Summer 2004, p.12

Reclaiming the Streets
The Just Desserts of DOT’s Piecemeal Policy

The City Department of Transportation began the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming project in response to residents’ wishes to reduce through car and truck traffic barreling through their neighborhoods. The project now represents a missed opportunity for the DOT to institute agency-wide standards to reduce volumes and speeds.

ABOVE: The City Department of Transportation began the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming project in response to residents’ wishes to reduce through car and truck traffic barreling through their neighborhoods. The project now represents a missed opportunity for the DOT to institute agency-wide standards to reduce volumes and speeds.

The New York City Department of Transportation has a track record of responding to well publicized pedestrian safety crises. For example, after thousands of injuries and scores of deaths on Queens Boulevard, the DOT, in a rare move, placed clear limits on the movement of motorists to give more space and time to crossing pedestrians. Crisis response, however, is no substitute for sensible citywide policy for managing the city’s vast network of streets.

Indeed, the sheer size and enormous complexity of New York City requires that the decisions of those charged with delivering its water, ensuring its health and educating its children be made in accordance with a clear set of carefully prioritized standards and priorities. At the DOT, the Deputy Director of Policy and Planning is responsible for setting such standards and priorities. Unfortunately, this person does not presently exist; the position has in fact remained vacant for over five years. And policy, like power, abhors a vacuum. So, at the DOT, a few individual traffic engineers, who are trained primarily to maximize capacity for motorists, now make policy decisions on a location by location basis. These engineers are making far-reaching decisions best left to those with more balanced training and experience.
The unfortunate result is that, throughout all five boroughs, the DOT uses safety measures on one side street but nixes them on several others; invokes impromptu, unwritten policies at public hearings to explain why a speed hump at a school is “unwarranted” and allows motorized traffic to inundate neighborhood streets when proven solutions exist, and the money is there to pay for them. This lack of a solid transportation policy and agenda for New York City leads to needless friction between the DOT and community groups, endless contentious planning processes and spotty application of transportation solutions.

The Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming study represented a unique opportunity for the DOT to remedy its process and develop a standard set of policies and procedures to reduce motorized traffic and improve walking safety—both serious problems facing every neighborhood in New York City. But the agency squandered the opportunity, to the detriment of Downtown Brooklyn residents and to communities throughout the City. Communities surrounding West Houston Street have faired no better as they continue to grapple with an unreformed agency bent on giving the green light to motorists.

Opportunity Missed in Downtown Brooklyn

In 1999, the residents of Downtown Brooklyn and surrounding areas were fed up with bumper-to-bumper through traffic. Their concern, powerfully articulated through protests and letters, prompted the DOT to initiate a $6 million traffic calming study, the city’s first and most ambitious community traffic calming project. Throughout the process, however, senior DOT engineers subverted the project; first by refusing to respond to the original impetus for the project to reduce the unacceptable levels of motorized traffic and; later, by sabotaging the pilot phase of the project.

During the pilot phase of the study, the DOT overruled community objections and built a grossly substandard traffic calming device. The agency built a raised intersection only two inches high even though the standard height is four inches and, as T.A. warned, the speed hump generated more noise than traffic calming effect.

Though the DOT did embrace bike lanes and some measures to manage traffic and improve safety, such as curb extensions and leading pedestrian intervals, it stopped short of choosing the strongest Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved traffic calming measures. And, of the traffic calming measures the DOT did deem appropriate, it stopped short of universally applying them throughout the study area.

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Needless Contention on West Houston Street

The City Department of Transportation revealed its lack of standards when it tried to remove these life-saving median tips from West Houston Street. Residents were quick to question the DOT’s plan since the agency had just promised to install them on Queens Boulevard to promote pedestrian safety. Outraged community members have since secured the agency’s promise to keep the median tips, and to add them to all intersections on West Houston Street.
The City Department of Transportation revealed its lack of standards when it tried to remove these life-saving median tips from West Houston Street. Residents were quick to question the DOT’s plan since the agency had just promised to install them on Queens Boulevard to promote pedestrian safety. Outraged community members have since secured the agency’s promise to keep the median tips, and to add them to all intersections on West Houston Street.

Today, on West Houston Street, the DOT is haunted by its missed opportunity to develop standards to answer the nearly universal New York City neighborhood demands for less traffic and more safety. Without standards, the DOT is at a loss when it comes to justifying new decisions, or explaining the logic behind them to concerned citizens. Indeed, the DOT’s poorly conceived and communicated redesign proposal for West Houston Street has stoked community outrage that has led to further public criticism of the agency.

