Today I took a walk along Queens Boulevard in my neighborhood, where the Department of Transportation has been working to transform the medians into walking and cycling paths like those on Eastern and Ocean Parkways in Brooklyn. One of the most interesting changes is the closing of the “slip lanes” which allowed drivers to switch from the express to the local lanes and back. The slip lanes between 54th and 56th Streets are already closed (see above).
Back in January I attended a DOT revisioning workshop for the Boulevard. We packed the cafeteria at my son’s old elementary school, and in a very encouraging contrast to a similar meeting in 2003, everyone seemed to agree that we need to do something. Peter Beadle, a fellow pedestrian advocate who lives down the Boulevard in Rego Park, focused on the slip lanes when reporting his table’s recommendations. After the meeting, he pointed out to me that Ocean and Eastern Parkways in Brooklyn have no slip lanes, which is a major factor in why they feel so much safer than avenues that are otherwise similarly designed, like Queens, Woodhaven and Linden Boulevards and the Grand Concourse. Here is a slip lane on Queens Boulevard that has not been closed, between 58th and 59th Streets:
Reviewing the presentation that the DOT gave to Community Board 2, it looks like they are not planning to close this slip lane. Instead, they will make it safer by putting a stop sign in the middle of it. Knowing how cavalierly drivers treat other stop signs, I’m skeptical about this, but it will be an improvement over the current slip lanes.
More importantly, it will allow for a continuous pedestrian path alongside the bike path on this entire stretch of Queens Boulevard. This afternoon I walked from 51st to 58th Streets on this path, and because there was only one lane of moving vehicles to my right it felt relatively safe. Once this path is continued all the way to 63rd Street (and hopefully beyond, one day), I think it will become a popular stroll, like the paths on Ocean and Eastern Parkways are now. The DOT has already painted crosswalks and put up signals for pedestrians:
(If you zoom in on this picture, you can see that the last car that went through here was doing 38 in a 25 mile an hour zone. We’ve got a lot more work to do.)
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.
The frustration of drivers will be the pleasure of cyclists. The bicycle plan, which unanimously passed the Paris City Council on Tuesday, had been upgraded at the urging of the Green Party. The Greens won a symbolic victory: the creation of a bicycle lane within four years along three kilometers on each side of the Champs-Elysées.
“This lane will be taken from the roadway,” explained Jacques Boutault, who was elected on the Green Party line as Mayor of the Second District. “Bicycles should not be taking space from pedestrians when cars are occupying 80% of the street.” The plan envisions a continuous route along the Rue de Rivoli and the Champs-Elysées. “This means that there will be a bicycle route across the Place de la Concorde,” Boutault suggested. The city’s bicycle network will be expanded from 440 kilometers to 700 by 2014.
Another Green Party proposal that was included in the plan is the creation of 2000 bicycle parking spots per year, instead of the 1000 per year originally envisioned. Half of these spaces will be on city property, in the courtyards of public housing projects, and the other half will take up road space, if necessary from automobile parking, as was done in 2007 for the 1400 Vélib’ stations.
“The message is clear: the car is not welcome in the central city,” explained Mayor Boutault. “People who travel by car will have to use private facilities.” In the central districts, a quarter of households own at least one car.
Here’s a great Planet Money video where you get to see Adam Davidson figuring out why jitneys in Haiti are painted so vibrantly. However, I think there’s a mistranslation at 3:48 in the video.
Driver Patrick Toulousma is translated as saying “One can read the skill of a driver from the exterior of the vehicle in question,” and Davidson, clearly not a Creole speaker, goes with that.
I don’t know Creole myself, but it sure sounds like Standard French to me, and pretty formal: “On peut lire l’image du chauffeur à travers la véhicule en question,” literally, “One can read the image of the driver through the vehicle in question.” If a Parisian said that to me I would translate it as, “You can pick up on the driver’s image by looking at their vehicle.”
What does Toulousma mean by “image”? I’m guessing he’s referring to glamour, which Cap’n Transit argues can influence people’s decisions about a single trip.
After tonight’s zoning presentation, I am fairly well satisfied that the current proposal is a good one. The existing zoning requires developers to build too many parking spaces, and the proposal would reduce those requirements as much as is feasible.
I had a chance to talk briefly with Tom Smith, the planner who is most directly involved in this project. He pointed out that my R5B proposal would invite people to tear down existing single-family houses and replace them with multi-family homes that would then be required to have more than one space per lot, resulting in a net increase in cars. Essentially, the R4 and R4-1 zones are the best we can hope for without rewriting the zoning code.
