Fall 2002, p.8-9

From Broadway to Skid Row: Streets are in Shambles
Shattered, Dangerous Streets Bad for Everyone

Misaligned and slick plates like these are illegal--and everywhere in NYC.Been in the 6th avenue bike lane lately? One veteran messenger has taken to calling it "The Trenchway." The 5th Avenue lane? "The Plateway." Veteran cyclists agree that city streets are more pocked with potholes, criss-crossed with partially-filled street cuts and strewn with slick metal plates than at anytime in recent memory.

Of the multitude of hazards cyclists face, perhaps the most preventable are the hundreds of seemingly abandoned strips of sloppily--or incompletely--filled two-foot wide trenches left by Con Edison, Empire City Subway, Verizon, RCI and other phone, electric and water contractors and government agencies. Theoretically, this group of highly-regulated street slaughterers should be the most accountable and easiest for the Department of Transportation to police. But for reasons we can only speculate-malfunctioning databases, inept inspectors, dysfunctional management-the DOT has lost control of contractors and the streets.

According to the Fund for the City of New York's study "How Smooth are New York City Streets?" 55% of Manhattan streets have an "unacceptable" number of holes and hazards. Insurance industry sources claim that NYC's poor street conditions cause $185 a year to the average car. The human cost is far higher. In recent years, the City has annually paid $10 million to settle personal injury lawsuits related to poor street conditions.

Cyclists will not ride in bike lanes rendered dangerous by partially-filled street cuts.With seven million cars, trucks and buses rumbling around the city everyday, street wear and tear is nothing new. Utility companies dig up the street and leave egregious hazards such as metal plates and partially filled "street cuts" for weeks or even months after their work is finished. These hazards restrict cyclists' movement, can catch their wheels and cause crashes. Even for skilled cyclists, riding in traffic for blocks next to a sharp, two inch lip is dangerous. If these utility companies finished their work properly the first time, there would be fewer crashes and the City would face fewer injury claims.

Commissioner Iris Weinshall told T.A. early on that reining in street contractors was one of her top goals. But whether the problem is not enough inspectors or poorly trained inspectors and weak regulations, she clearly has a long way to go.

The DOT Must Crack Down on Street Contractors

  • Cuts should be filled to street level within 24 hours of the completion of sub-surface work; this should be the completion date on the construction permit.
  • The duration of a street cut permit should be based on a table of comparable work.
  • Contractor identification must be displayed at work site until a cut is completely filled.*
  • Signage should be easily visible from the sidewalk and street.*
  • Street surfaces must be completely cleared of asphalt ramping material after plates are removed.
  • On multi-lane streets, street cuts in lanes adjacent to the parking lanes should be subject to additional scrutiny and inspection; these lanes carry most cyclists.

*If signage is impractical because barricades are gone, contractors should be required to affix a small, tough, plastic disk to the pavement every 20 feet, with their contact information written on it.

Operation Hazard I.D.

T.A.'s Operation Hazard ID surveys, marks, records and reports road hazards with the goal of improving street safety. In 2002, T.A. volunteers reported 400 hazards in need of repair to the DOT. For more information on how to volunteer or report a hazard, go to www.transalt.org/campaigns/bike/streethazards.html.

Shirking on Potholes

In 1991, there was waiting list to be a DOT bike borne street inspector. Where have they all gone?In May, the City Council introduced Bill Intro 192 which, if passed into law, would make pothole reporting nearly impossible and would result in more dangerous, hazard-riddled streets. T.A. opposes Intro 192. The proposed law will deter people from reporting potholes and other street hazards because it mandates that reporters file a long list of details for each hazard. Reporters must provide the length, width and depth or height, the nearest street address, the distance from the curb or building line and the distance and direction from an easily identifiable landmark to the hazard.

Reporters would also need to provide a photograph or diagram of the hazard. This makes reporting potholes and other hazards to the DOT's CALLDOT telephone hotline impossible.

The proposed law also mandates that each hazard must be reported to the city separately, which makes compiling and reporting a list of hazards impossible. This would put an end to public advocacy programs like T.A.'s Operation Hazard ID and the Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Protection Committee, both of which compile and submit lists of hazards to the DOT.

The goal of the new law is to reduce liability suits filed against the City, but it will only result in more dangerous roads. If you suffer an injury due to a street hazard, then you can only file suit if the hazard was previously and properly reported to the DOT and the hazard was not fixed within fifteen days. More restrictive hazard reporting laws will reduce both the total number of hazards reported and the number of hazards properly reported to the DOT, thus reducing the ability of people to file claims against the City.

Sidewalks in Shambles
Irrational laws make it difficult to figure out who is responsible for keeping the sidewalks in walking order. Like the roads, the City owns the sidewalks. But landowners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk in front of their property. If the sidewalk is not maintained, then the landowner is fined by the City, but if someone suffers an injury due to a poorly-maintained sidewalk then it is the City that is sued. This patchwork policy is illogical. The City owns and regulates the sidewalks and needs to take full responsibility for them. If they are damaged, then the City, not landowners, should fix them.

Expand Bicycle Borne Street Cut Inspectors
The DOT should increase the number of bicycle borne street inspectors. This program was very successful in the early 1990s, but its ranks have dwindled since. Giving inspectors a bicyclist's perspective would help improve safety. The DOT needs to get more street inspectors out on bikes to experience the shattered streets first hand.

DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall
40 Worth Street
NYC 10013

T.A. Poll: NYC Bikers & Walkers: "Conditions Stink"

In September, T.A. polled E-Bulletin readers on biking and walking conditions. They blasted the way NYC treats cyclists and pedestrians.

670 respondents to the question: "In your experience, how does NYC treat bicyclists and pedestrians?"

You can still vote at www.transalt.org/press/askta/
. Results are still
being tallied.

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