Empire Blvd Safety Fixes Run Up Against Parking and Gentrification Politics

A federally-funded redesign and reconstruction of two dangerous Empire Boulevard intersections is in jeopardy, running up against a combination of parking politics and gentrification fears.

DOT has plans to replace a small slip lane that feeds into Empire Boulevard with a pedestrian plaza, but local anger over gentrification could prevent the project from coming to fruition. Image: DOT/DDC/RBA Group
A plan to convert a small slip lane into sidewalk space is being met with resistance at Community Board 9. Image: DOT/DDC/RBA Group

The plan would add sidewalk space by simplifying two complex intersections where several streets converge [PDF]. On the western end of Empire, a slip lane would be closed at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Franklin Avenue. To the east, pedestrian space would be claimed at the even more complicated tangle of streets where Empire meets Utica Avenue, East New York Avenue, and Remsen Avenue.

Empire Boulevard is one of the most dangerous streets in Brooklyn. At these two intersections alone, there were 490 injuries between 2009 and 2013. Removing slip lanes at both locations will eliminate shortcuts where drivers can cut quickly across pedestrians’ paths, without fundamentally changing how traffic flows.

At Wednesday’s CB 9 Transportation Committee meeting, neighborhood residents and community board members joined around 10 representatives from DOT, the Department of Design and Construction, and the RBA Group to discuss the proposal, which the committee approved in a unanimous 4-0 vote in September. Chair Tim Thomas said he invited city officials to come back and make the case after the proposal drew criticism at a meeting of the full community board in November.

Supporters of the proposal presented a petition with nearly 300 signatures Wednesday night. Daniel Kristjansson, who sits on the committee, said in an email to Streetsblog that the project is a small but necessary step to make Empire Boulevard safer. “Empire Boulevard is deadly, and even with these changes it will still kill and subject many more to a lifetime of pain and disability,” he said. “But these improvements will make a noticeable dent in the casualty figures.”

The project has become swept up in the debate over the rezoning of Empire Boulevard, a flashpoint in predominantly black neighborhoods experiencing a rapid influx of more affluent, white residents. “I’ve been living on Washington Avenue all my life and living there has been a great pleasure — until recently, when these changes [have] taken place,” one resident, Felice Robertson, told the committee.

Other complaints were typical of street redesigns anywhere in the city. Robertson also said the neighborhood is “in dire need of parking spaces.” Another resident suggested that instead of pedestrianizing a block of Franklin the city should install a neckdown, which could be done “without taking away 15 parking spaces, which is a critical part of what this community still needs.” (The project would only remove seven spaces.)

About two-thirds of households in the area do not own cars, and those residents tend to have lower incomes than vehicle owners. If the project isn’t built, it’s the less affluent residents of the neighborhood who will remain most at risk of getting struck and injured at those intersections.

Brooklyn Deputy DOT Commissioner Claudette Workman said DOT would be willing to reconsider the plan, but that doing so would forfeit the $10 million that’s been secured to build it — half from the Federal Transit Administration and half from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re not coming and saying, ‘This is what we’re doing, it’s concrete, that’s it, case closed,’” she said. “We could have done that, to be honest with you. We didn’t. We’re here to work with the community. we’re not here to make anyone’s lives miserable.”

The project will add pedestrian space on the eastern and western ends of Empire Boulevard. Image: DOT

Thomas, a major figure in neighborhood debates over zoning, said that changing neighborhood demographics have affected how neighbors view city proposals — regardless of any real connection between development and street safety projects like the Empire Boulevard reconstruction. “Any change is viewed with suspicion,” he said after the meeting. “At this point, honestly, anything the city does [in the district] will get complaints.”

Thomas said he hopes the proposal can overcome neighbors’ concerns about changes in the area. He said it was “common sense” to make safety improvements at the intersection in question. “I would not want to have it on my conscience that god forbid a kid gets killed,” he said today. “The primary number one thing is safety.”

The full board has yet to vote on the proposal, but it has come up for discussion previously, and some board members have said they’re concerned about the loss of parking and think it will lead to increased congestion. At last night’s meeting, Board Chair Demetrius Lawrence said the full board will take up the proposal at its meeting next Tuesday.

