West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 7 | July 18 - 24, 2007

Talking Point

An appeal to our new transportation commissioner

By Alan Jay Gerson

Janette Sadik-Khan, as the new Department of Transportation commissioner, you should take immediate action before it’s too late, to correct a major dangerous flaw in the Houston St. reconfiguration design: the narrowing of the mid-street traffic islands in order to accommodate new, southbound turning lanes at the intersections of W. Houston St. and LaGuardia Pl. and W. Houston and Mercer Sts.

The community board, every local elected official and every community organization in the area, reflecting a consensus of community residents, have, from the start, opposed this part of the Houston St. redesign. For the past several years, we have pleaded with your department to maintain the regular traffic island width and do away with the turning lanes. We have three good reasons:

First, safety: These are major pedestrian crossings, used by residents and visitors alike to go back and forth between Greenwich Village and Soho, and to reach and return from the M21 and M5 bus lines, with stops on both sides of Houston St. The crossings are heavily used by parents with strollers and seniors with canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Indeed, the intersection at LaGuardia Pl. lies directly in back of a large Mitchell-Lama cooperative with an aging population. The alternative, suggested by some in your department, that people can cross to the west of LaGuardia Pl. and back to the east side upon reaching the desired side of Houston St., callously ignores the physical hardship these two extra crossings impose on many individuals.

Adding the turning lanes will make it longer and harder for many pedestrians to cross Houston St. Narrowing the traffic islands will make it impossible for people to find a safe haven in the middle of the street — one of the purposes of traffic islands. A 5-foot width in the middle of fast-moving, two-way or turning traffic, as opposed to the 12-foot width without the turning lane, will significantly increase the possibility of being hit by traffic while waiting on the narrowed median. At the same time, adding the traffic lane will make it harder to cross Houston St. before the light changes and, thus, further increase the possibility of a pedestrian being hit by moving traffic. (The slight crossing time increase does not compensate for the combined effects of extra lanes and a narrowed traffic island.) Your failure to take action to correct this design flaw will be directly responsible for any accident that occurs. 

Second, congestion prevention: Ironically, just when the mayor has proposed new traffic policies to undo and prevent gridlock, the proposed new traffic lane will intensify congestion on already-congested Mercer St. and West Broadway, where many already live and do business oppressed by traffic conditions. Both Mercer and West Broadway have one lane of southbound traffic, frequently backed up, replete with the horn-honking and car pollution the mayor says he wants to prevent. The turning lane will funnel additional southbound traffic onto the two streets, exacerbating the currently unbearable traffic situation on the street. On the other hand, without the turning lane, southbound traffic will continue to divide up among several possible southbound routes. Adding the turning lane thus runs contrary to everything we as a city are finally trying to do to alleviate traffic congestion in our communities. 

Third, community conditions: Right now, Houston St. remains wide but is nonetheless still very much a community street. The addition of the turning lane will widen it and contribute to its becoming a bifurcating highway, dividing two currently linked communities. No one on either side of Houston St. wants this. If the City Council or community board had the legal authority to overrule this design feature, we would do so. But, as you know, all we can do is appeal to you. 

I know some of your experts support the turning lane and island narrowing. But they are looking at a limited set of traffic data. In their current proposal — narrowing the traffic island and adding the turning lane — they are not taking into account the human factors cited above. True, in order to improve safety, the Houston St. traffic design needs improvement, especially at the four-way directional intersection at LaGuardia Pl./West Broadway. This can be accommodated in other ways with other design features that don’t trade one safety hazard for another and that don’t worsen congestion on selected streets. The community and I are well aware of all the other outstanding work the Department of Transportation has done elsewhere to enhance the community of Lower Manhattan. Sometimes the impacted community residents know better than the experts who live elsewhere. At any event, in a democracy, experts should serve the will of the affected people, not the other way around. I hope, Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, that’s the way you will run your department. 

Gerson is city councilmember for Lower Manhattan’s District 1.

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