OUTRAGE! DOT Delays Life-Saving Amsterdam Avenue Redesign in Fight With NIMBYs

CB 9's refusal to accept the facts could wind up costing lives.

The proposed redesign of Amsterdam Avenue would cut dangerous speeding while reducing the flow of traffic -- something the community board leadership refuses to believe. Image: DOT
The proposed redesign of Amsterdam Avenue would cut dangerous speeding while reducing the flow of traffic -- something the community board leadership refuses to believe. Image: DOT

DOT will not move ahead with a proven life-saving redesign of upper Amsterdam Avenue because of ongoing objections from the fact-averse leadership of Manhattan Community Board 9.

The proposal would reduce dangerous speeding and improve the flow of automobile traffic. But CB9’s leadership, which has refused to put the project to a vote for 19 months now, is unwilling to support a street design that has saved lives in many other city neighborhoods.

“All it’s going to do is slow traffic down,” Transportation Chairwoman Carolyn Thompson said at a “town hall” meeting with Council Member Mark Levine and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on Monday night. “Every time you say you’re taking out a lane, you’re slowing traffic down. I don’t care what they’re saying, it slows traffic down.”

Thompson spoke to Streetsblog after the meeting, where she and the board’s Vice Chairman Victor Edwards opposed the traffic-calming plan, which is not even as complete as the improvements made to one-way Amsterdam Avenue below 110th Street.

Indeed, instead of a protected bike lane, the plan for the two-way stretch from 110th Street to 162nd Street would install unprotected lanes, painted medians, and turn lanes in both directions [PDF]. The goal is to calm traffic on the stretch where 141 people have been injured in the 19 months that Thompson has refused to move the project forward, according to Crashmapper.

Yet DOT, which has no legal obligation to wait for the board’s verdict, has decided to wait for the board to vote — the latest example of the agency seeking to build consensus rather than opening up its time-tested toolbox.

Council Member Mark Levine tries to defend a DOT street safety plan before an unwilling CB9. Photo: David Meyer
Council Member Mark Levine tries to defend a DOT street safety plan before an unwilling CB9. Photo: David Meyer

And now it’s too late for the season anyway, thanks to upcoming colder weather, which makes it impossible to paint lines on the street, said a DOT source. (And you thought, “Wait ’til next year” was only a Brooklyn thing.)

CB9 is right about one thing: DOT’s plan would reduce the number of car lanes. But the agency argues — with considerable experience — that the remaining lanes would be more efficient because the new turning bays will prevent left-turning drivers from holding up traffic behind them. Backups like those cause unnecessary merging, which in turn slows down traffic even more, the agency said.

Thompson and her colleagues on CB 9 don’t believe it, but they’ve framed their opposition in terms of the supposed negative impact of exhaust fumes from idling cars during rush hour.

But Thompson was crystal clear in her interview with Streetsblog that her concern was the loss of space for automobiles. She noted — unprompted — that she does not believe census data that shows only 20 percent of households in the district own cars.

“I don’t know what [the number] is, but I know it’s not that,” she said.

The board will vote, but only if DOT produces a “health study” detailing any adverse environmental impacts, Edwards said.

“It’s impacted by two bus depots and a sewage treatment plan already, so when you limit to one lane, people are going to be idling that much longer,” he said. “For the volume of traffic that’s there now, I don’t think the turn lanes are going to make that much more of a difference.”

Levine, the local council member, disagrees. In September, he urged DOT to move forward, despite Edwards and Thompson’s opposition.

“I still have great hope that the community board will support this project,” Levine said. “There is safety on the line here.

“What you get is, yes, less speeding, but you also avoid the kind of back-ups that you get behind left-turners and other folks obstructing. It’s not clear to me why, at all, that would lead to more idling,” he said. “If it leads a few suburban commuters to take mass transit instead, well, that’s the ultimate win for air quality.”

 

  • First of all, slowing traffic down is a good thing. The fact that bike lanes slow down auto traffic is the reason that bicycle infrastructure is in the interest of literally everybody — including drivers, who are less likely to be injured or killed.

    More fundamentally, Community Boards should play no part in the making of decisions, which is the function exclusively of our elected representatives and of the department heads appointed by the mayor.

    Community Boards are merely places where vapid, self-important local busybodies can run around until they tire themselves out. The legitimate decision-makers should pay no heed to these preposterous assemblages of lunatics and half-wits.

