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“Boulevard of Death” Gives Community New Life

Canal Street has four of them. Houston has six. Interstate 9, better known as the West Side Highway, can have as many as 10, but that still pales in comparison to another New York City native. With a whopping 16 lanes at its peak, Queens Boulevard dwarfs these trails and still has room to spare.

But size isn’t everything, and it’s not always a good thing. The standard 12-lane span for this behemoth means confusion and distraction for drivers. Pedestrians end up crossing the street as if they were playing Frogger, and cyclists risk their lives with every intersection. Unfortunately, injury or fatality happens often enough that the road has been dubbed “The Boulevard of Death.” It’s even prompted the city to post a warning at one intersection that reads, “A pedestrian was killed crossing here.”

“If you’re hit by a car going 30 mph, you have only a 50 percent chance of survival,” said Shin-pei Tsay, an urban planner and former deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy organization for walking, cycling, and mass transit. “But if the car is going 40 mph, your chances are reduced to 15 percent.”

Despite the danger, the roadway is still heavily utilized by everyone – drivers, walkers and bikers – each who have their own agenda, though they all have the same goal: to get where they are going safely. That the street needs to be made safer is not in contention, and the push for change on Queens Boulevard has been recently revitalized, partly due to increased traffic.

Emilia Crotty, education manager for Bike New York and member of the Transportation Committee of Queens Community Board 2, said that she’s seen the influx around her. “The growth is immediately apparent to me every morning crossing the Queensboro Bridge, which I’ve been doing since 2003,” she said. “In years past, I would sometimes be the lone cyclist crossing, but now there are scores of other cyclists on the path with me. It seems like everyone rides a bike now.”

According to one report prepared by the Department of Transportation, bicycling in New York City increased by an estimated 221% from 2000 to 2009, with 15,495 bicycle commuters tallied. The report states that the actual number of cyclists could be dramatically higher when adding in leisure and occasional riders.

The growth is apparent, but the solution remains elusive. The city has been working at an astonishing pace to alter to flow of traffic in favor of bicycles since 1997, when the DOT and the Department of City Planning released the New York City Bicycle Master Plan, a herculean effort outlining the actions proposed to increase ridership and decrease congestion. However, the plan barely touches Queens Boulevard.

Of the 909 miles of lanes proposed in the plan, the road gets crossed seven times and followed once – on the bridge crossing the Sunnyside Yards. The rest of the seven-mile stretch is virtually unaffected.

It has not, however, been ignored. The DOT has made several alterations in the name of safety in the past decade alone. According to a DOT spokesperson, measures such as improved signage, decreased speed limits, improved signal timing and safer, larger medians have reduced the number of pedestrian fatalities from 17 in 1993 to just two in 2009.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to make our streets as safe as they can be for everyone who bikes, walks, or drives in the city,” said DOT Deputy Press Secretary Monty Dean in an email. “While crashes have dropped dramatically on Queens Boulevard and across the city in recent years, we will continue to look for even more ways to enhance safety.”

But the department officials are as of yet unconvinced that Queens Boulevard is a viable option for bike lanes. And they’re not the only ones with objections.

“There is no enthusiasm from Borough President Helen Marshall for bike lanes on Queens Boulevard,” Press Secretary Dan Andrews said in an email. He said that the only place where it would be possible to add them would be in the bus lanes, and that Marshall doesn’t consider it safe enough for the cyclists or the motorists.

The safety issue stops most people whose support might help sway the DOT. Council Member Karen Koslowitz has a similar concern. “Bike lanes on Queens Boulevard are a complicated concept,” said Greg Lavine, a spokesperson from the council member’s office. “First and foremost, Queens Boulevard needs to be made safe for pedestrians.”

Advocates for the bike lanes see this as a challenge, one with a solution, rather than a roadblock. “Do you want to live with a Boulevard of Death?” said Crotty. “No. Then let’s do something to change it.”

Transportation Alternatives has been circulating a “sign-on” letter in hopes of increasing the number of supporters in politics for their efforts. Aja Hazelhoff, bicycle advocate at T.A., said that they have been meeting with the over 30 elected officials whose districts involve the road. “We are basically asking Queens Boulevard to be looked at as a complete street,” she said, which means having designated space for all users: walkers, bikers, bus riders and drivers. “There are so many people who are touched by Queens Boulevard; it is a great opportunity for combined support.”

