It’s Way Too Tough to Make Basic Street Safety Fixes in New York — So Let’s Make It Easier

Norms have hardened around the idea that basic street safety changes should be subject to an inscrutable public process full of veto points. We have to change those norms.

A few well-placed bollards would keep cars like this white sedan out of the No Standing zones on West End Avenue that are supposed to improve visibility at intersections. But Manhattan CB 7 has delayed a motion to request them.
A few well-placed bollards would keep cars like this white sedan out of the No Standing zones on West End Avenue that are supposed to improve visibility at intersections. But Manhattan CB 7 has delayed a motion to request them.

For a city that’s purportedly committed to ending traffic fatalities, New York makes it awfully difficult to implement even the most basic traffic safety measures.

Street improvements that should be a routine matter of public safety get blocked or delayed by people who know how to game the city’s community board system. A project as simple as redesigning an intersection to be safer to cross can get bogged down for years in this process, which is inscrutable to most residents.

For people who do engage and try to make their neighborhood streets safer, the system imparts a sense of helplessness and frustration. The amount of time and energy it takes to win approval for even small-scale safety improvements is out of all proportion to the ease with which someone can parachute in and veto the project.

Case in point is this story from Streetsblog reader Lisa Sladkus, who describes the campaign to daylight two intersections near an Upper West Side school and keep cars out:

Parents from Metropolitan Montessori School at 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive attended CB 7’s Transportation committee meeting on February 13th to ask the committee to add bollards to No Standing Zones at 85th and 86th Streets and WEA. These No Standing Zones were part of a safety campaign led by the school in 2012 and were one of four solutions that the school proposed to make the neighborhood safer. Since 2012, cars and trucks routinely park in these day-lit spots and use them as loading/unloading zones and car service pick-up points. Because of the parked cars and trucks, the daylighting ended up being useless to the neighborhood and potentially even more dangerous than before, given the size of the trucks and the pulling in and pulling out of car service vehicles.

At this meeting, there was a neighbor of the school who is against the safety changes. He claims that there has been a “catastrophic amount of lost parking” on the Upper West Side. The irony of his italicized use of the word catastrophic is almost unbearable. He correctly states that the daylighting and No Standing Zone signs are counterproductive because vehicles are constantly parked in them. His solution is to get rid of the No Standing Zones and restore the free car storage.

Although the committee voted in favor of the proposal to add bollards AND to daylight two additional spots, by the time the full board meeting came around on March 6, apparently, they had changed their minds. When I arrived at the meeting, the resolution was written completely differently than what was voted on back on February 13. And, to add insult to injury, we were informed that the entire item was pulled from the agenda because the anti-safety neighbor claimed that the community wasn’t well-informed. So, instead of protecting our kids, CB 7 once again chose to protect the anti-safety movement and delay these changes for yet another month.

It shouldn’t be this difficult to make progress on what should be a no-brainer safe-route-to-school project. And nothing in the law says the process has to be this convoluted. We’ve simply let norms harden around the idea of the community board veto.

Small-scale changes like daylighting an intersection or adding a bike corral don’t require community board notification. But the expectation is that NYC DOT should treat community boards as gatekeepers for even the most minor adjustment if it involves converting a single motor vehicle parking spot to some other function.

What if we changed the expectation? At this point, it’s clear that DOT will only supersede community board votes on rare occasions where City Hall feels like the public benefit of a project outweighs the political risk of moving forward without “permission.” But we can change the way DOT is granted permission.

There are many community board members around the city who want to do the right thing, and plenty of City Council members who value safe conditions for walking more than a few parking spots. They can set new norms. Instead of organizing the whole public process around the veto power of a few individuals, they can embrace their power to enable changes that benefit the public at large.

A council member or a community board could, for instance, come forward and tell DOT to install 50 or 100 intersection improvements in their district each year without seeking permission for each bike corral or daylighting zone. It would run counter to the instinct for control that guides so many decisions about our streets. But that’s exactly the point — to upend the expectations that currently hold back safer street designs around the city.

  • Thomas Matte

    Another good piece highlighting the potential for abuse of the CB system — by NIMBYs, special interests, etc. In this case, the defenders of free (and in this case illegal) on street parking in our crowded city are missing the forest for the trees. Neighborhoods lose far more free street parking to non-resident commuters and visitors and to parking placard abusers and fraudsters than are “lost” to safety improvements for vulnerable street users. New York City desperately needs common sense parking reforms, including a residential permit system. Perhaps safety advocates and neighborhood car owners could find common cause in that issue.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “We’ve simply let norms harden around the idea of the community board veto.”

    https://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/36/19/all_forumbikelane_2013_05_10_bk.html

    Actually, we’ve let norms harden around pandering to NIMBY’s even when the community board and City Council member are in favor.

    Pandering to selfishness has consequences. DeBlasio has ended up battling with these sorts of people for things he actually cares about, let along safe streets and transit.

