Do you want protected bike lanes?

Almost ten years ago, a group of us got together and formed the Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition. People were driving too fast on Skillman and 43rd Avenues, injuring our neighbors and loved ones. I personally feared for my son’s life as he got older and began crossing streets by himself. We could no longer allow our neighborhood to be used as overflow for people driving to Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway and Queens Boulevard. We called in some urban planners, who examined the situations and made eight recommendations.

Since then the Department of Transportation has acted on three of the eight recommendations. They retimed the traffic lights to discourage speeding, added lights and repainted our crosswalks. They cut down the wide driving lanes that encouraged people to speed, and added bike lanes to give cyclists a place.

Already the results have been great. Speeding is much reduced, as are crashes and injuries. The avenues feel much safer and more comfortable to walk. Two of the recommendations, daylighting intersections and restoring two-way traffic flow, have not yet been implemented, but we expect that when they are implemented they will reduce crashes even further and make the avenues more pleasant.

I welcomed the bike lanes because they reduced speeding, but I have not ridden in them very much myself. Over the past ten years my bike has tended to My bike has spent most of the past nine years in the garage, because I do not feel very safe in them. I am not protected from drivers who swerve out of their lanes, and If someone chooses to illegally double-park in the bike lane I am forced to fight with cars again.

When Citibike was introduced in 2013 I tried riding it, and found that it was easy to take the 7 train to Manhattan or Long Island City and ride in the new protected bike lanes on Eighth Avenue or Kent Avenue. I still have to deal with cars at intersections, but the line of parked cars or jersey barriers feels more secure.

With this in mind I was pleased to hear that the DOT is considering converting the bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues to parking-protected lanes like those on Eighth and Ninth Avenues in Manhattan. This has the potential further reduce speeding, because the space next to the travel lanes will be blocked by parked cars most of the time. But I would also benefit by having safer lanes to ride to Long Island City and Manhattan.

My son is now too old to ride his bike on the sidewalk. I feel very apprehensive at the idea of him riding in the current bike lanes, and he has told me that he finds them intimidating. When I told him that the DOT was considering converting the bike lanes to parking-protected ones, he liked the idea immediately.

If you would also like to see the Skillman and 43rd Avenue bike lanes protected by parked cars, please make your feelings known to our City Council member, neighbor and longtime supporter, Jimmy Van Bramer, at jvanbramer@council.nyc.gov. Also tell the DOT using this web form. And let me know if you want to help raise awareness of this issue!

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 nyc.gov.

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.”

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.

Corrections to Al Volpe’s letter

In this week’s Woodside Herald there is a letter from our neighbor Al Volpe, who clearly believes that the current level of danger on Skillman Avenue is acceptable. Unfortunately, his letter contains several factual inaccuracies. To paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, Al is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

  1. Al claims that “If there is a pedestrian accident, it is because of the pedestrian jaywalking.” This does not account for the pedestrians hit by cars when they were on the sidewalk.
  2. Al claims that at the May meeting of Community Board 2, he suggested retiming the signals on Skillman Avenue, and that “Al Volpe and the DOT ‘calmed’ Skillman and 43rd in one week!” The signal retiming was suggested by Transportation Alternatives in November, the suggestion was conveyed to the DOT in January, and the signals were retimed at the end of March.
  3. Al claims that “Transportation Alternatives insists that at least 1 parking space per corner at each intersection should be removed – ‘daylighted’. They could remove 8 parking spots per intersection. Eight!” The daylighting suggestion is to remove between one and three parking spaces at each problematic corner. Since these are one-way streets, this means at most one corner per intersection. It only applies to intersections without traffic signals, of which there are a total of seven on the entire 33-block length of Skillman Avenue from Hunterspoint to Roosevelt (four in Woodside and three in the industrial area of Sunnyside). That means giving up a maximum of twenty-one spaces, but more likely only fourteen.
  4. Al claims that “If Transportation Alternatives’ plans were fully implemented – widened sidewalks, protected bike lanes, angle parking – Skillman Avenue will end up as a 1-lane street.” These suggestions are alternatives, not meant to be implemented together.
  5. Al claims that “Transportation Alternatives reports that in the seven-year period, 1995- 2001, there were, horrors!, 11 pedestrian accidents on Skillman Avenue.”  The figure of eleven crashes that resulted in pedestrian injuries is only for the two block stretch between 50th and 52nd Streets; along the 33-block length of Skillman there were 32 pedestrians and 11 cyclists injured during that period.  This figure does not include injuries to motor vehicle operators or passengers, or crashes that only resulted in property damage.

The rest of Al’s letter engages in various logical fallacies, but it is the factual inaccuracies that concern me the most. I have tried several times to correct Al in person, but he just repeats his version. It disappoints me that someone who has been a community leader for so long would be so disinclined to listen to his neighbors.

If you hear anyone repeating these erroneous statements, please make sure they know the truth.

Cyclist hit at 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue

Neighbor Catherine Leopando posted this report on the Sunnyside Yahoo Group:

We were out for a walk a bit ago and there had just been an accident
at the intersection of 43rd & Skillman. A biker had been hit by a car
– it must have just happened when we got there – he was lying on the
ground, unable to move other than just move his head a bit.
Fortunately the driver stayed, and the police arrived when we were
leaving. I’m not sure of the condition of the biker (definitely some
major injuries), but even if he will be fine I think this is good time
to point out an issue discussed here a while ago. There are always
drivers going way too fast on Skillman, and a suggestion to prevent
that is making Skillman and 43rd ave two-way streets. It seems like
everytime I cross Skillman I see people treating it like an
expressway. Of course, I didn’t see the accident so I can’t tell you
how fast he was driving — but clearly two-way streets are less
conducive to these types of accidents.

I’m glad that she agrees about two-way streets, but I’m very concerned about this cyclist. If anyone has any more details, please let us know.

This morning the DOT striped the new bike lanes. I hope that they weren’t a factor in this crash.  If they were, I hope we can change the lanes to be physically separated like the Ninth Avenue lanes.

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!