New Law May Make School Zones Safer — But Why Does DOT Act So Slowly, Pols Ask

File photos: Gersh Kuntzman
File photos: Gersh Kuntzman

A new law may finally force the Department of Transportation to install life-saving street-safety measures near schools without being able to hide behind federal anti-pedestrian guidelines — but residents, activists and local pols are still wondering why getting a simple Stop sign can take years of relentless pressure.

The law, Int 0009, first introduced by then-Council Member Inez Barron in 2018, requires the DOT to identify each intersection next to a school that does not currently have a traffic control device, like a stop sign or traffic signal, by this September, and then install one by Sept. 30, 2024. The legislation languished in the council for years amid opposition from the de Blasio administration before finally passing in late 2021. It went into effect when incoming Mayor Adams did not veto it.

And Barron says it will save kids’ lives.

“It requires the city to make sure that every intersection on a block where there is a school, has a traffic sign or a stop signal. Simple, straight, direct, that’s all it does,” said Barron, during a December hearing on her legislation, before reading the names of two kids killed in traffic violence on their way to school back in 2020, including 7-year-old Payson Lott and 10-year-old Patience Albert. “Two young children. We can’t do enough to ensure the safety of our children on their way to school.”

The law is an end-run around the city’s fealty to faulty federal guidelines that has long slowed, and even hindered, pedestrian safety measures. Those guidelines are contained in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — aka the MUTCD — whose criteria for the installation of traffic signals include high traffic volume, lots of pedestrians, and a history of severe and frequent crashes.

Those reasonable-sounding guidelines are actually biased against pedestrians because there are typically low pedestrian volumes in places where pedestrians feel unsafe to cross — and pedestrian volumes will only increase after the installation of safety measures, critics say.

It shouldn’t take a City Council bill to make roads safer for kids, another pol said.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Council Member Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge) said of the law. “Some of our biggest victories have been getting a traffic signal installed near a busy intersection near a school — that shouldn’t be some huge colossal victory.”

Compliance with the MUTCD is mandatory, though cities do have some flexibility to address “varying and unique conditions,” according to an FHWA spokesperson, adding that some municipalities often hide behind the MUTCD through a “lack of awareness or a misinterpretation of the requirements.”

The DOT said it would continue to follow the federal guidelines, but would implement Barron’s bill, too.

“This administration believes intersections should be sacred spaces for pedestrians,” said agency spokesman Vin Barone. “We have a broad range of solutions to enhance traffic safety [and] look forward to meeting the requirements of the Council member’s bill.”

The last administration started to make some headway. Former Mayor de Blasio pledged during a 2020 State of the City address to improve traffic safety around schools by installing 1,000 stop signs, stop lights, and speed bumps. It made good on its promise, and on Feb. 4, 2022, the DOT said it had just treated the 1,004th intersection. But the agency did not provide a list of those locations to Streetsblog. The Adams administration has vowed to redesign another 1,000 intersections before the end of the year.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards claimed that the DOT sometimes conducts its traffic studies when kids aren’t even at school, all but ensuring a particular intersection won’t meet the federal guidelines. Plus, it’s also a chicken-and-egg-type scenario — people won’t cross if there’s no stop sign or traffic signal.

“So DOT denies the request,” said Richards. “What I’ve learned is that even when they deny you, keep coming back.”

Getting the city to install a single traffic light at the intersection of Laurelton Parkway and 133rd Street, for example, took seven years, said Richards, who previously represented the neighborhood in the Council. It was finally installed on Jan. 10, 2022, according to the DOT, but not soon enough. At just that one intersection — about 1,000 feet from a middle school, P.S. 270 — there have been 116 total reported crashes since January, 2018, injuring 33 motorists, according to Crash Mapper.

The new law applies only to school zones, not tens of thousands of other dangerous intersections. For example, at Cypress and Cooper avenues, where a pedestrian was badly injured in February, 2021, DOT had punted its responsibility for making that intersection safer to the NYPD.

“DOT completed its investigation and found these signals operating properly as designed with an adequate amount of time allocated for the pedestrian crossings,” Queens Borough Commissioner Nicole Garcia wrote in a June 18, 2021 response to the area’s Council Member Bob Holden, who shared the letter with Streetsblog. “In our judgment [a change] is not required since we did not observe any significant vehicular/pedestrian conflicts. I recommend notifying the NYPD precinct of your concerns and for enforcement.”

