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Snowy Neckdowns Redux: Winter Traffic Calming (Now: #sneckdown)

As you may recall, many years ago I shot a Streetfilm taking about what winter weather can teach us.  In many ways the snow acts like tracing paper on our streets and records road user movements: at each intersection where the snow ends up piled can teach us a lot about where people drive and chose to walk.  It's a great experiment that costs no money and anyone can play traffic engineer. If you ever want safer streets around your block get out and take some photos next time it snows, it can bolster your arguments before a nay-saying community board (or politician) whether you are in New York City or Iowa.

With it having been over a week since we had our last big snowfall, I had been noticing some of the most dramatic examples of neckdowns & curb extensions made out of the fluffy white stuff - now hard as concrete - which brought a real sense of calm to crossing some streets in Jackson Heights, Queens.  And predicted, drivers don't seem to be having any problems with them, just taking the turns a bit more slowly and carefully as they should 365 days of the year. I've seen delivery vehicles, garbage trucks, EMS, and buses all have little problem navigating them (although admittedly did not observe any firetrucks.)

Of course, you can also check out how chicanes naturally occur.

UPDATE FROM THE FUTURE!

Now "snowy neckdowns" have been christened sneckdowns or through the magic of Twitter: #sneckdown

Just a few articles:

http://www.streetsblog.org/2014/01/22/sneckdowns-taking-the-world-by-storm/

http://thisoldcity.com/advocacy/photos-what-snow-tells-us-about-creating-better-public-spaces-e-passyunk-avenue

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25788068


Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [00:00] So with the great storm of 2011 now history here in New York City, I’m out here in Jackson Heights where I thought I would revisit a video from many years ago where I went out in the snow and showed you just how much traffic calming concepts can be explained by leftover snow.  So at just about every intersection here in Jackson Heights you can see that these snowy piles that are still well off the curb have become basically permanent, and they how just where traffic neckdowns would be if they were at every intersection. 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [00:36] Solid, solid ice.  Now here’s another one I just came across.  This one shows just how dramatic the distance is.  Look at how far this snow bank is from the concrete.  This is what a typical traffic calming device would look like.  And nobody’s having problems navigating that.  This gentleman just made a nice slow turn.  The only time this space is used by cars is to make turns faster, quicker and more dangerous. 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [01:05]  Okay, the size of these snowy neckdowns are so incredible, especially after seven or eight days, that I had to go home and get a tape measure.  And here we go.  And that is a good eight feet or so.  We’re not even measuring all this other ice and snow that’s been packed down, just the solid part.  Eight/eight and a half feet to the curb.  You know, we have a lot of schools in this neighbourhood and it’s very important with all the children that are trying to cross the street that we slow down cars when they turn, and one way to do that is with a neckdown.  And how that happens is you basically are making the car go a little slower round the corner.  This has been here for over a week, it extends many feet into the intersection.  There’s a car right here behind me about to tun.  Let’s see if he makes this turn nice and slow, let’s see, we’ll follow him.  And he appears to have had no problem. 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [02:00] This one here is an absolutely incredible nine feet from the curb.  Nine feet this stretches out.  Nine feet, and it’s not stopping anybody from getting where they need to go. 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [02:18] I even came out here a few weeks ago to take some pictures of school crossing guards who take a traffic cone, they put it out in the street so that cars slow down as they’re making a turn onto the street with the school, and you could see they’re exactly about the same distance of where these snowy neckdowns are. 

 

Clarence Eckerson Jr.:  [02:34] So the next time it snows and ices up in your neighbourhood, you’ll see the same thing.  We can take back some of that space to make it safer for children and families and seniors crossing.  We could shorten the distance, provide spaces for them to wait.  And also slow down cars.  The truth is they don’t need that space.  The only thing that that space allows them to do is to speed up in making a turn.  And these icy, snowy neckdowns are dramatic in size and dramatically shaped and they’re still doing absolutely nothing to stop people from getting around by their cars.   