  • Charlie Romanow

    “Every time you say you’re taking out a lane, you’re slowing traffic down. I don’t care what they’re saying, it slows traffic down.” That’s incorrect. Having a road diet removing travel lanes in favor of turn lanes can potentially (depending on traffic volumes) not slow traffic because presently, turning vehicles back up traffic, but with a road diet with clearer delineation, traffic will be able to function more smoothly. Removing a lane would only conclusively slow traffic if every motorist was driving exactly as they are supposed to which is never the case.

  • Tooscrapps

    When have facts ever mattered to CBs?

  • Jacob

    “I don’t know what [the number] is, but I know it’s not that,”

    More evidence for direct CB elections. This is ridiculous.

  • It comes back to the basic argument – if you have an advisory member of the community who makes critical declarations while refusing scientifically-backed data & disregarding any broader goals other than how-fast-I-can-blow-through-my-neighborhood, then the city needs to disregard their input and move forward with plans that meet comprehensive goals.

  • As a pedestrian, I’ve crossed this stretch of Amsterdam Avenue thousands of times over the past twenty years and can attest to the ridiculous/dangerous speeds most cars travel (it’s actually worse at night, when there’s less traffic). I’m sure cars regularly reach 60 or 70 mph in what is primarily a residential neighborhood. I encourage Mark Levine to keep pressing for this needed change and will ask my neighbors to do the same.

  • HamTech87

    Where are City College and Columbia University in this discussion? These institutions educate or employ thousands using dangerous Amsterdam. Why isn’t this a public health concern for them? And fwiw, those thousands of students have no voice on the community boards, even though their lives are put at risk by the CB decisions.

  • eastphilliamsburg

    Everything about this is pretty outrageous, and speaks to a need for comprehensive CB reform.

    But I do want to make a dumb technical point. All the street treatments that need to be done for the L Train Shutdown have really stretched DOT’s striping capacity for this fall. Even if this project was approved yesterday, it’s likely there would be a delay until the next season.

  • Komanoff

    CB9 vice-chair Victor Edwards: “The board will vote, but only if DOT produces a “health study” detailing any adverse environmental impacts. [We’re] impacted by two bus depots and a sewage treatment plan already, so when you limit to one lane, people are going to be idling that much longer.”

    Umm, it’s a non-sequitur to invoke the bus depots and sewage treatment plant. Their existence has no impact on whether the street redesign is good or bad.

    But the whole “idling” this is a red herring. Car and, increasingly, bus and truck tailpipes are much less polluting at idling speeds than they were 30 or even 10 years ago. More idling — even if there is, which is unlikely — will have a de minimis impact on air quality. (And yes, in my congestion pricing advocacy I make the same point in reverse, that the AQ benefits are less than they would have been in prior decades. Unfortunately, the enviro community wont’ let go of the “idling” spectre, so no surprise it gets used against livable streets.)

    Btw, love the other comments here, especially @HamTech87.

  • Emmily_Litella

    Sleepwalking into the future we are. This time next year we’ll have hundreds of students up there on electric scooters mixed in with all the un-slowed car traffic.

  • SteveVaccaro

    The game here is to pretend that the Community Board is a
    decision-making body with discretion to choose LoS (or parking) over
    safety, such that qualified immunity from liability would bar lawsuits
    by persons injured due to non-protected design. The CB is not such a
    body. This is not to say that there is an *actual* conflict here between LoS
    and safety, but *if* the CB was a decision-making body, a court would
    likely defer to a CB analysis positing such a false conflict, and
    choosing the former over the latter.The danger is that the true decision maker, @NYC_DoT,
    will try to hide behind the CB and implicitly treat CB vote as an input
    into its own discretionary policy decision-making process, which (if
    properly conducted and documented) *can* result in qualified immunity.What Turturro teaches is that even if gov’t decision-maker with
    discretion “studies the problem,” if actions taken (or omitted) based on
    study are not rationally linked to study’s factual findings, there will
    be no qualified immunity, but maybe there’s an exception to that.A court might find it a “rational” basis for qualified immunity (or, to
    borrow a political analogy, a “political question”) that a gov’t
    decision-maker with discretion candidly decided to choose LoS over a
    safer design as indicated by properly-conducted safety study. That is why #SafeStreets
    advocates, in mounting a traffic calming campaign, need to hold gov’t
    officals’ feet to the fire, and insist that those officials expressly
    state that the ultimate redesign that is implemented reflects an
    explicit commitment to safety over LoS.Because if a watered-down/unsafe redesign is ultimately implemented
    ostensibly based on CB “voodoo traffic engineering” rationale, resulting
    #TrafficViolence victims have a shot at proving in court that design shortcuts were irrational and qualified immunity should not apply.

