Envisioning a Safer Queens Boulevard Where People Want to Walk

A safer Queens Boulevard isn't just about tweaks at the intersections. It's about making it a place where people want to walk. Images: Massengale & Co LLC and Urban Advantage for Transportation Alternatives
A safer Queens Boulevard isn’t just about tweaks at the intersections. It’s about making it a place where people want to walk. Image: Massengale & Co LLC and Urban Advantage for Transportation Alternatives

While safety improvements have saved lives on Queens Boulevard since the late 1990s, when it was routine for more than a dozen people to be killed in a single year, the “Boulevard of Death” remains one of New York City’s most dangerous streets. As DOT prepares to launch a comprehensive safety overhaul in the coming months, advocates have published some ideas about how to redesign Queens Boulevard for the Vision Zero era.

Architect John Massengale worked with photo-rendering firm Urban Advantage to produce a new vision of Queens Boulevard, published in the fall issue of Transportation Alternatives’ Reclaim magazine. Massengale explains the process:

The images do not reflect the standard DOT approach of focusing primarily on the intersections. Traffic engineers do that because the intersections are where traffic comes into conflict, with itself and with pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, the vision begins with making places where people want to be, and that naturally changes the emphasis to the space between the intersections.

Queens Boulevard cuts a 200-foot wide slice across Queens and remains a deadly street, ranked second in the borough for pedestrian deaths last year by Tri-State Transportation Campaign [PDF]. It used to be worse: Over the years, DOT has responded to advocacy for a safer Queens Boulevard with proposals like wider pedestrian islands at crosswalks, neckdowns, more crossing time, and turn restrictions, which have reduced fatalities significantly. While DOT added some mid-block changes like new on-street parking or pedestrian fences, intersections remained the focus of safety interventions, which didn’t necessarily enhance the pedestrian environment.

To transform Queens Boulevard for the Vision Zero era, Massengale focused on turning a 60-foot right of way on each side of the street into “a place where pedestrians are comfortable.” This, he says, will set the tone for drivers as they approach intersections. Massengale recommends wider, planted medians with narrower, slower general traffic lanes and protected bike lanes on the service roads.

Transforming Queens Boulevard into a street worthy of its grand name isn't a new idea. The Queens Chamber of Commerce suggested it as far back as 1914. Image: Good Roads magazine via CoLab Radio
Transforming Queens Boulevard into a street worthy of its grand name isn’t a new idea. The Queens Chamber of Commerce suggested it as far back as 1914. Image: Good Roads magazine via CoLab Radio

Remaking Queens Boulevard is about more than just street geometry. Massengale also envisions taller buildings along the street to match its width and create a place that feels less like a wide-open highway and more like a grand boulevard. Efforts like this have a long history, including proposals from the Queens Chamber of Commerce for a tree-lined Queens Boulevard as far back as 1914.

Will the de Blasio administration do more than make streets marginally safer with small changes to current designs? Queens Boulevard is shaping up as the test case to see if the city will follow through on its Vision Zero promises. Focusing resources on such a dangerous arterial street would be a promising sign, and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says meetings for a redesign will kick off soon.

  • JK

    Are there cost estimates for Mr. Massengale’s plan to remake Queens Boulevard, and has anyone proposed using allowing upzoning and capturing some the value of the real estate to rebuild the street? Other big scary streets, like Atlantic Avenue also need a complete rethink, and it really makes sense to consider zoning and rebuilding as part of the same planning process.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    My liquor store on 68th Rd has been replaced by a “luxury” high-rise in the image! Why, God, Why?!

  • BBnet3000

    Atlantic is an interesting one because the LIRR runs underneath for quite awhile but there are no stations. In some other places they might consider doing something with this underused infrastructure.

  • Jeff

    Just pretend that it returns in the retail space on the ground floor of the “luxury” high-rise!

  • vnm

    The rendering makes heavy use of street trees that are lush, healthy, and tall. Indeed, they would hugely improve the streetscape and help slow drivers.

    But … the subway ventilation grates you see in the photo and the rendering are a telltale indicator of why the trees in the “before” image are off to the side of the boulevard, small, and anemic looking.

    The kind of trees shown in the rendering, with the deep and broad root systems needed to support so much above-ground greenery, are hard to achieve in places where you have a subway tunnel right below the roadway.

  • Bob

    Those surrounding buildings are all co-ops – the current owners would do REALLY well financially if this picture became reality. I would bet money, however, on community board 6 being against it: loss of parking spaces. The rendering looks terrific, but I refuse to get excited because the administration has not done anything yet to make me believe they would try to sell a plan that is so inspiring and forward-thinking. I hope they prove me wrong

  • LuisD

    Nice rendering but why keep the express/collector separation? This just creates more crossing and conflict points for nothing.

    From out to in, I would double the width of the sidewalks, add a physically protected bike lane on each side, keep one lane of parking on each side, then throw in your 2-3 vehicle lanes (ideally 2, no more than 3 in each direction) then place your BRT/reserved bus lanes in the middle.