  • jooltman

    The mayor could not have been clearer this week: “Community Boards don’t get to decide.” Don’t these DOT representatives know that they now have a clear mandate to ignore parking protectionists who try to stymie safety improvements, especially ones who jeopardize 10 million dollars of federal funding?

  • kevd

    As long as the NYPD gets to keep its easy money / quota filler of ticketing any vehicle turning right from Franklin onto Empire. That is non-negotiable. Without that they might have to ticket dangerous drivers to make the quotas, instead of camping out for 2 hours and nabbing everyone who misses the difficult to see no right turn sign.

  • Rob Shinider

    Ever thought that the rise in pedestrian accidents has to do with pedestrians not crossing at the green and not the in between. Every intersection should have a sign notifying pedestrians of the law .Yes there are c any driv Sr. Who don’t signal, tailgate and turn right or left from the middle lane cutt Ng off traffics and can’t see pedestrians the n r path but, this “affluent ” motorist nonsens is bs . 100% of the new motorist in the area want cars. The dot should be working to reduce traffic and yes the nyp needs to go after dangerous reckless drivers instead of trying to entrap unsuspected motorist

  • walknseason

    There has to be a better way, between the DOT dunderheads and the vehement cross-fitters, to convey both an understanding of gentrification politics AND that traffic redesign benefits the vast majority of society.

    What people express at these meetings is, simply, not *wrong*. They are experiencing a lot of pain, sometimes indirect, sometimes directly kicking them out of their apartments, etc.

    We cannot just make fun of htem as dumb and parking-obsessed. They have more thoughts than that.

  • Kevin Love

    David Meyer wrote:

    “About two-thirds of households in the area do not own cars, and those residents tend to have lower incomes than vehicle owners.”

    Kevin’s comment:

    David, on December 11 did you finish writing on the blackboard 100 times, “Bicycles are vehicles”? Perhaps you need to do it again.

    See:

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2015/12/11/mujeres-en-movimiento-to-cb4-we-need-a-safer-111th-street/

  • BBnet3000

    [citation needed]

  • Brian Howald

    No, I’ve never thought that.

    That is because all the evidence suggests that most pedestrian crashes are largely the fault of drivers. The table on page 25 of the DOT’s study on pedestrian safety (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc_ped_safety_study_action_plan_technical_supplement.pdf) makes it clear that pedestrian error or confusion was responsible for only 20.5% of crashes where pedestrians were killed or injured.

  • Reader

    Every intersection should have a sign notifying drivers of the law: yield to pedestrians and exercise due care.

  • Toddster

    This isn’t a gentrification issue. While this area is undergoing changes, safe street projects are going on all over the city: flushing; the bronx; upper manhattan; staten island. Places that do not see the same influx of the most commonly identified gentrifiers are still undergoing street improvements. While gentrification is occurring in these areas its important to differentiate the two and not let issues of gentrification degrade issues of street safety.

  • FlatbushFred

    If bicycles are vehicles, why do so many advocates say it is OK for them to ignore red lights, stop signs, one-way streets, sidewalks, etc? If they are vehicles, shouldn’t they be subject to the same laws as other vehicles?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    it’s about safety – a 90,000lbs motor vehicle should obviously have a different set of safety rules than a 40lbs Human vehicle. motor vehicles kil 33,000 and maim 2,500,000 Americans a year. . Therefore, motor vehicles should naturally Have extreme restrictions on Their movement.

