STREETS WEEK! DOT Commish Diagnoses Conduit Boulevard, Then Prescribes The Wrong Treatment

Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman, moments before getting annoyed at a Streetsblog reporter. Photo: Dave Colon
Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman, moments before getting annoyed at a Streetsblog reporter. Photo: Dave Colon

The Department of Transportation’s Streets Week! began on Monday with an open salvo of NYPD enforcement that really only raised one existential question about New York, road safety and the failure of Vision Zero: Why do we even have battlefields like Conduit Boulevard?

No, no one answered that question at the DOT’s press conference at Conduit Boulevard and Pitkin Avenue in East New York, but it wasn’t because no one could hear over the collection of speeding cars zooming past, but because as Streets Week! got off to its start, everyone was focused on stepped-up enforcement and lower speed limits on 45 miles of arterial roads across the city.

Enforcement, of course, is only one of the “E”s of Vision Zero — the others being “education” and “engineering.” Advocates believe that enforcement is the least-important pillar of the movement to reduce road deaths to zero. If streets are better designed, and drivers are taught better, no cop or speed camera should be needed.

But DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman made what amounts to the most eloquent defense of enforcement on behalf of his boss on Monday.

“The idea is not to give tickets,” said Gutman. “The objective of the program [is] to get people to obey the law and to save lives by doing so. Obviously, there are drivers out there in sufficient numbers to kill way too many New Yorkers. So if we need to do it through enforcement, and through tickets, that’s what we’re going to do. Because the alternative is more for children, the elderly [to die], that’s who these things victims are, look back at your own stories. These are the people being hit. These are the people who are dying. Our perfect scenario would be never issuing another ticket and collecting $0 from the speed cameras because the people driving on our streets obeyed the speed limits, and put the value of human life above saving a few minutes of whatever errand they’re on.”

Still, that only raised the question of why Gutman and NYPD Transportation Bureau Chief Kim Royster had journeyed to one of the most-dangerous and worst-designed speedways in town to talk about everything but redesigning one of the most-dangerous and worst-designed speedways in town.

At least Gutman showed sympathy for the New Yorkers forced to live along the terrible roadway, where the median household income is $37,000 and 60 percent of the residents don’t have access to a car, according to the Census.

“Let’s speak for a moment about Conduit Boulevard,” Gutman said in his prepared remarks. “For lots of people, this is the way that you take a shortcut to JFK or to the Belt Parkway or to Jones Beach. But for the thousands of residents of East New York and Ozone Park, this street is not a highway shortcut. It’s the street you cross in order to get to the store, or to the diner or to the Grant Avenue A train.”

But no redesign? Perhaps that will come later in Streets Week!? (Or not at all, if the mayor’s speed-loving critics have any say about it.)

That Mayor de Blasio kicked off a Vision Zero-focused week with a celebration of traffic enforcement should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his views on traffic violence, including last week’s appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” where the mayor only talked about Vision Zero in terms of “stringent penalties” and “intense police enforcement.”

Conduit Boulevard (right), a street people have to cross every day. Photo: Google Maps
Conduit Boulevard (right), a street people have to cross every day. Photo: Google Maps

Advocates are getting tired of nearly eight years of this.

“The goal of Vision Zero and making this street safe is not to have people there waiting for you to speed,” said one safe streets advocate when asked about the existence of Conduit as a concept. “It should be to build the street so you’re prevented from speeding in the first place.”

The de Blasio administration made minor changes to Conduit Boulevard before Streets Week!, the most notable being what Streetsblog’s Dave Meyer called “basic pedestrian upgrades” in 2016. But as our prior story indicated, Conduit got only some signalized crosswalks, median extensions and sidewalks in parts of the median; it remained the stroad it has long been (the wide median was a Robert Moses scheme and was originally meant to host Interstate 78, but that part never got built).

The short stretch of Conduit that received those basic treatments has remained chaotic. Since August 2016, there have been 523 reported crashes, injuring 10 cyclists, 36 pedestrians and 137 motorists (killing two pedestrians) on just those eight blocks. So it only stands to reason that an enforcement blitz should come with a proposed redesign that takes more space away from cars and fits into the updated way we look at streets, something more akin to Transportation Alternatives’ 25 x 25 plan, a design proposal that firmly rejects Gutman’s accurate, if depressing, description of Conduit Boulevard as a highway shortcut for so many New Yorkers.

As impassioned as Gutman’s answer on enforcement was, police enforcement of traffic safety doesn’t have the lasting power of a permanent road change. After all, the mayor had a full-strength NYPD in 2019, when street safety became such a pressing issue that activists staged a die-in at Washington Square Park halfway through a year when 29 cyclists were killed. But design and car-reduction strategies have never been at the forefront of the mayor’s thinking, even though his Vision Zero initiative is struggling.

And it certainly wasn’t on the agenda on Monday when Streetsblog asked the mayor (again!) whether he would consider adopting some of the policies that have helped Oslo completely eliminate road deaths and allowed Copenhagen to almost get to zero.

“I mean, God bless those other cities. I respect them. We’re a different city than they are,” the mayor said, making his frequent defense of New York exceptionalism. “I think what we have found works is a combination of approaches. I clearly am a believer in speed cameras, but I also am a believer in police enforcement. … And I think the fact that since this administration began, we focus the NYPD more and more on speeding, on failure to yield. I do think it’s had an impact.”

Not even the people quoted in the mayor’s press release on the Streets Week! announcement were sure, though.

“It’s also urgently important that the city prioritize design changes to these streets to make it physically difficult for drivers to disobey posted speed limits,” StreetsPAC founder Eric McClure pointed out in the press release announcing the latest enforcement effort.

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