Last month, Cap’n Transit had a post about the Really Narrow Streets of Manhattan. Here is a narrow street in Greenwich Village, not too far from NYU.

I think we can safely say that Minetta Lane, about thirty feet wide, is not living up to its potential as a Really Narrow Street. In this case, there are three possible reasons that come to mind. First, the city is imposing a division of street and sidewalk that keeps the sidewalk too narrow for any real commerce to take place (see also parts of Paris), and bolstering this division by allowing the same 30mph speeds as anywhere else in the city, but allowing the division to be erased by the well-connected drivers of these vans. Second, the lots are large and have at most one retail establishment each.

There may be a noise issue here: I know that noise complaints are relatively common in the Village, but I don’t know how much residents may have complained specifically about the Minetta Lane Theater, Bellavitae or the back door of Cafe Wha?.

It turns out that there is quite a backstory, discussed by Stephen Crane and a number of posts on the Media History of New York blog. Will Minetta Lane ever transcend this history to become more than a quiet backwater where people just pass through and become a place once again?

I feel kind of guilty complaining about this. Look, you’ve got a decent width sidewalk, the street isn’t oppressively wide, and you’ve got greenery! Shrubs! Plane trees! And two supermarkets within a few blocks!

I would have loved something like it in Albuquerque, or in Greenville. I would even prefer it to the development around Saint John’s. But this is not New Mexico, or North Carolina, or even Queens. It’s Manhattan.

New York University has bought a lot of old buildings in the Washington Square area, and built a bunch of new ones.  This is a great example of adaptive reuse and infill development, better than building satellite campuses.  It’s not like they haven’t tried the suburban campus thing before: Bronx Community College occupies their old main campus, and Hofstra University was originally a branch of NYU.

Unfortunately, NYU hasn’t figured out how to integrate itself well at the street level.  The old stores, factories and apartments it replaced had multiple street entrances, but entrances are expensive to guard, so NYU only has one or two per building.  In some buildings there is street-level retail, often aimed at students and faculty, but many more have no entrances or windows.  You can see this in the above photo, looking west on Third Street, away from Washington Square Village.

To contrast with the anti-urban Washington Square Village, here is Thompson Street, just one block over.

The chess shops are the same ones profiled in this classic Planet Money podcast and story.

I read Cap’n Transit’s post on “Bleecker Stroad” with interest, because I lived in Greenwich Village when I was a kid, and I just got a job working for New York University.  I agree with the Cap’n that there are serious problems with NYU’s plans to expand in the area, and there are also serious problems with the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation’s campaign to defend some pretty indefensible buildings.

I am being paid by NYU to do completely unrelated work, and nothing I write here is intended to flatter or influence the University.  In fact, some of it may be critical of NYU.  Probably the less I write the better, though.  I’ll just post some pictures and let them speak for themselves about the existing development and how it relates to the urban environment.

The first picture shows one of the four entrances to Washington Square Village.  They are all more or less identical.  Two face north and two face south, none of them lining up with anything in particular across the street.  They all have big driveways and small sidewalks.

Here’s one announcement from Jimmy Van Bramer’s MTA Town Hall that didn’t really make it into the news.  In addition to closing the Steinway Tunnel for sixteen weekends this year and not running a bus through the Midtown Tunnel, the MTA will close the Court Square station from January 21 through April 6 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The E, G and M trains will stop in the subways, but when the #7 is running to Times Square it will cruise right by Court Square without stopping.

At the town hall, Peter Cafiero, Chief of Operations Planning for the authority, said that workers would replace almost every part of the station, including the platforms and windscreens.  It’s kind of hard to board a train with no platform there, and unlike the Metro-North stations where they’ve replaced platforms recently, there’s nowhere else to build a new platform.  This makes sense, but as with the weekend closing of the Steinway Tunnel, the alternatives are bad.

On weekdays while the Court Square platforms are closed, the MTA will offer no additional service.  Passengers who want to take the #7 are advised to take the E or M trains.  That’s it.

People who used to transfer from the G to the #7 will have to walk to the E or M instead, or else go the other way and transfer to the already crowded L train at Metropolitan.

Since they’re going to shut down the station completely, I wish they could build another staircase at the north end of the platform so that we can transfer directly from the #7 to the E and M trains.  The existing transfer at 45th Road takes you to the G train, but transferring to the E or M involves walking another block underground.  At 44th Drive north of the 53rd Street tunnel there’s just a parking lot now.  It would be relatively cheap to build a staircase (and even an elevator, to be ADA accessible) connecting the el to the subway.

If they don’t do it now, they should at least require anyone who builds on that parcel to put in another transfer.