  • FlatbushFred

    Not obvious at all. Did it occur to you that accidents can be caused by bicycles disobeying the rules of the road, e.g a car having to swerve to avoid a bike who just ran a red light, and possibly colliding with a pedestrian or other vehicle? If bikes and motor vehicles share the same road, safety dictates they should follow the same rules, for the safety of everyone.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    coulda shoulda – funny. BTW speed Limit in city is now 25MPH. Try it sometime

  • FlatbushFred

    I always find that when someone answers a serious post with a snarky comment, it means they have no real response. So I understand: you hate cars, you love bikes, and can’t come up with reasoned responses defending your view. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This is an incredibly hostile environment for pedestrians. Why do people living on Sterling have to walk all the way down to Franklin to get to the Western Beef Supermarket? Why is there a southbound left turn lane on Franklin? Why are there no crosswalks across Franklin at Sterling? Why are the lanes so wide everywhere?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Your post couldn’t Have possibly been serious. It’s a prepostoud scenario that you described – especially Since the speed Limit is 25 MPH

  • Andrew

    I’m trying to imagine a realistic scenario in which the drivers involved were all acting in accordance with the law yet one (a) had to swerve (rather than take another sort of evasive action, for instance, step on the brake) to avoid hitting the cyclist and (b) as a result collided with a pedestrian. And I have difficulty imagining it. (Which might explain why it almost never happens.)

    Motorists kill multiple pedestrians and cyclists every week, and a significant majority of those are due to motorist error. If you’re focusing your attention on a purely hypothetical situation in which the cyclist is to blame, you’re diverting your attention away from the elephant in the room. His snarky comment was perfectly fitting.

  • Andrew

    Ever thought that the rise in pedestrian accidents has to do with pedestrians not crossing at the green and not the in between.

    No, actually, I didn’t.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc_ped_safety_study_action_plan.pdf#page=23

    “In New York City, 74% of pedestrian KSI crashes occurred at intersections. … Nearly half (47%) of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries occurred at signalized intersections; surprisingly, most (57%) of these crashes occurred while the pedestrian was crossing with the signal.”

    Every intersection should have a sign notifying pedestrians of the law .

    Which law? You mean the law that, as long as they are crossing legally, motorists are obligated to yield to them? How about we notify motorists of that law – and penalize them when they choose to ignore it?

    Yes there are c any driv Sr. Who don’t signal, tailgate and turn right or left from the middle lane cutt Ng off traffics and can’t see pedestrians the n r path but, this “affluent ” motorist nonsens is bs .

    Could you please try that again in English?

    100% of the new motorist in the area want cars.

    Pardon? Do you mean that 100% of motorists are motorists? Well, yes, that’s true, but it isn’t terribly interesting.

    The dot should be working to reduce traffic

    The best way to do that is to make it easier and safer for people to get around by means other than driving.

    One of the areas in question is around the corner from a subway station. The other is a 7-minute walk from a subway station and is directly served by multiple bus lines, including one about to be upgraded to SBS.

    and yes the nyp needs to go after dangerous reckless drivers instead of trying to entrap unsuspected motorist

    Yes, the NYP[D] needs to go after motorists who speed, who run red lights, who fail to yield to pedestrians, who fail to exercise due care to avoid colliding with pedestrians. Your Disqus comment history suggests that you might fit into one or more of those categories, but go ahead and keep blaming pedestrians for killing themselves.

  • Joe R.

    His scenario is already unrealistic at the point where he says “a car having to swerve to avoid a bike who ran a red light.” First off, the car doesn’t swerve, the driver controls it to. Second, cyclists who pass red lights aren’t suicidal. Drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid them because they don’t pass red when something is coming. Basically, he’s talking about something which at best is a 1 in 10,000 scenario where a cyclist either doesn’t look before passing a red, or makes an error in judgement. For what it’s worth I would have collided with cars several times already when I had the green if not for my habit of always looking for cross traffic, regardless of whether or not the signal is in my favor.

    Bottom line, he’s setting up a straw man by picking an extremely unlikely scenario to justify his opinion about the rules.

  • FlatbushFred

    Have any of you people ever owned a car or ever driven one? If you did, you’d know that the example I gave is totally realistic. In fact, it happened to me: I was driving through an intersection when a bicycle ran the red light directly in front of me. Cars don’t stop on a dime, even at 25 mph (you’d know that if you drove). So I had to swerve behind him to avoid hitting him. Luckily, no one was there, but it could have been a tragedy. I’ve seen that very scenario a number of times. But of course, if you ever drove a “hated” car, you’d know that.

