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Deadly Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park Poised to Get Life-Saving Road Diet

It's hard to imagine a street in more dire need of a safety upgrade than Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Lined with schools, senior centers, subway stations, churches and stores -- and situated in one of the city's top walk-to-work neighborhoods -- the street is a magnet for pedestrians of all ages. It's also a speedway for motorists. Now it looks like this part of Fourth Avenue will get a safety-minded makeover as soon as this fall.

Image: NYC DOT

With six lanes of moving traffic, plus left-turn bays, Fourth Avenue is wide and dangerous to cross. From 2006 to 2011, seven people were killed while walking on the stretch between 65th Street and 15th Street. Dozens more were seriously injured. Pressure to reduce the death toll has been mounting in recent years, and Borough President Marty Markowitz's Fourth Avenue Task Force has helped raise the profile of the street's shortcomings and its potential.

Earlier this week, NYC DOT staff presented a package of safety improvements [PDF] for this two-and-a-half mile section to Brooklyn Community Board 7's Fourth Avenue working group. The recommendations would essentially slim the street down from six lanes to four lanes and add pedestrian space in the median using low-cost materials like paint, epoxy, and gravel.

DOT has been holding workshops on Fourth Avenue with CB 7 and local organizations since last year, and the recommendations were well-received by the working group. "These workshops with the DOT have been very good, and they've listened to us," said CB 7 chair Fred Xuereb.

Currently, outside of rush hour, most motorists speed on the wide expanse of Fourth Avenue, and in the evening the figure is as high as 80 percent of southbound drivers, according to DOT. By expanding medians (some of which are now only a meager two-feet wide), adding left turn restrictions and slimming down the right-of-way for traffic, the project would shorten crossing distances, reduce conflicts between pedestrians and motorists, and at least partially remedy the street's out-of-control speeding problem.

The added space for pedestrians comes from converting the 17-foot wide combined parking-and-traffic lanes to 13-foot wide parking lanes. Interestingly, DOT staff said this wide parking lane, an increasingly common design feature, will serve as a de facto safety enhancement for cycling, providing a modicum of space to ride between moving traffic and parked cars. One or two locations on the corridor could also see dedicated pedestrian space extended all the way through the intersection, similar to the new plaza spaces on Allen Street in the Lower East Side, though the sites haven't been selected yet. (The intersection of 25th Street was a candidate but Greenwood Cemetery objected on the grounds that it would interfere with funeral processions.)

The road diet would be compromised during morning commute hours, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., when the northbound side of the street would retain three traffic lanes from 38th Street to 17th Street. That segment sees cut-through commuter traffic as drivers shunt onto Fourth Avenue from the BQE before entering the Prospect Expressway. After the morning rush, the curb lane will revert back to parking.

Only one board member, Tom Murphy, took issue with the plan, arguing that Fourth Avenue should keep six lanes of traffic to serve as a release valve for the BQE and Gowanus Expressway. No one else seemed to share the sentiment.

"This is something that we've been trying to have happen in this neighborhood for a long time," said Moe Awawdeh, environmental justice coordinator at the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE). "Let's move forward."

DOT can implement the plan starting this summer and have it in place by the fall. The agency will begin outreach on redesigning other sections of Fourth Avenue, in Bay Ridge and Park Slope, later this year.

CB 7 member Joan Botti, who chairs the working group, said she expected the proposal to meet with approval from the full board. "I'm sure our members will be in favor of fixing the problems with Fourth Avenue," she said. "You try standing in the middle of those islands."

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