Data-Free Times Story on Blind Pedestrians Slights All Who Walk NYC

As with any thriving metropolis, the New York streetscape is constantly changing. Whether related to sidewalk and street repair, utility maintenance or building construction, obstacles emerge and disappear around the clock, often leaving changes in their wake, in every corner of the city.

Despite what the Times would have its readers believe, pedestrian plazas and bike lanes are making streets safer for all city pedestrians. Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

For the physically impaired, of course, any of these changes can present a challenge. Yet for some reason the New York Times, in a story published Sunday, chose to single out two types of street alterations with a record of improving safety — pedestrian plazas and bike lanes — as posing a danger to blind and visually impaired New Yorkers. Here’s a taste:

Ms. [Maria] Hansen, who travels with a German shepherd, Frisco, as a guide, said she had begun avoiding areas like Times Square, which she used to frequent, because pedestrian plazas have been added.

“There is no definition of where the street is,” she said on a recent afternoon, as Frisco eyed a parade of less altruistic dogs from beneath a bench in Madison Square Park.

Another concern is the city’s historic embrace of a bike-share program, which is scheduled to begin this summer and will introduce 10,000 new bicycles to the streets by next summer. Though many visually impaired residents have lauded the city’s green ambitions, some are worried that an increase in vehicles that move inaudibly, and unpredictably, could be dangerous.

If this story is intended to take the city to task for not doing more to ensure safe mobility for the blind and visually impaired, reporter Matt Flegenheimer left out a few salient facts.

For example: Pedestrian plazas and bike lanes have saved lives and prevented injuries across the board. After the city installed a bike lane and new pedestrian spaces on Broadway through the heart of Midtown, pedestrian injuries in the area dropped by 35 percent. It may be that these facilities could work better for the blind than they do now, but there is no data to indicate that they have made conditions less safe for anyone.

Few would argue against DOT doing everything in its power to accommodate those who can’t negotiate city streets the way most New Yorkers do. But without acknowledging safety gains brought about by new pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, it’s hard to take Flegenheimer’s story as anything other than another Times attack on safer streets.

  • Long Time Reader

    Perhaps the New York Times was unable to interview blind and disabled people trying to cross the streets around the Lincoln Tunnel, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Queens Boulevard and similar locations because blind and disabled people can’t even dream of crossing streets like that. They just stay the hell away. I guess we’ll never see a story in the New York Times about how utterly and totally hostile the city’s car-oriented streetscape is and always has been. Because that’s not “news” to Matt’s likely editor, Dean Chang.

  • While I think the NYT blows the issue out of proportion, there is still a great deal of truth to this article.   Curbs are an important clue for pedestrians for where the street begins and the sidewalk ends.  If no curb, truncated dome strips are used.  These are lacking in many of the new squares and pedestrian plazas.

    Otherwise, I’m sorry.  Streets change everywhere, not just in NYC.  One must learn to adapt.

  • The main implication of the piece was nonsense. “Changes in streets create challenges for blind people”. No matter how frivolous or serious the reason for making any change might be, you can’t reason that you ought to NEVER reconfigure a street! 

    Instead, the city ought to find a way to better accommodate blind users in making adjustments. That’s a simple conclusion that this article fails to suggest, and it does indeed come off as a gratuitous attack on the DOT’s progressive infrastructure plans. Seriously, if you could find ANY disadvantage in any of it, they’ve written a cranky two-page article about it without a single positive observation included. 

    You can’t just blame Flegenheimer or Grynbaum. It’s a beat overseen by the metro desk and the tone of the articles do not vary among writers. It’s a management problem. That’s even more disturbing to consider, since apparently someone with rank over there has it out for the DOT in the most petty way.

  • J

    Seems to me that the Times has a very small point about ped plazas. It is true that they don’t have the same definition of street space as traditional sidewalks. DOT has been trying to use gravel to define the space, but it wears off pretty quickly. There is probably a better way of quickly and efficiently defining the borders of ped plazas, maybe with small plastic curbs. Or perhaps, a better funded DOT would be able to bring these interim projects to full build-out faster.

    That said, this article is incredibly disingenuous on a number of levels. The article cites the Times Square plazas as being a hazard to pedestrians, but incredibly, it fails to mention that Times Square will be built out into a more traditionally defined sidewalks and street space beginning next year. Throwing protected bike lanes into the mix is just wrong. All the protected bike lanes have special ped warning strips at every ped refuge, entering and exiting. Otherwise, when you leave the sidewalk as a pedestrian, you are still entering the roadway, where you can expect there to be vehicles, be they bicycles or automobiles. Yes, the bike lanes are a newer configuration, so there is an adjustment period, but saying that they are dangerous is a HUGE and unsupported leap of logic.

    Also, it’s pretty amazing that an article about safety cites exactly ZERO of the safety benefits of the plazas and bike lanes. Perhaps safety isn’t really their goal after all.

  • Black Swan

    Governor Patterson’s logic is warped. Plenty of people live their whole lives without getting hit by a car. That doesn’t mean the streets are safe. I’ve lived my whole life without getting shot, but I still think gun violence is a problem.

  • Joe R.

    This article is just a thinly veiled guise for maintaining the status quo of automotive dominance masquerading as a diatribe on safety for visually impaired persons, all the while using solely anecdotal evidence to make its point. If we truly want Manhattan to be safe, get rid of the majority of the multiton, triple-digit horsepower machines clogging up the streets. I don’t see how it’s possible for a blind person to safely navigate city streets full of speeding automobiles no matter what the DOT does.