    And as it being OK for bikes to run red lights, ask the folks in Prospect Park who try to cross the road, even with a “WALK” sign.

    Here’s a real funny: “And I have difficulty imagining it. (Which might explain why it almost never happens.). Now that’s funny.

    Cars are here to stay. Instead of the holier than though attitude of “cars are evil,” why not think about ways both motorists and bikes and pedestrians can be safe.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    precislely at 25MPH driver simply Hits brakes Avoiding ‘mad Dog crazed cyclist’ and continues on his merry way.

    no drama involved at 25 MPH

  • qrt145

    Not all vehicles are subject to the same laws. There are already special laws for trucks, and special laws for motorcycles, and special laws for bicycles. What many advocates ask is that the laws for bicycles should make sense for bicycles. While a bicycle is a vehicle, it is not a car, so some of the laws that were created to deal with the physical characteristics of cars (mass, speed, size, blind spots, etc.) don’t make any sense for bikes.

  • qrt145

    Please provide a link to an actual crash that happened in a way similar to the one you envision (yes, it is conceivable that such a crash could happen, but it is very unlikely).

    (And yes, I drive too.)

  • Alexander Vucelic

    cars kill and maim 50,000 New Yorkers every single year. You believe that’s good or evil ? You Think that 50,000 Is normal ?

    (and yes I Drive too)

  • FlatbushFred

    Of course, that assumes that each of those accidents are the fault of the driver. Couldn’t be a bike running a STOP sign or a red light or going the wrong way on a one-way street or wearing headphones and not hearing a horn. No, it must always be the motorist’s fault.

    Don’t get me wrong. Motorists in this city need to be summonsed more. Every day I see cars running lights and STOP signs, failing to yield to pedestrians, speeding, etc. We need a certainty of punishment for these drivers. or such behavior will continue. But the same rules apply to the other users of NYC streets.

    Unfortunately, the bike “advocates” aren’t advocates – they are zealots, incapable or unwilling to see any other side of an issue than their own. That’s unfortunate. Some of the posts on this issue prove that.

  • Andrew

    Have any of you people ever owned a car or ever driven one? If you did, you’d know that the example I gave is totally realistic.

    I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles and somehow it’s never happened to me.

    In fact, it happened to me: I was driving through an intersection when a bicycle ran the red light directly in front of me. Cars don’t stop on a dime, even at 25 mph (you’d know that if you drove). So I had to swerve behind him to avoid hitting him.

    Were you actually driving within the speed limit, or was that just a hypothetical? Were you and your follower maintaining safe separation from the vehicle in front? Were you continually scanning the entire roadway, so that you’d have an idea of traffic on the other lanes and you might have a fee seconds of advance warning of a pedestrian or cyclist waiting to cross?

    Luckily, no one was there, but it could have been a tragedy. I’ve seen that very scenario a number of times.

    I’m glad you were lucky. I prefer to not rely on luck to keep me and others safe when I drive.

    But of course, if you ever drove a “hated” car, you’d know that.

    I don’t hate cars. I just hate how some people use them and how much infrastructure we devote to them.

    And as it bein g OK for bikes to run red lights, ask the folks in Prospect Park who try to cross the road, even with a “WALK” sign.

    I don’t think it’s OK for cyclists to run red lights when pedestrians are crossing. But I also recognize that bicycles and motor vehicles are fundamentally different things, and the laws that make sense for one don’t necessarily make sense for the other. I further recognize that a 1% drop in motorist-on-ped fatalities would save far more lives than a complete elimination of cyclist-on-ped fatalities. As a pragmatist, I realize that any enforcement resources focused on improving cyclist compliance are enforcement resources not spent on improving motorist compliance – and are therefore counterproductive to safety.

    Here’s a real funny: “And I have difficulty imagining it. (Which might explain why it almost never happens.). Now that’s funny.

    Sorry, I don’t laugh about safety issues. But if you think this is all a big joke, then go right ahead.

    Cars are here to stay. Instead of the holier than though attitude of “cars are evil,” why not think about ways both motorists and bikes and pedestrians can be safe.

