Boulevard of Death RANT

New York City's Queens Boulevard (a.k.a. State Route 25) is a twelve-lane divided highway complete with service lanes, thinly masquerading as a boulevard running seven miles through the middle of the borough of Queens.  What started out in the early 1900's as a two-lane road with a trolley has become a congested major thoroughfare with subways, lined with thousands of stores, businesses and apartment buildings and serving hundreds of thousands of shoppers and commuters every day.

The local news media in 2001 re-christened Queens Boulevard with a nick-name - the "Boulevard of Death."  While this smacks smartly of media sensationalism, over the course of a few recent years this road has claimed roughly one life every 5 weeks on average.  The boulevard's new name was given immediately following the tragic November 2000 death of 14 year old Sofia Leviyev, who was struck and killed by a speeding minivan at the intersection of 67th Avenue in Rego Park.

Since Sofia's death, every local politician with a glimmer of hope for his or her personal future and every community group with an axe to grind is having their say on what should be done about this the apparent lack of safety on and around Queens Boulevard.

The Political Correctness STOPS HERE.

Queens Boulevard is only the current whipping boy, and this is an important fact to consider since other roads have higher death rates (Northern Boulevard) and pedestrians were at fault in a major percentage of all the encounters.  You can fix the roads one at a time and you can fix the drivers in droves, but without fixing the pedestrians you are simply wasting your time.

Dozens of solutions have been proposed.  A few of these solutions are already being implemented and other proposals are under consideration.  Unfortunately none of the solutions properly address the ugly truth about New York City's pedestrians...  We are reaping what we have sown.  New York City is the North American capital of jay-walking.  Combine this with pedestrian inattention, driver distractions and frustrations, militance and ignorance shared by pedestrians and drivers alike, and you have a recipe for certain and perpetual disaster.

Queens Boulevard is a dangerous road - ten to twelve lanes wide at some points - that demands respect.  Most people would not even dream of jay-walking the Long Island Expressway, but the same folks won't think twice when they step off the curb to cross the boulevard.  Drivers are equally foolish, treating other drivers like their enemies, taking their responsibility like a video game, and using the road like a playground or even a raceway.

The only ways to reduce pedestrian accident rates on Queens Boulevard are to lengthen the time pedestrians have to cross the boulevard, re-engineer the traffic light cycles to avoid conflicts between pedestrians and turning traffic, provide pedestrians with wide, safe havens on the medians complete with safety barriers, provide pedestrians an advance green, and enforce the existing laws fairly and equally among pedestrians and drivers.

Many of the proposals for addressing the Queens Boulevard issue completely ignore human nature.  The proposals are clear evidence of the foolish path taken when politicians ignore engineers and simple common sense.

Take the recently installed fences for example. Meant to prevent crossing between controlled walkways, they have done little to prevent jay-walking and have actually made jay-walking more dangerous. People still leave the sidewalks wherever they please, but now must embark on a longer diagonal path across the lanes of Queens Boulevard so as to intersect the openings in the fences.  Some simply step over the fence.

The newly installed parking meters on the islands separating the local and express lanes are both good news and bad.  The bad news is the outer roadway now has only one navigable lane, imitating similar roads in Brooklyn. The good news is, we have more parking spaces!  But wait - there's more bad news is - look at where those parking space are. I see two major problems:

In Brooklyn the islands are wide pedestrian malls and the outer walks are mostly residential.  In Queens, the islands are narrow spits of land with little comfortable walking room impeded by trees and zig-zagging fences, and the outer walks are almost entirely commercial.  Jaywalking to and from those new parking spaces is absolutely guaranteed and actually increases the overall frequency of jaywalking as shoppers cross back and forth. 

The next problem is that of traffic management.  The narrowed outer lanes cause disruptions in the flow of traffic in the inner lanes.  The effect is particurly bad where traffic exits the eastbound Long Island Expressway, creating backups all the way into the newly constructed Expressway service lanes and all the way back to Woodside on Queens Boulevard.  The narrowed outer lanes also force the overflow onto side streets paralleling Queens Boulevard, greatly increasing the danger in places where our children are even less careful of dangerous traffic.

The Traffic Police are pathetically ineffective at their foot posts.  I've personally witnessed jay-walkers blithely ignoring posted officers, and belligerently hurling foul epithets at the officers in those rare occasions when they've been confronted.  In most other states, that kind of behavior would earn you a handcuffed visit to the police station.  But not in New York City, the jay-walking capital of North America.  All this happens within mere feet of Sofia Leviyev's memorial, too.

There's very little to persuade jay-walkers to abandon their practice.  Consider, an automobile driver who ignores a traffic light can be issued a summons that can cost hundreds of dollars in fines directly and THOUSANDS of dollars in insurance surcharges over the next forty months.  A jay-walker faces at most a stern finger-wagging by a TPD officer and the very shallow threat of a $50 summons.  The possible loss of personal life and limb are obviously no impediment.

The speed limit is a joke.  Setting an artificially low speed limit accomplishes only one thing - it increases the number of "speeders".  Witness the media, carping about 40% of the traffic travelling at 35 to 40 MPH a week or two after the new 30 MPH speed limit was posted.  The lower speed limit and the traffic calming measures will certainly reduce the number of pedestrian deaths, but I doubt it will significantly reduce the number of accidents involving pedestrians.  Every little bit counts I suppose.  Better to be maimed than dead?  But now Queens can be the proud owner of its very own speed trap, rivaling the stereotypical small towns of middle America.

Some of the proposed solutions would be laughable if their conception were not so pathetically ignorant of human nature or sensible engineering.

