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The Transformation of Queens Boulevard, Block By Block

For many years, New York City's Queens Boulevard was known as the "Boulevard of Death." The street cuts through the heart of the Queens, expanding at some points to a chaotic 12 to 16 lanes of traffic -- which makes it extremely dangerous for human beings. From 2003 to 2013, 38 pedestrians and cyclists were killed and 450 suffered severe injuries.

Last year, the New York City DOT announced a $100 million dollar commitment from the de Blasio administration to humanize Queens Boulevard and make it safer, a flagship project in the city's Vision Zero initiative. Instead of waiting until the planned permanent reconstruction in 2018 to make any changes, DOT wanted to build in safety improvements immediately. After holding public workshops with communities along the corridor, 1.3 miles of Queens Boulevard have been redesigned, and the changes are already making a huge difference.

If you're an urban planner, transportation engineer, or advocate wondering just what can be done with what seems to be an irredeemably messed up street, then this is the Streetfilm for you. We got an exclusive tour of the changes with NYC DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo, going block-by-block over the creative solutions the DOT team implemented. Queens Boulevard is as complicated a roadway as there is: Nearly every block is different. To add a functional bike lane and pedestrian mall seemed highly unlikely. Yet here it is.

I'll admit, I'm especially excited about this project since I've lived near Queens Boulevard for years. I was skeptical when the announcement was made that I would see any truly life-altering change, and even if the city pulled it off, it would take years and years. But the installation has been swift and extremely well thought out. The service road is noticeably slower, narrower, and easier to navigate for people walking or biking. So much so that I was motivated to document the transformation with this Streetfilm, which I hope will be a learning tool that people can put to use in their communities. If you can put a good protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard, then just about any street in America should be in play.

In 2015, no one was killed on Queens Boulevard.

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.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I really hope people will use this as a valuable tool in their communities. One note: we DID go block by block, but if we put EVERYTHING we filmed in we'd probably be talking a 20 to 30 minute Streetfilm. So know if you want to go check it out there are even more treatments (and plenty more to come during the next phases.) Thanks NYC DOT. Each time I ride this I am in awe you pulled this off, do this everywhere. :)

  • J

    Great project, but the video offers some telling insight into the DOT mentality

    Ryan Russo: "what we wanted to do here is have a very high-integrity bike lane that wouldn't have any interference from parking maneuvers or loading and unloading..."

    If only DOT would aim for "high integrity" bike lanes in ALL bike projects. Also, is Russo implying that most DOT bike projects are "low integrity"? Seems like it.

  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    We are very fortunate to get a project of this magnintude in the post-Sadik-Khan / post-Bloomberg period of the DOT. Let's not play "gotcha" on the DOT official's words there.

    It is clear that he is saying that putting a bike lane on Queens Boulevard presents special challenges, as compared to putting one other streets.

    In that Franklin Avenue shot, the simple painted bike lane is just fine; there's nothing that could have been done differently. (Well, if the world were much saner, the street parking could have been removed in order to allow both for a bike lane and for space for delivery trucks. But in the twisted world in which we live, that ain't happening.)

    Considering that the truck driver making the delivery had the choice of double-parking on the left side of the street or double-parking on the right side in the bike lane, then that driver did the right thing. While a truck that is double-parked on the left pushes the cars that are passing the truck into the bike lane, this is preferable to double-parking the truck in the bike lane and thereby pushing bicyclists out of the bike lane in order to get around it. I wish more truck drivers would do what the driver in the picture did, regardless of which side of the street the delivery is going to.

    We cannot blame the DOT for anything that we see going on in that picture.

  • http://techdrom.blogspot.com danbrotherston

    Seems like buses are using the service roads. I feel like it should be possible to have buses use the through road for higher speed and more reliable service (not to mention more room for bus only lanes) and use the expanded pedestrian mall for expanded bus stations. Perhaps one step at a time though.

  • AnoNYC

    QB looks pretty good now, at least that stretch. I can't wait until the Grand Concourse gets a similar treatment.

  • AnoNYC

    I agree. There's still 6 moving lanes on the mainline. Remove one on each side and designate it bus only.

    Sunnyside really needs a diet too. 8 moving lanes.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Not a bad idea in theory, but almost none of those buses are running express and stop very often. I've been on QB buses since the new redesign and they seem to run no slower since the change. Still, like I pointed out I saw no way they could put a quality bike lane of any kind against the median and they succeeded beyond my imagination. So perhaps that is possible.

  • J

    I disagree. DOT could have addressed double parking issues with loading zones, market-based meter rates, etc in conjunction with the new bike lane to actually create bike infrastructure that is consistently clear of parked cars. Throwing up our hands and saying that DOT can't do anything about double parking will certainly allow DOT to build more of this kind of "low integrity" facility.

    DOT chose to ignore pre-existing double parking issues, and the result is a bike lane that is consistently and predictably full of double-parked cars. This is a substandard approach and DOT knows it, but they seldom put much effort into these projects except to make sure that car traffic can still move.

    This method of prioritizing car movement, while neglecting to make sure the bike lane is actually useable happens all the time at DOT. For instance, last week, a DOT official explained with regard tothe Lafayette Ave buffered lane in Brooklyn:

    “If we did the curbside bike lane, the cross section would be very tight,” DOT’s Sean Quinn told the committee. “Where anyone wants to pull over, try to pull over and stop, or the bus didn’t pull to the curb, there’d be no room for cars to continue flowing down the street. There is space there, but the space wouldn’t be efficiently used for all users on the corridor.”

