Injuries down on Skillman and 43rd Avenues

This article appears on Page 6 of today’s Woodside Herald (PDF).

Skillman Avenue's new bike lane extension
Skillman Avenue's new bike lane extension

The efforts of Sunnyside and Woodside residents to make Skillman and 43rd Avenues safer have paid off in a big way, according to a new report from the city Department of Transportation.  When the traffic signals were retimed and bicycle lanes installed on the two avenues, people drove slower, and there was a dramatic reduction in the number of crashes resulting in injury.  The project was one of twelve highlighted in the 2009 Sustainable Streets Index, available on the Department’s website at

In the fall of 2007, residents along Skillman Avenue, frustrated with dangerous conditions, formed the Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition. They called in traffic safety experts from Transportation Alternatives to survey the avenue. Transportation Alternatives recommended a series of actions, which the Coalition passed on to the Department of Transportation on January 24, 2008, with the support of Assemblymember Catherine Nolan and then-Councilmember Eric Gioia.

The first recommendation was to change the timing of the traffic signals, because the old pattern encouraged drivers to speed.  When the light at 52nd Street turned green, a driver would see green lights all the way ahead, and could avoid red lights all the way by driving at thirty miles per hour.  The second recommendation was to narrow the traffic lanes, because drivers tend to drive faster with wider lanes.  This narrowing could have been done by widening sidewalks or installing bike lanes or angle parking. The third was to repaint the lines on the street, which had not been done in a while.  Another recommendation was to add a traffic light at the corner of 51st Street and Skillman Avenue.

The Department of Transportation responded promptly.  They studied the intersection of 51st and Skillman, but recommended against installing a traffic signal.  In March 2008, they adjusted the traffic signals on Skillman and 43rd Avenues so that a car moving faster than twenty miles per hour would be stopped by a red light.  In May 2008 they painted bicycle lanes on the avenues between Queens Boulevard and 48th Street, and repainted the other lane markings.

According to the Sustainable Streets report, these actions have worked.  Average speeds on Skillman Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets during the morning rush went down from 30 miles per hour to 22 mph when the signals were retimed, and then to 19 mph when the bicycle lanes were installed.  On 43rd Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets, average speeds fell from 28 to 22 miles per hour when the signals were retimed.

Most importantly, injuries have declined.  In 2005-2006, there were 46 crashes resulting in injuries, in 2006-2007 there were 43, and in 2007-2008 there were 33.  In the twenty months between March 2008 and November 2009, there were 38 crashes resulting in injuries, an average of 23 per year.  That is a 50% drop from the high point, and a 25% drop from the average of the three preceding years.  It is also another twenty months when there have been no fatal crashes on either of the avenues.

The changes have benefited automobile drivers and their passengers even more than pedestrians and bicyclists.  There were six crashes resulting in injuries to cyclists per year after the changes were made, which is a slight increase over the previous year.  Crashes resulting in injuries to motor vehicle occupants fell from 28 to 13, and those resulting in injuries to pedestrians also dropped from 15 to 4.

The Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition is thrilled to know that their efforts have paid off.  “That’s eighteen to twenty-three people who could have been injured this past year but weren’t,” said Coalition member Angus Grieve-Smith. “Everyone who has supported these safety improvements can be proud of that.  We are particularly grateful to our neighbor Al Volpe.  He did not support the bicycle lanes, but he has been a strong advocate for retiming traffic signals.”

Injury rates may have continued dropping since the study period ended. The bike lanes were extended from 48th Street east to Roosevelt Avenue in November 2009. According to John Vogt, former President of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, this was done at the request of the Coalition and the Chamber.

There is still room to reduce these numbers further. The World Health Organization recommends that “Residential access roads should have speed limits of no more than 30 km/h [19 mph] and design features that calm traffic,” but average speeds on Skillman and 43rd Avenues are still above 19 mph.

