Making NYC’s Streets Safe for Hydrants & Pay Phones

Bollards are hardened steel, concrete or stone posts buried into the pavement of city streets and sidewalks. In Northern European cities you see bollards all over the place. They are used to make sure that if a motor vehicle accidentally jumps up on to a sidewalk, pedestrians are protected. Bollards are a kind of urban preventative medicine. They stop crashes before they happen.

We have bollards in New York City. But, as you can see in the photo above, rather than using them to protect people, we use them to protect things — fire hydrants, pay phones and important buildings into which we believe terrorists might want to drive car bombs. I’m beginning to suspect that bollards are even becoming a kind of status symbol. You must be important if you work in a building that has to be hardened against terrorist attacks with bollards.

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Tuesday, July 19 was a typical summer weekday for Aileen Reyes. She was on her way in to Bumbelz Sweet Surprise, the children’s store on Fifth Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Street where she works as manager. Aileen had her 7-year-old son Hunter on one hand and 4-year-old daughter on the other. The three were standing between a trash can and lamppost on the northeast corner of Fifth and 3rd, waiting to cross the avenue.

At the same moment, 42-year-old Michael Dixon was speeding northbound on Fifth Avenue in his station wagon. Witnesses say he was either trying to bolt through the yellow light at 3rd Street or he ran the red. Whatever the case, in Dixon’s rush to travel one or two more blocks without having to stop at a traffic signal he didn’t see 14-year-old bicyclist Robert Benitez making a left turn from Fifth Avenue up 3rd Street.

Fifth and 3rd both have clearly-marked bike lanes on them so, in theory, motorists should have every expectation of seeing cyclists. But Dixon was most likely thinking about nothing more than catching the green light. He swerved to avoid Benitez but was driving too fast. He clipped the teenager, sending him flying, and then careened up onto the sidewalk where Aileen Reyes stood with her two kids.

There was absolutely nothing Reyes could do but watch as the station wagon barreled into her and her children. On impact, Hunter was thrown at least 15 feet up 3rd Street while Aileen and her little girl Taylor were knocked back to the wall of the furniture store behind them. Incredibly, no one was killed.

They did, however, suffer serious injuries.

"Aileen has a million bruises," said her husband, Joe Rios. "She got about 60 stitches in the arch of her foot and staples in her leg. Her hand is really messed up but they’re not sure what’s wrong with it. They’re still running tests." As for the kids, Taylor, the little girl, "is in good spirits but is all broken up." She broke her thigh bone, right hand and left arm at the wrist. She has full casts on both legs and for the next eight weeks is confined either to a bed or wheel chair, Rios said.

His son Hunter’s physical injuries are not as bad as Aileen and Taylor’s but the boy is "having nightmares every night," Rios said. "He never wants to go outside anymore and he jumps every time he hears a car engine." Benitez, the bicyclist, suffered only minor injuries and was on his feet immediately after the crash.

Dixon, the motorist, was issued a summons for driving with a suspended license, then arrested on a Family Court warrant for failure to make child support payments.

Newsday, the only media outlet to report on the crash, blamed the incident entirely, and in the very first paragraph of the article, on a "reckless cyclist."

"Aileen always stands back on the sidewalk when she is waiting to cross the street, especially with the kids," Rios said. "But what are you going to do? When you’re on the sidewalk you don’t expect to be hit by a car."

It’s a good question. What are you going to do? Can we do anything, even? There is often a sense in New York City that motor vehicle traffic is akin to a natural phenomenon, uncontrollable by mere mortals. Cars sometimes skip up onto the sidewalk like a river occasionally overflows its banks. In so many ways we’ve become conditioned to motor vehicle carnage as the natural order of things. We call them "accidents" and move on.

In the same week that the Reyes family was run over there were at least three incidents of vehicles jumping up onto the sidewalk and doing serious damage to people and property in Park Slope, Brooklyn, my neighborhood.

The first crash happened on the morning of Wednesday, July 13 at about 10:15 a.m. when a sedan slammed into the front door of Dizzy’s restaurant on Eighth Avenue and 9th Street. With a busy subway entrance and a sidewalk café right there, "I expected to see bodies strewn about the sidewalk when I came outside," said Dizzy’s owner Matheo Pisciotta. He considers it to be nothing less than a miracle that no one was hurt or killed. The entire restaurant entrance had to be rebuilt.

And early in the morning on Saturday, July 16, the radio station 1010 WINS reported that a vehicle hit five pedestrians standing on the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn Museum. The museum, as you can see below, has bollards. Unfortunately, these bollards were designed only to protect the building from a suicide truck bomber intent on blowing up the Basquiat exhibit. The bollards do nothing to protect the museum’s patrons walking along busy, dangerous, Eastern Parkway. They’re pretty though.