The most promising prospect for reducing parking requirements would be to expand the “Long Island City subject area” (PDF) to include Sunnyside and Woodside. That’s a much bigger deal, though, and I can understand why they didn’t want to bring it up in this rezoning.
With regard to the zoning of Sunnyhills and the Phipps Gardens, Tom observed that any new development would essentially require “a gas explosion” and maybe an earthquake too, so I didn’t need to be concerned about that. In the current draft, Sunnyside Towers would be rezoned R6A, which conforms to its current use.
There is a proposal to amend the zoning code, which prohibits sidewalk cafes on any street with an elevated railroad, except for a specific list of streets. The amendment would add Queens Boulevard to that list, which makes a lot of sense because the el does not cover the street there. I fully support this part of the proposal. Lily Gavin was in attendance, and I mentioned that I look forward to eating al fresco at Dazie’s someday.
The other people who spoke had various objections and concerns. A couple of them agreed with me about reducing parking requirements. Al Volpe disagreed with me, but chose to take a bizarre dig at bicycles, which hadn’t been mentioned up to that point. Gert McDonald of the United Forties spoke about providing parking for everyone, but I was distracted while she was speaking, so I didn’t hear everything she said. If anyone else heard her argument, please fill me in.
A number of people, including Angel Gil and Sherry Gamlin, pointed to the crowding in the schools and asked if there was a way to get more school space to accommodate the increase in population. I agree completely: my son’s second grade classroom squeezes 29 kids into a trailer, and it makes things difficult. John Young from City Planning said that when the proposal is finalized it will include an estimate of the potential population increase, but he did not discuss any steps that could be taken to accommodate that increase, either with schools or with transit.
Young said that once the proposal is finalized, it will have to be reviewed by the Community Board, the Borough President, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Each group will have to hold hearings, and the entire process takes around seven months. I will keep an eye on the proposals and try to make sure that no districts with high parking requirements creep in, but please let me know if you see any.
So far this looks like a good proposal. I appreciate the efforts of Jimmy Van Bramer and his staff, Joe Conley and the Community Board, and the City Planning staff, to make the process accessible and understandable to all.
I heard the horn honk a second time and turned around. There was a man parked in a minivan sitting at the corner. I pointed to myself with a questioning look on my face, and he nodded and beckoned me over. “Want a ride?”
My mother always told me not to get into cars with strangers, particularly strange men. But I was running late from my job as a cashier at Caldor’s on Ulster Avenue. I was worried about getting to Uptown Kingston in time to catch the bus home. That was the last bus that Sunday evening; if I missed it, my parents would have to drive to Kingston to pick me up.
When “John,” as he introduced himself, took a turn away from Uptown, onto the highway, and sped up, I got a little uneasy. When he said, “So, Angus, have you ever been with a man before?” I definitely got worried.
“Uh, no,” I answered.
“Do you want to have sex with a man?”
“Do you want to have sex with me? If you close your eyes you won’t know it’s not a woman.”
“No, thanks. I just want to go to Searstown.”
Thinking back on it, the sidewalk was pretty desolate on a Sunday evening, the perfect place for gay men who don’t want to be observed. John must have been inviting me to have sex with him, and figured that nobody who didn’t want to have gay sex would get into a minivan with a strange man. When he realized that I had taken his offer of a ride literally, he was understanding about the whole thing. Fortunately, he was a decent guy and he dropped me off in Searstown just like he had said, with a little pat on my knee. I made it to the bus in time.
Of course, there could have been another guy cruising that block of Ulster Avenue who wasn’t as decent as John. That was one of the many commuting dangers I faced during the six months I worked at Caldor’s. I had a car when I took the job, but shortly after that the right front wheel broke. I couldn’t afford to get it fixed (on an entry-level part-time cashier’s wages?), so I had to pay $35 to get it junked. I couldn’t ride my bike, because it was too far to ride the whole thirteen miles back to Woodstock. I took the Trailways bus instead.
The store, and many others like it, was four miles from the Kingston bus station, in the town of Ulster. The Trailways buses never went there, the Kingston city buses don’t go past the city limits, and the Ulster County buses only ran a few times in the middle of the day. Neither of them ran on Sundays. Trailways didn’t allow bicycles that weren’t in boxes, so I couldn’t ride my bike from work to the bus. I walked.
The biggest danger by far, a much bigger danger than a few cruising gay men, was the speeding traffic along Ulster Avenue, especially on the part that is Route 9W. For the two miles in the Town of Ulster, there is only a narrow sidewalk on the west side of the four-lane road, nothing on the east side. The speed limits are high, and the cars are noisy. There are many curb cuts to get to one strip mall or another, and drivers take the turns too fast.
