By Matthew K. Pelkey
On Wednesday, the New York State Department of Transportation will hold what is likely its final public meeting on design changes to the Scajaquada Expressway – a project that has no doubt garnered controversy and heated discussions between officials and community stakeholders. But those pushing for further traffic calming measures may have just gotten a little help from the New York State Court of Appeals.
Turturro v. City of New York (December 2016) is a case involving a 12-year-old boy who was seriously injured when he was struck by a speeding car while riding his bicycle on Gerritsen Avenue in Brooklyn. Gerritsen was a 30-mph, four-lane roadway bordered by parkland. New York City officials had received many complaints about speeding but recommended additional police enforcement instead of traffic calming – a decision that ultimately resulted in New York City being held liable for the child’s injuries.
What is important about this case is the shift from simply relying on police enforcement to curb traffic and speeding problems, to now placing an affirmative duty on municipalities to study and implement traffic calming. If a government agency is aware of a dangerous condition and fails to study or implement traffic-calming measures, it may now be liable for resulting damages and injuries. Whether our state’s highest court realizes it or not, it may have just ushered in a new era of transportation design and put an end to prioritizing automobiles over people.
This shift in duty has the potential to fundamentally alter the DOT’s current design plans for the Scajaquada. It also likely ensures that the speed limit remains at 30 mph.
There can be no doubt that the DOT is on notice of the many dangerous conditions facing pedestrians and motorists on Route 198.
In 2005, the Expanded Project Proposal co-authored by the DOT documented the dangerous collisions on Route 198 at a rate well above the state average. The study recommended many traffic-calming measures, including reducing the speed limit and implementing significant design changes to curb reckless behavior. Despite knowledge of these dangers, plans to remedy them and continuous demands from the community for traffic calming, the DOT refused to implement any changes.
It wasn’t until a tragic accident in Delaware Park on May 30, 2015, which took the life of a 3-year-old child, that the DOT was forced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to change the speed limit and implement interim traffic-calming measures.
Since then, the community has continuously demanded further measures be taken through petitions, community meetings, letters from stakeholders like the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition and the Parkside Community Association, and two policy papers published by the Partnership for the Public Good.
There can be little question as to the positive impact the interim traffic-calming measures have had. A recent report showed that collision rates along Route 198 dropped by 80 percent after reducing the speed limit. But it is not enough because drivers readily ignore the speed limit, posing serious risk to pedestrians and fellow motorists. With a continuing obligation to analyze traffic-calming measures and real-world impact, the DOT simply must go further.
The problem with drivers still recklessly speeding on Route 198 is directly due to the fact that little has been done by the DOT to change the design, so as to modify driver behavior to make drivers more cautious. This is what is needed for the DOT to satisfy its obligations under Turturro.
Which begs the question: What more could the DOT be doing? It should start by implementing the changes recommended in its own 2005 study. Additionally, the state agency could take cues from New York City, which reduced the speed limit, created concrete pedestrian islands, protected bike lanes and reduced the number of lanes from four to three on Gerritsen Avenue.
The DOT could also reduce the incredibly wide intersections it is proposing, which would be hazardous to pedestrians, cyclists, children, elderly and people with disabilities. At the very least, the DOT should abandon its plans for a four-lane expressway-like design, which would undoubtedly continue to encourage speeds well in excess of 40 mph.
After Turturro, the solution is no longer increased enforcement; it’s better design. And that is exactly what the DOT owes our community.
Matthew K. Pelkey is a resident of Parkside, a partner at Colligan Law, a business owner in the Scajaquada corridor and a daily commuter on Route 198.