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Car Culture

Pro-Car Queens Board Wants To Squeeze Pedestrians to Create <i>More</i> Room For Drivers

12:01 AM EST on February 14, 2020

Queens Community Board 7 honchos want to reduce some of this already narrow sidewalk to make room for a turning lane. Photo: Joby Jacob

The same Queens community board with a toxic member who once famously said that gabby pedestrians “deserve” to die now wants to shrink a sidewalk to better accommodate car drivers — a long-shot request that's indicative of the civic panel's indifference to other road users besides those in cars.

Members of Community Board 7, which more or less (but mostly less) represents Flushing, Bay Terrace, Whitestone and Willets Point, voted 30 to 8 in favor of a controversial waterfront development on Monday night — but only on the condition that the city shave the sidewalk at Roosevelt Avenue and College Point Boulevard to make room for a turning lane so that drivers won't be stuck in traffic.

“It would help just a little more if they shaved it," Joe Sweeney, chairman of the board’s Police and Fire/Public Safety committee, told Streetsblog the morning after the heated vote, during which the board's chairman had to be escorted out by police. "This is a recommendation — if it can be done, please consider it.”

The amount of sidewalk the board wants to eliminate is minimal — maybe a foot, according to Sweeney — but it would make it exponentially more dangerous for pedestrians, since the sidewalk is only on one side of the street and a large portion of it is taken up by metal grates.

"I understand drivers frustration at waiting at a light, but ultimately we need to make sure pedestrians are safe," said Flushing resident Joby Jacob. "We do not have enough space for pedestrians in Flushing as it is."

The request to endanger pedestrians is not connected to the development, which consists of new condos, hotels, and retail along Flushing Creek, but is essentially a recommendation from the board, which claims the intersection is a hot spot for congestion. Sweeney says it could be solved by creating more space for cars — a theory dispelled by the phenomenon known as induced demand.

The Department of Transportation says the recommendation is a non-starter because the sidewalk is already too narrow for the street to accommodate another 10-foot turning lane, and the street lights, hydrants, and utility grates there would make it impossible to redesign.

But that the panel even had the nerve to ask the city to take away space from pedestrians in favor of cars is part of the larger problem of a group of out-of-touch old-timers who fail to prioritize some of the district's most pressing issues, like street safety, according to John Choe, a member of the community board who lives in Flushing, one of the most dangerous places to walk in the city.

Three pedestrians were killed by reckless drivers in the neighborhood last year; and since 2018, there have been a total of 11,180 crashes in Flushing, leading to 2,725 injuries, including 654 to pedestrians and 151 to cyclists — a few thousand more than the number of total crashes in neighboring College Point, Whitestone, and Bayside combined, according to Crash Mapper.

"As someone who lives and works in Flushing, reducing sidewalk space is not in the interest of our community. We have been fighting to expand sidewalk space because there's so much car traffic in downtown Flushing and it is a danger to pedestrians and bicyclists," said Choe. 

And at one point during Monday night's raucous board meeting, tensions escalated to the point where police had to escort board Chairman Eugene Kelty out of the room after he lunged at a young woman, according to video posted to Twitter.

Sweeney allegedly did the same to another attendee a few moments later, according to other reporters present at the meeting.

The altercation shocked witnesses, who called it "unacceptable." But what happened is sadly not a one-off thing, but a window into the larger problem that pervades the community board, where members often feel intimidated to speak up and offer a perspective different than that of its leaders, said Choe.

"Unfortunately that type of behavior by CB7 leadership is a normal way it conducts business. That type of intimidation is one of the reasons so many are afraid to speak up and present an independent voice," he said. 

And Choe says he's not only talking about the old, white men who are supposed to represent the voices of residents in one of the most diverse places in the city, but also about what they consider the board's priorities, and the ongoing decision to ignore the dozens of people run over and either injured or killed by reckless drivers each year. 

"It's part of a mentality, and not a priority. This community board, even though it's one of the most dangerous places to walk, we don't talk about that," he said. 

Choe referenced a past meeting when board members discussed what they could do to protect school children from gun violence — an important issue across the country, but one that thankfully does not actually impact Flushing's kids like the violence from cars does. And not only kids, but everyone — in December, an elderly man was killed by a driver who hit him as he was walking on the sidewalk.

"We wasted time on really extraneous issues that have nothing to do with the needs of our community," he said. 

Choe, who says he often bikes to community board meetings, says he regularly feels slighted by other long-time members with pro-car views, who don't consider pedestrians' or cyclists' needs, and who have previously tried to stop bike lanes from coming to Flushing, where none currently exist.

"I bring my bike helmet to committee meetings when we talk about street safety, including bike lanes, and one of the comments I always hear is that we don't have bike riders in our community. I'm sitting right next to these people with a bike helmet!" he said. 

Point to a bike lane in Flushing — oh wait, you can't! Map: DOT
Point to a protected bike lane in Flushing — oh wait, you can't! Map: DOT
Point to a bike lane in Flushing — oh wait, you can't! Map: DOT

And the request to shrink the sidewalk comes just a few months after another video sparked outrage from safe-street advocates and Queens activists.

In July, a two-month-old video posted to Twitter shows CB7 Parks and Recreation committee chair woman Kim Ohanian mocking Mayor de Blasio’s signature Vision Zero initiative in response to a bike lane proposal in her neighborhood.

“I gotta be honest with ya, Vision Zero is a joke. I’ve watched people cross the street while they’re still talking on their damn phones. You know what, they deserve to get run over,” Ohanian, who also works for the Department of Environmental Protection, said on camera.

The mayor and others condemned her comments, and Hizzoner even called for an investigation that could lead to a possible termination of her job — but it ultimately never did.

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