Yesterday I wrote about the need to shut down the #7 line through the Steinway Tunnels between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square for eleven weekends from January to April, and for five weekends in the fall, as articulated by the MTA staff who attended a Town Hall organized by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer.  The MTA convinced me: they showed how the emergency weekend shutdowns allowed them to improve reliability on the line, and made an argument that Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) will improve train frequency and reliability.

Okay, so what do we do in the meantime?  For years, every time they have to shut down the Steinway Tunnels, the MTA planners’ response has been the same: run shuttle buses from the bypassed stations to Court Square and Queensboro Plaza.  This turns a ten-minute ride from Vernon-Jackson to Grand Central into a 45-minute odyssey.  There is a better way.

Map: Cap'n Transit. According to Google Maps, these lines are ten minutes from Penn Station.

In 2009, Cap’n Transit observed that according to Google Maps, a car driven from Penn Station through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could get to Broadway and 21st Street in Astoria, the 39th Avenue station in Astoria, the 46th-Bliss Street station in Sunnyside or the Greenpoint Avenue station in Greenpoint in ten minutes without traffic, or thirty minutes with traffic.  Following a similar suggestion for Red Hook in 2007, he suggested that the MTA run shuttle buses through the tunnel and along 34th Street instead of – or in addition to – up Jackson Avenue to Queensboro Plaza.

Last year I suggested to Jimmy that he ask the MTA.  He did, with support from Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, Council Speaker Christine Qunn and State Senator Mike Gianaris.  The MTA gave a lame response and that was the end of it.

On Tuesday night, I asked the MTA staff directly for a tunnel bus.  Jimmy again supported my request and offered to contribute city money for it.   I was heartened to hear several other residents echoing my request.  Peter Cafiero, Chief of Operations Planning, said that they had looked at the issue, the bus would get stuck in traffic, and it would cost $50,000 a weekend to run buses through the tunnel every ten minutes.  Their usual solution is to run buses to the nearest station, and that’s what they plan to do this time.

To me this sounds like an excuse to avoid trying something different.  Jimmy (I’m pretty sure it was him, although it might have been one of the other town-hall speakers) said that it was a failure of imagination, which pretty much sums it up.  The planners have no incentive to do anything beyond a shuttle bus, so they’re not going to try and make things any easier for residents.

Here’s why I don’t think the tunnel buses would have to cost so much or get stuck in traffic.  The request that Jimmy made last year was for a bus to Grand Central.  It kinda makes sense to run a bus to Grand Central since that’s the next stop on the #7 train, but to do that they’d have to run four blocks west on 39th Street, three blocks north on Madison Avenue, five blocks east on 42nd Street and six blocks south on Second Avenue, all in mixed traffic.  Yes, that would make them slow and unreliable.

If instead the buses ran west on 34th Street to Penn Station, around the block on 35th Street and back on 34th, they could travel the entire way on exclusive bus lanes.  True, sometimes the lanes are blocked, but they’re a lot quicker than fighting with cars and trucks on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street.  This would allow riders to transfer to the subways at Park Avenue, Herald Square and Penn Station.  Grand Central, Times Square and Bryant Park are a one-stop subway ride or a short walk away.

I hope that Cafiero and his staff will consider 34th Street and not Grand Central as the logical route for the tunnel buses.  If they do, I expect that they will find the buses to be cheaper and more reliable on that route.

For years, the MTA has been running multi-weekend repair surges on the #7 line, where they turn all the trains around at Queensboro Plaza and run shuttle buses from there to Vernon-Jackson, Hunterspoint Avenue and Court Square. Last night at a town hall organized by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, MTA representatives said that they would have to do it again.

Signal maintainers rewiring signal cases in the Steinway Tunnel, October 10, 2011. Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Leonard Wiggins.

Joe Leader, the Chief Maintenance Officer at the MTA, explained to us  that the cars currently used on the #7 train are wider than the streetcars that originally ran through the Steinway Tunnels to Manhattan, so they take up almost the entire tunnel.  Unlike other subway tunnels, in the Steinway Tunnels there is no room for maintenance workers to stand while trains are passing through.  Because of this, it is necessary to shut down at least one tunnel completely for any work.

As the tunnels have not been maintained on an ideal schedule since they were dug in 1907, leaks have developed and the tunnels have regularly been flooded, leading to a buildup of “muck” and debris around the rails.  Since the New York subways use the rails to “return” power (actually to draw electrons from the substation to the train, which are then sent back along the third rail), the muck can short this out, reducing power to the trains, which was a major cause of the delays and outages last year.