Coalition members also point out that cars frequently drive the wrong way on Skillman and 43rd Avenues, sometimes at full speed.  “Just the other day I saw a car going east on Skillman,” says Coalition member Victor Lopez.  The avenues were converted from two-way to one-way in the early 1960s, a change which has been shown to encourage speeding in cities across the country.

The Coalition has also asked for sidewalk extensions to be installed at crosswalks, but the Department of Transportation says that with current budgeting priorities it may be years before there is enough money for them.
“I walk my 3 year old son to daycare along Skillman every day and have noticed that traffic has slowed a little due to the improvements,” said Coalition member Abigail Schoneboom.  “I am still nervous about the crossings at 51st, 48th and 43rd Streets, where drivers continue to turn recklessly without slowing down for pedestrians. I am very happy about the changes but a lot remains to be done to make the streets safe for kids.”

Shared space in Ashford, England

Traffic expert Ben Hamilton-Baillie discusses the results of a pilot project for changing roads to more “shared space” in the town of Ashford in Kent, UK.

As a driver entering the new streets, you are immediately aware that this is somewhere different, somewhere special. It feels quite unlike a normal urban road. You start to pay extra attention, and to become more alert to other people and to your surroundings. The narrower apparent width of the carriageways, the absence of road markings and signals, the lighting, low kerbs and distinctive paving all help to encourage low speeds, whether you are familiar with the space or a newcomer. Every aspect of the scheme contributes to establishing a naturally low-speed, free-flowing environment.

You can read the entire interview and see before and after pictures on Tom Vanderbilt’s blog.

Woodside residents cheer bike lane extensions

This article appeared in the November 20 edition of the Woodside Herald (PDF).

Skillman Avenue bike lane
Skillman Avenue bike lane

WOODSIDE – For the past year and a half, our neighborhoods have benefited from new bicycle lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues.  “I feel safer riding in the dedicated bike lane,” said Sunnyside resident Mary Giancoli.  “I’m definitely using it for work errands and to get around the neighborhood.”

The lanes have also helped cut down on the avenues’ chronic speeding problem.  “A friend witnessed a senior citizen making the sign of the cross before she tried to cross the street,” Woodside resident Susan Santangelo wrote to the Herald in 2007.  “To me, that tells it all.”

That fall, frustrated residents contacted pedestrian safety advocates at Transportation Alternatives.  Amy Pfeiffer, who was then Director of Planning at the organization, visited the area and said, “One of the best ways to control speed is through the width of the street. The more narrow the street the slower the traffic. The two best, least expensive, and easiest ways to narrow a street are bike lanes and perpendicular parking.”

The bike lanes were painted from Long Island City to 48th Street in May 2008, as part of a route from the Queensboro Bridge to Flushing Meadows Park. In Sunnyside they have had the desired effect of slowing car traffic and creating a safer space for cyclists.  But when they reach the border with Woodside, the bike route turned north on 48th Street to 39th Avenue as a shared lane.

The Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition asked Queens Transportation Commissioner Maura McCarthy to extend the lanes east to Roosevelt Avenue to alleviate the speeding in that area and help Woodside residents to get around by bicycle.  Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce added their voice to the extension request.  The bike lanes brought customers to businesses west of 48th Street, and the Chamber wanted the businesses east of 48th to receive the same benefit.

Now, that request has been granted.  The Department of Transportation has painted lane markings on 43rd Avenue east to 51st Street, and on Skillman Avenue all the way to its beginning at Roosevelt. Sunnyside Gardens resident Sandra Robishaw cheered the city’s response, noting that it will “benefit us all.”

Erik Baard, founder of the Long Island City Boathouse and a frequent visiter to the neighborhood, was impressed when he saw the bike lane running the length of 43rd Avenue with the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in the background on Sunday, and said, “I think it might be among the most attractive views of a bike lane in NYC.”

