s hard to tell.)

  • Louis

    As far as MTA buses using the GWB, the MTA has asked for this, but Port Authority already has all of the slots filled, with private bus companies (and NJTransit) that pay more.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I think it’s fair to say that the buses contribute to congestion, but their value in transporting relatively large numbers of people makes it worth it. A car double-parked so that one person can run into a store contributes just as much to congestion and delivers only a tiny bit of value.

    The solution: Discourage the low-value uses and let the high-value uses dominate.

    Louis, thanks for the info about the bus terminal. If that’s true, then the solution is through-running: have some of the MTA buses turn around in Fort Lee or further west, and have some of the NJ buses turn around in the Bronx, freeing up slots.

  • eLK

    This morning I observed a SUV using the I95 exit onto Haven taking a left on 181 then a right on Riverside and continuing onto the Henry Hudson northbound. The guy barely slowed.

    This “shortcut” should be closed.


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