  • You’ve never seen a more ridiculous in your life than a group of no more than fourteen people, largely aged fifty-five and up, having to approve a bike corral for my kids’ public elementary school.

    Even though the staff, students, and parents wanted the corral and DOT approved the application and placement, we still had to collect tons of petition signatures and wait for months to get an item on the agenda for the transportation committee. Then, when it finally got on the agenda, it was postponed for a month. When that meeting happened, no one from the school could attend because there was a conflict with a massive PTA event on the same night. So even though CB6 is rather progressive when it comes to such things, we still had to run through an entire meeting of people asking all the same questions they ask every time one of these things go in. Who will maintain it? What about the trash? What’s the parking situation on that street? If you’ve ever attended one of these meetings you know that things can go off the rails at any moment. Nothing is ever a sure thing.

    The committee approved the placement last month, but there was still the extra step of it advancing to the full board. It was approved, but there have been times when committee nullification was a real thing.

    The whole process lasted from May of 2017 to February of 2018. All to turn one car parking spot into parking for eight or more bikes. It’s absurd and must be fixed.

  • There should be an emergency crisis team at NYC DOT that the Mayor grants the ability to do quick fixes in high problem areas or recently shown to be dangerous. Let them present them to the community once. Yes DO take feedback and attempt to address concerns, but don’t even ask for a vote. Just implement. If there is a major disease outbreak we don’t present it to the community for a vote. Of if we have major flooding issues from a storm, we don’t dilly dally with consulting the community. We do what needs to be done.

  • See my comment above. There should be a new, quick fix process for NYC DOT. Let them do their job. No endless delays. No ridiculous tiny group of people screaming about parking spaces. Just. Fix. Things.

  • We need council members or others to do what Ben said. On a smaller level, they should establish some sort of threshold: if a project repurposes fewer than X number of parking spaces, no notification is needed. Seems fair since when DOT *adds* parking to neighborhoods, they do not come to community boards for approval.

    https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2016/04/19/adding-curb-space-for-cars-vs-space-for-bikes-dots-double-standard/

    One good example might be a BID that wants a street seat. If the BID — which presumably represents nearly every business on a particular corridor — wants one of those things, so long as it has followed DOT-established guidelines, why should DOT need to go to a community board for approval?

  • Yeah we are slowing down life and living in this city to appease a few dozen people in every Community Board who – sometimes – wants to obstruct or at least feel like they have power. If you are fixing an intersection or putting in daylighting on a street corner – just tell the community you are doing it. I mean unless it is taking away 50 or 100 parking spaces, just get it done. Put in benches, bike parking if you are removing a spot or two, anything not unreasonable should just go thru. That way NYC DOT can do its job more efficiently, waste less money, save more lives, and – frankly – Community Boards can spend more time on larger, bigger issues. It’s a win for everyone. Except the car parking complainers.

  • Joe R.

    As far as I’m concerned something like daylighting is such a basic safety issue it should be enshrined in law. No parking 15 or 20 feet from crosswalks, period. The day after the law is passed you start giving out tickets to anyone parked too close to the crosswalk. When the street is up for repaving you install bulbouts and bollards to physically prevent parking near the crosswalk. Yes, the city will lose many thousands of parking spots. To those who would complain, my answer would be the city is merely correcting something which never should have been allowed in the first place.

  • SteveVaccaro

    Great post, Ben. Great policy. Great writing. Great post.

    Thank you!

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s one thing to have that West Village NIMBY on the 14th Street bus and bike lanes, who is completely focused on the local interest with no concern for the broader citywide interest.

    This is a case of something that only affects the local interest, and the real concern is MY interest.

    A libertarian is a liberal who has been mugged by a community board (co-op board, homeowner’s association, planning board, appeals board, etc etc.).

  • JarekFA

    Exactly. As a matter of course. And you identified the biggest culprit: it’s so hard to find parking! Wah Wah Wah. Move to Nassau County if you want to park so bad.

  • Adrian Horczak

    According to state law, it is illegal to park less than 20 feet from a crosswalk. Big cities, like NYC, are the exception.
    That exception is a mistake and it should be fixed immediately!

  • Vooch

    Irony abounds

    “At this meeting, there was a neighbor of the school who is against the safety changes. He claims that there has been a “catastrophic amount of lost parking” on the Upper West Side”

    The location in question (85th and RSD) happens to be THE EASIEST place in Manhattan to store a car curbside. I lived on RSD for many years. It’s trivial to find a space.

  • Urbanely

    I can give another example of this: My parents live on a very long one-way street in Canarsie that is a little more than 4 cars wide. There is only a stop sign at the end of this street, so inevitably, people race down the street. I reached out to DOT to request speed bumps for the street. DOT actually agreed that speed bumps were necessary! Then they turned it over to the community board. The community board provided a petition that had to be signed by 100% of the residents of the street. Here’s the text on the petition (location redacted):

    We, the homeowners of ______Street, request a “speed hump” on _______
    Street between Farragut Road and Foster Avenue.