    As for former Governor Patterson’s comment about never getting hit by a car so far, there’s this little thing called luck which I’m sure played a part. For all his fear of one day getting hit by a bicycle, at least if such a thing does actually happen, he stands a great chance of not only surviving, but of not getting injured. The same can’t be said if he were to get hit by a car. 

  • You dont need curbs to guide the blind. Look at what countries like Japan and Brazil do, they embed guides in the ground which the blind can follow. Add this to your pedestrian plaza and problem solved.

  • Jesse Greene

    Paterson’s comment is an example of the blindspot (SWIDT?) people have for the dangers of cars and the bias against bikes that’s so entrenched it’s second nature.  Based on his experience alone he has no more reason to think that he’ll get hit by a bike than a car — he’s never been hit by either one.  But irrationally he’s afraid of getting hit by a bike and not a car.  At best this is just a naive fear of change and the unknown, the same way so many people are irrationally afraid of dying in plane crashes or elevator malfunctions.  At worst it’s some kind of sinister nod to “motordom.”  I believe he’s honestly but irrationally afraid, but as a (former) politician I wish he’d be a little more careful about what he says.  

    The New York Times on the other hand has no excuse. It’s disappointing that a supposed bastion of progressivism has so thoroughly bought into anti-bike NIMBYism.  I mean, they must have tons of bike commuters on staff!  Speak up!

    Finally, Lighthouse has an annual tandem bike ride where a sighted person gets to lead around a blind person:  For anyone who’s interested it would be a good way to do a little ground-level advocacy.  Show a blind person that yes, cyclists are people too.

  • What about the thousands upon thousands of loading docks, freight entrances, and parking garages where cars or trucks drive — legally — across the sidewalk to enter or exit? There is no sort of differentiated concrete or other tactile warning alerting the blind that they are approaching a part of the sidewalk that is shared with motor vehicles.

    I have never heard James Vacca call for something to be done about this hazard nor have I ever read a story in the Times about it.

  • Miles Bader

    @050306b85a062a3be3c811cac874379f:disqus So is “Dean Chang” the culprit…?  Or is this from higher up?

  • Guest

    One of the factors that shape subjective risk perception is whether you think you are in control of the situation or not. You think you are in control of your car, which reduces your perception of risk. You think you are not in control of a plane or elevator, which increases your perception of risk.

    I imagine that Patterson feels more in control around cars because he can hear them better and considers them more predictable, so he feels he can avoid them. Bikes are quieter and yes, more likely to do things like going the wrong way or on the sidewalk, so they are scarier. I don’t think its irrational of him to think that he is more likely to be hit by a bike than by a car. It would be irrational to think that he is more likely to be _killed_ by a bike than by a car, but he didn’t say that.

    I think you guys are overreacting. There might be a slight bias to the piece, but I didn’t see it as an OMGTHEDOTISKILLINGBLINDPEOPLE!!!11!!1 kind of piece but just as an anecdotal piece about some of the difficulties faced by blind people in the city. Its title and main focus were about difficulties in navigating the city, not about safety, so responding that pedestrian plazas and bike lanes increase safety is almost off-topic.

  • Anonymous

    While the times ignores many benefits , the reality is we have all settled for what the DOT is ready to give us, and this is far from COMPLETE STREETS for all users. For example when installing a bike lane, why I’d DOT not repairing damaged Pedestrian ramps and pedestrian crossings adjacent to the lane? The equipment is on site…. Also why are they not installing audible crossing signals which are required ? And my favorite why not install split phase signals and flexible bollards as they did on the original bike lane?
    I understand the need to focus on quantity versus quality but in the end there is a price to pay for it: on 8 th avenue along the brand new protected bike lane a pedestrian was killed last week, crossing the street with the light. It would not have happened if we had split phases.
    Pedestrians killed along bike lanes is ver bad news for our message

  • krstrois

    Man, this piece was ridiculous. Of course, it’s also designed to be totally beyond reproach because: THE BLIND. A piece like that is so holy it can be a data free as the writer would like. 

  • Eugene Bourquin

    It is true that data are not plentiful, because information is not collected specifically on blind, low vision, and deafblind pedestrians.  Pointing out a lack of data in the article or this discussion is rather meaningless if the data do not exist.  The facts are supported by a wealth of research and expert opinion in the field of blindness and orientation & mobility.  Recent policies about streetscapes implemented by NYC have changed or removed environment information and useable traffic sounds — the very sounds necessary to navigate safely for many — to the detriment of minority populations.  While recognizing that streets are generally safer, the planning strategies and low-cost equipment to keep the street safer for everyone are readily available.  In Paris there are tens-of-thosands of accessible pedestrian signals, as there are in many, many cities around the world.  In NYC we have barely 100.  It is the will, not technology or costs, that prevents the DOT from enacting enlightened policies.  We do not have to stop progress in order to make it work for everyone.

    This is the reality of the situation.  It is sad, at best, to see others — including so-called pedestrian activists — calling the rights of people with disabilities a conspiracy to maintain vehicular dominance.  In fact, it is rather ironic.  We could be doing this together but  unwillingness seem to  be an easier path for some.  The disdain for THE BLIND — and yes we are really people — is rather disgusting.  Make me wonder what kind of people are some of you?

  • Anonymous

    @google-8862aa447df62fa460adcf206db6ed7d:disqus  I believe you miss the point of the article, stated directly in the second paragraph: there are a great many recent changes to the streetscape in New York, so why does this article question only those that make the teeny-tiniest bits of headway against the culture of slaughter that is the motor-vehicle dominated streets of New York?  Your question about why DOT has not added better signalling is well taken. But there’s nothing about this post that’s at odds with it.

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