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Manhattan BP Joins Chorus Calling for a Better Third Avenue

Third Avenue in Manhattan. Gale Brewer says, “Fix it.” File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

She wants to make Third first.

Manhattan Borough President (and incoming City Council Member) Gale Brewer has joined the chorus of activists, community board members and starry-eyed architects hired by New York Magazine to demand that the de Blasio Administration remake Third Avenue from a traffic toilet into a people-friendly street.

The Department of Transportation must "explore the expansion of sidewalks and the addition of bus and protected bike lanes on Third Avenue between 24th and 42nd streets," Brewer wrote to the agency's Commissioner Hank Gutman on Monday.

Right now, Third Avenue has seven lanes, with two curbside lanes devoted to the storage of parked cars, and five lanes devoted to moving motor vehicles. Brewer's argument for the people-first makeover on Third Avenue cited the avenue's dire safety stats and traffic that chokes the life out of buses in the area. Per the letter, in the last eight years, three New Yorkers have been killed and 561 injured in on the 18-block stretch.

Recent history also shows fewer crashes and injuries on neighboring blocks that have received street safety improvements. On First Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets, a stretch where the city installed a parking-protected bike lane and a bus lane, there were 78 reported crashes in 2019, with no fatalities and six pedestrian injuries. On the same stretch of Third Avenue, there were 180 reported crashes that same year, resulting in one dead pedestrian, five injured pedestrians and five injured cyclists.

Additionally, Third Avenue is where bus speeds go to die; the M101, 102 and 103 buses moved at the sub-walking pace of just 5.5 miles per hour in 2019. Brewer said that pokey speed has cost the MTA thousands of lost riders, who just gave up on the bus. Stats show a 16-percent decline in bus ridership on those lines between 2014 and 2019.

Many broad avenues in Manhattan — such as First, Second, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth avenues — have bike lanes, and Fifth Avenue has double bus lanes, so Brewer asked the DOT to bring Third Avenue out of the grayscale 1950s and into the neon bright 2020s.

"Bus lanes, protected bike lanes, widened sidewalks, and other pedestrian safety treatments ... have worked elsewhere in Manhattan and brought our streets up to modern standards. Third Avenue, with its seven vehicle lanes and no space for other transportation modes, functions like a 1950s highway. This must change," she wrote.

With the letter, Brewer becomes the highest-ranking public official to support changing Third Avenue for the better. In April, activists with Transportation Alternatives proposed a radical redesign of the same stretch of road that Brewer wrote about in her letter. In that proposal, Third Avenue would be transformed with the addition of a second bus lane, wider sidewalks on both sides of the street and a grade separated bike lane. Supporters of that proposal welcomes Brewer getting involved.

"I'm very excited," said Paul Krikler, a safe streets advocate who's promoted the plan. "We're thrilled with the progress, with how quickly this is going. I think we hit this at exactly the right time. Earlier this year we thought the time was right and it seems like people are getting on board. We're thrilled with the support we're getting from elected officials."

In addition to the campaign from TA activists, Community Board 6 also had its own proposal to make Third Avenue into something more livable. The CB6 proposal, which was put together by Sam Schwartz Engineering, suggested remaking the stretch between East 26th and East 32nd streets by cutting the vehicle travel lanes on the avenue to two lanes and expanding sidewalks on the six block stretch. CB6 also praised Brewer for asking the DOT to make a people-first change to the block.

"CB6 has long been a champion of increasing space and ensuring safety for pedestrians in our district," said the board's chairman, Kyle Athayde. "Borough President Brewer ... has always supported increasing public space and safety. CB6 is proud to lead this charge, along with the grassroots leadership and support of our local community and advocacy organizations, and look forward to realizing the changes needed in our district."

Having received yet another suggestion to remake the avenue, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said the agency can't wait to hash everything out.

"We have received BP Brewer’s letter and are reviewing for a response," said DOT spokesperson Alana Morales. "We are also aware of several community requests for the Third Avenue corridor and look forward to working with stakeholders on a potential project in the future."

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