In October, Leader said, workers shut down the subway for a weekend and cleaned 4000 feet of track in each tunnel, removing over 8000 bags of debris.  They then power-washed the floors to clean out any remaining muck.  Crews also repaired signal boxes, replaced sections of the old third rail and hooked up the old ones as a “fourth rail” to return power more directly.

This year, for eleven weekends between January 21 and April 2, and then for five weekends between October 6 and November 17, the MTA will shut down train service from Queensboro Plaza to Times Square.  In between those times they will run trains express in one direction between Queensboro Plaza and Willets Point.  There is also a plan to renovate the platforms and replace the windscreens at the #7 train station at Court Square.

I’ll say more about this soon.

Photo: Chris Goldberg / Flickr

Translated from Annie Correal, “Repartidores en ‘Bulevar de la Muerte’El Diario/La Prensa, August 13, 2009.

Death of Mexican immigrant shows the level of danger in their work

New York – Pablo Pasarán was run over last Saturday at the intersection of 21st Street and 35th Avenue in Queens. As the family he left behind reflected on his life, other delivery workers continued his dangerous line of work, transporting heavy plastic bags filled with food in the hope of making a few more dollars in tips.

This task is particularly perilous on Queens Boulevard, known as the “Boulevard of Death,” where even though fences and signs have been installed, pedestrians continue to die as they try to cross the street.

“Buses have the least respect for cyclists. Taxis are also always trying to beat the light,” says Crispin Zapata, 46, a delivery worker from Puebla, Mexico, who supports his family on $350 a week he brings in working for a pizzeria on Greenpoint Avenue. “I’ve almost been in an accident so many times.”

In New York, around twenty cyclists have been killed every year since 2005, according to figures released by the Department of Motor Vehicles. There are no exact figures regarding how many of those were delivery workers, but Leah Todd, spokesperson for the New York Memorial Project, an organization that puts up white “ghost bikes” at locations where cyclists have been killed, said that Pasarán is the second delivery cyclist to be killed in a crash since 2005. The other was an Asian delivery worker killed in Manhattan. The organization will set up a bike to memorialize Pasarán before the end of the year.

Official statistics indicate that there are approximately 4,000 delivery workers in New York, a small fraction of the city’s 185,000 cyclists. Despite this, delivery cyclists are in greater danger than other cyclists because they spend more time on the street and travel at top speed under pressure from their employers and in order to earn more tips.

Candelario Serrano, a 22-year-old Mexican who has worked for eight months delivering pizzas for Victoria’s II, a pizzeria on 46th Street and Queens Boulevard, said that the greatest danger comes from driver carelessness. “People open car doors, and you don’t have time to react,” he argued, while a driver laid blame on the delivery workers.

“They’re idiots. They cross when they’re not supposed to. Every day I see them running red lights,” said Jorge Andrade, who has cruised Queens Boulevard in his taxi for 30 years. “There have always been deaths on this boulevard.” A few minutes later, a young Hispanic delivery cyclist rode against traffic, while motorists sped by.

Wiley Norvell, spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, said that the organization has been lobbying for the creation of a separated bicycle lane on Queens Boulevard since the death of Asif Rahman in 2008. Rahman was the first cyclist killed on Queens Boulevard since 1995, but from that year to 2005 there were 227 cyclists and 1118 pedestrians killed. “That’s just too many,” he concluded.

Boulevard Auguste Blanqui near the Rue de la Santé, Paris 13th Arrondissement
Boulevard Auguste Blanqui near the Rue de la Santé, Paris 13th Arrondissement

The latest Wall Street Journal told the world what many of us in Sunnyside already know: times are hard for small businesses. Many shops and restaurants have closed in the past year, and many storefronts sit vacant. This is partly due to the structure of this recession, where we’ve seen consumer spending drop while rents have stayed high. But it has a lot to do with how we feel when we walk down the Boulevard.

The great boulevards in Paris have many lanes for cars, but they became famous because they were great places to walk. For a century and a half, they have been destinations in themselves, where people from all over the city went to stroll, to flirt and to socialize.

This promenading has been great for business. When people stroll, they take the time to window shop, and that often leads to buying. When they see friends, they want to chat, and they often do that over coffee, drinks or dinner. This is why the boulevards of Paris are lined with shops and sidewalk cafes.

Like many of New York’s boulevards, Queens Boulevard was planned in homage to the Champs-Elysées and other boulevards in Paris, with wide sidewalks and medians.

A 1914 proposal for the layout of Queens Boulevard by the Queens Chamber of Commerce. New York City Municipal Archives.
A 1914 proposal for the layout of Queens Boulevard by the Queens Chamber of Commerce. New York City Municipal Archives.