    We are fully aware that the speed humps do not always slow down traffic and they can cause other hazards and hardships they present to pedestrians, children, pets, parked cars, and homes – such as – trip hazard, motorists swerving to avoid the hump, colliding
    with parked cars, screeching brakes, exceptionally loud noises when the hump is
    hit by vehicles, flying dislodged hub caps, and the constant vibrations felt
    within the homes that can cause structural damage, impedes Department of
    Sanitation snow removal, create a considerable increase in response time for
    ambulance and fire apparatus perspective, and home buyers may find the
    installation of a speed hump to be a “buyer beware” sign.

    Now, these neighbors are pretty ridiculous on a good day. My mom can’t even get them to pitch in $5 to shovel snow in the community driveway. She’s supposed to go door to door to collect signatures to get them to sign THIS?! DOT agreed that the street is problematic. Why should anyone’s opinion of this be relevant? Furthermore, since when does a speed bump lower property values? Do people pay a premium to live on a drag strip?

  • JarekFA

    Such a broken system.

  • HamTech87

    The “trip hazard” is one I hear all the time. So idiotic.

  • Joe R.

    I’m personally not a big fan of speed humps on account of the fact that poorly maintained ones (which is just about all of them in NYC) eventually break up, especially in the direction of traffic. The “ramp” is lost, with the end result of a sharp increase in pavement height of up to a few inches. This may not present a major hazard for motorists, but it definitely is one for cyclists.

    As for actually reducing speed, speed humps may work in their immediate vicinity but drivers generally then speed afterwards to make up the time they lost, same as they do after they stop for stop signs which are often put up to ostensibly slow down motorists. While I certainly agree that list of “hazards and hardships” is pretty ridiculous, there are better methods than speed humps to slow down traffic.

    We now have automated speed enforcement. NYC shouldn’t need Albany’s permission to install speed cameras operating 24/7 whenever desired. Even if we can’t get Albany’s permission, put up the cameras anyway, but instead of having them issue tickets they send pictures of the vehicle’s license plate and its speed to the insurance company. Let the insurance company decide whether or not to increase premiums of habitual speeders. Really, automated enforcement is the way to go, coupled with street redesigns in the long-term which compel motorists to slow down.

  • Yes, these things happen at community board meetings sometimes, and it is ridiculous and awful.

    I wouldn’t call it common… I wouldn’t call it rare.

    I would say, though, that MCB7 is an outlier in the sense that these maneuvers with agenda items are, in fact, rare and improper. It speaks to the length some people on that board will go to cater to a minority of vocal residents and board members.

    Many boards are not like this. And there are 59 of them, many of which we haven’t heard anything from, because they don’t end up on the radar of progressive activist watchdogs by abusing the process.

    The abuses are cause for reform. They are not inherent to all forms of community government. That is a point that rarely gets across in this kind of coverage (from any outlets).

    Community boards should be encouraged to contribute local knowledge to the extent that they add suggestions to increase the effectiveness of beneficial projects, or at least suggestions that lessen negative impacts while preserving benefits. Their input should perhaps inform the configuration of critical street network elements, but shouldn’t range as far as having veto power over a whole multi-neighborhood program. That is one way we can increase the confidence that we have in community boards.

    That said, I wouldn’t keep offering the suggestion that community boards have been the stumbling block for all of these well-intended street redesign proposals. It’s getting knocked down at the DOT level, not at the CB level. The DOT isn’t even particularly afraid of community boards themselves anymore; they’re simply not willing to test the citizens themselves, knowing the trouble that some people will go through to defend parking spaces. They’re not incorrect about the pushback, but they need to figure out how to effectively filter it out.

  • I agree 100% . Our community board has been asking for years for the DOT to fix 4 of the most dangerous intersections in NYC … they studied one of them and came back with the fact that it would back up traffic too much .
    DOT Could install split phases at all intersections but they do not do it. It is too easy for them to blame Community boards.
    They have to adopt new complete street standards and just roll them out. But this mayor does not have the backbone to do it. We should be more upset at the Mayor and DOT , than at community boards.
    Ps they could also address the bus crisis by creating protected bus lanes… but they do not do it….

  • You all need to stop blogging and get on your community board . THAT is real change making. Stop complaining about “them”. Take control…

  • I’m on my community board’s transportation/public safety committee and I think that most of the stuff that comes before us shouldn’t require a vote or even a presentation. The very fact that some safe streets projects have to go through a multi-month (or multi-year!) process is not good at all.

  • Amen to that.

  • Lisa Sladkus

    Christine, I applied to CB7 twice and was rejected.

  • This is really disheartening LIsa. Have you written to get a meeting with Gale Brewer and ask the reasons.

  • Lisa Sladkus

    It was back in the Stringer era. He told me I had too many ideas in my interview and was a pitbull as an advocate. Apparently, that’s a bad thing!?

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