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DOT Puts Big Changes on the Table for 181st Street

One option for 181st Street would create a two-way, separated transit mall. Image: NYC DOT.
One option for 181st Street would create a two-way, separated transit mall. Image: NYC DOT.

Following a series of public workshops going back to 2008, DOT has put forward some big plans for Manhattan's traffic-clogged 181st Street. Over the next few months, the department will choose one of three options to ease traffic and improve safety on the street. While every option offers some significant benefits for Washington Heights pedestrians, one keeps traffic patterns largely unchanged while the other two would truly transform the corridor.

At a public meeting on the project held last night, the testimony tended to support only the smallest changes and raise concerns about the effects of prioritizing transit or cycling on the area's motorists. But Upper Manhattan residents who want to see significant improvements for walking, biking, and transit seem to have an ally in local Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who called on the community to embrace big changes.

181st Street needs a reboot. With one lane in each direction, it is clogged with traffic between the un-tolled Washington Bridge to the east and the George Washington Bridge to the west. Five bus lines carry riders to and from the Bronx, two subway stations disgorge straphangers, and the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians on the busy commercial strip. The street lacks loading zones, making double-parking a constant problem. And the only entrance to the Hudson River Greenway for blocks is at 181st Street.

On the four blocks between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, the differences in how DOT's three options balance all these demands are substantial. (You can see the details in this PDF from June; the designs haven't changed since then.) Alternative 1 only makes small changes to the status quo, most prominently by adding left turn lanes along 181st. In addition, medians in a few locations and restricted turning regulations would significantly improve pedestrian safety at the most dangerous locations, according to Atma Sookram, a consultant working on the project.

In contrast, the other two choices prioritize the majority of residents who don't drive.

Alternative 2 would create a two-way, protected transit mall along this stretch, with raised medians serving as bus stops. Car traffic would be reduced from two-way to one-way westbound to make room for the buses. Because the transit mall is short, explained Sookram, the benefit to transit riders would be more in reliability than in speed. "It's just not very long," he said, "so there's only so fast they can go."

In Alternative 3, buses are given a single unprotected westbound lane, a buffered bike lane is included, and the sidewalks are widened by around a foot and a half (more at intersections). Both Alternatives 2 and 3 include the safety improvements in Alternative 1 as well.

Alternative 3. Image: NYC DOT
Alternative 3. Image: NYC DOT

West of Broadway, 181st Street narrows and the buses have completed their routes, so DOT offered less dramatic changes. Every alternative would look the same along that stretch, with some new turn lanes and a curb extension. Additionally, every alternative would replace some metered parking with loading zones -- which should help with deliveries and reduce double-parking -- and stripe a southbound bike lane on Fort Washington Avenue between 183rd and 181st.

DOT is still in the process of deciding which plan to implement, though a final report is expected in March, according to Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione. "We will not proceed with anything without community support," she announced at the beginning of the meeting.

Many speakers at last night's meeting were hesitant to disrupt vehicle traffic at all. "The two alternatives where cars have to go eastbound on alternative streets, in my view, sadly are non-starters" said a former chair of Community Board 12. "These one-way things scare the heck out of me."

An aide for powerful Assembly Member Denny Farrell also preferred Alternative 1, worrying about displaced traffic.

An important counterweight to those arguments came from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who spoke eloquently in favor of thinking big. "We have to make a certain level of radical change in how traffic is organized in that area," said Rodriguez. "I call for everyone in the whole community to understand that all of us sometimes have to sacrifice something." Rodriguez didn't specifically mention any of the alternatives, however.

As is typical at CB 12, which has scuttled plans for a greenmarket over concerns about the temporary unavailability of vehicle storage, parking also emerged as a flashpoint. The owner of a barbershop on 181st Street rose at one point to claim that if parking were removed from the street, 40 percent of businesses would close. In response, Forgione firmly explained that this was a common belief across the city, but that "sometimes we do surveys and what we find is that a very high percentage of the customers walk or come by public transportation." She promised to work on the issue with the local BID, which also expressed concerns about losing parking.

Each of the alternatives eliminates some of the 183 parking spaces currently along the corridor. Alternative 3 actually removes the least parking, while Alternative 2 removes the most.

One thing that everyone in the room could agree on is that doing nothing is not an option. "It's not acceptable the way it is and it's only going to get worse," said Forgione. "We need to keep a little momentum with this." Rodriguez repeatedly said that he wanted to see a new 181st Street included in the city's 2011-2012 capital plan, which would require swift action.

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