    If you’re really interested in keeping your BRT/bus lanes on the sides, then swap the car lanes with the bus lanes, but for the love of urban planning don’t create two sets of car lanes for nothing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is one blind spot to this whole picture: freight movement. Where are the trucks making deliveries to and pick ups from businesses all over the city going to go? They are generally restricted to arterials like this one.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2011_truck_route_map.pdf

    Note how few through truck routes there are, and how far from them most of the city is. Queens Blvd. and Atlantic Ave are two of them. And even if everything arrived by rail or boat, as 100 year ago, what then? This has to be considered.

    I see four trucks and four vans in the before picture. None in the after picture, or in other renderings like it.

    Of course if there were less traffic in general, it would be easier for trucks to move around, except that people would want them banned for their street, which ever one that was. People don’t like trucks, but they like the things that come in trucks, I was once told,

  • BBnet3000

    Because this road serves a ton of through movement, it may well be safer to have side roads for local access while having a center road for through-traffic. More crossings, but shorter and safer ones (and the local ones mostly made without any wait ideally).

  • lop

    You have a couple stops, east new York and Nostrand. Used to be one around woodhaven too I think. Lirr is reconfiguring Jamaica to increase throuput to Manhattan in preparation for ESA. They seem to plan to turn the Atlantic-jamaica run into a shuttle to reduce conflicts with Manhattan bound trains. Turning it into a subway seems appealing, but it’s right between the A and the JZ east of pennsylvania, maybe a half mile from each at the widest. After that it’s a block from the A.

  • ahwr

    How much is being spent reconfiguring woodhaven? 200 million? Why don’t the designs the city has shared so far look this nice?

  • LuisD

    Are you familiar with the phenomenon of induced demand? Reducing the capacity of the boulevard and introducing elements of traffic calming will ultimately lower demand, reduce volume, reduce noise, reduce local emissions, improve safety, etc.

    Sustainable transportation depends on a mode shift towards sustainable modes, and that involves creating incentives for active transportation (walking, cycling) but also creating disincentives for motorized transport (cars).

  • BBnet3000

    The level of demand has little to do with separating local access from through traffic. I’d gladly drop tons of lanes off it while maintaining a local/through layout. Right now it barely even has that distinction, with the inner road and outer roads being mostly undifferentiated.

    In the most ideal layout the final version would look like the “after” photos here https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/from-cycle-path-to-cycle-route/ (though even the “before” photos at the link are nicer than anything we have in New York today). Unfortunately we’re more likely to end up with a conflict-ridden 2-way bike path like Ocean Parkway.

  • Why not

    New York specializes in subways blocks away from each other. It’s what allows us to do high density. I say, turn the Atlantic branch into a subway, give it Manhattan access by connecting to the underused R tube, and pay for the connection and new stations by building a linear neighborhood of high-density housing the length of Atlantic. You could get thousands of units of affordable housing with incredible transit access and nobody could complain that the infrastructure was being overburdened.

  • Joe R.

    More like impossible to achieve. It would be an ongoing maintenance headache keeping tree roots from encroaching into subway tunnels.

    As nice as trees may look in an urban environment, I’m generally against them along streets or sidewalks for two reasons:

    1) They eventually uplift sidewalks, adding to our already extensive maintenance problems.

    2) Unless you plant evergreens, they drop leaves all over the place, clogging sewer inlets, and making for hazardous road/sidewalk conditions.

    Shrubs are fine but we shouldn’t have anything which gets much taller than a person.

    You can put up something artificial which might look as good, without the maintenance headaches. I’ve even seen organic looking sculptures with OLEDs which resemble the phosphorescent plants in Avatar. That would look great along Queens Boulevard.

  • Make it about housing

    If this included affordable housing there would be public support for such a reconfiguration. Increase the density along Queens Blvd in the way these renderings demonstrate with high quality, affordable housing: presto, public support. So long as the streets advocates are the only ones pushing for change, the focus will be marginal DOT tinkering at each traffic intersection. Add housing advocates to the picture, however, and you’ve got a formula for sweeping change consistent with the larger agenda of addressing inequality and the housing crisis.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    Ditto. It’s too good to be true too soon. If that rendition really came to fruition and those buildings truly existed, “affordability” would no way be in the picture, even though that’s hard enough as it is in the Forest Hills / Rego Park area. And obviously the loss of parking would be a significant issue, even though that wasn’t there 14 years ago, finding on-street parking in this area is like finding gold in the street. But since Queens Bl is so wide, I’m certain it can be inter-modal within a comfortable compromise.

  • Maggie

    Broadway over the 1/2/3 in Manhattan has some great landscaped medians though.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If this included affordable housing there would be public support for such a reconfiguration. Increase the density along Queens Blvd in the way these renderings demonstrate with high quality, affordable housing: presto, public support.”