A similar program of bike lane construction in Copenhagen has made cycling safer and broadened its appeal beyond the young and the poor, to the point where 36% of commuters in the city travel by bicycle.  The lanes in Sunnyside and Woodside are tempting many residents to try cycling. “Before the new bicycle lanes were put in, it never even crossed my mind to own a bike much less ride one on Queens streets,” said Bill Sage, a semi-retired Woodside resident.  “Now that the lanes are instituted and drivers are becoming more cautious with their driving, I plan to buy a bike and use it. It’s good for me.”  Sunnyside artist Patricia Dorfman said, “this is exciting. I’m looking for something with a side car for large art pieces and/or groceries!”

Sunnyside Gardens resident and Green Party activist Ann Eagan notes that the new lanes have the potential to decrease pollution and oil dependence by encouraging people to bicycle instead of driving.  “Our small part of the planet, western Queens, is doing something, also small but significant, to save our planet, and to make our community safer,” she said.

Daylighting reinforced on 39th Avenue

A good example of the kind of daylighting we want to see on 52nd Street can be found at the corner of 49th Street and 39th Avenue. There are “no parking” signs marking an area about one car length. This makes it easier for drivers from 49th Street to see traffic on 39th Avenue.

Daylighting on 39th Avenue
Daylighting on 39th Avenue

Last year, when the DOT painted the bike sharrows on 39th Avenue, they also painted lines around the parking lane.  By mistake, they marked that spot as parking, leading people to park in it and get ticketed.

This fall, the DOT used stimulus money to repave 39th Avenue.  I knew they would need to repaint the lines, so I asked Commissioner McCarthy to double-check and make sure that the painters knew to mark the daylighting space as no-parking.  They came through earlier this month, and put down some lovely zebra stripes!  Thanks to the Commissioner, the crew and everyone else who helped.

Skillman/43rd Avenue Bike Lane Update

On Tuesday I attended the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce‘s monthly luncheon at Dazie’s.  The Chamber’s Board of Directors voted last week to support the bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues.

That evening there was a hearing of Community Board 2 to discuss transportation-related issues.  Skillman Avenue was on the agenda, but when I got there I found out that it wouldn’t be discussed after all.  I did get a chance to ask Commissioner McCarthy about some of my requested bike lane improvements.  She was noncommital about the idea of extending the lanes to Roosevelt Avenue, but accepted the request and said, “You’ll probably be seeing more bike lanes in the near future.”  I didn’t get a chance to ask about the idea of making the ones on 43rd and Skillman protected cycle tracks, or about making the route on 48th Street and 39th Avenue striped or separated.

I did ask about bike racks near the planned route, though.  The Commissioner said that bike racks near businesses are best requested by the businesses.  She said that her staff could canvass the businesses, but I think it would be good if we also suggested it to them.  Request forms (PDF) can be downloaded from the DOT’s website.  Feel free to print them out and bring them to your favorite businesses.  If I can find the time I’ll try to coordinate a group effort, but if anyone else wants to coordinate it, please send a message to our mailing list!

Follow-up to Tuesday’s Collision

Since my wife saw a girl get knocked down by a slow-moving SUV at the corner of 52nd Street and Skillman Avenue on Tuesday, I’ve made it a priority to improve that particular intersection.

First, an update: I talked to the girl’s father today, and he said that she was feeling much better, and able to walk okay. It sounds like she’s just bruised. That’s a relief.

Fortunately, that evening was the Community Board meeting. I rushed over there, only to discover that they weren’t going to be talking about Skillman Avenue that night after all. However, I did have a nice chat with Commissioner McCarthy for a few minutes after the meeting. I told her about the collision, and asked about the possibility of daylighting-related improvements in the area. I don’t remember her exact answer, but I think she said it was likely.

The other improvement that would really help make that intersection safer is sidewalk extensions. I asked the Commissioner about those, and she said that they would probably be not be done for a while. She confirmed that this was for budgetary reasons. I asked if they could be funded with member items, and she said, “We’ll take anybody’s money!” So we should work on finding funding for more expensive items like sidewalk extensions.

