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DOT Chooses Least Ambitious Option For 181st Street Makeover

6:02 PM EDT on June 13, 2011

With five bus lines, two subway stops, a busy commercial strip, the only entrance to the Hudson River Greenway for blocks, and major bridge crossings at both ends of the street, Washington Heights' 181st Street is a tangle of cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians. For years, DOT has been looking to redesign the corridor entirely, with the goal of finding a way to serve all those different needs.

In a plan presented to the local community board last Monday [PDF], DOT finally came out with its proposal for the street. With a slew of pedestrian safety improvements and a bus-only lane designated for the evening rush hour, the plan should be a major improvement for the neighborhood, but like other recent redesigns on 34th Street and First and Second Avenues, it's far less ambitious than what could have been.

As recently as last fall, DOT was considering a protected bus lane for this project. Local elected leadership seemed split. At a presentation on the project to Community Board 12, an aide to Denny Farrell conveyed the Assembly member's opposition to a major reconfiguration, while local City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez seemed open to the ambitious reallocation of space, telling CB12, "We have to make a certain level of radical change in how traffic is organized in that area." The changes on the table now are positive, but not radical improvements.

Currently, 181st Street has two travel lanes and a parking lane in each direction on the wider blocks east of Broadway, narrowing to a single travel lane and parking lane on the blocks west of Broadway. The proposed changes mostly focus on the eastern section, as no buses continue on to the narrower section.

Under the proposed design, pedestrians will be safer thanks to a curb extension at the intersection of 181st and Haven Avenue, leading pedestrian intervals where 181st meets Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue, and, if the community board wants them, pedestrian refuge islands at St. Nicholas Avenue. Longer-term plans to extend the sidewalks at St. Nicholas and Amsterdam Avenues would calm traffic further.

For bus riders, the curbside parking on the south side of 181st Street would be replaced with a dedicated eastbound bus lane from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., improving reliability by clearing the way for Bronx-bound buses at the very beginning of their routes. On the block between Audobon and Amsterdam Avenues, which a DOT spokesperson said was where buses suffered the biggest delays from congestion, the bus lane would be in effect from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The entire project is part of DOT's Congested Corridors program, and the plan includes left-turn bays to help traffic move more smoothly. Curb parking will be replaced with loading zones during designated times, intended to minimize the rampant double parking along 181st. By keeping the through lanes clear, said the DOT spokesperson, these features will also keep buses moving smoothly.

Finally, the plan calls for a few new safety features on north/south streets intersecting 181st, including a southbound bike lane on Fort Washington between 183rd and 181st Streets and a traffic-calming center median on St. Nicholas between 183rd and 179th.

That's a fair number of changes to a stretch barely over half a mile long, but it's much less than what was on the table in October. One option, for example, would have built New York City's first physically separated bus lanes on 181st. With one in each direction and a raised bus stop mid-street, that plan would have provided one fewer traffic lane and one fewer parking lane than the current plan, but done much more for transit riders.

Another option was an approach that would have made 181st a real multi-modal street. With large sidewalk extensions on the whole corridor, a buffered bike lane and a bus lane, this discarded option would have redistributed space from drivers to every other user of the street.

One reason DOT trimmed its sails was the decision to maintain two-way automobile traffic along 181st. In addition to Farrell's aide, a former chair of CB 12 and several other local residents expressed opposition to a one-way street in October, and the DOT spokesperson confirmed that the department acceded to that request. Council Member Rodriguez did not respond to Streetsblog's request to comment for this story.

There were also technical problems with the more ambitious options, he said. In the protected busway scenario, buses would have difficulty turning into a physically separated busway, the spokesperson said, while in the multi-modal proposal, cars cutting across the unprotected bus lane to park would slow buses. Given the success of offset bus lanes on First and Second Avenues, however, at least the second objection seems easily overcome.

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