Some politicians already show support for biking and pedestrian safety, though they may not be working directly with T.A. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer publicly purchased a bicycle on National Bike to Work Day, and Crotty said that Council Member Daniel Dromm has put a lot of resources into a bike program for kids. “We’re trying to get officials to make this their issue,” said Hazelhoff.

But any political change will have to come from the ground up. T.A.’s Queens Committee, an entirely volunteer branch of the organization, puts in much of the ground work, often speaking directly to community boards or residents at public events. David Dubovsky, the chair of the committee, said that officials are impacted more by hearing about these concerns from the constituents they serve. “It’s a large problem and you can’t solve it with one elected official,” he said. “What we can do is both spread the word and really activate the public to realize that change can happen.”

The volunteers in Queens organize different monthly rides, some for fun and some to advocate for biking. One of these is a bike pool, not unlike a car pool, where riders gather at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge and ride in a safety group down the boulevard. “It is to raise awareness to the dangers of biking on Queens Boulevard,” said Dubovsky. “And it helps people commute home.” During these rides, they stop to pay homage at the ghost-bikes marking the sites where two T.A. members died on the boulevard.

Community boards along the route are a vital stronghold for any physical change, and T.A. has worked on bringing them into the mix as well. Crotty said that T.A. has held gatherings called Jammy-Jams where the organization’s volunteers meet up in a large group to fill out the application for community board service, complete with on-site assistance and notary public. While the outcome was not overwhelming, Hazelhoff said that they were able to get several interested people on their boards.

Chair of Community Board 2 in Queens, Joseph Conley

In addition, they a speaking to the transportation committees on various boards as well. “They came to the community board to kick around some ideas,” said Joseph Conley, chairperson of community board 2 in Queens. “We have questions, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

The support of the board will be critical, but again the safety issues stand in the way. “Queens Boulevard has been dubbed the Boulevard of Death; I don’t want to make it the Boulevard of More Death,” said Conley during the November general meeting.

But the Queens Committee is trying to do more than just voice their worries. They have worked with a volunteer group of urban planners called Planning Corp that Tsay co-founded. According to Tsay, the thoroughfare was always of interest to T.A., but they lacked the technical resources to tackle it. Tsay’s group stepped in when the committee made the Queens Boulevard puzzle a high priority for the year.

Tsay said that Planning Corp crafted maps of intersections complete with moveable parts to aid in the discussion during the meetings. The idea was to get input from many different people to come up with the best possible solution. “We just talked about how it could be different,” Tsay said. “We just want to show that it’s possible.”

Dubovsky said that offering people something tangible helps to show them the possibilities and allow them to offer their input. “It really furthers the conversation,” he said. When T.A. has prepared the proper presentation, they will use these tools to discuss ideas with the community boards.

While it appears that most people support the proposals for improved safety, there are lingering concerns about some of the existing problems getting worse. Parking, for example, is in high contention and bike lanes often result in fewer parking spaces on the sides of the streets. “I want to go to the restaurants on 46th street but I can’t…find…a…parking…space,” said Al Volpi, a member of Queens Community Board 2.

“Sometimes we have more complaints about bicycles than we do traffic,” said Conley. Bad bicycling practices, such as riding on sidewalks and going against the flow of traffic, cause significant problems. According to Crotty, these problems can be solved with bike education, such as learning about proper riding and signaling techniques, and knowing and following the traffic laws for both cars and bikes. “With each new bike lane, drivers are being asked to share the road with other users, which will take increased drivers education – a state level change – and better enforcement to really take hold,” said Crotty. “Similarly, cyclists need to recognize that if they want other people to adhere to traffic rules, they need to do the same.”

Crotty said that most people she’s spoken with have been supportive of safety improving street alterations, but that the voices in objection tend to resonate louder than the rest. “I think that they feel they are not getting any input,” she said. Another member of the Transportation Committee and the community board she serves on is pro-motorist, and she said that having his input greatly helps reach kept the conversation balanced and facilitates a commonly appropriate solution. “I think it’ll take a bit more time, but we can sway the tone,” she said.

But Queens Boulevard still haunts people. Dubovsky said that there was a community event in Forest Hills where the elderly residents and families with young children spoke about being terrified of crossing the street. While the Department of Transportation, the various advocacy groups, the community boards and the myriad of elected officials have been working well together up to this point, there is still a lot to be done.

“No one’s against pedestrian safety improvements,” Dubovsky said. “How everyone wants to go about it? Everyone has different ideas.”

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