As a result, DOT did not make any changes to the intersection — and on Feb. 12, 2022, a 57-year-old pedestrian was run over twice — first by a driver who clipped him in the crosswalk, and then by a second driver who rolled over the wounded man with his massive SUV with both sets of wheels.

That high-profile crash — caught on horrific video — finally got DOT’s attention. After a press conference at the corner held by Holden and attended by DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, the city finally installed a “Barnes Dance” — a pedestrian-only signal phase, named after traffic engineer Henry Barnes, who was New York’s commissioner of Traffic in the early 1960s.

But for Caroline Shadood — an area resident whose partner was also hit and seriously injured by a car driver at Cypress and Cooper avenues in February, 2021, and who made her own requests to DOT for safety improvements — the agency’s years of initial rejections and inattention is negligence. Shadood told Streetsblog that she was stunned to read DOT’s letter back to her council member outlining its reasoning for refusing to make any changes — before someone else got seriously hurt.

“It’s one of the most condescending, clueless things I’ve ever read,” said Shadood. “It’s really irresponsible behavior, to put it mildly, to ignore this intersection for this long. It’s negligent.”

Now, following the signal changes that give pedestrians more time to cross, Shadood says the intersection is calmer and fewer drivers are blowing through the red lights. But Shadood wonders why it took so long.

“What changed her mind?” she asked of Garcia.

And Holden says DOT’s failure to make that intersection safer is indicative of the agency’s overall arbitrary decision making when it comes to whether or not it will install a new traffic signal, stop sign, or make other changes. He says he’s asked for many new stop signs and traffic signals to be installed throughout his district, yet far too many have been denied — either because of failure to qualify based on the national guidelines, or DOT’s own reasoning.

“It seems they randomly have these federal guidelines. It’s very frustrating. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for their actions,” said Holden. “At dozens and dozens of locations I’ve been turned down.”

The DOT has also denied Holden’s request for “additional traffic controls” at the intersection of Flushing Avenue and Troutman Street, citing the national guidelines.

“Based upon our evaluation of the data collected, we have determined that additional traffic controls do not meet nationally recognized traffic engineering safety standards required for the installation of traffic controls,” an Aug. 19, 2021 letter from DOT reads.

According to the letter, which was also shared with Streetsblog, in order to qualify for a new traffic signal installation, there needs to be either five preventable crashes within a 12-month period or six crashes in 36 months; a minimum volume on the major street of 500 vehicles and on the minor street of 150 vehicles per hour for any eight hours of an average day.

But according to DOT’s analysis, which it says it conducted during both peak morning and evening hours on May 17, 2021, the volume of vehicles per hour on the so-called minor street — Troutman Street — was far below the threshold. The number of crashes also did not qualify it for any improvements, according to DOT. Since January, 2018, there have been 38 reported crashes, injuring two cyclists, one pedestrian and seven motorists, according to Crash Mapper.

And over in Brooklyn, the city had for years rejected numerous requests for a stop sign at the intersection of Newkirk Avenue at Argyle Road, less than 500 feet from P.S. 217 for the same reason — for not meeting “nationally recognized traffic engineering safety standards — according to a May, 2018 letter to Brooklyn Community Board 14 in response to its request.

Almost a year later, the board was still trying, and sent anther letter to DOT in February, 2019, demanding a “safety improvement plan” after an increase in crashes and injuries along that stretch of roadway. On Newkirk Avenue between Coney Island Avenue and Marlborough Road, there have been 31 reported crashes since January, 2019, causing 13 injuries, including three at the intersection of Newkirk Avenue at Argyle Road alone, according to Crash Mapper.

“Over the past five years, Community Board 14 has made dozens of requests to the Department of Transportation to increase safety on Newkirk Avenue, yet nearly all requests have been denied,” wrote Shawn Campbell, the board’s district manager. “In the meantime, the number of crashes on Newkirk Avenue from Coney Island Avenue to Ocean Avenue increased from 49 in 2017 to 61 in 2018 and there have already been 11 crashes in 2019. This alarming trend must be addressed by DOT immediately.”

In October, 2020, DOT finally relented and installed an all-way stop sign at that intersection.

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