Tragedy in Park Slope, Death of Gateway and MTA Geniuses

Park Slope Tragedy

Last Monday in Park Slope at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 9th Street, a woman with a long dangerous driving record ran a red light and plowed into two families crossing the street. The driver attempted to speed away, but crashed into parked cars further down the street. Her dangerous and callous actions left two children, ages 1 and 4, dead and a pregnant woman with life-threatening injuries. The horrific scene occurred just steps from the Park Slope YMCA, where each day Mayor de Blasio arrives in a motorcade to briefly ride a stationary bicycle. This was not lost on concerned citizens and safe street advocates who rallied outside of the gym when the Mayor arrived the next day.

The deaths of two children in a crosswalk at the hands of a reckless driver reveals numerous shortcomings and inadequacies with our local government and with the way our society speaks and thinks about driving:

  • At an intersection in a densely populated neighborhood with a large number of children, street markings were worn, the pavement was in poor condition and no traffic calming measures had been taken.
  • The driver of the white Volvo had been cited 12 times in two years for speeding in a school zone, among other infractions, and yet had not had her license suspended.
  • The driver’s license has since been suspended, but Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has stated that criminal charges will not be pressed. It is hard to think of another situation in which the deaths of two children would not lead to an arrest.

Further, the Mayor has proven that when it comes to reducing traffic fatalities, he is more of a hindrance than a catalyst of change. His daily 25 mile driving round trip on to the gym belies the City’s Vision Zero policy and weakens any message from his administration about making streets safer and less congested. It reveals that even in the most public transportation and pedestrian friendly city in the United States, cars are still given priority in planning issues and drivers will not be punished for threatening or taking a life from behind the wheel.

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9th Street in Park Slope

Death of Gateway

In between firing the Secretary of State, announcing likely harmful tariffs on steel and aluminum and downplaying Russia’s role in the poisoning of a double agent in London, President Trump took some time to pound a few more nails into the coffin for the Gateway Tunnel Project. Gateway, which was rated by the Obama administration as the most important infrastructure project in the country, was singled out by Trump, who said he would veto any infrastructure bill that includes Federal money for it. This follows on the heels of a statement by an amnesic FTA administrator, which I discussed earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s aversion to the Gateway project is motivated not by sound reasoning of cost or necessity, but by scorn for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The importance of the Gateway Project, which keeps people moving through the most economically productive area in the United States, is clearly outweighed by the pettiness of the “Infrastructure President.” As a result, New York and New Jersey continue to move dangerously close to a necessary shutdown of one of two current tunnels with no back up or long term plan.

MTA Genius Competition

With newsworthy delays piling up and New Yorkers abandoning the New York City Subway for Lyfts and Ubers, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the start of a “Genius Challenge” to develop ideas for how the system could be fixed. Anyone with a good idea from students to transportation wonks was invited to submit their proposals for improving signaling, subway cars and system-wide communication. From thousands of proposals submitted, eight ideas were recently chosen. Seven came from multinational corporations such as China’s CRRC MA, an affiliate of the world’s largest subway car manufacturer. The eighth however came from full time lawyer and part time transit buff Craig Avedisian.

Avedisian’s winning idea is to significantly extend the length of subway trains so that more people would fit on a single train, but not every car would be able to platform at each station. Subway lines would operate on an A/B system: stations would alternate between those two letters and subway trains would alternate between A and B sections of the train to platform at their corresponding location. In practice, at an A station, only those in A cars could alight, while B car passengers would still find themselves in the tunnel dark. If this proposals sounds like it would complicate an already complex system with its express and local trains, frequent reroutes and inadequate signage at times, you are probably right.

This proposal is on its face so unwieldy, unwise and impractical that it warrants little discussion of its operational and technical implications. But, to indulge briefly, imagine first a mad dash of B car riders through the length of the train to reach the exits at an A station, who did not position themselves correctly. Further, consider how longer trains would necessitate the reconfiguration of the subway’s 100 year old signaling system to extend the buffers between trains, which would reduce throughput and increase wait times. We will certainly be lucky if Avedisian collects his large cash prize and nothing more is made of his idea.

Five years since Superstorm Sandy

It is hard to tell from walking around waterside neighborhoods in New York if the city as a whole is better prepared for a Sandy-like storm five years later to the day. In particularly vulnerable neighborhoods like the Rockaways, beach sand has been restored and the brittle wooden boardwalk, which broke under the force of flooding from Sandy, has been rebuilt in concrete as a flood resiliency measure. On Staten Island’s east shore, an area decimated by flooding five years ago that remains extremely vulnerable, residents have begun a managed retreat from water. However, the city has a lot of work ahead to adequately protect lives and property from flooding and in some cases contradicts resiliency measures by building new and rebuilding along vulnerable waterfronts.

 

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Contradictions between resiliency efforts and new development are clear in neighborhoods like the Financial District, which was among the hardest hit by Sandy flooding. There are encouraging signs, like the installation of flood barriers at entrances to the South Ferry and Whitehall Street subway stations and continued work on the beautiful and lush Battery Park, which forms the anchor of the “Big U.” Building owners have also provisioned for the installation of flood barriers to protect their property in anticipation of a storm. Yet, completion of the Big U is still years away and development along the East and Hudson Rivers, like the luxurious Seaport Residences continues apace, placing more lives and property potentially in harm’s way.

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Anchors for temporary flood walls installed in the Financial District

Little flood resiliency work has been done in the Gowanus neighborhood, which suffered severe flooding from the canal that gives it its name. Here the contradictions between flood mitigation efforts and growth are quite clear. Hundreds of new apartments welcomed residents in the last year between Carroll and 2nd Streets along the banks of the canal in advance of a potential rezoning that would bring thousands more. There are plans for flood gates to protect the area, but as a recent dnainfo.com article states, “Not Anytime Soon.”

In the days leading up to today, the five year anniversary of the storm, most articles that have been published on the topic assert that New York did not learn its lesson and continues to build residences in flood-prone areas. Indeed, owing to the enormity of the city’s waterfront (over 500 miles) and its incredible geographic and built diversity, there is no silver bullet for flooding concerns. Though in some cases new developments built to higher design standards and with waterfront esplanades, as required in places, can be contribute positively to New York’s resiliency efforts, work done so far can maybe best be described as patchwork. And like a fence or a dam, one weak link or crack can lead to inundation in spite of other efforts.

On the streets of a seemingly invincible city that welcomes and says goodbye to thousands of new residents every month, it can be hard to remember the havoc that Hurricane Sandy wrought. But, five years later, the NYC Subway system like dozens of NYCHA properties, is still recovering from the storm, causing severe disruptions to peoples’ lives. Hopefully, when the L Train shuts down in 2019, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people every day, we remember why it is necessary.

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Map of NYC flood zones, graded from 1 to 6 (Source nyc.gov)

In Washington DC, the official position on climate change of the President, the head of the EPA and many members of congress is denial, which imperils not just New York but the entire world. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are almost certain to become more frequent. In low-lying neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Queens, flooding is a daily tidal occurrence. It is perhaps up to New Yorkers then to avoid contradicting resiliency efforts by having long memories and frank conversations about the dangers and realities of flooding, sea level rise and storms fueled by a warming planet. Indeed the Federal Government and its denialist senselessness will only make things worse and in many cases, the best intentions of City and State government like “Build it Back” have failed to make New York more resilient, continuing to let people live in harm’s way.