  • Daphna

    Mark Levine, who admirably supports this re-design of Amsterdam Avenue, and who has been vocal about it, could make sure it happens by working in conjunction with Gale Brewer to appoint different people to Manhattan Community Board 9. Long term members of CB9 such as Carolyn Thompson, who oppose street improvements, who refuse to believe facts such as neighborhood car ownership rates, and who refuse to understand how traffic gets re-organized in street re-designs so that no additional congestion is caused, do not need to be re-appointed every two years when their terms expire.

  • Daphna

    Students and staff of City College, Columbia University, Barnard, Teacher’s College, Manhattan School of Music, Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, International House residents, neighborhood residents, and all who use this corridor of Amsterdam Avenue from 110th to 155th Street should express their support for this design! Send emails to the Manhattan Borough Commissioner at the NYC Department of Transportation, Edward Pincar, epincar@dot.nyc.gov

    Showing that there is a great deal of support for this plan will help the DOT to move forward in spite of the advisory-only objections of a few fact-adverse political appointees on Manhattan Community Board 9.

  • Joe R.

    Community boards are to safe streets what global warming deniers are to a sane energy policy. We need to stop weighting opinions and anecdotes on an equal level with engineering, science, and statistics. Everyone is an expert on everything nowadays except the people who actually spent years or decades of their life studying a field. The death of expertise is the problem. The article sums it up nicely:

    http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/

  • Joe R.

    Also worth adding that the nascent EV revolution will make the idling thing entirely moot, probably within a decade or two.

  • burnabybob

    Another reminder why CB’s are STRICTLY ADVISORY. Their input is welcome and will be considered where helpful, but they should not have veto power when the safety of their constituents is at stake.

  • burnabybob

    Slowing traffic down is also part of the point. People are driving way over the speed limit on most NYC streets.

  • BubbaJoe123

    While I don’t disagree with the piece, citing an article published in The Federalist in a post criticizing (justifiably) climate change deniers is a bit ironic.

  • John

    Aside from the stupidity of the CB, I want to point out that the fact that the city didn’t even propose protected bike lanes, as the UWS has on Amsterdam, simply underscores the two-tiered system we have for bike infrastructure. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods get protected lanes; everyone else gets sub-par, unsafe “bike lanes” that are constantly blocked by double parked cars. It’s unconscionable, and every article about bike lane infrastructure needs to hammer this home and hold the DOT to account for the inequities.

  • Daphna

    DOT proposes plans that they think have a chance of getting approved by the local community board (even though CBs are advisory-only and the DOT does not need their approval). As such, Manhattan CB9, or rather people in power at CB9, oppose street improvements. Likely the DOT wanted to propose a more robust street re-design, but they knew it would not get an endorsement from the local CB. Carolyn Thompson, chairwoman of the CB9 Transportation Committee, forced the DOT to come back over and over and water down this plan further each time, which the DOT did, and yet she still fought against it after getting it substantially watered down. Over 13 blocks of this 45 block stretch would have less of a road diet than proposed due to Carolyn Thompson’s requests. At meetings when the public attends, she refuses to let anyone speak or even take a poll by a show of hands expressing support for a plan. She effectively silences all community input that is contrary to her keep-all-space-for-cars perspective.

    As pointed out, this was not nearly as substantial a re-design as it could have been. But even this mild re-design that minimally re-allocates street space, and even after being weakened to appease certain CB9 members, was not endorsed by CB9.

    In order to have more substantial street transformations, the focus needs to be on either changing community board appointees, or getting the DOT to proceed without seeking CB advisory-only approval.

    The Boro Presidents and City Councilmembers could appoint different people and it is baffling why elected officials who support street safety appoint people to their community boards who oppose it.

    The NYC DOT, who are the decision making body, should not be voluntarily ceding decision making power to local CBs, and the mayor should be backing DOT to proceed regardless of CB opinions.

  • Exactly. Non protected bike lanes are dangerous. Waste of time and energy for everyone involved . Where are complete streets when you need them ?

  • snrvlakk

    Is it DOT’s fault? Or the fault of the local community boards, theoretically the representatives of the local, poorer, often minority residents? I’m with you all the way on your argument, but I disagee with your last sentence. Yes, DOT & City Hall should declare that CB9 has declined to act for a year-and-a-half and go ahead and do the work, but they should not be getting the bulk of the blame here, CB9 should.

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