Summer 2003, p.8-9

Reclaiming the Streets
A "Big Nothing" or Still Worth Cheering For?

Raised crosswalk at 24th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan: The DOT repeatedly refused to test such four-inch high raised crosswalks in Downtown Brooklyn though they are a proven pedestrian safety tool used around the world and (quietly) here in Manhattan. Instead, the DOT built a two-inch device, which, as expected, did not work.
Raised crosswalk at 24th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan: The DOT repeatedly refused to test such four-inch high raised crosswalks in Downtown Brooklyn though they are a proven pedestrian safety tool used around the world and (quietly) here in Manhattan. Instead, the DOT built a two-inch device, which, as expected, did not work.
Back in 1997, T.A. hoped that the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project would revolutionize the way that New York City addressed community complaints about through-traffic, dangerous driving and poor pedestrian conditions on neighborhood streets. There has been no such revolution. In June, the Brooklyn Borough President convened a meeting to wrap-up five years of community planning with the DOT, traffic consultant Arup and community groups, including T.A.

At the meeting, the DOT announced that it would not install any of the traffic calming recommendations in the 130-page consultant report until 2009. In short, the DOT said that, after spending five years, $1.2 million and thousands of hours of the time of interested citizens, it would:

  • Not reduce through traffic on neighborhood streets, which was the community's number one concern.
  • Not install any physical pedestrian safety or traffic calming devices like neckdowns or medians until 2009.
  • Not test important traffic calming devices (some already in use in NYC) like raised crosswalks, diagonal diverters, street closures, speed cushions and median barriers.

Bollards at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan: Bollards are an attractive and inexpensive way to enlarge pedestrian space without expensive drainage work. The DOT refused to consider designs like this in its Downtown Brooklyn traffic calming study.
Bollards at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan: Bollards are an attractive and inexpensive way to enlarge pedestrian space without expensive drainage work. The DOT refused to consider designs like this in its Downtown Brooklyn traffic calming study.
Community leaders were dismayed and incredulous. T.A.'s representative blasted the effort as a "big nothing." But maybe in hindsight it should not have been such a surprise. Since day one of the project, it was clear that the DOT traffic engineers disliked the project and many of the traffic calming practices employed by the consultants at Arup. Unconstrained by an order from City Hall to listen to the consultants and general public, DOT officials sabotaged the project by undercutting the consultant and vetoing important traffic calming devices like raised crosswalks and changes of street directions. Judging from the consultant's report, the DOT also had the consultant spend an enormous amount of time and money attempting to maximize traffic flow on major arterial streets; this time spent tweaking traffic lights was time away from working on pedestrian safety and neighborhood quality of life.


DOT: No Net Reduction in Traffic Capacity

The DOT's car-first philosophy is written all over the consultant's report. In particular, its philosophy is apparent in the agency's insistence that the goal of the project is to reduce the effects of traffic, not to reduce the volume of traffic. The political impetus and community goal for the project, on the other hand, is to reduce the number of cars in the neighborhoods surrounding Downtown. This fundamental disagreement about the purpose of the project is at the root of its problems. While the community wanted a net reduction in traffic, the DOT sought only to shift traffic 
Inexpensive traffic calming at Yeshiva University in Northern Manhattan:
Inexpensive traffic calming at Yeshiva University in Northern Manhattan:
The DOT refused to use inexpensive techniques like this to test the effects
of narrowing streets and widening sidewalks.
from small streets to big streets. Remarkably, a perfect opportunity to observe the effects of closing streets in the project area presented itself when Clinton Street, a busy, middle-size street, was torn up completely for replacing giant water and drainage pipes. Traffic counts showed that some traffic diverted to adjacent streets, but that, overall, traffic declined. This confirms, yet again, the findings of a huge 1998 British government study which surveyed 50 major road and bridge closings around the world, including in NYC, and found that, in 49 of the cases, overall traffic declined. Unfortunately, the DOT and the consultant did not seem to understand what they saw on Clinton Street. The groups believed that every car taken off a small residential street would appear on a major street; hence, the huge amount of work spent retiming traffic signals.

The Consultant's Report

Ultimately, with their options severely limited by the DOT, Arup recommended that the agency install numerous neckdowns (extensions of the sidewalk at corners) throughout Downtown neighborhoods. Neckdowns narrow the crossing distance for pedestrians and slow turning cars, thus helping to reduce the number of pedestrians struck by turning drivers. However, neckdowns do not reduce vehicle speeds or discourage vehicles from using small, neighborhood streets. If the DOT actually spends $3.6 million to build traffic calming improvements in 2009, it should spend it
on more than neckdowns. These neighborhoods need real relief from traffic, a need that has only grown since the City announced that Downtown Brooklyn would be rezoned to encourage massive new office buildings.

Read the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Report at www.transalt.org/campaigns/brooklyn/dbtc/arup.html.


Family-style anti-traffic rally in Brooklyn Heights 1997: Election year demonstrations like this one pressured then-Mayor Giuliani to acquiesce to community demands to hire an expert consultant to help traffic calm Downtown Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Family-style anti-traffic rally in Brooklyn Heights 1997: Election year demonstrations like this one pressured then-Mayor Giuliani to acquiesce to community demands to hire an expert consultant to help traffic calm Downtown Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Since the 1980s, Downtown neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill have implored the City to do something about the avalanche of traffic clogging their streets. The issue came to a head in 1997 when the State DOT raised the specter that the Gowanus Expressway would have to be rebuilt, pouring 400,000 cars a day onto already jammed streets. With T.A.'s help, community groups staged five early morning traffic-blocking actions that featured families carrying signs. The demonstrations got great TV coverage and put pressure on then Mayor Giuliani, who was up for re-election that year, to acquiesce to community demands to hire an independent consultant to work with the DOT and the public to reduce traffic and "traffic calm" Downtown Brooklyn. Neighborhood groups and T.A. helped write the request for proposal for the consultant, which was based on a proposal for Federal clean air funds drawn up by Brooklyn traffic engineer Brian Ketcham. The neighborhood groups also sat on the committee selecting the consultant, an important first for New York City.


DOT Short Term Plan Is Bonanza of Bike Lanes and LPIs

Concessionary Bike Lanes
As a sop to the angry community, the DOT has fast-tracked 30 traffic signal timing, parking and bike lane improvements intended to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. The agency expects to have the improvements in place by the end of 2004, and many of them sooner. T.A. and the communities would warmly welcome these changes, were it not for the fact they are but a modest response to a massive community planning process.

Giving Pedestrians a Head Start
Most of the planned signal changes are for Leading Pedestrian Intervals, which change the timing of the walk symbol so that it comes on two to three seconds before motorists get a green light. This head start for pedestrians gives walkers time to establish themselves in an intersection before motorists turn across their path. Leading Pedestrian Intervals are proven to improve pedestrian safety; the City has installed them at about 200 intersections.

New Bike Lanes To Be Installed in Next 14 Months

Street  From To Description
3rd Ave 9th St Dean St 16 block bike lane
Dekalb Ave Flatbush Ave Vanderbilt Ave 13 block bike lane
Myrtle Ave Gold St Vanderbilt Ave 10 block bike lane
3rd St Smith St 3rd Ave  Bike lane & signage to discourage trucks
Ashland Pl Dekalb Ave Myrtle Ave Bike lane
Dean St 11 block bike lane
Bergen St     Bike lane
Clinton St Hamilton Ave Tillary St Twenty block bike lane on w/s of the st.
Henry St  Atlantic Ave  Clark St  Extend blue color bike lane for 7 blocks
Union St Hicks St  3rd Ave 8 block bike lane

Read the latest news on this subject.