April 9, 2010 By Angus B. Grieve-Smith
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.”
This story also ran on April 9, page 6, in the Woodside Herald.