    Politicians have long memories (except when it comes to the disastrous effects of retroactive pension increases).

    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/22/nyregion/neighborhood-report-forest-hills-forest-hills-op-reminder-past-fury.html

    Different generation, except in the local political world, where the same crowd (often offspring of those there back, then) are still in charge. You’ve got immigrants that can’t vote, and younger people who don’t bother (except, perhaps if they ride bicycles).

  • LuisD

    This is incorrect. If the split lanes format has any effect at all on flow, safety, comfort and other variables, then by definition it will affect the utility functions of users making transportation decisions. If you favorably improve the inputs to the utility function, you will get increased demand for that mode.

  • chekpeds

    I just used queens boulevard to go to the airport and was shocked to see no spliT phase to protect pedestrian crossing from turning vehicles. At a partiCular intersection , a large avenue was letting vehicles turn fast into the ped crossing.
    Without split phases everywhere, no amount of design will change the I juries and fatality numbers.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    An excellent point. And again, due to the sheer width of Queens Blvd, as much as 200′, I’m fairly adamant that these multiple modes of transportation can safely coexist in this thoroughfare. It’s a matter of evenly allocating the appropriate space for a particular mode of transportation, in such a manner that safety is not compromised.

  • AnoNYC

    I agree, mixed use, dense housing with NO parking. Ground floor commercial units should supply most necessary commodities.

    There should also be full fledged BRT along this route, along with the beautification/pedestrianization above.

  • AnoNYC

    Off topic but do a lot of these businesses even need these large trucks? When I was in the military (MP) I used to inspect enough of them to drive a man mad (thousands). They were usually mostly empty. A lot of businesses in the city could opt for smaller trucks and large vans.

  • Joe R.

    I think part of the rationale here is most of the operating cost is paying the driver. Even if the truck is largely empty most of the time, it’s not costing much more than a smaller vehicle, but it provides a safety margin for the few days per year when all that space might really be needed (perhaps deliveries near the holidays). In fact, the incremental cost of needing to rent trucks and drivers during peak times might be more than the cost of just operating larger than needed vehicles the rest of the year.

    One thing I think should be done if businesses are going to operate larger vehicles is to make sure they’re as full as possible. Instead of operating, say, 10 half empty trucks, see if the delivery routes can be consolidated so you have 5 mostly full trucks. Honestly, given a choice between 3 or 4 vans or one large box truck, I’ll take the latter because it reduces traffic volumes by a factor of three or four. Reducing traffic volume is really the best way to make streets safer.

  • al

    There is a problem with the rendering. It ignores the underground utilities and the subway tunnels. Many of those trees in the rendering need to be in planters.

  • Robert Stillman

    Queens is a wonderful place to call home. Great restaurants and people. It is the not so secret secret. If you are interested in apartments for rent in queens no fee, make sure to visit Lefrak City. It is country club living.

  • AnoNYC

    Yup, elevated planters with low maintenance plants could work above the subway anywhere. I always wish there were more.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    As someone who also has training in urban forestry I saw that immediately as well. There is no way one could get trees that big to grow in the median as it is.

  • mrsman

    The Atlantic Avenue line should remain a semi-express, but it should connect with the subway system. Having it connect to the Montague tunnel is a great idea. But don’t add too many stations between Flatbush and Woodhaven. Some trains should continue on the Atlantic Branch to serve Jamaica LIRR and southeastern Queens, other trains can be sent down the Rockaway branch to serve JFK and the Rockaways.

  • baron hausmann

    Allan jacobs, author of the boulevard book did an extensive study on queens boulevard in 1995. He noted that ocean and eastern parkway which are similar designs have much lower crash rates. He attrituted that to the fact the access roads on those streets are low speed versus queens blvd. Also the long block length on queens encourages jay walking. Here is the study: http://www.uctc.net/papers/300.pdf

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    Not necessarily. At first, I thought of that as well, but here is my counter: Eastern Pkwy. The bike path, trees and ventilation grates are all in the same space. So with Qns Bl I believe it is possible, maybe a consideration to raise the median at least 3 – 4′ to curb runoff and prevent jaywalking.

  • johnmassengale

    Thank you for posting that.

  • johnmassengale

    @@disqus_2eC2lbP2rs:disqus & @@Andy_B_from_Jersey:disqus — I looked into the street section before making these. The short answer is that technologies like Silva Cells could almost certainly make it possible. We know enough about them now to know that one can get healthy, mature street canopies with those technlogies. http://www.kibi.org/silva-cells-new-technology-in-street-tree-planting/

    I say “almost certainly” because there has not been a funded study or any detailed design. But the situation appears good. And as one of the founders of the CNU says, “Design is a way of solving problems.” If there were a few difficult sections, the design could vary appropriately here or there: great streets do not have a single section from beginning to end.

    Think of a difficult section as an opportunity for creativity and variety, rather than as a problem. But most sections would not be a problem, and the particular section of Queens Boulevard I drew would be a good place to start.

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