Transcription Sponsored by: Transcript Divas Transcription Services

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/stevevance Steven Vance

    The same thing happened after #snOMG in Chicago on Wesnesday.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/5420039852/

  • kenf

    Where I live they clear the streets from curb to curb as quickly as possible, and pile the snow on sidewalks.

  • John

    What a great natural experiment and demonstration! One minor clarification: you say the neckdown increases the turning radius, when in fact it decreases the turning radius--that is, it makes the cars take sharper turns.

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

    John,

    Whoops!  Well out in crazy of the day in the moment I must have screwed that up.  But I think people will get the drift.  After all, network news messes up a few times on air every night!

  • Anonymous

    Great post! In my town, pedestrian crossing distances have been reduced from 22 feet to 10 feet by the snowstorms in some cases, and it is great.

    Regarding the comment about fire trucks - sure, neckdowns may slow down fire apparatus, but:

    1) They can be designed as "drive over" neckdowns for large vehicles, and

    2) In the vast majority of scenarios, the number of people killed from fires each year is far lower than the number killed by vehicles traveling too fast around the corners, hitting one another, and running over pedestrians. So even before you consider quality of life concerns (like elderly people being able to walk around their neighborhoods), the increased safety created by traffic calming far outweighs any possible delays to fire equipment.  The Fire Departments at a national level actually have met with Placemaking and Urbanism organizations, and basically agree with this point -- we shouldn't sacrifice the lives of hundreds of drivers and pedestrians in order to potentially save one or two lives each year.  See #1 above - ideally you can have your cake and eat it too.

  • Len Maniace

    Great Clarence. I'm going to post it on The Green Agenda for Jackson Heights FB page tomorrow morning for maximum eyes.

    Also. Are you going to the city DOT traffic study for JH on Saturday? Did you see the portal they created to view the data? Very cool.

  • Joe Beckmann

    It may slow traffic, but it also may make quite invisible the pedestrian crossing the street on which you're turning, or the car about to smash into you. Those piles of snow are now so high that, behind may lurk much more disaster than a traffic slowing device may intend.

    Don't be too self-satisfied with such pictures. People can die of such good intentions.

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

    Joe,

    The video was never meant to say we should build structures so high.  As you can see from all of the stills we showed of examples of neckdowns all across the country: they are all your traditional neckdowns with plenty of great sight distances for drivers and pedestrians.  

    The video is showing this for a reason - there are many instances where such traffic calming devices in neighborhoods across the country because community boards or local politicians claim the neckdowns restrict car movement.  This proves that even ridiculous sized ones - yes, made of ice and on the ground for 7 or 8 days - do no such thing.

    And judging from the numbers of people already emailing saying this video will be of tremendous use, well...we'll be self-satisfied thank you.

  • Joe Beckmann

    Such self-satisfaction is precisely the weakness of your movement. Argue for traffic calming while also arguing for more visibility. It's one thing to slow things down, and quite another to hide the lurking dangers.

  • http://theolane.posterous.com Theo Lane

    great video, Clarence.  You make a tremendous case for something our neighborhood desperately needs... thanks.

  • tom murphy

    Joe Beckman is right. These piles at intersections only are a danger to mothers with strollers, people with canes or anyone who is not sure-footed.
    Anon, 2/7/11, 4:02: Last time I read up on fire apparatus(and don't forget ambulances) and traffic calming it was agreed that planners and LOCAL providers would talk first and share their needs. All life-saving is a local function and conditions vary from locality to locality, and any national organization would understand this. If you have any source for another conclusion, please let us all know.
    There are neckdowns that are sloped and mountable already in use but there is always the question of whether they are appropriate to each and every situation.
    Regarding whether we can tolerate one or two death-by-fire victims to potentially save many driver and pedestrians lives, well, I won't go there.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Eric Eric McClure

    You'll be hearing from the attorney representing "Neighbors for Better Icebergs" shortly.  They are particularly angry that "Mother Nature" sprung these on them without adequate community outreach.  And they have real doubts about the accuracy of your tape measure.

