Pedestrian safety summit gets lesson in New York values

Using crosswalks, as a pedestrian does here on U.S. 13 at the corner of White Oak Road, is another element in the safety campaign.  (Delaware State News file photo)

Using crosswalks, as a pedestrian does here on U.S. 13 at the corner of White Oak Road, is another element in the safety campaign. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER –– Delaware has one of the highest pedestrian death rates in the nation –– placing it in the top three states per capita in 2014 and 2015.

For that reason, engineers, planners, community leaders, and pedestrian safety advocates joined together in Dover to address the issue at the Walkable Bikeable Delaware Summit held Thursday.

The summit, now in its fifth year, typically focuses on the positives of biking and walking in Delaware such as the expansion of trails and increasing numbers of bike lanes.

But it’s become impossible to avoid addressing pedestrian safety any longer, participants said.

“We realize this was a big shift in tone from an event that usually centers around positive issues,” said James Wilson, executive director of Bike Delaware and a coordinator for the summit. “But pedestrian safety has been a huge deal the past few years and it’s an issue that

One goal of pedestrian safety campaigns is to change behavior of walkers, including being focused on a cellphone while crossing a road.

One goal of pedestrian safety campaigns is to change behavior of walkers, including being focused on a cellphone while crossing a road.

deserves attention.”

Before Delaware develops a stigma as a deadly state for pedestrians, community leaders need to make improvements as soon as possible, participants agreed.

Ann Marie Doherty, the chief of the Research, Implementation and Safety Unit of the Traffic Planning and Management Division at the New York City Department of Transportation, gave the summit’s keynote presentation because she has dealt with the deadly stigma.

Ms. Doherty was at the New York City Department of Transportation when Queens Highway earned the name “The Boulevard of Death” in the 1990s.

Queens Highway is a seven-mile stretch of road in New York’s Queens borough. Since the 1980s it had been a hot spot for pedestrian deaths. From the 1980s and mid-90s, an average of 10 pedestrians were killed on the highway each year. The grim statistics climaxed in 1997 with 18 pedestrian deaths in a 12-month period.

“In 1997 we started our first pedestrian safety study using the most dangerous two-mile stretch of the road,” Ms. Doherty said. “We looked into the data to see why these fatalities were happening.”

The NY City Department of Transportation was able to use the results of the study to change a road with more than 10 pedestrian deaths per year to a road with zero pedestrian deaths in 2015.

“It’s not something that happened overnight. It took nearly two decades to achieve,” Ms. Doherty said.

The study revealed high numbers of pedestrians crossing mid-block instead of at corners, pedestrians getting caught at center medians from running out of time, and speeding drivers.

The NY City Department of Transportation immediately implemented the changes that could be done in-house, she said. First on the list was pedestrian fencing to force people to use crosswalks. It was added along the sidewalks and medians.

Crosswalk signs were increased from 120 seconds to 150 seconds at peak traffic hours to allow pedestrians plenty of time to cross the multi-lane road which at peak traffic hours had six lanes of traffic moving through the urban area.

At the time of the study, the speed limit on Queens Highway varied between 30 and 35 miles per hour. So, when the study found many cars were speeding, the road received a uniform 30 mile per hour limit. Additional red light cameras were added to discourage motorists from driving through intersections after pedestrians begin to cross.

“Even with all the improvements we were making, there was a teenager who got killed crossing the boulevard,” Ms. Doherty said. “The communities came to us and said it’s still not safe and that we needed to do more.”

This teenager’s death in 2004 prompted a second study that evaluated segments of the road that were not covered in 1997.

The study led to crosswalk signs increasing to 150 seconds at all times of day and night and giving all lanes, even turning lanes, a red light to allow time for pedestrians to cross with no moving traffic in any direction.

More long term projects involved building refuge medians so pedestrians would never be caught in the middle of traffic and extending and widening existing medians.

“The boulevard was changing. There were many more cyclists. We counted 250 bicyclists in a day using one segment and knew there needed to be an east-west lane for them,” Ms. Doherty said.

After 18 years of studies and improvements, the once deadly road didn’t have a single fatality.

“We had to re-imagine how this boulevard could work. We couldn’t handle it like your typical urban road,” Ms. Doherty said.

Mr. Wilson lauded Ms. Doherty’s efforts.

“I can’t emphasize enough how impressive this accomplishment on Queens Highway has been,” the Bike Delaware director said. “I know there might be some skepticism because it was something accomplished in New York City, but there haven’t been any success stories like that in Delaware. So maybe we can learn something.”

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.