Opinion | Op-eds

Proposed traffic changes at 96th Street are a much-needed step forward

  • Noah Zinsmeister for Spectator
    Traffic | Crossing to the subway station legally can take a pedestrian one minute and 45 seconds.
  • Noah Zinsmeister for Spectator
    flashing lights | The 96th Street intersection is one of the busiest on the Upper West Side.

New York City has countless places where the movement of motor vehicles takes precedence over the safety and convenience of pedestrians, but the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway is a particularly striking example of our skewed street-design priorities. It took three deaths at or near that major crossroads last month for the city to propose long-needed fixes there. If we are serious about Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative—the eventual elimination of traffic fatalities on our streets—we must do better than wait for tragedies before making life-saving changes. We must boldly proceed with the work begun by the Bloomberg administration that puts the safety of the pedestrian supermajority first.

While 96th Street and Broadway is a junction for motor vehicles, this traffic is dwarfed by the throngs of pedestrians who flood the 96th Street stop on the 1, 2, and 3 subway lines on a daily basis. The station is among the subway system’s busiest, with an average weekday ridership of approximately 38,000. When the station began undergoing renovations in 2007, planners decided to locate the main entrance on the mall of Broadway, forcing tens of thousands of passengers to cross either Broadway or 96th Street, or both, each day. An alternative would have been a car-free plaza with vehicle traffic redirected around it. Instead, the designers went in the opposite direction, narrowing the sidewalks along Broadway to preserve space for cars.

The result is that it can take a person on foot a minute and 45 seconds to legally cross from the north side of 96th Street to the subway entrance. Understandably, hurrying commuters often cross against the light or take a hazardous shortcut through the center of the intersection, where there is no crosswalk. Meanwhile, New York drivers—not known for their vast reserves of patience—are implicitly encouraged to speed and take dangerous chances by short light phases that accommodate every possible turning movement.

News reports are vague about exactly where renowned antique collector Alexander Shear, 73, was in the intersection when he was struck and killed by a tour bus the night of Jan. 10. The bus was turning left from Broadway to go east on 96th Street, and Shear was dragged almost to Amsterdam Avenue before horrified witnesses got the attention of the driver, who was quoted as saying, “I didn’t know! I didn’t see him!”

What we do know is that changes to the intersection proposed Jan. 30 by the New York City Department of Transportation will likely prevent a similar calamity from happening again. Picking up on recommendations that the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates made to Community Board 7 in November, the DOT wants to ban the kind of left turn that killed Shear. This, coupled with a second forbidden turn, will allow the agency to paint a broad crosswalk linking the two sections of the Broadway mall, finally legalizing and making safe a “desired path” that countless pedestrians now take every day at their great peril. The changes will also cut the transit time between the north and south ends of the mall to less than a minute.

Noah Zinsmeisterfor Spectator
hairpin turn | The changes proposed by Community Board 7 will limit some left turns at the crowded intersection.

The rash of pedestrian and cyclist deaths so early in the start of a new year and a new mayoral administration may well prove to be the tipping point in the fight for safer streets. The DOT responded swiftly to Community Board 7’s call for changes at 96th Street and Broadway, and the plan the agency has advanced is a significant step forward. But more can be done there, and much more is needed on most other streets in the city. Last year, 178 pedestrians and cyclists were killed in traffic and another 16,059 were injured, according to preliminary figures. With the three pedestrian deaths in January, the Upper West Side has already equaled its typical annual count of the fallen.

How can we stop the carnage? The changes needed to make our streets manifestly safer are fairly simple and straightforward, combining designs that accommodate all users, a speed limit suited to a dense urban setting, vigilant enforcement against law-breaking drivers, and meaningful legal consequences for those who recklessly kill or injure. All that is required to spread these proven tools throughout the city is political will.

For decades we have shoehorned ever-higher volumes of motor vehicles into a street network that was never designed to handle them. We have managed this by narrowing sidewalks, further inconveniencing the pedestrian majority, and blithely ignoring the resulting risks. When the inevitable tragedy happens, we wring our hands and move on. I am optimistic that the hand-wringing is finally over and that the essential work of making our streets safe for all users has begun in earnest.

Ken Coughlin has been a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 7 since 2009. His opinions are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Community Board 7.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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UWS mother and pedestrian and safe streets believer! posted on

What an excellent piece! Thanks to Ken Coughlin for writing it and acting as a leader for safety in our community, sometimes as a lone wolf. Thanks as well to Columbia Spectator for printing it!

Reed Rubey posted on

I agree completely with Ken's observations and comments. Safety first should be our objective. The expertise is available for us to realize that through good design and enforcement. I encourage our officials to step up to the plate and make it happen.

UWS Walker/Biker posted on

Agreed this is a good article. The way they reconfigured the entrance is ridiculous - why make pedestrians make a dog leg to get to the entrance, when previously there were entrances on both sides of Broadway (as mentioned in the article). Also, people crossing w. 96th street on the east side of the intersection frequently walk against the light while cars are trying to make left turns onto 96th street - dangerous! Also, the geography is to blame - not much the city can do about that. While you cross 96th street on the West side - it is even hard to see cars running the light, of which there are legion.

Anonymous posted on