Curb The Cars On Queens Boulevard

by Michael Smith

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of Newsday, Jan. 26, 2001)

The ongoing scandal of Queens Boulevard has finally forced the city to act - or at least seem to act. This asphalt slaughterhouse has been mowing down around 10 New Yorkers a year - with particular attention to the elderly - for the last decade and more. But the angry citizens of Queens have at last evoked a twitch from the bureaucracy's sluggish nervous system. With much fanfare, the city has announced yet another police crackdown. It began yesterday.

Better enforcement on Queens Boulevard is a good thing, of course - for however long it lasts. But the real culprit on Queens Boulevard is the city's Department of Transportation.

DOT has made its view of the matter very clear to community leaders in Queens: The problem is those pesky pedestrians. To hear the department tell it, Queens is full of 80-year-old track stars who perversely insist on darting into traffic and flinging themselves under the wheels of cars.

Of course this is nonsense. Queens Boulevard is deadly for one simple reason: It's been designed and built by DOT for the sole purpose of ramming cars through the heart of Queens, at high volumes and high speeds.

No real consideration has been paid to the safety, much less the convenience, of the people who live or work or shop nearby - the people who have to cross this river of steel on foot.

The pedestrian advocacy group Right of Way, working with the Forest Hills Action League, has been conducting a study of 42 pedestrian and cyclist deaths on Queens Boulevard from 1994 through 1998. The results so far show some significant patterns.

One unusually common scenario of pedestrian death is what we call "almost made it": Pedestrians are run over in the last lane they must cross before reaching safety. In many of these cases, it appears that the light changed while the pedestrian was crossing, and cars barreling through the fresh green light at high speed were unable to stop.

Another way to die on Queens Boulevard is related to the immense area and complex geometry of many intersections. Queens Boulevard crosses many streets, including several major ones, at a very acute angle. As a result, the intersection is larger in area than a normal perpendicular one, and the flow of cars "decompresses" and expands into it.

To make matters worse, the pedestrian also has farther to walk in order to cross. The chaotic complexity of the intersection means that cars are coming from unexpected directions, and often from several directions at once.

With intersections like these, it is no wonder that pedestrians sometimes prefer to cross mid-block. True, you don't have a signal; but then the signal often doesn't do you much good anyhow. And at mid- block you only have to worry about cars coming from one direction, and you can see them coming from farther away.

DOT's proposed fix for the deathtrap it has engineered is to cage the dangerous pedestrian with fences and barriers, and lecture him or her about how to cross the street. This would be funny if it weren't so insulting. An 80-year-old Queens resident has crossed plenty of streets in her time and doesn't need advice on the subject from limousine-riders at DOT.

It's natural, of course, that DOT wants to pass the buck. Its self-imposed mission is to move cars at high speed and ever-higher numbers through the dense and busy urban fabric of New York. But the brutal fact is that this mission cannot be made compatible with pedestrian safety and convenience. Face it, guys: It's cars or people. One or the other has got to take priority.

The only way to make Queens Boulevard safe for the uncaged, self-propelled human being is to make the roadway smaller, narrower and slower for cars. This is especially true at intersections, where DOT now exhibits awe-inspiring ingenuity at doing exactly the wrong thing: widening turn radii, for example, so cars can take them faster, and gobbling up pedestrian space on medians to make turn lanes.

DOT has a relatively new commissioner, Iris Weinshall. Because she's new, she has no personal investment in the department's lethal history of misdirected effort. She still has the opportunity, if she chooses, to do the right thing without the embarrassment of reversing long-standing policies of her own.

But this will not happen unless the aroused citizens of Queens force her to choose: You can move cars or you can save lives. Which will it be?

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