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Deadly Northern Boulevard Stands Out in Busway Push

12:53 PM EST on December 11, 2019

Bus service on Northern Boulevard is poor — and the roadway is unsafe — because of too many cars. Photo: Benjamin Garron-Caine

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Hundreds of safe-streets activists fanned out across the city on Wednesday to gather support for more car-free busways on Gotham's pokiest thoroughfares — but few routes can make a better claim to needing bus priority than Northern Boulevard in Queens.

The roadway carries tens of thousands of cars and trucks per day, plus several bus lines, including the Q66, which averages just 7.4 miles per hour as it makes its way from Main Street Flushing to Queens Plaza in Long Island City.

Source: MTA
Source: MTA

"It's a great route, but the Q66 is a nightmare with the traffic,” said Jim Burke, chairman of the Fix Northern Boulevard campaign. "It's nearly impossible to get on one of these buses during the morning rush hour, where passenger cars, city vehicles, and private transportation companies idle and double park, slowing the Q66 to a crawl."

As he spoke at Wednesday's petitioning, he showed off a long line of parked vehicles blocking the curbside lane from Junction Boulevard to 91st Street — cars that would not be there if the roadway was designated as a true bus priority route, like the one the city created on 14th Street to much acclaim.

The Q66 is one of the busiest bus lines in the city, according to MTA data, with 14,000 daily riders, up nearly 2 percent from last year.

115th precinct
Of course, officers at the 115th Precinct might object to a car-free busway — given that they like to park in the roadway (with a Jersey barrier to protect their cars). Photo: Google

But Northern Boulevard would benefit from the busway treatment not only to speed buses, but to improve lethal conditions for pedestrians. The thoroughfare, which connects the easternmost sections of Queens to busy commercial areas to the west, has been the site of many fatal crashes in the past few years, including the 2018 hit-and-run death of 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero at 70th Street, and the still-unsolved 2015 hit and run death of Olvidio Jaramillo at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Junction.

They came in the snow to demand better buses. Photo: Jim Burke
They came in the snow to demand better buses. Photo: Jim Burke

Since January, 2017, there have been 2,785 reported crashes only in the 4.3-mile stretch of Northern between the Grand Central Parkway and Queens Plaza, injuring 73 cyclists, 129 pedestrians and 549 motorists, with six pedestrian deaths.

The biggest challenge is that Northern Boulevard is a state highway — Route 25A — masquerading as a city street as it passes through Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona, Flushing, Bayside, Douglaston and Little Neck before reaching the Nassau County border. The city held workshops last year to get local input on where safety improvements should be made, but this has resulted so far only in a map listing all the roadway's problems. Changes have been made on a piecemeal basis. The city announced some of the changes last October, including 10 new medians between 69th and 114th Streets and leading pedestrian interval light timing at every intersection.

As a result, total reported crashes are down 14 percent, though injuries are also up 19 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.

There are at least five elementary and junior-high schools between Junction Boulevard and 70th Street, and activists see the creation of a dedicated bus lane, or busway, as the linchpin of safer conditions for the students and residents who use the corridor.

"Northern Boulevard west of Junction is like the wild, wild west," said City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who was also on hand at Wednesday's petitioning. "We continue to have tragic accidents here, and it's time we create a road diet with better crosswalks and signals, because we've got a ton of kids who use the buses to come here for school."

Currently, Northern Boulevard has three lanes of east/west traffic in both directions, with no cycling or dedicated transit infrastructure. Enter the activists, who see the installation of busways, including the creation of the 14th Street busway in Manhattan, and the dedicated lanes for the B35 along Church Avenue in Brooklyn, as ways to increase transit efficiency and ridership, as well as enhance demarcation and signaling to make the streets safer and less chaotic for transit users and pedestrians. 

Ridership along the M14 has risen by almost 30 percent since the busway went into effect in October, according to Department of Transportation statistics.

After the petitioning on Wednesday morning, advocates from across the city rallied near City Hall to demand busways in multiple communities so that the mayor can make good on his promise to increase bus speeds by 25 percent by the end of next year.

— with Gersh Kuntzman

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