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Northern Boulevard Changes Are Needed Now, Says CM Jimmy Van Bramer (And No Other Pols)

#NewBoulevardOfDeath is trending on Twitter. This is not a good thing.

Sunday morning's killing of a 70-year-old pedestrian on Northern Boulevard near 109th Street was the fourth death along the strip between the Grand Central Parkway and Queens Plaza this year and the ninth since 2017.

That makes Northern one of the most dangerous roadways in the city. According to the Department of Transportation's own statistics, 327 pedestrians and 150 cyclists have been reported injured along Northern since 2012. Thirteen pedestrians have been killed.

In light of the death toll, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer called for a complete redesign of Northern Boulevard.

“For years Queens Boulevard was known as the Boulevard of Death," he said in a statement to Streetsblog. "But that changed when it received a complete safety redesign that included protected bike lanes ... which have saved countless lives. The carnage on Northern Boulevard is just as unacceptable and this new Boulevard of Death must receive the same attention and similar treatment that Queens Boulevard did. The dying must stop on Northern.”

Van Bramer's statement goes far beyond what other Queens elected officials have advocated on Northern, despite the bloodshed.

In May, after the death of 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero, Van Bramer was one of several elected officials who did a photo op on the boulevard and complained to DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg that the roadway was unsafe. Yet afterwards, the pols called only for very minor changes — or none at all. State Senator Jose Peralta, for example, tweeted that he wanted additional lead pedestrian intervals and better paint on existing crosswalks. In a Streetsblog campaign questionnaire earlier this month, the incumbent again resisted more ambitious safety efforts, while his opponent, Jessica Ramos, called for a complete redesign of the roadway, including a protected bike lane.

"I look forward to advocating for fewer cars on the road so we can make good use of our streets for everyone," Ramos said.

Peralta has opposed such life-saving moves in the past because they often result in a loss of parking. "Two specific items I have pushed for are longer crosswalk signals and safer left hand turn designs. I am supportive of protected bike lanes, though they do not necessarily work on every road," he said. In a statement issued to Streetsblog on Monday, the senator added his support for other signal timing changes, but not a redesign.

Council Member Francisco Moya was also on that walkthrough. But he didn't call me back on Monday, one day after the still-unidentified victim died on Northern. That allowed Transportation Alternatives to get a free shot at him.

"Moya is the clear frontrunner in terms of elected officials who would be impediments to change," said the group's Queens organizer Juan Restrepo. "He was the elected who rallied against a safer 111th Street."

He may not have the choice to impede Northern. Late Monday, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Alana Morales said the agency "pledges to redouble our efforts to make Northern Boulevard safer, including engaging with the local community on a vision for a comprehensive roadway redesign."

Morales said the agency would not commit to a full redesign of the roadway, but said "DOT will study additional traffic safety improvements from 56th–114th St, to be completed by this fall."

"The study," she added, "will investigate adding improvements such as signal timing modifications, pedestrian islands, additional left turn calming, and other measures."

There will also be new pedestrian islands between 70th Street to 92nd Street, and (in the coming years) at 36th St, 37th St, 37th Ave, 41st St, 46th St, 47th St, 49th St, and 50th streets, she added.

But street-safety advocates want more — as they have for years. Make Queens Safer, after all, was founded five years ago after three children were killed on Northern in a 10-month period.

"The main issue with Northern Boulevard is that drivers think it's a thruway," said Joby Jacobs, a member of Transportation Alternatives' Eastern Queens committee. "Drivers are making turns and traveling too fast. We can address that with a lane reduction. It should not be a miniature highway. It is a street in our neighborhood."

So what is to be done? Let us count the ways:

The Easy Stuff

The city has installed 17 concrete medians along the roughly 70 blocks of western Northern Boulevard since 2013, but advocates are calling for more: more concrete in the roadway and  pedestrian "bulb outs" at every crosswalk.

"Most of the crashes, like Ampuero and before, were caused by turning vehicles," Jacobs said. "So right now, you could paint pedestrian bump outs on the side streets so when you're turning you have to do it slowly. The mayor could do it right away.

Many side streets could also be closed to simply reduce the number of intersections. The city did close 78th Street between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue to create a public park, and there's no reason why more streets couldn't be closed, said Macartney Morris, chairman of TA's Western Queens committee

"You don't need to enter onto Northern from every single side street," he said. "There are many, many that could be closed to through cars to make 'super blocks' in effect. Certain side streets would be for pedestrians and bikes only. At the least you could limit cars to turning right only from certain side streets or blocking left turns from Northern. Treatments like this should be done on blocks with schools and senior citizen (centers) immediately."