Ulster Avenue is one of three roads that go from Kingston to the shops in Ulster. The other one is East Chester Street, Route 9W, and it’s worse. It has only two lanes, but no sidewalks, and people drive even faster. The third is U.S. Route 209, a limited-access highway.
Sometimes, to get away from the noise and danger of Ulster Avenue, I would walk along the West Shore railroad tracks. Of course, walking on an active rail line is a very dangerous activity as well. I was always careful to listen and to look in front and behind me, but if I had tripped and fallen I could have been unable to escape from a train.
I survived the summer at Caldor’s, but I never took another job in Ulster County again. I didn’t want to buy another car, and I didn’t want to have to deal with getting to the strip malls of the Town of Ulster, where more and more of the county’s jobs are concentrated. Instead, I spent the summers in Binghamton and Chicago, and moved to the city when I finished school.
My sister lives in Uptown Kingston now, but most of the work is in Ulster. The county buses run more frequently these days, but only a few times on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays. So my sister takes taxis a lot of the time, which cut into her wages.
Tonight on the Tri-State blog I read that the City of Kingston has received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to combat childhood obesity through education, complete streets.
It’s true that there are a few difficult spots for walking in the city. One street that really feels uncomfortable to walk on is Washington Avenue north of Schwenk Drive, which leads to most of the city’s motels. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s project page also describes the difficulty of getting to Kingston Point Park, along streets with no sidewalks.
Honestly, though, most of the streets of Kingston are pretty good for walking and bicycling. Tri-State’s Nadine Lemmon points out that Broadway is four lanes, but it’s got sidewalks on both sides and there are parallel side streets. The intersections could definitely be more pedestrian-friendly, but I’ve seen much worse. Most of the streets without sidewalks are small streets with little or no car traffic.
The biggest challenge to safe walking and cycling in Kingston is in getting to the commercial heart of Kingston, which has actually not been in the City of Kingston since 1975 or so. It’s in the Town of Ulster. Caldor’s is now a Jo-Ann’s Fabrics, but there’s the Hudson Valley Mall, a Wal-Mart, a Barnes and Noble, a Lowe’s, and lots of other stores. A large proportion of the area’s jobs are at these stores, but there are also jobs at the old IBM plant nearby, which now hosts a data processing center for Bank of America.
It’s been clear to me for a long time that the development in the Town of Ulster has been a way for people to get around whatever rules (and taxes) existed in the City of Kingston. They didn’t have to build sidewalks or run buses, just a couple nice highways was all the infrastructure that IBM needed to suck all the workers out of Kingston, and all the stores needed to suck the shoppers out. But the city limit is a legal fiction. These stores and offices see a lot more shoppers than the stores and offices on Wall Street in Uptown, and have a greater claim to being part of the Kingston metropolitan area.
It’s nice to get kids to parks and schools, but I can say from personal experience that teenagers from all over Ulster County want to go to those shops, and Kingston teens are no exception. Maybe some are more sophisticated and want to go shopping in Poughkeepsie or even New York City, but most are headed to the mall.
I can kind of understand that government institutions are bound by the city limits. That’s why the Kingston city buses don’t go to the mall, although if I had ever been mayor I would have tried to figure out some way to send them there. What is more puzzling is that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also seems bound by those same city limits. The RWJF is a nationwide organization, and they work with pairs of counties like Nash and Edgecombe Counties in North Carolina. Why not pair up the City of Kingston and the Town of Ulster, and get them to work as a unit to solve a problem that affects them as a unit?
This Healthy Kids program will probably do some good for the children and teenagers of Kingston. But as long as it lets itself be confined by artificial boundaries it will fail to serve these children well. Because when they get old enough they will want to go to the mall. They may try walking on Ulster Avenue, and be the recipients of unwanted sexual attention. Walking or cycling, they may put their lives at risk on Ulster Avenue. They will probably give up, and depend on their families and friends. If they get enough money, they’ll buy their own cars one day. But they will not use active transportation on their way to and from the malls, and they’ll wind up waddling around Kings Plaza.
What the walking population of Kingston really needs, most of all, is reliable, frequent, round-trip transit to the malls, all day, seven days a week. The next thing is to make either Ulster Avenue or East Chester Street into a complete street that is safe to walk and bicycle, a street that attracts pedestrian-oriented development and a positive street life to drive away sexual activities. But it’s not going to happen as long as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation thinks that its mission ends at the city limits.
Jimmy Van Bramer’s staff got an updated version of the zoning proposal, dated May 19, and passed the maps on to Christian Murray, who posted them on his Sunnyside Post blog.
The main differences I could find between the February maps that I posted previously and these May maps all relate to commercial zoning along Greenpoint and Roosevelt Avenues.
