Residents’ road rage focuses on traffic and bikes
By Lesley Sussman
The city’s Department of Transportation held its first public hearing on the agency’s Bleecker/Houston/Bowery traffic and transportation study and got an earful of suggestions and complaints from local residents about everything from how to make major intersections safer for pedestrians to cracking down on excessive late-night car horn honking.
The meeting, on Thurs., May 6, at the Bowery Mission Chapel, 227 Bowery, was attended by about 60 people, including local activists, Fire Department officials and members of various community groups.
One major concern that emerged at the meeting was the problem of lawless cyclists who, residents said, were violating simple rules of the road and increasingly becoming safety hazards to pedestrians, especially the elderly. Several people urged D.O.T. to license bike riders the same way motorists are licensed in order to make them exercise more caution.
Also drawing special attention was the intersection at Delancey and Essex Sts., which was described by C.B. 3 Chairperson Dominic Pisciotta, as an extremely dangerous crossing for seniors, schoolchildren and other pedestrians.
D.O.T. officials explained that the study’s main objective was to address residents’ concerns on transportation issues, improve safety for all street users — from motorists and cyclists to pedestrians — and free up traffic flow.
They said the D.O.T. study will zone in on such issues as side-street backups, pedestrian safety in crosswalks, parking and double-parking, the types of vehicular accidents and their frequency and severity, bike and pedestrian traffic, land use, truck activity and the frequency and ridership of public transit. The officials said that, after gathering further input, recommendations will be made for short- and long-term safety improvements in the target area.
The area currently under consideration is bounded by Essex St./Avenue A on the east, Mercer St. on the west, E. Fifth/E. Eighth Sts. on the north and Spring and Delancey Sts. on the south. C.B. 3, however, is asking that the eastern boundary be extended to include Avenue B, which the board says is crowded with both car traffic and pedestrian traffic during the late-evening hours.
Harvey Lareau, a D.O.T. highway transportation specialist and the study’s project manager, kicked off the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation outlining the plan’s goals. Afterward, residents directed their questions and concerns to Margaret Forgione, D.O.T. Manhattan borough commissioner, and Michael Griffith, D.O.T. deputy director of traffic planning.
“We’re here because we want to hear your issues and concerns in the area,” Lareau told the audience. “We want to increase the safety and mobility of all street users.”
He said D.O.T. would monitor both vehicular and pedestrian traffic during certain hours at major intersections by using a combination of electronic sensors for cars, buses and trucks, and staff to do corner analysis and crosswalk analysis for pedestrians and cyclists.
After his presentation, C.B. 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer pressed D.O.T. officials to include Avenue B in the monitoring process.
“This is one of the streets in our neighborhood that has very high pedestrian and traffic volume,” she said, “and we want you to do some monitoring there — especially from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. because of all the bars and restaurants along that street.”
The plan’s scope received some criticism from Michael McPartland, Fire Department Battalion 11 chief, who said it didn’t address emergency vehicles.
“Sometimes we have difficulty getting access to streets,” he said. “But I don’t see anything in the study that will deal with emergency vehicles. Please include emergency access in your plan.”
One issue that generated special concern at the meeting dealt with pedestrians being injured by cyclists. The City Council is considering a mandatory bicycle licensing law that would require all cyclists older than age 16 to obtain a bike permit and would impose fines and other penalties for traffic violators.
Community groups from throughout the city have been pressuring City Hall to pass such a law, arguing that cyclists use the same roads as cars and should thus be subjected to the same rules of the road.
At the meeting, Zella Jones, a former Community Board 2 member, advocated for licensing bike riders.
“I got knocked down by a cyclist just the other day,” Jones said. “If we open the streets to cyclists we need to have some kind of licensing.”
“We’re not at that point right now,” Forgione replied, adding that, currently, her agency was more interested in “training seniors and children on how to cross bicycle paths and not be threatened by them.”
That drew an angry response from Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance civic group.
“Why aren’t you going to take a look at licensing for cyclists?” he demanded. “We license dogs, we license hairdressers, when are we going to make these cyclists carry ID’s and license them?”
Forgione said it might happen in the future.
“Your request is going to come to the forefront as cycling increases,” she replied, “but I can’t promise you that it will happen right now.”
One C.B. 2 board member who objected to the licensing of cyclists was Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of the board’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
“I think it’s a real issue,” Dutton said. “I stop at a red light and I sometimes see bike riders rolling past me. But the problem is that it’s been shown that licensing dramatically reduces the number of people who start riding bikes.
“The number one indicator of cyclist safety to other cyclists is how many other people are bicycling,” Dutton said. “So for me, personally, as someone who rides a bike, taking a lot of cyclists off the road puts me at a better risk of being killed.”
Another concern brought up was the dangerous crossing at Delancey and Essex Sts. Pisciotta called the intersection “treacherous.” The C.B. 3 chairperson said people who wanted to shop at the Essex Street Market or get to the subway often had to contend with car and bicycle traffic from the Williamsburg Bridge.
“The intersection there has more accidents and pedestrian conflicts than most of the other intersections in C.B. 3,” he said. “With the bicycles coming off the bridge and the cars turning to get on the bridge, you always have to be looking left and right to make sure you’re not going to get hit by a car.”
He added that barriers are needed on Essex St. informing motorists heading south to the bridge that they should not be taking a left from the right-hand lane, which, he said, they often do.
Pisciotta further added that traffic-enforcement agents at the intersection needed to be “more aware” of pedestrians.
“Their job is to move traffic — and there needs to be a change in that,” he said. “There also needs to be some educational program for the people who live in that area about the complexities of the intersection.”
Residents and community leaders also called for immediate action on a number of other problems, including excessive, late-night car honking; M.T.A. buses clogging traffic on Allen St.; traffic congestion on southbound Bowery; and the street crossing at Houston St. and Second Ave., which they called very dangerous.
Barbara Backer, a member of the group Our Streets Our Lives, and several other West Village residents urged D.O.T. to do something about easing traffic congestion along Bleecker St. from Seventh Ave. to Broadway.
“Bleecker is becoming a major highway because it’s so heavy with cars, cabs and tour buses,” Backer stated. “It’s a major route to the East Side and we need it open since the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital so that we can get to other hospitals.”
Forgione said her agency was aware of the problem — “especially the tour bus issue” — and was working to resolve the situation.