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DOT’s Plan for Thomson Ave Caters to Cars, Not the Thousands of Students Heading to School

2:05 PM EDT on August 8, 2017

The current DOT plan for Thomson Avenue will widen car lanes. Image: DOT

A DOT redesign proposed for Thomson Avenue by LaGuardia Community College doesn't do enough for street safety, and Queens volunteers with Transportation Alternatives are pressing the agency to come back with a stronger plan. LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow agrees, calling on DOT to incorporate more robust safety features for walking and biking.

Thomson is a crowded pedestrian street and the site of several schools. It's also a wide, two-way, six lane road that carries motor vehicles to and from the Queensboro Bridge, which is swamped by drivers drawn to the free crossing over the East River. The street is designed to cater to the car traffic, not everyone who works and goes to school on Thomson.

In 2013, a speeding motorist heading eastbound on Thomson drove onto the sidewalk and killed Tenzin Drudak, 16, a student at nearby Applied Communications High School.

After Drudak's death, DOT made some engineering tweaks to nearby intersections, and last year the agency presented a larger capital project that would widen the crowded sidewalk where Drudak was killed by six feet [PDF].

But the plan has serious flaws. On the other side of the street, DOT wants to narrow the sidewalk by 10 feet. There is no provision for cycling on one of the few street connections linking Long Island City to the rest of Queens over the Sunnyside rail yard. Thomson would retain highway-like dimensions for motor vehicle traffic -- with wider lanes making speeding even more prevalent.

A petition launched by Queens resident, LaGuardia professor, and TransAlt volunteer Joby Jacob seeks a deeper commitment to safe street design in an area crowded with students and workers.

This concept for Thomson Avenue by Sergio Pecanha of the Queens Bike Initiatives calls for reducing the number of motor vehicle lanes on the blocks by LaGuardia Community College. Image: Sergio Pecanha via Transportation Alternatives
This concept for Thomson Avenue by Sergio Pecanha of the Queens Bike Initiatives calls for reducing the number of motor vehicle lanes and adding safety improvements for walking and biking on the blocks by LaGuardia Community College. Image: Sergio Pecanha via Transportation Alternatives

If Thomson were "designed with vulnerable users as the first priority and moving car congestion as the secondary priority," the petition to DOT states, car lanes would not be widened, pedestrian crossings would be broken up with median islands, and people biking to school or to work would have protected bike lanes as they approach their destinations.

LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow sent a statement calling on DOT to do better:

It would be devastating if another family has to bury a loved one because of a preventable traffic accident in this intersection. The danger here has long been known and a smart solution needs to be implemented asap – especially as fall classes are gearing up to begin next month. I stand with City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer in fighting to ensure that the redesign emphasizes the thousands of students, faculty, staff, and other area visitors that come here daily -- by expanding the sidewalks in front of our campus, which can become dangerously crowded when classes are in session; opposing any attempt to widen vehicle lane widths, which is known to result in faster driving speeds; installing a new crosswalk to facilitate a direct route instead of having to zig-zag between three intersections to get across; and establishing protected bike lanes for the ever-increasing number of cyclists in NYC. While vehicles are certainly important to our city, prioritizing their ease of travel over the lives of pedestrians and cyclists, who are much more vulnerable to fatality from a traffic accident, would be a huge misstep. Another solution to ease traffic congestion here must be found.

Jessame Hannus, a volunteer with TransAlt in Queens, said Thomson is hard to avoid when biking between Long Island City and points east. "Thomson is a natural bike route toward Queens Boulevard from LIC but it is a terrifying ride," she wrote in an email. "Drivers going on and off the bridge are given highway cues everywhere they look and behave accordingly. Going into LIC there is no safe way to stay out of the way of bridge drivers."

A full sidewalk rebuild, as put forward by DOT, does not come cheap. If the city is going to spend the time and money on a long-term overhaul of a key connection in the Queens street network, the design has to do more for walking and biking than what DOT is proposing.

Updated at 3:00 p.m. to include the statement from Gail Mellow and quote from Jessame Hannus.

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