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‘We Told You So!’: Crash Highlights Street Dangers in Queens

The unprotected bike lane on Underhill Avenue at 188th Street in Fresh Meadow, where the crash occurred. Photo: Sergio Romero

A recent crash in eastern Queens is spotlighting the dangerous street conditions activists long have warned about — and which the city hasn’t fixed.

On Sept. 10, the driver of a black Nissan struck and injured a young, male cyclist who was traveling east on Underhill Avenue at the corner of 188th Street through Peck Park in Fresh Meadows. Fortunately, another cyclist riding nearby heard the crash and stayed with the victim — who was conscious but bleeding — until he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. His injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.

John Kelly

In 2017, another cyclist, Ben Turner, was struck by a driver about 250 feet from where this crash happened. He escaped with some bruising; his helmet took most of the impact that shattered the car's windshield. In 2013, 3-year-old Allison Liao was killed by a driver as she walked with her grandmother in Flushing. This week, a motorist killed a senior citizen nearby in Kew Garden Hills, just blocks from where another motorist gravely injured the dead man's wife in February. 

Queens is a borough of constant vehicle violence and death. So far this year (through August), there have been 8,219 reported crashes in Queens, injuring 576 cyclists, 1,554 pedestrians and 9,243 motorists, with two cyclists, 17 pedestrians and 22 motorists dying. If it seems like mayhem, that’s because it is — that's an average of 160 crashes a day.

The Sept. 10 crash, while not the worst, is notable for how it illustrates multiple failures of our system. For six years, the activists of Eastern Queens Greenway have worked to create a protected, family-safe path through our parks — from Flushing Meadows, through Kissena Park and Peck Park, to Cunningham Park and Alley Pond Park, and then to the Long Island border. If the Parks Department and the DOT had completed this greenway, the cyclist would have had a route through Peck Park instead of being forced to ride on the unprotected bike lanes next to it. Eastern Queens Greenway repeatedly made requests to the Department of Transportation to fix this poorly designed intersection. The city either rejected the recommendations or hasn’t acted yet.

This is not to blame DOT, which is hamstrung by local apathy. In the past, DOT has proved responsive to our projects, including building the protected bike lane along Northern Boulevard in 2017 after a motorist there mowed down a 78-year-old cyclist, Michael Schenkman.

But many DOT safety upgrades are too slow and too small because of pressure from conservative politicians and community board members. The Northern Boulevard project installed less than a mile of protected bike lane next to a park — but it took more than 1,000 signatures from neighbors and a massive showing of local cyclists at the CB meeting for the measure to pass in a heated vote.

This black Nissan shows a dent above the driver's side front wheel where the driver hit a cyclist. There are also cracks to the windshield on the driver's side. Photo: John Kelly

Moreover, police enforcement of traffic rules in our borough doesn't seem to affect driver behavior. NYPD apparently did not ticket the driver for failure to exercise due care in the Sept. 10 crash — even though data suggest that he is a repeat offender. The car’s license plate, NY EWC-4314, showed that its driver (or drivers) had five school-zone speed-camera violation and three red-light violations from 2013 to 2019, according to the ticket bot “How’s My Driving NY.”

If the police can't help end traffic violence, we can at least fix faulty street design.

From 2016 onward, Eastern Queens Greenway made no fewer than five official requests for safety improvements to the intersection, where a five-way stop sign meets sharrows and an unprotected bike lane. DOT rejected two of those improvements, while three are pending:

  • A July 2016 request for traffic signal at the intersection of 188th Street at Underhill Avenue, which DOT rejected (case number DOT-304098-Y3J1);
  • A July 2016 request for a crosswalk along 188th Street, which DOT rejected (DOT-304097-V4L3);
  • A May 2018 request for sidewalk extensions at intersections along Fresh Meadows Park, including at the crash site. The request was sent to DOT, the Mayor's Office, Council members, and Assembly members. It also asked for the local, unprotected bike lanes to be moved inside the park. DOT and the Parks Department have yet to make any changes.
  • An August 2019 request for sidewalk extensions to slow drivers at the intersection of Underhill Avenue at 188th Street. DOT estimates it will review this request by December (DOT-429985-Y4X8).
  • An August 2019 request for a protected bicycle lane on Underhill Avenue; DOT estimates a review by mid November (DOT-429980-V9H1).
This stop sign is the only governor of traffic on this huge expanse of road. Can we please get a traffic light? Photo: John Kelly

Our campaign for a fully protected greenway has enthusiastic support from many politicians, including Assembly Member Nily Rozic and Council Member Peter Koo. Street improvements around Peck Park are supported by the Parent-Teacher Association of nearby Francis Lewis High School on Utopia Parkway, where some 100 students bike to school every day, many using the inadequate bike lanes on Underhill Avenue.

The crash itself shows how the safety improvements we requested at this intersection could have helped. Sidewalk extensions could have slowed the driver and halved the cyclist's crossing distance as he passed 188th Street. A stop light with a bicycle signal would remove the confusion of the five-way stop sign.

Yet with multiple schools, cyclists, commuters, and park-goers in the area, we still absurdly prioritize the nominal amount of car traffic over the safety of our neighbors. The entire area around Peck Park has unsafe intersections and sub-par bike lanes; it's a hazard waiting for the next victim.

Last month, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg wrote in Streetsblog that advocates need "to be even more engaged and involved at the community level to meet our ambitious goals, especially in places where cycling is less accepted."

That's what we're doing: Eastern Queens Greenway has been working for years to improve this intersection. We'll keep fighting. But how many more people must be hurt or killed before the city prioritizes DOT's proven, life saving improvements over the convenience of drivers?

John Kelly fights for safe streets as part of the Eastern Queens Greenway.

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