Volume 73, Number 50 | March 14 - 20, 2004

Talking Point

City’s moving in wrong direction on Houston St.

By Shirley Secunda and Brad Hoylman

This past January, a distraught public packed Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee meeting to protest the highway-like nature of a Houston St. reconstruction plan from the Departments of Transportation and Design and Construction. C.B. 2 passed a resolution opposing features of the plan that would raise the pedestrian danger quotient on an already hard-to-cross street, like left-turn bays and removal of median tips (pedestrian safety islands) from crosswalks. The board also hailed D.O.T. and D.D.C.’s willingness to work with the community and revisit the drawing board to develop alternatives.

To date, access and safety for nondrivers, always the key concern in this community of pedestrians, has yet to be fully considered. On Feb. 12, Councilmember Alan Gerson assembled community members, public officials, D.O.T. and D.D.C. to discuss the plan. At the meeting, D.O.T./D.D.C. agreed to consider eliminating two of the proposed five left-turn bays, specifically those at W. Broadway and Mercer St. People welcomed the presence of Richard Ocken, D.D.C. deputy commissioner for infrastructure, and Margaret Forgione, D.O.T. Manhattan borough commissioner, and their interest in community-friendly approaches. Yet, the agencies’ scheme to remove existing median tips from crosswalks hardly budged.

Of 12 median tips that would be cut back by the plan, D.O.T. offered to restore only three. These safety islands provide a vital refuge on the long trek across Houston St., especially for the many children, seniors and people with disabilities who cross there; and they should extend over crosswalks on both the east and west sides of every intersection. Several community residents have observed that no constraints on vehicular turns and access exist at these mid-crossing sanctuaries, and C.B. 2 has never received any complaints about this. There’s no reason to remove them from any of the crosswalks where they currently are now.

The rationale given by John Martin, D.O.T. director of capital planning, for the median tips’ removal was that new construction (or reconstruction) must be brought “up to standard.” This sounds like an “upgrade,” but what Martin really proffered was an obsolete interpretation of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials guidebook for highway engineers (“A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets”).

The AASHTO “Greenbook” (as it is commonly called) is a set of guidelines only, meant to be flexible, but in the past too-often applied using a “one size fits all” street-and-highway planning approach that emphasized easing vehicular speed and comfort, while giving short shrift to pedestrians and communities. There’s a new paradigm now, since former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was passed in 1991. This paradigm emphasizes flexibility in street and road design to avoid impacts on the quality of life in a community, such as on pedestrian safety and convenience, scenery, noise levels and the character of a place.

The Federal Highway Administration’s “Design Guidance: Accommodating Bicycle and Pedestrian Travel” Web site reports that “during the 1990s Congress spearheaded a movement towards a transportation system that favors people and goods over motor vehicles,” to create “more walkable, livable and accessible communities….” ISTEA broke the ground, specifying, “there will be no federally required or approved standards for federal-aid projects off the National Highway System….” The 1995 National Highway System Act removed N.H.S. standards requirements as well.

Following these directives, F.H.A. and AASHTO partnered in 1997 to produce “Flexibility in Highway Design,” a publication stressing the importance of providing “safe, efficient transportation service that conserves, and even enhances the environmental, scenic, historic and community resources that are so vital to our way of life.” This report endorsed a broader interpretation of the AASHTO Greenbook, which already asserts that its purpose is only as a “reference manual” that allows “sufficient flexibility to encourage independent designs tailored to particular situations.”

The passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in 1998 further affirmed the need to put walking and community life on an equal footing with moving vehicular traffic. That same year, F.H.A. and AASHTO co-sponsored a seminal conference, “Thinking Beyond the Pavement,” for state D.O.T. engineers and designers, public agencies and groups throughout the country, which resulted in the establishment of “context-sensitive design”/“context-sensitive solutions” as the preferred approach to transportation projects.

Context-sensitive designs and solutions require that a street or road respond to the surrounding community’s needs and values, taking into consideration walkers and bicyclists and economic, cultural and social activities, instead of having a community bend to the road and mobility needs only. It should be noted that this new approach is no “fly-by-night” phenomenon, but has the blessings of the hard core of the transportation establishment, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, F.H.A., AASHTO and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and is based on federal mandate.

AASHTO and the F.H.A. now are developing new guidance for accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists, while fostering context-sensitive designs and solutions training programs. A few months ago, F.H.A. began working with Project for Public Spaces (a nonprofit organization specializing in improving pedestrian conditions) in developing a context-sensitive Web site. New York State D.O.T. also has initiated a context-sensitive design and solutions program.

As F.H.A.’s Web pages point out, “There is no question that conditions for bicycling and walking need to be improved in every community in the United States; it is no longer acceptable that 6,000 bicyclists and pedestrians are killed in traffic every year, that people with disabilities cannot travel without encountering barriers, and that two desirable and efficient modes of travel have been made difficult and uncomfortable.”

The challenge then is whether we push for this new paradigm as it relates to the reconstruction of Houston St. — even if it takes a little longer — to produce a street design that serves the multifaceted walking, biking, residential, business, social and qualitative needs of our community, instead of settling for a conduit that simply serves motorists passing through.

Hoylman and Secunda are, respectively, chairperson and vice chairperson of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee.

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