The newly redesign facade and front yard of the Brooklyn Museum is also notable for its utter and total lack of bicycle parking. On weekends you can see bikes strewn all over the place, parked to railings and sign posts. It’s amazing to me that the museum and its architects didn’t think more about bike parking. But that is an issue for another post…

Why were so many motor vehicles running up on to the sidewalk in July? Are Brooklyn motorists more reckless than they used to be? Are Park Slope’s sidewalks more bustling than ever before? All of the above?

It is far too difficult to answer these questions in a systematic, rational way. Though the city tracks the pedestrian injuries and fatalities that are reported to the NYPD, this information is kept under lock and key. The public can’t get access to it. And currently there is no agency or individual in city government responsible for systematically analyzing pedestrian crash data to figure out where these incidents occur, why, and what can be done to prevent them. There is no preventative medicine when it comes to motor vehicle crashes in New York City. We call them "accidents" and that’s that.

We do know that pedestrian fatalities and injuries are lower today than they were ten years ago. The city reports that 179 pedestrians were killed on the streets of New York in 2004 and about 15,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes. In 1990, 365 pedestrians were killed, a rate of one fatality per day. No one is exactly sure why these numbers are improving. Certainly, pedestrian safety measures on high-incident thoroughfares like Queens Boulevard and the Grand Concourse have helped. Some theorize that vastly improved hospital trauma care and a slow-down of vehicle speeds due to increased congestion in the city’s central business districts have helped bring down the numbers as well.

Whatever the overall trend, July’s incidents in Park Slope showed that we still have a long way to go.

As I began investigating and talking with people about these three crashes, it quickly became clear that these were not rare, isolated events. Many neighborhood people inevitably had stories of their own near-misses and recent sightings of vehicles running up onto Park Slope sidewalks.

For example, in June a 16-seat van careened through the front window of an upholstery store on Fifth Avenue and 15th Street.

"It was like a bomb blowing up in the store," said Yakov Lobikov, the owner of JY Interiors. No one was injured inside the building but the entire front of the store is still, to this day boarded up and Lobikov’s business is suffering. His landlord is waiting for an insurance payment before he will make repairs.

Then there is Deborah Nocella. When she read about what happened to Aileen and her kids on the Park Slope Parents e-mail list, she shared that she herself had been hit by a drunk driver on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue near 8th Street back in March. Likewise, a fellow eating lunch at Dizzy’s the day that I stopped in to investigate that crash mentioned that a vehicle recently flew through the front window of an antique store on Atlantic Avenue.

Is this sort of carnage simply the inevitable cost of living in New York City or can we do something to make our sidewalks safer?

There are a variety of traffic calming and street design tools and techniques that neighborhoods all around the world are using to keep sidewalks safe from errant motor vehicles. One of the cheapest and most effective tools is the bollard. Bollards are designed specifically to prevent cars from running up onto the sidewalk. They are placed close enough together so that motor vehicles can not go through them and far enough apart that pedestrians, wheelchairs and stroller and grocery cart-pushers barely notice them at all.

In the spring of 2004 I won a U.S.-German Marshall Fellowship that sent me to Europe for three weeks to look at transportation and urban design. I was struck by the quantity and variety of protective bollards I saw in cities big and small. In Germany and Belgium they were all over the place.

The above concrete bollards in Berlin ensure that motorists can’t cut the corner and accidentally drive up onto the sidewalk. They also provide pedestrians with a clear, visual signal for where the border is between street and sidewalk space.

In places where driveways allow motor vehicles to cross the sidewalk, bollards are used to ensure that the vehicles stay in line and drive slowly. That reddish pavement in the bottom left corner of the photo is a dedicated bike lane, by the way. This photo was taken in a somewhat fancy part of Berlin.

Bollards don’t have to be ugly, plain or functional like those above. In downtown Hamburg I saw these carved stone bollards. They fit really nicely within the city’s historic downtown. I could see something like these being used around Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn.

In my neighborhood there are many busy spots that could use these kinds of bollards. I’d love to see them installed on the parts of Fifth Avenue where the street grid doesn’t quite match up and motor vehicles have to make a quick left-right jog to cross the avenue. I’ve often found these spots to be incredibly dangerous, more so now that I’m frequently pushing a baby stroller around the neighborhood.

For example, see below where Baltic Street crosses Fifth Avenue and becomes Park Place:

Many motorists drive slowly through this intersection. The little jog has a traffic-calming effect on some drivers. But not on all of them. I frequently see motorists step on it to catch the green light, cut the corner, and run over the low curb at this spot. Because the street doesn’t go straight through, pedestrians and motorists can’t see each other until the vehicle is pretty much in the middle of the intersection. For the motorist screaming up Baltic Street to catch a light, the idea that someone might be pushing a baby stroller or grocery cart on the other side of the intersection is the furthest thing from their mind. These ‘jog-spots’ seem like disasters waiting to happen. And though they’re not the most high-traffic spots in Brooklyn, they are certainly worthy of getting some inexpensive bollards.