Pedestrian overpasses: This is a marvelous solution for the mobility impaired if we construct such an overpass at every single traffic light, but does nothing to address people's natural tendency to take the shortest path between two points.  I've sat watching pedestrians at the very intersection where that 14 year old Russian girl was killed.  People still jay-walk carelessly, and cross in between lights even when they're only a few yards from the crosswalk.

Altered light timing: If you irritate drivers enough on one road, they'll find other less irritating roads.  By stopping the traffic needlessly every block or every other block, and now making them wait longer each time, you'll drive traffic off to nearby side roads.  This is not conjecture; it's already happened.  I can look out my Austin Street window right now where the traffic has tripled, and watch 50% of the traffic completely ignore the stop sign at the corner.  We are trading decreased accident rates on Queens Boulevard for increased accident rates on every alternate road.  If this doesn't rattle you right away, remember that those side streets have many uncontrolled intersections and are almost impossible to patrol effectively, and these are the roads your children, nieces and nephews play near and cross routinely to reach schools and playgrounds and to visit friends.  These are the roads your spouses, siblings, parents and loved ones will cross to reach shopping, public transportation and houses of worship, and they are ruled by no-one now.

Slower light timing: One ignoramus pointed out that the lights are timed to permit speeding.  Nice theory but that's only true during weekday rush hours, westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening, and that's only true in the rare circumstance that the road is not too congested to "run with the lights."  Otherwise it's simply an engineering necessity to reduce congestion from accordion effect.  Now take a look at the times of day of most of the fatalities and you'll find they have little coincidence with the rush hours anyway.

Extra trees: Someone actually suggested adding trees along the road, as if this would make motorists feel it were less of a highway.  Or perhaps they were just carried away by the dictionary definition of the word "boulevard".  The Southern State Parkway is tree-lined too, but I don't see anyone slowing down there.  What additional trees will accomplish on Queens Boulevard however, is to provide extra obstacles for vehicles to crash into, and to further obscure the view of jay-walking pedestrians from oncoming vehicles and vice-versa.

Here's a quick eye-opener about human behavior: I've sat and watched pedestrians, carefully observing their methodology for crossing a street.  I stopped short of actually interviewing them because I wasn't interested in their perception of their actions, only their actions.  It's the subtle, instinctive and programmed behavior that they're not even aware of that interested me the most.  I did this by watching their body and eye movements over and over again.

Here's how a pedestrian is supposed to cross a street:
1. Stop at curb.
2. Check for a green traffic light or walk signal.
3. Look both ways for oncoming traffic.
4. Step down from curb and cross street if clear.

Here's how most New York City pedestrians cross a street:
1. Step off curb.
2. Relax stride or pause briefly.
3. Glance for oncoming traffic.
4. Cross street if a trajectory between incoming vehicles is possible.

Not all of the ideas are stupid, but some have far-reaching implications that need to be studied by traffic engineers.  Of those ideas, the UC Berkeley study and comparisons to Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway are the most promising in concept, but may require a billion dollars and years of construction to achieve.

Elimination of the Midtown Tunnel's tolls to promote the use of the Long Island Expressway should address traffic concerns on some western portions of Queens Boulevard.  You won't have to twist too many arms to convince people to save $6 a day.  Much of the recent additional traffic load on Queens Boulevard is there specifically because the Rego Park - Long Island City stretch of the L.I.E. was impossible to use, toll or not.  This has improved now that the major construction phases are complete.  Here's one the traffic engineers probably haven't figured out yet... the traffic on 21st Street has increased because more people are using it to connect to the Grand Central Parkway to bypass the daily L.I.E. and Queens Boulevard traffic nightmares.

Speeding cameras and more red-light cameras have been proposed.  Speeding cameras I cannot support in any form.  Speeding is subjective in my opinion, limits already set too low, and a machine is ill-prepared to make that judgement.  There's nothing magical about the velocity of 32mph that's substantially more dangerous than the velocity of 30mph, and the safety of a vehicle at nearly any speed is more a function of the ability of the driver, the state of the vehicle and the prevailing conditions.  Red light cameras on the other hand are a good idea but ONLY if they're implemented fairly.  This means a longer and more uniformly timed amber signal (for which the AAA has been petitioning for years already), and it also means that light timing should not be altered merely for the purpose of catching motorists off-guard and provoking type-A driving behavior.

I have another idea that won't be too popular with the blue-collar workers, yuppies, soccer moms, redneck wannabe's and Viagra candidates.  Since apparently New York City faces jaywalkers with complete resignation, the least we can do is make jaywalking safer, so let's ban the parking or standing of trucks, vans, minivans, SUVs - in fact, any vehicle taller than five feet - within fifty feet of each street corner and set a policy of immediately towing violators.  Stepping out into the street from behind these motor -driven monstrosities, a pedestrian is a complete and total surprise to oncoming traffic.  This should also make it safer for pedestrians crossing with the light, improving their visibility to turning traffic as it approaches the corner.

DOT's insistence that pedestrians should cross the boulevard in two stages, is asinine.  With the medians just a few feet wide in some places, I doubt you'd want your mobility-impaired grandmother to stand nervously on a skimpy median with traffic whizzing by only a foot or two in front and behind with nothing but a six inch curb for protection.

Facts from the "two wrongs don't make a right" department: In 78% of auto-pedestrian accidents the pedestrian did NOT have the right of way (1996 DOT).  Yet in the enforcement blitz between December 8, 2000 and October 31, 2001, of the 158,530 of the summonses issued at Queens Boulevard just 7,272 were for jaywalking.  Now ask someone how many jaywalking summonses were issued in 2002 and 2003.  Quiet, eh?  And remember Sofia Leviyev?  Here's the ugly part that the politically correct press don't have the nerve to mention: The van was speeding, but Sofia ran out into the street against the traffic light.  If she wasn't where she didn't belong, she might still be here with us today.


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