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.
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?