  • Len Maniace

    I think Joe and Tom are misinterpretting Clarence's initial post and overlooking his clarification. He isn't advocating large piles of snow or other objects on corners that might lessen visibilty or walkability.
    He is pointing out a natural illustration of how neckdowns work. (He also noted he did not know if a fire truck could handle these inadvertant neckdowns.)
    Knowing Clarence, however, I'm sure he was not advocating use of snowbank substitutes for neckdowns, nor proceeding without accounting for the needs of emergency vehicles.
    Maybe I'm wrong, though..... Clarence, is your real aim to create a city that is more dangerous for pedestrians and motorists, a city where people are more likely to die in fires and at accident scenes because emergency vehicles are unable to turn corners? Come clean.

  • http://abstractnonsense.wordpress.com Alon Levy

    The flip side is that if the city doesn't care about pedestrians enough to shovel the snow from the sidewalks properly, snow can make walking a miserable experience.

    For example: in New Haven, there's a path on the sidewalk that is almost shoveled, leaving a thin strip of slippery ice. And that's how the city treats downtown and the university area. Near the housing projects, shoveled paths tend to disappear into the 3-foot snow piles without warning.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Len,

    But of course.  The point of the video is showing that cars can make these turns even with the most ridiculous 8, 9, 10 foot banks of snow extending into the street.  And as we all know there are lots of naysyaers in community board meetings and politicians and neighborhood groups who would say you can't install neckdowns or curb extensions because it will impede traffic.  This video is evidence that is not so.

    We are certainly not disputing that these icy, ridiculously high piles of snow are a danger to pedestrians cause they are when they are high enough to obstruct views for drivers and those on foot.  But that is not the point of the video.  And - again - if you look at all of the examples of good neckdowns/curb extensions we provide throughout the film we would never endorse a practice of building anything that obstructs views.

  • rhubarbpie

    Nice piece. Though I think there's an accompanying piece here, about the lousy job the city did in making the crosswalks safe and usable for pedestrians. Take a look, for instance, at the crosswalk at 1:45 in the video. For anyone with a mobility impairment, a wheelchair or even in the wrong shoes, this would be a hard crosswalk to navigate.

    The inability of the city (or whoever is responsible for clearing crosswalks) to clear crosswalks properly made the city a treacherous place (as I've commented here elsewhere) for days. (In some cases, crosswalks still aren't clear.) I hope we'll see some coverage of this after the next snow storm. Thanks.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    There's reporting in today's newspapers about the City Council's multitude of bills/proposals in response to snow emergencies. Eventually it looks like it will all be consolidated and the final bill will have some sort of language about how fast the city must get rid of snowpiles at end of streets to clear the crosswalks. Clearly this is an issue and needs to be addressed as there are still some (now nearly two weeks later) that are still in very bad shape and unusable by handicapped and a challenge for some seniors.

    In the end I would rather not have these giant, large snowpiles around because it impedes locomotion and endangers people. But using them as an example as to how they can show cars do not need a large amount of that space - and we can give it back to pedestrians for more safety is a way to turn something bad into a good example to learn from.

  • Bruce D

    what happens if it snows in communities with neck downs?

  • Nwykeroutoftwn

    Shovel/plow the snow on to the neck down.

  • Jon Wood

    Excellent, Clarence. Also, on busier, faster streets the neckdown enables pedestrians to walk to the edge of the active driving lane, and that makes it harder for drivers to ignore pedestrians trying to cross the street.  

  • Steve scofield

    Streets get plowed by Sanitation. Sidewalks are supposed to be cleared by property owners. All well and good. But nobody takes responsibility for crosswalks so that we have a minimountain of snow ice and slush that is a real impediment to pedestrians especially seniors and others who may not be nimble on their feet.