Walk this Way: City Council proposes traffic safety improvement bills

| 22 Nov 2016 | 04:06

On World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims Sunday, family members who have lost loved ones joined advocates for safer streets on a bike ride to raise awareness of the dangers of the road. They gathered in front of City Hall to show their support for the goals of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative and implore that those goals be prioritized. Last Tuesday, five road-related bills that aim to protect cyclists and pedestrians were brought to the City Council’s transportation committee by Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez, Helen Rosenthal, Carlos Menchaca and James Van Bramer.

Two of the bills request investigations by city agencies; one by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Parks and Recreation into the costs and benefits associated with installing Citi Bike stations near parks, and one by the DOT into alleviating overcrowding at 10 pedestrian-heavy locations.

Two other bills are related to crossing signals. One would force cyclists to obey pedestrian signals at some intersections. The other would study the feasibility of implementing the Barnes Dance method -- where all lights are red simultaneously and pedestrians going all directions can cross at once — at the city’s 25 most dangerous intersections. (The system is named for Henry Barnes, a traffic engineer who was New York City’s traffic commissioner in the early 1960s.) The fifth piece of legislation would offer additional protection to independent commercial cyclists.

Rosenthal, who introduced the Barnes Dance bill, had her district in mind when developing it. At the hearing, she described the intersection of W. 96th Street and West End Avenue as becoming “increasingly congested” and asked the transportation department to explain its hesitation in implementing what she sees as an effective protection. “Having a chance when it’s only people walking and no cars whatsoever works great,” Rosenthal said after the hearing. “My inclination ... is to continue to press DOT on getting this legislation passed.” A transportation department spokesperson said last week that there are currently 89 intersections across the city that use the Barnes Dance.

According to a map published this past spring by CUNY Baruch College mathematics student Aleksey Bilogur, 16 of the 25 most dangerous intersections for vehicle collisions in the city are in Manhattan. Vision Zero, which is rounding out its third year, aims to eliminate pedestrian fatalities by 2024 but may not be on track to do so. Sam Schwartz, an expert in transportation and urban engineering, said he it could be done by 2050 or so, “when almost all vehicles will be autonomous.” Vision Zero data shows that there have been 98 pedestrian fatalities this year as compared to 138 last year, but cyclist fatalities have increased from 14 in 2015 to 17 so far in 2016. “There’s only so much a city can do with enforcement and engineering,” he said. “That being said, I think we’re on the right track.”

However, Schwartz is not a fan of the City Council interfering with the Department of Transportation. “I just don’t think it should be legislated,” he said. “This DOT and the previous DOT have had no hesitancy in providing more crossing time for pedestrians, and I think that’s good. Let the DOT engineers decide on the appropriate solution.” To this, Rosenthal countered that legislation wouldn’t be necessary if the transportation department was being more transparent. “If DOT wants to just do it, and put out a study or explain in their analysis the facts that they considered ... then we would not have to legislate it,” she said.

At the hearing, a DOT representative expressed the department’s willingness to work with the committee on the bills before them. Sam Quinn, from the Office of Pedestrian and Bicycle Programs, gave updates on the safety measures that are already underway — like switching 250,000 streetlights to brighter and more long-lasting LEDs — and answered council members’ questions. “We are doing everything we can to improve the experience for pedestrians and cyclists in our city,” he said.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com