Oct. 5, 2021 Op-ed By Rosamond Gianutsos
For the 52 years I have lived on 52nd Street I have had to cross 39th Avenue almost every time I step or pedal off my block.
Twice I have been knocked from my bike to the pavement in front of Phipps Garden Apartments at 51-01 39th Ave.
Fortunately, I escaped significant injury, but others are not so lucky. In the United States approximately 40,000 people lost their lives in vehicular crashes last year, double the 19,000 killed in gun violence.
To put a human face on this tragedy watch the DOT and Families for Safe Streets’ video Drive Like your Family Lives Here, which documents lives lost and family grief. Even more people are living with enduring injuries, their lives forever altered by traffic violence. I have seen this first hand as a psychologist working to rehabilitate survivors of brain injuries caused by person vs vehicle collisions.
Here in Sunnyside, I am not alone in my safety concerns. Over the years many neighbors filed requests with DOT asking for speed bumps, stop signs, crosswalks, and stop lights. We are grateful that Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and Assemblymember Brian Barnwell have consistently supported these requests.
On north-south streets and along Woodside Avenue some speed bumps have been installed. One stop sign was installed on Woodside Avenue following a pedestrian fatality at 57th Street. But on 39th Ave DOT denied or delayed each request.
Besides, these requests were all piecemeal and used imperfect tools. For example, are signs really helpful?
Watch the video interviews published on the Sunnyside Post website where drivers are seen in the background passing “Do Not Enter” signs. If drivers will ignore One Way or Do Not Enter signs on video, what makes us think they will observe Stop signs?
Speed bumps, the other frequently cited tool, do have the advantage that they are self-enforcing.
Unfortunately, research findings again show a little, if any, effect of speed bumps. More compelling to me is the fact that on Valentine’s Day 2018 a driver crossed a speed bump on Woodside Ave and then turned right onto 57th St. killing our neighbor Christa Wittikind as she was walking home. The speed bump on Woodside Avenue in front of Saint Sebastian School was mere feet from that intersection.
We can’t ask Christa Wittikind if speed bumps work. But we know the answer. Let yourself be touched by her nephew’s pleas for information in the comments that follow the Sunnyside Post’s article describing the incident.
Mrs. Wittikind was a widow who lived in the apartment building on Woodside Avenue a block from where she died. Her sister and nephew came up from Florida to bury her. Hear what her neighbor had to say, “I knew your aunt—we were neighbors for many years. She always had a smile.”
When COVID hit, while traffic decreased, vehicular speeds increased dramatically. Many hoped the designation of 39th Ave as an Open Street at the beginning of the first COVID summer would help.
Yet, volunteers were heckled and even threatened as they partnered with DOT setting out and maintaining the safety barricades. We were disappointed to watch as cars, trucks and even illegal tandem 18 wheelers raced through the barrier arrangements like a slalom course. Notwithstanding, speed studies showed a modest 5-6 mph speed reduction – from the mid 20’s to the high teens.
From the NYC Open Data portal (accessed via Crashmapper.org) we learned that there were no crashes with injuries during the year the safety barricades were in place, while there were 5 in the comparable period beginning in 2018.
While speed bumps and stop signs have not been enough, friendly decorated barricades placed by a dedicated team of neighbors appear to have made a difference.
In September 2020 the Sunnyside Woodside Open Street (SWOS) coalition and Councilmember Van Bramer formally asked for a comprehensive study of 39th Avenue to explore the full range of tools in the NYC DOT Street Design Manual (its traffic calming “toolbox.”)
With the “Bike Boulevard,” the DOT’s engineers have gone way beyond stop signs and speed bumps, starting with data collection and analysis which led them to identify the use of 39th Avenue as a “cut through” commuter route as a significant factor in traffic volume and speeds. They documented the growing number of bicyclists in and around our community. Then they created a plan which uses design to induce motorists to slow down.
The transition from the temporary Open Street to the Bike Boulevard is the product of that process. Without doubt the implementation has been confusing. Patience is in order. Some of this confusion derives from the use of temporary transitional measures.
DOT states that the full implementation will be complete by the end of October. Let us not jump to conclusions. Incidentally, as part of the Bike Boulevard a long-requested traffic signal is finally being installed at 52nd St.
Meanwhile, it will take time and conscious effort for drivers (like me) who live on or near the avenue to adjust our customary routes. Many of these accommodations seem awkward but are easily accomplished in cars. Please remember that these design changes are to protect vulnerable road users: in a collision between a pedestrian or a bike and a car, the laws of physics tell us who will win.
Despite its moniker, the Bike Boulevard is not just for bikes. It is for all of us. We are all pedestrians at least some of the time.
Along with DOT we will evaluate the outcome, listening to our community members. Adjustments are sure to be needed. That said, I am excited that our neighborhood will be taking the lead in a new era where street design prioritizes safety for all users.
Rosamond Gianutsos is a Community Board 2 member and has been a Sunnysider for over a half century. She is passionate about safety and has been a volunteer instructor for over 80 AARP Smart Driver (“defensive driving”) classes. As a psychologist specializing in neuropsychological rehabilitation, she has treated many survivors of traffic violence with life altering brain injuries. As a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist, she conducts driver fitness evaluations. While she prefers to ride her bike locally, she does drive in order to treat patients and do in-home driver evaluations.