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Madeleine Larson for Spectator

The city must first seek state approval before lowering citywide speed limits as part of a push to reduce pedestrian fatalities.

Approval from the New York State Senate will be necessary before the city is able to reduce speed limits—a measure proposed by many traffic safety advocates and one that is mentioned in Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero plan to improve pedestrian safety.

District 69 Assembly member Daniel O'Donnell proposed a bill in January that would lower the citywide speed limit from 30 to 20 miles per hour. Though the bill hasn't been scheduled for a vote, it highlights an issue of home rule, as speed limits are among laws the City Council is not allowed to change.

O'Donnell wrote the bill after a string of pedestrian deaths at the start of the year, three of which occurred around the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway.

“I think it's a very reasonable approach to a very real problem,” O'Donnell said. “We should be able to [get it done] because it's the right thing to do.” 

De Blasio has advocated for similar measures to lower speed limits as part of his Vision Zero plan. The main difference between the two is that de Blasio's plan calls for a maximum speed  of 25 miles per hour while O'Donnell's bill proposes a maximum of 20 miles per hour.

Last week, Community Board 7 passed a resolution that supported lowering speed limits from 30 to 20 miles per hour.

Over the weekend, residents of the West 96th Street area said that the larger problem is the design of the intersection and questioned whether changing the speed limit would improve safety.

Upper West Side resident Christopher Martinez, a cyclist and commuter with two children, said that he does not believe that lowering the speed limit will change behavior in problem areas.

“Thirty-five versus 30, or 25 versus 20, is not going to make a difference. Blowing through lights, people jaywalking, people crossing the wrong way, traffic getting too gummed up in the intersection because the lights are wrong and there's too many cars and they can't make the turn. ... That's the kind of stuff that causes people to get all screwed up there,” Martinez said.

O'Donnell mentioned a frequently repeated statistic that lowering the speed limit from 30 to 20 miles per hour would reduce the chance of pedestrian fatality in a collision from 45 percent to 5 percent, which is also mentioned in the proposed bill's introductory memo.

“The speed at which a motorist is driving correlates strongly with the likelihood that an accident with a pedestrian will be fatal,” the memo to the bill states. “Thus, by reducing the speed limit by ten miles per hour, and by empowering the City Council to make additional speed limit changes as it deems appropriate, this bill would have a significant effect on pedestrian safety.”

Stewart and Beverly Cohen, also longtime Upper West Side residents who frequent the contentious intersection at 96th Street and Broadway, expressed frustration with the configuration of the intersection. They said that the turn arrows cause confusion and ambivalence among drivers and pedestrians.

“Even though the light may be red or green, the turn arrow is the opposite, and that is very confusing for people,” Beverly Cohen said.

“It isn't a question of speed limit. There's no question that there's something the matter with this corner. That you have cars going, trying to get on the West Side Highway, you have a subway stop, you have a number of things coming together in one place,” Stewart Cohen said. “This configuration is not right.”

The Department of Transportation presented a proposal to CB7 at a special meeting at the end of January, which would change lane assignments, turn signals, and lights at the 96th Street intersection. DOT representatives said at the time that changes will not happen until the snow melts, with no specified date.

“The lights aren't right, and there's too many cars, and it's not designed to handle the traffic in the way that it flows naturally there. Stricter enforcement would be what would really solve the problem,” Martinez said of the area's intersections.

District 6 City Council member Helen Rosenthal is working on her own efforts to make a change in the area—notably Cooper's Law—but Rosenthal's Director of Communications Stephanie Buhle said the council member is still assessing the proposal to lower the speed limit.  |  @HVaitsblit

pedestrian safety Vision Zero Bill de Blasio Community Board 7 CB7 transportation Department of Transportation DOT Daniel O'Donnell State Assembly Helen Rosenthal
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