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.
Buses park and idle near the George Washington Bridge terminal
Photos: Brad Aaron