Making New Yorkers Healthy--Step-by-Step, Pedal-by-Pedal
The past year will be remembered as the year that New York City finally woke up to the fact that our driving oriented streets and parks are discouraging much-needed physical activity and sending us to an early grave.
In 2004, political leaders and health and transportation professionals publicly acknowledged that walking, bicycling and playing-friendly streets and parks can prevent death, injury and the growing epidemic of inactivity-related illnesses including obesity, heart disease, depression, high blood pressure and diabetes.
From the American Lung Association of New York City's crucial support for a car-free Central Park, to the Department of Transportation's unveiling of a citywide Safe Routes to School program, to Mayor Bloomberg's strong endorsement of new safety priorities on Queens Boulevard, 2004 was the year that New York City began to address the escalating public health costs of too much driving in earnest.
Rounding out the year was City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden's call to action in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health for "modifications of the physical environment to promote physical activity," and more specifically, he prescribed "sidewalks and parks," presumably the car-free variety.
Below is a list of the eight advances in healthy transportation that the City made in 2004 and the critical next steps for 2005.
By 2006 the DOT should at least double its Bicycling Program staff, which currently account for only three of the agency’s total 4,500 employees. A staff increase would make it possible for the DOT to make key links in the bike network in addition to the planned buffered bike lane on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. More importantly, a staff increase would help address the City’s current fiscal crisis; more staff would enable the DOT to apply for and make use of an estimated $6-12 million in federal money that the city is currently missing out on due to the lack of staff to develop new projects.
The DOT should learn from this important lesson on Queens Boulevard, shelve its irrational fear of traffic gridlock and apply strong safety measures to all of New York City’s big, scary streets and intersections. The agency could start by giving pedestrians more time and space where the political trade-off between pedestrian safety and driver convenience is already tipped well in favor of pedestrians, including Times Square, Upper Broadway, Grand Army Plaza and Downtown Brooklyn.
In October 2004, the DOT announced that it is making the Midtown Thru Streets program permanent. The program, which began in the fall of 2002 and eliminates turns for drivers on certain cross town streets in Midtown Manhattan, includes 49 "split phase" signal locations. Split phase signals allow pedestrians to cross undisturbed while drivers in both directions are held at a red light. Kudos to the City DOT and Mayor Bloomberg for standing up for Midtown Manhattan’s much-beleaguered walking masses.
The DOT should expand its excellent program and provide pedestrians with more time and more exclusive crossing time throughout the city. More crossing time can mean the difference between life and death, particularly for the city's growing senior population. "Not enough crossing time" is the number one complaint that T.A. hears from seniors throughout the city. Seniors walk at an average pace of three feet per second or slower; the DOT times the city's traffic signal walk phases for a four feet per second pace.
Being struck by a driver is the leading cause of preventable injury and death for children 5 to 14 in New York City, and 43% of New York City kids are overweight or obese. In February 2004, the DOT finally launched its own Safe Routes to School program, the citywide successor to T.A.'s pioneering Bronx Safe Routes to School program, which in 1997 introduced school-based traffic calming and street safety changes to New York City and the nation.
In the past, the DOT has botched experiments with raised intersections and raised crosswalks by not building them to specification, and has been shy to experiment with trial street closures, much less make permanent changes. In 2005, the DOT should re-pilot strong traffic calming measures in Downtown Brooklyn, and use barricades and other temporary measures to test increasing pedestrian space at popular destinations, starting with Times Square.
At 7 pm on January 3rd, 2005, T.A. and Councilmember Gale Brewer joined the Parks and Police Departments to close Central Park's loop drive to overnight driving for the first time in perhaps a century, making Central Park safer and more attractive to millions of New Yorkers. The agencies have also closed five entrances and exits to drivers, reduced the speed limit to 25 mph and instituted an HOV policy on the park's West Drive from 7-10 am. Congratulations to the DOT for finally taking a step forward to make New York's most popular playground even more inviting. The broad coalition that intensified the call for a car-free park in 2004 was strengthened by the support of the American Lung Association and leading New York City health advocates like Dr. Barbara Barlow of Harlem Hospital.
A July Baruch College survey found "dangerous intersections" to be the number one concern of neighborhood leaders throughout the five boroughs. In October, T.A. provided all New Yorkers with a powerful tool to act upon their concerns when we unveiled CrashStat.org, New York City's first publicly accessible pedestrian death and injury map. With a few simple clicks, residents can now see the number of historical injuries and deaths at each intersection in their neighborhood, and the crash frequency trend at particular locations. A valuable public health tool, crash mapping has made it much easier to identify patterns and causes in what used to be reams of seemingly unrelated crash data.
In 2005, the City DOT should develop its own crash mapping system and make it publicly available. The agency should use crash maps to evaluate where, why and how drivers are killing and injuring pedestrians and bicyclists, and what safety measures are most effective at reducing the carnage.
City bus ridership is growing at a breakneck pace while the MTA's finances are reaching a crisis point. Given the funding crunch, improving New York City’s dismally slow buses, which are the slowest in the nation, is our best option for making public transportation a more attractive alternative for current car commuters. In 2004, the MTA and the DOT began work on a $3 million study of Bus Rapid Transit (think subways on the surface) options for some of New York City’s slowest bus routes and earmarked $22 million in its 2005-2009 capital plan to build the improved bus stations, bus lanes and signal timing solutions that will likely be recommended by the study.
In the next two years, the MTA needs to earmark more money for Bus Rapid Transit using an amendment to the capital program. Twenty-two million dollars will only bring Bus Rapid Transit to one or two bus routes, and several routes are in dire need of improvement, as identified in the 2004 Pokey Awards. Meanwhile, the DOT should install more bus bulbs, creating more exclusive space for buses dropping off and picking up passengers, and reduce congestion through discouraging driving while the NYPD should continue to step up bus lane enforcement.
If not, now's the time. We need your support to win car-free parks, better bicycling, and citywide traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures. Become a T.A. member today!