To understand this, you need to know about commercial overlays. These are zoning districts that are established along avenues for retail businesses serving the neighborhood. They only extend 100-200 feet back from the street. The districts that start with C1- are meant to be 1-2 story buildings, and the ones that start with C2- are a bit higher, and the ones starting with C4- are significantly higher. The second number indicates parking minima, where the ones that end in -1 require lots of parking, those that end in -2 a bit more, and so on.
These avenues currently (PDF) have a commercial overlay C1-2 from 41st to 44th Streets and from 59th to 65th Street, and C2-2 from 50th to 58th and from 65th to the BQE. There is also a district (not an overlay) from 47th Avenue to half a block north of Queens Boulevard and from 44th through 48th Streets that is zoned C4-2.
The February revision of the proposal (PDF) would have changed the overlay from 41st to 44th to C1-3, the overlay from 52nd through 59th and from 65th to the BQE to C2-4, and the overlay from 59th through 65th to C1-4. The area from 47th Avenue to just north of Queens Boulevard was split into a C4-5X zone along Queens Boulevard and a C4-4A zone along Greenpoint and 47th Avenues.
The May 19 draft that Christian posted does away with the commercial zone along Queens Boulevard. Now the area south of the Boulevard is a solid R6A district with a C1-4 overlay along Greenpoint Avenue. That C1-4 overlay continues along Roosevelt Avenue, pretty much all the way to 65th Street.
Overall, I think this change is good. In C1-4 districts, parking requirements are waived unless at least 40 spaces are required. For a supermarket or other retail store, it would have to be at least 40,000 square feet (two-thirds the size of the Stop and Shop on 48th Street) to require any parking at all. That’s an improvement over the C1-3 district, which would require 25 parking spaces to be built for a supermarket over 7500 square feet. Ideally, I would prefer C1-5 which has almost no parking requirement at all, but I’d much rather work to get the R4 and R4-1 districts upgraded to R5B. I might prefer more commercial density, but I’m focusing on parking in this discussion.
I’m planning to attend the meeting this Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 at Sunnyside Community Services. If you’re planning to go and want to coordinate with me, send me an email or leave a comment!
The Department of City Planning has initiated a process to rezone Sunnyside and part of Woodside. They have their agenda, developers have their agenda, and various residents and business owners have theirs.
Here’s my agenda: I think Sunnyside and Woodside have too much off-street parking. Off-street parking encourages people to own cars, and to drive, as shown in this PDF. That’s bad for the neighborhood. Worse is that new buildings are required to have parking that’s really not necessary. The result is that all the new apartment buildings have garages and curb cuts, messing up the pedestrian experience and encouraging people to own cars in the neighborhood.
Business owners in Sunnyside and Woodside should also be in favor of reducing parking minimums. None of them have much customer parking, so most customers arrive by foot. Neighborhood residents who own cars are often tempted to drive to competing businesses outside the neighborhood with more parking. Thus, it is in the interest of business owners to keep residential parking low.
The best thing would be if we could scrap all parking minimums, bringing Sunnyside and Woodside into the same category as Long Island City and most of Manhattan, but as far as I can tell that requires a change to the zoning resolution, which would need approval by the full Council and is thus outside the scope of these hearings.
The next best thing is to push the zoning towards zones with lower parking minimums, and resist pressure in the other direction. We should also keep in mind waivers for small numbers of spaces required under parking minimums. If someone wants a zone with a particular height, I would like to encourage them to go for the subtype with the least parking required, as follows:
R4/R4A/R4B or less (100%) -> R5B (66%, waive up to 1 per lot). R4B (100%, but allowing waiver) is an improvement, but would still give us lots of curb cuts.
R5/R5A (100%) -> R5B or R5D (66%, waive up to 1 per lot)
R6 (70%, waive up to 5) -> R6A or R6B (50%, waive up to 5)
R7-1 or R7B (60%, waive up to 5) -> any other R7 category (50%, waive up to 15)
R8B -> any other R8 category
The good news is that the City Planning proposal already has mostly low-parking-requirement zones: R5B, R5D, R6A and R7A. There are some areas that have too-high parking requirements in the proposal: three zones in Woodside that are R4-1, and two in Sunnyside (47th Street and Sunnyside Towers) that are R4. These should be R5B. Sunnyhills and the Phipps Gardens would remain R4 under the proposal, which doesn’t make any sense; they should be R7-2.
I hope you will agree with me about the need to keep parking minimums low and waivers high. If you do, please go to meetings and support this agenda. If you have another agenda (changing the density, for example), you may be able to get my support if you also argue for a lower parking minimum.