Today I was talking with a neighbor who lives on 52nd Street, and she told me that on Wednesday she went home for lunch and they were installing a new school crossing sign just before the stop sign. I tried to take a picture of it, but my camera phone wanted to focus on the Honda in front of it:

It might be a coincidence (apparently the DOT has been installing them in other places), but it might not. It won’t solve the problem by itself, but every little bit helps. Thanks, Commissioner!

Support from Elected and Appointed Officials

Various government officials have expressed concern about conditions on Skillman Avenue, and support for our efforts and the DOT’s plans to make the avenue safer. Early in our campaign, neighbor David Rosasco contacted Councilmember Eric Gioia’s office, and his staff has contacted the DOT on our behalf and kept in touch about our efforts. Neighbor Ann Eagan contacted Community Board Chair Joe Conley, and he has also been working in support of safety improvements.

I have also been in touch with Assemblymember Cathy Nolan, a customer of mine. I made the argument that congestion pricing would reduce the number of vehicles using Skillman Avenue, making it easier for the DOT to make improvements. Cathy was not persuaded by my reasoning, but she did hear my concerns about safety, and passed them on to DOT Commissioner Sadik-Khan in the following letter:

In reply, Cathy received a letter from the Commissioner, promising that the DOT would look for ways to make the avenue safer:

Since Cathy did not advocate for congestion pricing, she may be trying to prove me wrong by managing to make the avenue safer without it. In this case, I would love to be proven wrong.

Bike Lanes Coming to Skillman and 43rd Avenues!

You may remember one of Transportation Alternatives’ medium-term recommendations for Skillman Avenue:

Reduce street width: One of the best ways to control speed is through the width of the street. The more narrow the street the slower the traffic. The two best, least expensive, and easiest ways to narrow a street are bike lanes and perpendicular parking. Installing a protected bicycle lane would accomplish the goal of taking away ten feet from motorists and provide a safe place for people to ride along Skillman. Substituting parallel parking with perpendicular parking creates parking for those spots that were removed around the curbs and also slows down motorists.

Here’s what I saw this afternoon on Skillman Avenue and 46th Street.

Chalk markings for a new bike lane! It’s also on the 2008 bike map (available by calling 311).

That’s right, the DOT will be painting bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues between 48th Street and the Queens Boulevard Bridge. From 43rd Avenue north to 39th Avenue, then east on 39th to 60th Street and north on 59th and 60th Streets to the 34th Avenue bike lane will be a series of “Share the Road” signs. They call this the “Sunnyside Connector,” and it’s on their schedule to be painted in May (which is also Bike Month).

I personally believe that this will be good for the neighborhood in many ways. It will be good for business because it will bring cyclists through the neighborhood as they travel between Manhattan/LIC/Greenpoint/Williamsburg and points east. They will see all the inviting shops and restaurants on Skillman and 43rd Avenues and stop in. It’s already happening – this past November the Five Borough Bike Club visited La Marjolaine Bakery on their Choco-Loco Ride.

Most importantly, of course, the lanes will allow cyclists to be safer when they travel around the neighborhood – including my son when he’s old enough to ride on the street. They will also narrow the roadways, discouraging speeding.

There are a few things that I think would make these lanes even better:

  1. Extend the lanes all the way to Roosevelt Avenue, making the eastern ends of Skillman and 43rd safer and providing routes for cyclists to and from Woodside.
  2. Make the eastern part of the route, on 48th Street and 39th Avenue, painted instead of signs where possible.
  3. Place the lanes on Skillman and 43rd between the parked cars and the sidewalk for added safety.
  4. Install adequate bicycle parking along the route, especially near businesses and restaurants.

We can work on those in the future. In the meantime, I’m definitely looking forward to these lanes. I hope all you angle parking fans won’t be too disappointed. Thanks to DOT, and to all those who have been working towards these safety improvements!