Of course, one of the downsides to bollards is that while protecting human beings, they can do damage to automobiles. John Kaehny, the former executive director of Transportation Alternatives was a big fan of bollards and often pushed the city to install them at dangerous locations. DOT traffic engineers consistently opposed his efforts telling him that bollards were no good because they did damage to cars or that bollards struck at high speed could "become dislodged and become dangerous projectiles that might kill or injure pedestrians."These are the kinds of stories that makes one think New York City traffic engineers empathize more with automobiles than people. Watch out for the flying bollards, folks.

At a public meeting after the Dizzy’s crash in July, a Brooklyn DOT staff person somewhat scolded me for suggesting we might use bollards to protect the subway entrance and outdoor cafe seating at that corner. The DOT staffer implied that bollards are too expensive for the city to install, though, building owners could apply for them at DOT and pay for them on their own. Their applications would likely be approved.

The issue of cost just seems absurd to me. Bollards are cheap and easy. Even some of the most run-down and industrial parts of East Berlin have pedestrian bollards, as you can see below. Clearly, it’s not just a cost issue. It’s an issue of public and political priorities. We could afford this if we wanted. We could show they are successful and worth it, if we started measuring pedestrian safety and level of service like we do for automobile traffic.

Getting back to Eastern Parkway for a moment. The narrow stretch of sidewalk that leads from Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Public Library to the Brooklyn Museum is, truly, one of the most terrifying pedestrian spaces in New York City. This is particularly shameful because this stretch of sidewalk connects Brooklyn’s most important cultural institutions and is heavily traveled by kids and families. This sidewalk should be a great public space.

Above you get a sense for what I am talking about. Vehicles cruise by just inches off the curb. What you can’t see is that these cars are often traveling at close to 50 miles per hour. They come flying up the curve of Eastern Parkway. Walking here, you feel almost pinned against the retaining wall to the left. On weekends when this sidewalk carries quite a bit of traffic, pedestrians have to pass each other in single-file to avoid walking anywhere near the curb.

It’s loud too. When buses come plowing up the Parkway they push so much air in front of them that it feels like a sonic boom as they pass.

I saw all kinds of bollards in Europe that could be used on this stretch of Eastern Parkway. These tall thin ones above probably wouldn’t stop a big, speeding, SUV from careening onto the sidewalk. But they do help create a distinct visual barrier between sidewalk and street.

Even small bollards like those above, seen in Brussels, would help make that Parkway sidewalk feel safer.

This sad state of affairs on NYC’s streets is slowly beginning to change. Last year, a group of Park Slope advocates, myself included, teamed up with the Prospect Heights Parents Association and Transportation Alternatives and successfully lobbied DOT to install protective bollards around the intimidating traffic island in the middle of Flatbush Avenue between Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Public Library. Here is what they built:

It’s not ideal. The traffic signals are still timed in such a way that they trap pedestrians on the island in the middle of Flatbush. They could have done much better.

The photos don’t quite do justice to the intimidating, unpleasant feeling you get being stuck in the middle of Flatbush as traffic roars by on each side.

But this is better than nothing and it took a lot of pushing just to get this.

School teachers in Prospect Heights refuse to take their students to Prospect Park simply because they are afraid to lead a group of kids across this intersection. The Union Temple Pre-School, mere yards from Prospect Park, laid out thousands of dollars to build special, six-child, push-carts for the sole purpose of getting kids across this intersection safely (It’s worth mentioning that these six-child stroller are incredibly cute. It’s not all bad). Now that the Union Temple playground is being replaced by Richard Meier’s luxury condo, Prospect Park will these kids’ only outdoor playspace. They’ll have to cross Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue every day. Because these intersections are so dangerous, many school kids in Prospect Heights aren’t able to get outdoor at all during the school day.

In Berlin, schools and playgrounds are protected by bollards as a matter of course.

Aileen Reyes and her kids were hit by a car just across the street from J.J. Byrne Park and playground. The no-nonsense steel posts depicted above aren’t the prettiest bollards but they surely couldn’t cost very much to install and maintain. You’ll also notice that one of these Berlin kids, he looks to be about 9-years-old, rode his bike to the playground unaccompanied by an adult. Riding a bike to the playground is something that school children in most parts of New York City can’t do or wouldn’t be allowed by their parents. Our car-dominated streets are too dangerous for kids to ride bikes. Rather than making it more possible for kids to ride bikes and walk safely to school, we seem to prefer a system in which kids travel in old, diesel-spewing yellow buses and parent-chauffered private automobiles that clog the streets in front of schools during the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up.

Tally up all of the gargantuan costs of the automobile in the city — the third-world level childhood asthma rates, the 200 pedestrian deaths per year, the horn-honking gridlocked immobility, you name it — the fact that kids can’t safey ride bikes to the park is one of the things that bothers me most. Heck, Brooklyn kids used to own the streets. Neighborhood streets were for stickball, not SUV’s. Bollards aren’t going to solve all of our problems. Nor will they bring back stickball. But as we begin to envision a healthier, more sustainable New York City, bollards are definitely a part of it. They’re an important detail — a low-cost solution with a lot of value.