Volume 19 Issue 53 | May 18 -24, 2007

Photo by Graham Beck/Transportation Alternatives

Students from I.S. 89 hold up signs protesting speeding and other unsafe driving activities on West St. in front of their school.

Stop in the name of traffic safety, B.P.C. says

By Skye H. McFarlane

On West St. there were rowdy middle schoolers, armed with radar guns and protest signs. On River Terrace there were toddlers, pushing pink-wheeled scooters past taxis, towards the park. And all around Battery Park City last week there were worried parents, hoping that the city Department of Transportation would make intersection changes to protect their children on the way to school and play.

On West St. a group of middle school students, under the direction of Manhattan Youth leader Bob Townley, is advocating for safer crossings to P.S./I.S. 89 at the Chambers and Warren St. intersections. Meanwhile, in Battery Park City’s north neighborhood, residents are fuming over the surprise removal of stop signs at three neighborhood intersections.

Trouble in the north

The brouhaha in north Battery Park City appears to have been brewing for some time. The Battery Park City Authority owns the streets in the neighborhood, though the city D.O.T. legally controls the intersections. It is unclear exactly what happened in the past, since the staffs have changed at both D.O.T. and the authority, but it seems that when the neighborhood was built, the D.O.T. tacitly — and perhaps begrudgingly — allowed the authority to put up stop signs and crosswalks where it deemed necessary.

After 9/11, however, the authority sought to install additional safety measures, such as raised crosswalks, near potential terror targets like the World Financial Center. The D.O.T. then insisted that the Authority produce a traffic study to support the need for each of the traffic signals in the area. Authority traffic consultant Sam Schwartz, a former B.P.C. resident, conducted the study in July 2006. After several months of meetings to review the study, the D.O.T. concluded in March that Schwartz’s recommendations were incorrect and decided to remove the stop signs at River Terrace and Murray St., River Terrace and Warren St., and North End Avenue and Murray St. The D.O.T. plans to add traffic lights at the mid-block crossings on River Terrace and North End.

The signs were removed on April 26 and neighborhood residents were immediately up in arms over both the removal of the signs and the fact that residents were not notified in advance, causing numerous residents to step out in front of cars, expecting that they would stop.

The D.O.T. said that it notified the authority and sent a letter to Community Board 1, and that those groups should have let residents know what was going on. Authority President Jim Cavanuagh, however, said in a telephone interview that he made it clear in meetings with D.O.T. that it was D.O.T.’s responsibility to inform the community about the changes.

“We told D.O.T. that they needed to go to the community beforehand to talk about the changes they wanted to make,” said Cavanaugh, who believes that the signs were working well and hopes that the D.O.T. will take a second look at the situation. “Because we don’t agree with the changes and we don’t understand the rationale behind them, we are not in the best position to explain the changes to the community.”

Residents sent hundreds of emails to the authority, the D.O.T. and a host of elected officials, demanding to know why the signs were removed and demanding — often in strong, all-capitalized language — that the signs be put back. In response emails, the D.O.T. defended its decision, saying that the changes make the neighborhood conform to city standards, which require certain levels of foot and vehicle traffic to warrant a stop sign or traffic light. Unwarranted stop signs, the D.O.T. said, encourage cars to disobey the signs and endanger pedestrians.

Residents say that pedestrians, particularly seniors and young children, are now at more risk. They must cross to the park and the playground at Murray St. while trying to avoid heavy trucks from the construction site next door, as well as dozens of taxis and black cars that buzz down the street on their way to the World Financial Center. At Murray St. on North End Avenue, westbound walkers say they simply hope that a car isn’t coming when they cross, as a curve in the road and fencing on the traffic island prevent pedestrians from being able to see oncoming cars. The D.O.T. said that sightlines were not a factor in the decision to remove the stop sign.

“The traffic is going faster and faster now on River Terrace,” said Andrea Montalbano, a resident of 20 River Terrace who has two young children. “It’s just a death or an injury waiting to happen.”