In the near-century since Queens Boulevard was first built, auto traffic has increased, and the city has adjusted the boulevard to prevent drivers from complaining about getting stuck in traffic. The roadway was widened to four lanes in each direction plus a parking lane, and the traffic signals retimed to favor east-west traffic. The city even had plans to construct an elevated highway as on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, but eventually chose Borden Avenue instead. In 1967 the parking lane was eliminated during rush hours.

The current configuration of Queens Boulevard does not encourage anyone to shop or dine. Drivers are not able to park at the curb during the peak rush hours, and much of the parking under the elevated train is available for twelve hours at a time and is taken by long-term commuters rather than short-term shoppers. There have been several pedestrian deaths and numerous injuries, and the speeding traffic does not encourage strolling, especially when there is no barrier of parked cars at the curb.

The pedestrian environment has improved somewhat with 2003 safety plan. Some streets were pedestrianized at the entrances to subway stations and some entrances to parking areas were closed, making it safer for pedestrians to cross the boulevard. Sidewalk extensions were constructed at several corners, making it safer to cross side streets. Traffic signals were retimed to give pedestrians more time to cross the boulevard. Although these improvements have helped, they are relatively minor.

Many in the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce are aware of this problem and have put forward further proposals to improve the situation. Recently, the City Council passed legislation to allow sidewalk cafes to be placed on Queens Boulevard, and the Chamber has long been asking for the parking under the el to be limited to four hours at a time. We are working to get the rush hour parking restriction lifted, to improve safety and invite more customers.

I propose a bigger vision than this, a vision that draws from the experience of Paris, a vision of a boulevard with more trees, wider sidewalks and calmer traffic, a boulevard where people stroll and linger. This may sound pie-in-the-sky to you, but many of the Parisian boulevards were more like Queens Boulevard in the late twentieth century, and have only become more pedestrian-friendly in the past twenty years. The Champs-Elysées, with its thirty-foot sidewalks, is a great model, but Sunnyside is a middle-class neighborhood, and we can be a great walking neighborhood without becoming one of the most expensive shopping districts in the world. Paris also has middle-class neighborhoods that are more like Sunnyside.

The Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, in the relatively modest Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood, has the same bones as Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside. It is about the same width, and has an elevated train in the middle with head-in parking underneath. But where Queens Boulevard has four driving lanes and a lane of parking (outside of rush hours) on each side, the Boulevard Blanqui has two driving lanes, two lanes of parking and a bicycle lane. The remaining space is devoted to wider sidewalks, big enough for two lines of trees, park benches and sidewalk cafes serving pizza in this historically Italian neighborhood. The strip of land near the elevated tracks is also wider, with a third line of trees in it.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way. The sidewalks were widened in the 1990s, along with those of nearby commercial streets, as part of the “Tranquil Neighborhood” plan of right-wing District Mayor Jacques Toubon. This is widely credited with making the neighborhood more of a destination for shopping and dining, particularly at sidewalk cafés. Incidentally, the sidewalks of the Champs-Elysées were widened at the same time.

If you like this vision, you’re probably wondering how we can get from here to there. Queens Boulevard is a major route to the Queensboro Bridge from eastern Queens and even Nassau County. The Department of Transportation is reluctant to make changes that will back up cars and bring complaints from drivers. How could we ever get them to go along with a plan to remove driving lanes and widen the sidewalk?

The answer is congestion pricing. The reason so many people drive through Sunnyside on Queens Boulevard is to get to the “free” Queensboro Bridge – whose recent multi-million dollar renovation has been paid for out of our income and sales taxes. Many of them would have a shorter trip if they took the Queens Midtown Tunnel or the Triboro Bridge, but they take the Queensboro Bridge because it’s free. If we charge a fair price to drive over the bridge and enter Manhattan, a lot of them will stay on the Long Island Expressway or the Grand Central Parkway. A number of others will take the train or bus instead. The City estimated that the amount of stop-and-go traffic in Western Queens would drop by 38.6%. With congestion pricing, the justification for five car lanes on Queens Boulevard disappears.

This, believe it or not, is just one of the many benefits that we could see in Western Queens if we passed congestion pricing. It won’t just benefit Manhattan, it will benefit every neighborhood that people currently drive through to get to Manhattan. It will be good for business and good for our quality of life. Will our leaders rise to the occasion? Will they be stuck in old arguments and petty rivalries, fighting for working-class drivers who don’t exist? Or will they have the courage of District Mayor Toubon, and Paris’s current Mayor Delanoë, who were able to see past the propaganda to a future of calm strolling and socializing on a great walking boulevard?