    Telling cyclists not to be suicidal isn’t going to do a damned thing. Penalizing motorists for endangering others, and (to get back to the focus of this article) redesigning streets to improve motorist compliance and to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists, is actually a productive approach.

    Cars, when used right, aren’t evil, but cars can certainly be used for evil.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Every study concludss that 90-95% of traffic Iviolence s caused by driver error & negligencce.

  • Andrew

    Of course, that assumes that each of those accidents are the fault of the driver.

    Most are.

  • AlexWithAK

    If you can’t understand that bikes and cars are completely different modes of transportation that pose wildly different levels of danger to others and that each should be treated differently based on their unique qualities and threats, I just don’t know what else to say to you. Suggesting that 30 lb bikes must obey all the same rules as 3000 lb cars and 30,000 lb trucks because “it’s only fair” is absolutely absurd and helps no one.

  • AlexWithAK

    I have a car. Sure, there are some cyclists that do dumb things but I’ve never encountered a situations like you’re describing. At worst, I’ve had to hit the brakes to avoid someone.

    I can say with absolute confidence is that it’s the other drivers on the road that scare me far, far more than any cyclist. Without question, I’ve had to take evasive maneuvers due to the actions of other drivers many more times than due to cyclists. Anecdotally, drivers are much more likely to break the rules of the road than cyclists as far as I’m concerned. And I’d say that the statistics in terms of how many crashes and injuries there are back my view pretty strongly.

    So no, I do not think cars are evil. But, as someone who regularly drives, I also think they’re given far too much deference and too much space. To me, this isn’t about punishing drivers but rather taking space back for the other ways of getting around while reigning in the significant danger that cars pose. For environmental, economic, safety, and practical reasons, private cars need to be given the lowest priority in the hierarchy of mobility. I would be very happy to drive mine less.

  • AlexWithAK

    Just because someone “wants” something doesn’t mean the government has to give it to them. Given we’re in a crowded city with little space to spare and a significant problem with people being injured by careless driving, there is significant reason for the city to NOT enable more people to own cars just because they want too (which in itself is highly debatable).

    Secondly, the notion that pedestrians are being injured and killed because of their own actions is straight up baseless victim blaming. There are numerous situations where crossing AGAINST the light is actually safer due to turning cars not yielding. Stats clearly show that the vast majority of pedestrians injuries are the fault of the driver.

  • kevd

    “Couldn’t be a bike running a STOP sign or a red light or going the wrong way on a one-way street or wearing headphones and not hearing a horn”

    Could be, but very, very rarely is.

  • kevd

    “If they are vehicles, shouldn’t they be subject to the same laws as other vehicles?”

    They are.

  • kevd

    “100% of the new motorist in the area want cars”

    Kind of a tautology that..
    Sure and 100% of the new cyclists in the area want bikes.
    And 100% of the new pedestrians in the area want shoes

    Neither 100% of the old residents nor 100% of the new residents want cars, though. The vast majority of both, do not.

  • ahwr

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/ped-safety-action-plan-manhattan.pdf

    The city says 43% of pedestrian fatalities 2011-2013 in Manhattan were due to dangerous pedestrian choices. 13% due to dangerous pedestrian and driver choices. 43% due to dangerous driver choices. Citywide those numbers are 31% ped alone, 16% ped and driver, 53% driver alone. Far from the 90-95% you claim.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Those stats only cover 1/10 of the 50,000 New Yorkers killed and maimed Every year by drivers, nice try. Use the full Stats and you’ll also conclude drivers are responsible for 90-95% of traffic violence

  • FlatbushFred

    So why don’t you? Use a bike? Take a train or a bus? Walk?

  • FlatbushFred

    What are the special laws for trucks and motorcycles that are relevant to this issue?

    “What many advocates ask is that the laws for bicycles should make sense for bicycles.” This is precisely the problem…sure, it may make sense from a bicyclist’s perspective that they don’t have to stop at a STOP sign, but what about the car (or other bike) that maybe they didn’t see? Such moves are unsafe, both for the bicyclist and the others sharing the road. The inconvenience of stopping for a moment and starting again should not trump safety.

