By Joanna Kahn
On Thursday evening, July 17, many of us gathered at the corner of West End Avenue and West 95th Street to remember Jean Chambers, who lost her life in the latest pedestrian-vehicle fatality on the Upper West Side, and to call for traffic safety actions.
The particular area has been bombarded with traffic deaths in the last year. We have lost family members, friends and neighbors. Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal chooses to call this horrific experience of four pedestrian-vehicle fatalities this year in this area an “epidemic.” For those of us who walk these streets daily, this is a “war zone.” We see and hear these two- to three-ton moving pieces of steel with angry, annoyed, confused drivers honking, screeching, turning erratically, crashing into each other and, with great sorrow and pain, colliding into fragile flesh. Often the vehicles are manned by speed incentivists; but at the very least, they are driven by people double or triple tasking at the wheel, not paying attention or caring about traffic laws or pavement aids and street signs and driven, themselves, to get somewhere fast or first.
City government has stepped in and made some changes that feel like band-aids for a situation that calls for reconstructive surgery. The public seems to have no clear and honest sense of why city government is making the choices it is making in its attempt to prevent any additional vehicle collisions leading to pedestrian deaths. In rectifying the traffic patterns, it does not appear the city’s primary concern is fragility citizens’ lives.
In the wake of these incidents, there has been greater enforcement of some of the laws which are in place. More drivers are being ticketed for going through red lights at West End Avenue and 96th Street. The road markings, signal changes and altered flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic through the Broadway nexus seems to have helped. Changes such as longer lead times for pedestrians before vehicles begin to move at intersections and the addition of signs indicating no turning during specific hours have been mounted at certain intersections. We are thankful for this and other signage that is new and states such. But it is not enough.
Signage, whether on a post at the corner or written on the pavement, is too easily ignored. Police presence for enforcement is limited at all the places and times it is needed, probably by budget.
So, what more restrictive measures can be taken? What are the questions to ask that will lead to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s and Commissioner William Bratton’s Vision Zero Action Plan becoming a reality? Start here: why do we have pedestrians and vehicles moving at the same time through crosswalks? Why, if the exit from the West Side Highway at West 95th Street does not allow but possibly two cars to see pedestrians crossing from Riverside Park are cars and pedestrians allowed to move through that crosswalk at the same time? Why aren’t there pedestrian exclusive times in the traffic signal cycle in which pedestrians can cross diagonally as well as in the linear mode, creating the opportunity for those on foot with or without canes, strollers and dogs in tow, to know the comfort and safety of vehicles not moving into their space?
Continue with: why can’t there be an additional ingress/egress to the West Side Highway which is pushed away from pedestrian traffic, for the most part, such as at West 79th Street? It appears city government has forgotten, to too great an extent, the pedestrian traffic stream in the interest of vehicle traffic flow.
Over several years now, there have been vehicle flow and concomitant pedestrian flow changes, beginning with the closing of the West 95th Street entrance to the Henry Hudson Parkway, the loss of the southbound exit to West 96th Street off the Henry Hudson Parkway, the closing of the southbound West 72nd entrance to the Henry Hudson Parkway and continuing with the institution of dedicated “Turn Only” lanes and cross-hatched areas on the roadways. Then, the West 96th Street and Broadway subway station was moved to the middle of the busy vehicle traffic artery and brought a huge exponential increase in the number of pedestrians crossing into the street at those corners. These changes have been a death knell to street safety in the area. They carved away space in which vehicles and pedestrians moved, sending them elsewhere, thus making for greater vehicle congestion at certain spots and for pedestrians being in vehicle alleys. This congestion has incited drivers and pedestrians, alike, to take the situation into their own hands; one has watched this escalate for years now. There are a lot of unintelligent, uncaring and dangerous moves in which drivers and pedestrians engage.
For numerous reasons, we do not seem to be able to monitor ourselves as drivers, pedestrians or the caring community-minded in our own best interests. What can we do about that? Let’s implore the government to help us through this as we, hopefully, re-consider and re-shape our own behavior in the light of these recent vehicle-pedestrian tragedies.
The public needs city government to advocate forcefully and broadly for us with substantive, principled and adequate choices and enforcement surrounding traffic safety. We need city government to take strong steps and, most probably, some fiscally expensive steps, to which we must relent in order to be protected. City government has to hear from us and understand that we are willing to re-educate ourselves, to do our part and to obey the laws.
In turn, or even before, government administrators need to understand we, citizens, want the best possible action plan from them for the most vulnerable in the equation, the pedestrians. It is imperative actions be put in effect very quickly. Please let each of us find the will and the willingness in ourselves to request ourselves and our government take stronger measures and quicker action than so far exhibited. Let this happen before we have one more tragedy.