At issue are plans to narrow medians along the length of the street, and to add left turn bays at West Broadway, Mercer and Bowery Streets. The DOT has proposed these anti-pedestrian moves without recent traffic counts or other evidence that supports the need for increasing space for motorists at the expense of residential and commercial walking traffic. When did it become acceptable for the DOT to enact a plan based on no demonstrable need and in contradiction of the community’s wishes? Community Board members called the DOT’s plan “insane” and the process “upside down.”

Thankfully, after months of intense negotiations with the community, the DOT finally acquiesced to strong community demands to preserve and expand the use of median tips that the agency had originally sought to remove. (Median tips are like concrete icebergs that float in the crosswalks to provide a valuable refuge for pedestrians trying to cross the wide street.) The agency had initially proposed to remove the safety devices even though it was simultaneously implementing them on Queens Boulevard as an explicit pedestrian safety tool, a fact not lost on residents of West Houston Street. Members of Manhattan Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee, called the DOT’s decision to preserve and expand the median tips a “phenomenal victory” because the community has wanted these pedestrian traffic islands “forever.” But despite the fact that these tips have helped reduce pedestrian injuries and are favored by community groups, the DOT does not have a policy on when to use them.

Had the DOT taken advantage of the full potential of the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming project and created real guidelines for reducing the amount
of motorized traffic and dangers on a variety of different types of streets, the agency may have had an easier time on West Houston Street. Instead, the West Houston Street project has become a long, contentious battle between the DOT and a well-organized community. Learning from the past, and institutionalizing this knowledge will speed planning processes, conserve time, money and goodwill and ultimately save lives.


The Future of the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Study

Starting in 2006, the DOT plans to continue to work with the community to spend $4 million to build the traffic calming improvements laid out in the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming project’s final report. Meanwhile, the DOT began a Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Blueprint Study this summer to address the transportation issues created by the various proposed developments for the area. In the traffic mitigation strategies for the proposed development projects, the DOT should use real, robust traffic calming devices like speed humps, raised intersections, diagonal diverters and traffic circles, all of which are detailed in the FHWA’s “Traffic Calming: State of the Practice.”

In the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming study, the agency chose to implement very few of the FHWA’s recommended traffic calming measures, turning instead to highway signs and routine traffic management devices like left turn bays. These neighborhoods need real relief from motorized traffic, especially as they face the likelihood of significant additional motorized traffic from the Downtown Brooklyn upzoning project, proposed Nets arena and Ikea store.

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Ill Communication

New Yorkers care a great deal about their neighborhoods. So when the City DOT sends communities a proposal to make changes to their streets, community members want to fully understand the agency’s vision. Residents want evidence and consistent explanations about why these changes are good, which begs for consistent agency policy. But discussion is not enough; residents also want and need to be able to see the DOT’s vision to fully understand the plan. Yet, on West Houston Street, the DOT sabotaged its community outreach efforts by offering no evidence, inconsistent explanations and no visual aids. Though DOT representatives have met a number of times with Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee about the agency’s most recent plan, they refused to give copies of the proposed plan to board members at the first meeting; residents had to request copies of the plan. The DOT also neglected to offer a compelling visual presentation; instead, the DOT representatives presented engineering elevations, which the committee found hard to understand. As a result, many of the good elements of the DOT’s plan, like widened sidewalks and landscaped medians, were poorly received by the community. If the agency put more effort into making its outreach efforts more accessible, particularly through adequate visual presentations, it would save itself from unnecessary community conflict. The DOT would also benefit from documenting past successes as best practices, and then making them a priority in future projects.

What does this diagram tell you? Though it contains a great deal of helpful information about the DOT’s technical vision for the redesign project, diagrams like these did not help West Houston Street community members truly visualize the DOT’s plan. Not surprisingly, the community has opposed some of the good elements of the DOT’s plan because they are uncertain about what it will look like. The DOT should supplement these diagrams with straightforward, human-scale illustrations of its plan.

What does this diagram tell you? Though it contains a great deal of helpful information about the DOT’s technical vision for the redesign project, diagrams like these did not help West Houston Street community members truly visualize the DOT’s plan. Not surprisingly, the community has opposed some of the good elements of the DOT’s plan because they are uncertain about what it will look like. The DOT should supplement these diagrams with straightforward, human-scale illustrations of its plan.