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DOT will implement Amsterdam Avenue safety improvements despite community objections (updated)

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“When there’s the safety of my constituents on the line, I don’t think the delay is an option”

Protestors at a recent CB9 meeting.
Courtesy of Transportation Alternatives

New York City’s Department of Transportation announced that it will implement much-needed safety improvements along Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, following the March hit-and-run death of pedestrian Erica Imbasciani on West 141st Street.

The news comes after a trio of Manhattan elected officials asked the DOT to overrule the veto that Community Board 9 gave to a street safety redesign that’s been pitched for two years.

Council Member Mark Levine (who represents the street in question), Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and state Senator Robert Jackson all signed a letter obtained by Curbed that expressed the trio’s “unequivocal support of the Department of Transportation’s proposed street redesign on Amsterdam Avenue between 110th Street and 155th Street, and request that the Department immediately move forward with implementing this proposal.”

While community board support isn’t required for a safety improvement (and Council Member Antonio Reynoso wants to move forward on safety improvements regardless of that support), the DOT tends to seek community board approval before instituting redesigns. But in this case, the DOT and the de Blasio administration decided to move forward without the CB’s approval.

“The changes we will bring to Amsterdam Avenue this summer are proven measures that will calm traffic and create safer spaces for pedestrians and cyclists,” DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg said in a statement. “We thank the community’s elected officials—Borough President Brewer, Council Member Levine and State Senator Jackson—for their leadership and unqualified support for a project that we believe will save lives.”

Levine and Brewer previously backed the street redesign, but Jackson is a new supporter of the traffic calming measure that would remove a north and south car lane from each side of the street, while adding left turn bays and painted bike lanes on those 45 blocks in Harlem.

A visual of the proposed changes to Amsterdam Avenue.
NYC Department of Transportation

The letter was an escalation from Levine’s previous efforts to work with CB9, whose leadership has disputed the DOT’s data on car ownership rates in the neighborhood, and also claimed that the proposed measures would lead to increased pollution in a community that already deals with high asthma rates.

CB9 president Padmore John recently wrote an editorial for the Amsterdam News, in which he claimed the redesign wouldn’t have saved Imbasciani’s life. He wrote that her “tragic death was caused by an impaired driver, as per police investigations, therefore if we were to prevent this tragedy, addressing illegal substance use in our community would be the right recourse” and that the advocates had “another agenda” besides attempting to cut down on injuries and fatalities.

“There is absolutely no evidence linking road diets to increased asthma,” Transportation Alternatives’ Thomas DeVito told Curbed. “The way to make our air cleaner is to make our streets safer and more attractive for walking, biking, and mass transit use. Maintaining a dangerous speedway on Amsterdam Avenue—or anywhere else—is not the way to cleaner air.”

In DOT’s own presentation on the proposed redesign, the department showed that double-digit traffic injuries happened at almost every intersection along Amsterdam Avenue between 110th and 155th streets from 2010 to 2014. In that same time period, 28 pedestrians and eight cyclists were severely injured, while four pedestrians were killed on the stretch of road between 2010 and 2016. DOT data also showed 70 percent of drivers were seen to be speeding on a stretch of the road when the agency did a speed study in 2017.

Last week, members of Transportation Alternatives and Families For Safe Streets attended a CB9 meeting to argue in favor of the safety redesign, but CB9 leadership insisted that the design was still not up to its standards.

Levine, for his part, told Curbed that while there had been a compelling case for the redesign for years before this, Imbasciani’s death in front of his district office “made [the redesign] incredibly personal for me.”

Levine said that the community board had raised fair questions and said the process was a good one, but “at this point, I don’t think there’s anything more to debate. There are few cases where I’d urge a city agency to act before there’s a sign off by the community board, but when there’s the safety of my constituents on the line, I don’t think the delay is an option.” Additionally, delaying the installation of the redesign until after the warmer weather would potentially keep the improvements from being put in until next year, he said.