To help you make up your own minds, here are documents and maps about the proposed Sunnyside and Woodside rezoning, courtesy of Thomas Smith and Penny Lee at the Department of City Planning:
The MTA is doing track work on the #7 line to improve speed and reliability. That’s good. As they have done for previous track work projects, they will be shutting down the line between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square for the next seven weekends. That’s bad.
The N, R and E trains will be running, and people coming from points east will be able to transfer. The MTA usually runs shuttle buses for people to get to and from the three stations in Long Island City with no service. That’s good. But the transfers can add five to ten minutes to a trip. Worse, the shuttle buses don’t go to Manhattan; they stop at Queensboro Plaza, where passengers have to change for the N. For the next several weekends, people who are normally fifteen minutes from Grand Central will spend fifteen minutes on the bus just to get to the N, which doesn’t even go to Grand Central. That’s bad.
What’s especially frustrating for LIC residents is that many of them live only five minutes by car from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. If they could walk through the tunnel, they could get to Manhattan faster than by taking the shuttle bus. Those who own cars can drive into Manhattan if they want to deal with the traffic and the hassle of finding parking. Those who don’t own cars are stuck with the shuttle bus.
Last year, in response to a previous service disruption, Councilmember Eric Gioia held a rally asking the MTA to run buses through the tunnel to Grand Central. Cap’n Transit took that a step further and suggested running the buses on the 34th Street bus lanes to Penn Station, so that travelers could switch to the subway at Penn Station, Herald Square or Park Avenue. He produced maps showing that, according to Google directions, when there is no traffic (as on weekends), buses can get to Penn Station in ten minutes from Ravenswood, Dutch Kills, Sunnyside or Greenpoint. In fifteen minutes they can get to Penn Station from the Triboro Bridge, Jackson Heights, Maspeth, Bushwick or Williamsburg. Of course, if they made stops in between it would take a little longer; the point is that lots of people want to go to Manhattan, and a bus could get them there pretty darn quick.
Map: Cap’n Transit
As far as I know, the MTA never responded to Gioia or to Cap’n Transit. They ran the inconvenient shuttle buses, and that was it. Now they’re planning to do it again. This morning, Gioia’s successor, Jimmy Van Bramer, held another rally asking for a tunnel bus. He was joined by Astoria Assemblymember Mike Gianaris (who has announced that he is running to represent this area in the State Senate next year), Assemblymember Cathy Nolan and Council Chair Christine Quinn.
WNYC’s Brian Zumhagen was actually able to get a response from the MTA. An unnamed spokesman says that “shuttle buses directly to Grand Central would create big traffic tie-ups in Long Island City and on the East Side of Manhattan.” It’s not clear why they would cause any more tie-ups in LIC than the buses to Queens Plaza, or why they would cause any significant tie-ups in weekend traffic. That comment shows that the MTA is looking for reasons not to accommodate riders.
At this point it remains to be seen whether all that star power will have the desired effect. If you care about this issue, I suggest that you contact Jimmy or Cathy and ask how you can help.
I was chatting with a friend today about long-distance travel. I mentioned how I’ve taken a number of overnight bus, train and ferry trips, and he told me about bus travel in his home country of Argentina. Turns out that there are several classes of bus travel there, and the highest class, “cama suite,” is pretty swanky. (Cama is Spanish for bed.) The overnight buses have seats that fold down completely horizontal, with lots of room (three across), attendants, full meals and “lots of alcohol.”
I went home and researched it, and everything I’ve found confirms Antonio’s account. There are lots of reports from English-speaking travelers in Argentina, complete with photos, like the one by American tourist Craig James, who took the photo of “full cama” service above. Craig’s daughter Caroline was less impressed by the “semi-cama” service on a subsequent leg of their trip.
More details can be found on the websites of the several for-profit bus companies, such as Expreso Alberino. That’s right, several for-profit bus companies: according to the handy Omnilineas website, the popular Buenos Aires-Bariloche route is handled by at least five different companies, with prices ranging from about $60 to $90 US.
I’m seriously wondering about the economic factors that allow companies to profitably run such luxurious bus service, but somehow prevent planes, trains and private cars from taking all the business. And how this fits in with the results of the National Geographic Greendex survey that ranked Argentines as some of the greenest people in the world (PDF), except for the amount of beef they consume.
Could we ever see something like that here in the US? Well, we do have the LimoLiner between New York and Boston. That has seen mixed reviews, but seems to be doing well, having recently added service to Hartford. However, it’s only a five-hour trip (max); as far as I know there’s nothing similar for overnight trips. Maybe someone should try a NYC-Chicago or NYC-Atlanta run?