New York City has countless places where the movement of motor vehicles takes precedence over the safety and convenience of pedestrians, but the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway is a particularly striking example of our skewed street-design priorities. It took three deaths at or near that major crossroads last month for the city to propose long-needed fixes there. If we are serious about Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative—the eventual elimination of traffic fatalities on our streets—we must do better than wait for tragedies before making life-saving changes. We must boldly proceed with the work begun by the Bloomberg administration that puts the safety of the pedestrian supermajority first.
While 96th Street and Broadway is a junction for motor vehicles, this traffic is dwarfed by the throngs of pedestrians who flood the 96th Street stop on the 1, 2, and 3 subway lines on a daily basis. The station is among the subway system’s busiest, with an average weekday ridership of approximately 38,000. When the station began undergoing renovations in 2007, planners decided to locate the main entrance on the mall of Broadway, forcing tens of thousands of passengers to cross either Broadway or 96th Street, or both, each day. An alternative would have been a car-free plaza with vehicle traffic redirected around it. Instead, the designers went in the opposite direction, narrowing the sidewalks along Broadway to preserve space for cars.
The result is that it can take a person on foot a minute and 45 seconds to legally cross from the north side of 96th Street to the subway entrance. Understandably, hurrying commuters often cross against the light or take a hazardous shortcut through the center of the intersection, where there is no crosswalk. Meanwhile, New York drivers—not known for their vast reserves of patience—are implicitly encouraged to speed and take dangerous chances by short light phases that accommodate every possible turning movement.
News reports are vague about exactly where renowned antique collector Alexander Shear, 73, was in the intersection when he was struck and killed by a tour bus the night of Jan. 10. The bus was turning left from Broadway to go east on 96th Street, and Shear was dragged almost to Amsterdam Avenue before horrified witnesses got the attention of the driver, who was quoted as saying, “I didn’t know! I didn’t see him!”
What we do know is that changes to the intersection proposed Jan. 30 by the New York City Department of Transportation will likely prevent a similar calamity from happening again. Picking up on recommendations that the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates made to Community Board 7 in November, the DOT wants to ban the kind of left turn that killed Shear. This, coupled with a second forbidden turn, will allow the agency to paint a broad crosswalk linking the two sections of the Broadway mall, finally legalizing and making safe a “desired path” that countless pedestrians now take every day at their great peril. The changes will also cut the transit time between the north and south ends of the mall to less than a minute.
The rash of pedestrian and cyclist deaths so early in the start of a new year and a new mayoral administration may well prove to be the tipping point in the fight for safer streets. The DOT responded swiftly to Community Board 7’s call for changes at 96th Street and Broadway, and the plan the agency has advanced is a significant step forward. But more can be done there, and much more is needed on most other streets in the city. Last year, 178 pedestrians and cyclists were killed in traffic and another 16,059 were injured, according to preliminary figures. With the three pedestrian deaths in January, the Upper West Side has already equaled its typical annual count of the fallen.
How can we stop the carnage? The changes needed to make our streets manifestly safer are fairly simple and straightforward, combining designs that accommodate all users, a speed limit suited to a dense urban setting, vigilant enforcement against law-breaking drivers, and meaningful legal consequences for those who recklessly kill or injure. All that is required to spread these proven tools throughout the city is political will.
For decades we have shoehorned ever-higher volumes of motor vehicles into a street network that was never designed to handle them. We have managed this by narrowing sidewalks, further inconveniencing the pedestrian majority, and blithely ignoring the resulting risks. When the inevitable tragedy happens, we wring our hands and move on. I am optimistic that the hand-wringing is finally over and that the essential work of making our streets safe for all users has begun in earnest.
Ken Coughlin has been a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 7 since 2009. His opinions are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Community Board 7.
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