    He is effectively promoting the use of the bike lane for parking and passing so that cars can continue moving down the street. This is the very definition of a "low-integrity" bike facility. If it wasn't so easy to find such examples, you may have a point, but designing "low-integrity" bike lanes is still standard operating procedure at DOT.


  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    I agree that constant double-parking is a problem. But the solution to that problem is enforcement. In other words, it's a matter for the Police Department, not for the DOT.

    Of course, that brings up a host of other problems, chief amongst them being that the police don't want to be bothered with this -- and we know that the NYPD, having freed itself from civilian control, effectively controls public policy. This, in turn, ties into the issue of the fecklessness of a mayor who allows his insubordinate appointee to run wild, and of City Council members who will publicly take up the cause of drivers "harassed" by enforcement of double-parking laws.

    Also, what the driver of that truck in your picture has done should not be conflated with the double-parking practiced by drivers of private cars.

    You might say that it's in the DOT's power to create enough curbside loading zones so that trucks wouldn't have to double-park. True. But doing so would require getting rid of parking spaces. I'd like this and you'd like this. But, as I mentioned above, in our messed-up world, this kind of plan just isn't an option.

    In the end, there is absolutely nothing that the DOT can do about the kind of cultural and moral rot that allows double-parking to go on unabated.

    Before we can expect the DOT to seriously pursue plans that remove street parking and that do not take double-parking into account, we'd first need a cultural shift that leaves the sociopathic defenders of double-parking in the minority.

  • J

    Again, I disagree. There is double parking because we artificially set the price for parking too low, and given high demand, it is overconsumed. Think soviet bread lines. Cheap bread and lots of demand for bread -> shortages. It is well within DOT's power to adjust rates and install loading zones to address this problem (charge a market rate for bread). Increasing enforcement is a losing battle if the curb management structure encourages double parking in the first place.

  • BBnet3000

    But the solution to that problem is enforcement.

    Enforcement that we all, presumably including the people putting in these bike lanes, know is not coming.

    So either they can

    1) Take steps to improve the situation, as J pointed out, steps that need to be taken anyway (there is simply no space on commercial fronts to make deliveries with private cars in the way)

    2) Play the pedant/scold as you do and insist that people just shouldn't park in the bike lane and that its an enforcement issue, despite the impact on cycling.

  • http://techdrom.blogspot.com danbrotherston

    Definitely, it looks awesome. As for buses, yes, definitely would work better with express buses. But really, this stands on its own.

  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    Oh, the DOT can simply "take steps", can it? As though it were an independent body that can act unilaterally, subject to no oversight by anyone. Well, unfortunately, only the Police Department gets to operate in that sort of fashion.

    The DOT can go only so far as the mayor wants it to go. And if the mayor has no stomach for a fight with the Community Board or with the newspapers and TV stations which thrive on gnning up irrational anger within the idiot public, then the DOT are not going toe remove parking spaces in order to create loading zones -- no matter how much sense such a move would make when considered rationally.

    The reality is that too many people will refuse to consider such a thing rationally. So it makes no sense for the DOT to draw up a programme that has no chance of being realised.

  • AMH

    Still a highway, but I can imagine it becoming a more bucolic Eastern Pkwy-style thoroughfare. As long as it looks like a highway, it will be used like a highway.

  • BBnet3000

    What's the "programme" for cycling? How about for pedestrian safety or increasing pedestrian space?

    There is no citywide plan for any of these things, they're all proposed on a project by project basis. There is nothing preventing them from proposing loading zones to go with new bike lanes that will otherwise fail. Your contention that CBs would shoot them down is empty so long as nobody has even tried.

  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    In my commute I use the new bike lane (installed last summer) on Woodward Ave. in Queens; and there are frequently trucks in that lane unloading deliveries to delis -- trucks that should be in curbside loading zones. I am 100% in favour of removing parking to establish curbside loading zones in front of all stores.

    But anything that costs parking spots is political poison. Let us recall that every CitiBike station that takes away two or three parking spots arouses opposition. It is unrealistic to think that a plan to remove hundreds of parking spaces citywide would have a ghost of a chance of surviving. The tabloids and the local news shows would have a field day. No politician or political appointee would willingly subject himself/herself to that.

    That's the sad reality of living in a culture that overvalues driving. To take the DOT to task for not singlehandedly trying to buck this ugly and backwards orthodoxy is not sensible.

  • BBnet3000

    Nobody is talking about doing it citywide, we are talking about doing it on a project by project basis when proposing bike lanes that will fail without them.

  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    Well, all I can say is that if you honestly believe that a plan calling for the removal of parking spaces for loading zones could survive public scrutiny, then you're far more optimistic than I am.

    Anyway, I'm all for it. But, of course, it's not me who is going to be attacked in television and print editorials, and denounced by frothing lunatics in public meetings.

  • Tyson White

    Yo, where's the link to the video?

  • Andres J Garcia

    I live in Sunnyside close to Queens Boulevard. It's changing for the better but I feel there is a weak point. The vertical plastic dividers are of no protection at all nor a good deterrent for cars. As a matter of fact I have witnessed a perverse behavior in tucks and SUVs running over them and trespassing into the bike lanes...
    We need sturdier dividers.

  • http://midtoad.org/ midtoad

    In the film, a capital investment figure of 100 million dollars is mentioned. Is that the cost for phase one of this project, or if so does it include additional phases as well? In the latter case, how many miles of cycle tracks will be built overall?