While many residents say that the neighborhood should keep traffic controls at all the previous locations, many were baffled as to why the D.O.T. would find reason to put traffic lights at the mid-block crossings, but take out the stop signs at the intersections with Murray St., which is partially closed now, but will fully reopen to traffic early next year. Some wondered whether the D.O.T. had confused Murray St. and Park Place West (the name of the mid-block crossing), which are reversed on some city maps.

Of all the stop sign removals, residents seem to hate the one at Murray and River Terrace the most. Over the weekend, one resident, or group of residents, took the law into their own hands, installing a fake stop sign at the intersection. By Monday, the rogue sign had been removed. In the future, the residents plan to take more conventional steps to getting the signs replaced. Borough President Scott Stringer has already written a letter to D.O.T. on the residents’ behalf and Community Board 1 has scheduled a June 5 meeting to discuss the issue.

The D.O.T. said it would send a representative to the meeting and would consider conducting its own traffic study in the future to reevaluate the conditions. If meetings and political pressures don’t get the desired effect, however, some residents have said that public protests, or even legal action, could be on the horizon.

“We are days away from blocking traffic,” Montalbano said, only half kidding. “Hopefully, [D.O.T’s] really looking into the matter. I hope they decide it was just a mistake.”

Progress on West

On West St. the road to safer crossings is moving a bit more smoothly. After convincing the state Department of Transportation to cancel its plans to add two turning lanes to the corner of West and Warren Sts — a move that would have reduced crossing times and led to more accidents according to state D.O.T.’s own study — local traffic advocates set their sights on making the existing intersections near P.S./I.S. 89 safer.

Manhattan Youth director Bob Townley decided to make safer crossings into an advocacy project for a group of middle school students in his after school program. Two youngsters from the neighborhood have had run-ins with cars in the last month. Though neither was gravely injured, Townley decided it was time to curb the speeding and red light-running that often occurs at the two West St. intersections in front of the school, particularly at night.

With the help of the research and advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, Townley’s students organized a rally and research session Thursday afternoon during the early part of rush hour.

“Right now the only protection you have is to be smart,” Townley told the kids as they divided into teams. Some clocked and recorded car speeds while others bounced up and down along the roadside, holding home-made signs with slogans like “Kids, Not Cars” and “Honk if Speed Kills.” Others mugged for the Transportation Alternatives video camera, which was shooting scenes for the group’s affiliated Web site, Streetsblog.

Despite blocked-up traffic from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the kids caught roughly one car per minute violating the 35 m.p.h. speed limit and over a 30-minute period, documented at least a dozen instances of cars running red lights, performing illegal u-turns or stopping in “No Standing” zones.

In brainstorming as to how to make the intersections safer, the students said they would like School Zone signs, lower speed limits, traffic cops and longer pedestrian crossing times at Chambers and Warren Sts.

“Your light is so short,” said Ruben Sonz-Barnes, 13. “It’s not one of those lights you can just walk up to. You really have to be ready for it.”

On Monday, Townley met with representatives from various city and state agencies and elected officials for a grown-up brainstorming session arranged by B.P. Stringer. While nothing has been finalized, the coalition will be looking into hiring an additional crossing guard at Warren St., placing red light cameras in the area, and adding electronic messages to let drivers know how fast they are going and that they are entering a school zone.

The group plans to meet again on June 4, but Townley hopes that the D.O.T. will agree to meet separately with the middle schoolers to hear their thoughts. Brooke DuBose of Transportation Alternatives supports the idea of keeping the kids in the loop.

“I think it’s great to get the kids involved,” she said. “It shows people what kind of population is affected by the traffic.”

I.S. 89 student Felix Chmiel agreed that student activism would have a positive impact on the public, though for a different reason.

“Kids are lazy,” Chmiel said. “We don’t really like to take action unless it’s really important. So this shows people that it’s really important to us.”

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