  • FlatbushFred

    Nice try. The bicycle who ran the light while I had the green light had his headphones on (I see this all the time), never looked anywhere but straight ahead, and passed directly in front of me while I was driving about 10 mph passing through the intersection. If I had jammed on the brake, I would have hit him.I have seen this many times. I recently saw a bike with a chlld riding in the back to do same thing. There is NO reason why bikes shouldn’t obey the same laws as cars. None.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    at 10 MPH stopping distance Is like Inches, are you suggesting that the Mother and child ‘darted’ in Front of your 10MPH Car close enough to reach out and touch your Bumper ?

    LOL

    you were traveling more than 35MPH for sure, most drivers Have no Idea how fast They Drive. Like I said, try driving 25MPH; you will Find It Illuminating.

  • Joe R.

    So it happened to you-once. Nobody else here who drives mentions the same thing happening to them. Based on what I see, this is an exceedingly rare occurrence. Also, I doubt you were going 10 mph unless the intersection was gridlocked. Most of the time when drivers have the green light they’re going about 55 mph, not 10 mph.

    There is NO reason why bikes shouldn’t obey the same laws as cars.

    As already mentioned by others, larger vehicles like trucks often have more restrictive laws than cars, such as lower speed limits or roads where they’re prohibited. The converse of that is much smaller vehicles such as bikes should have less restrictive laws than cars. Nobody here is asking for the right to go through an intersection while other users have the green light. All we want is to be able to legally pass a red light when nothing is coming. In other words, to do exactly the same thing pedestrians do when they cross on red. Or do you have a problem with pedestrians crossing on red as well?

    Funny how motorists think bikes aren’t vehicles when they want them off the roads but are vehicles when they want them to obey the same laws.

  • Joe R.

    What about the driver who does stop, misses seeing an oncoming car, and goes? Or the driver who doesn’t notice a red light? Humans occasionally make mistakes. To some extent you can design streets to be forgiving of those mistakes. The best way is to drive slower so when you encounter the rare cyclist who misjudges the situation, or perhaps the driver who didn’t notice a red light, the consequences aren’t fatal.

    For what it’s worth I’ve had close encounters with cars passing red lights several times. If not for my habit of looking even when I have a green light, I may have collided with them.

    The inconvenience of stopping for a moment and starting again should not trump safety.

    Much more than an inconvenience:

    http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~fajans/pub/pdffiles/StopSignsAccess.pdf

    Also, in NYC you have lots of traffic signals. They not timed for bike speeds, if they’re even timed at all. You’re stopping for a lot more than “a moment”. If motorists got stuck at red lights every block or two most would be doing exactly what cyclists do—going through them whenever they safely could. Motorists also have the luxury of non-stop highways to avoid traffic lights. Outside of parts of a few greenways, cyclists don’t. There’s a difference between slight inconvenience, where stopping reduces your average speed 10% or 15%, versus gross inconvenience, where you average one third or one half of your riding speed. Then there’s also the fact it’s a lot safer for cyclists to get out in front of the pack of cars before they start moving. The danger of being in the pack far outweighs any minor danger a cyclist might “miss” an oncoming car. I haven’t missed one yet in over 37 years of riding.

  • Rabi

    Go to any of those places and you’ll find people concerned about gentrification.

    Getting rid of a dangerous slip lane is not, in any direct sense, going to force people out of their homes. But I don’t think you can blame people for being afraid of displacement when they see the city coming in and trying to change their neighborhood. And regardless of whether or not fears are justified, it is the city’s job to convince residents that these safety improvements are A) going to make everyone safer and B) not contribute to gentrification. DOT needs to do the groundwork to convince these communities that everyone is on the same team.

  • ahwr

    I guess just keep making up numbers then since facts don’t matter to you.

  • amylynn

    then they should pay “bike insurance”!!!

  • amylynn

    you hit it on the nose! bike people hate cars and doesnt think anyone else should be allowed to have them!

  • Andrew

    What are “bike people”?

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