Northern Must Go On A Diet

Northern Boulevard functions as a highway during rush hour, when on-street parking is removed for more capacity for automobiles. That creates excessive speeds and huge volume of cars, advocates say.

"Narrowing the roadway is the most important," said Morris. "It's a seven-lane highway and the extra space screams at drivers to speed when driving straight and when turning."

A true road diet for Northern — with a removal of a lane of traffic first and foremost — would cause a serious political fight that would need far more than the support of Jimmy Van Bramer.

Fixing Northern, Morris pointed out, will require the city to "reduce the level of service" for drivers, "something this DOT and Mayoral administration has been loathe to do."

They regularly remind us that nothing they did on Queens Boulevard reduced level of service," he added. "It removed parking. Fixing Northern will require a real grassroots coalition of neighbors, residents, politicians and advocates. It will require hard work and sacrifice. It can't be done willy nilly or by a mayor or DOT Commissioner unwilling to change the culture of this part of Queens. I believe there is a desperate hunger for a safer Northern Boulevard but residents will need to hear from more people than just safe street advocates that trade-offs will be needed and that they will be worth it."

Morris is certainly not blind to the challenge, having faced it first hand:

"Manhattan Borough Commissioner Luis Sanchez once told a group of us Queens bike folk that he understood what it was like being a Queens commuter because every day he watched the news to decide if he was going to take Northern Boulevard or the Long Island Expressway to drive into Lower Manhattan from his home in Eastern Queens," Morris said. "Even the good [public officials] who believe in bikes and pedestrians worship at the altar of Level of Service."

One good first step would be to deploy speed cameras along the length of Northern Boulevard. Cameras dramatically reduce speeding, city statistics show. And cameras could help the NYPD catch hit-and-run drivers — like one of the two drivers who hit the 70-year-old victim of Sunday's crash. NYPD said only one, a 31-year-old male, stayed on the scene. (Then again, no charges were filed, so...)

Better Mass Transit

Cristina Furlong, a co-founder of Make Queens Safer, focused on better bus service on the strip.

"Currently, bus service on Northern Boulevard is slow and infrequent," she said. "It must become a  priority corridor for new bus service to be funded with congestion pricing revenues. ... The first step the city could take is repositioning Northern Boulevard’s bus stops. Currently, bus stops on the Q66 are only two blocks apart, which produces slow service for transit users, and a high degree of interference with traffic."

Furlong also called for more Select Bus Service enhancements so that drivers would have a greater inducement to stop using their cars.

Morris shared that enthusiasm.

"The long-term big thinking [is] removing lanes of traffic and making them into protected bike lanes or exclusive bus lanes," he said. "Heck, if the Mayor was serious about light rail, Northern Boulevard from the Queensboro Bridge out to Eastern Queens would be a game changer."

He also pointed out that many people north of Northern use cars because they feel they have to.

"[It's] a transit desert with zero subway service and very shitty bus service," he said. "A result, car infrastructure has dominated. That's why these folks deserve safe biking lanes and better buses with exclusive right of way on roads."

Take on the Double-Parkers

Double-parking is as rampant on Northern as it is elsewhere, though few elected officials do anything about it (looking at you, Gale Brewer). But advocates say that more no-parking zones — not just during rush hour — could help.

"Several 24-hour 'no parking' zones on each block [would allow] cars to pick up and drop off passengers, and trucks to deliver goods," said Furlong. "If bus stops are relocated, these zones can be created without a net loss of parking, since there will be approximately one-third fewer bus stops along the corridor."

Reconsider How Northern is Developed

Land-use decisions on Northern Boulevard have only deepened the hold of the car culture, advocates say.

"The fundamental thing is that development on Northern has been suburban-style," said Jacobs, the member of the Eastern Queens TA committee. "Strip malls, for example, include curb cuts, which are not appropriate for Northern Boulevard. This is not a 16-lane road in Florida. It's a four-lane road in Queens. A real land-use review is a worthy undertaking."

Furlong had the same idea.

"Recent developments along Northern Blvd. have continued a pattern of auto-oriented development, at the expense of the quality of transit services and the safety of the pedestrian environment," she said. "Zoning should also promote mixed-use development with housing above retail ... without curb cuts or parking lots ... as is appropriate for a major transit corridor."

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