DOT Blind to West 96th-WEA Hazards, Critics Say

A pedestrian pushing precious cargo crosses West  96th Street at West End Avenue. | JACKSON CHEN
A pedestrian pushing precious cargo crosses West 96th Street at West End Avenue. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, Community Board 7, and local residents are calling for safety improvements at the intersection of West 96th Street and West End Avenue to prevent what they warn is a fatality waiting to happen.

Both the north- and southbound traffic flows on West End Avenue are equipped with left turn lanes and left turn signals and there are leading pedestrian intervals for the West 96th Street crossings, giving those on foot a short period of exclusive priority before motorists are given the green light for left turns. Even with these Department of Transportation (DOT) improvements, however, residents say there are too many close calls, with some suggesting that vehicles turning onto the westbound 96th Street lanes may be accelerating in anticipation of merging onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, with its 50 mile-per-hour speed limit.

According to the New York Police Department’s statistics of motor vehicle collisions, there were 12 injuries in 2016 at the intersection, the same as in 2015 and up from seven in 2014 and three in in 2013. Of the 12 injuries in 2016, three involved a pedestrian being injured, according to NYPD stats. The department’s data show that no fatalities have occurred at this intersection from 2012 to the present.

On June 8 of last year, Hilda Chazanovitz was one of those injured, after being hit by an SUV making a left turn from West End Avenue onto West 96th Street. Chazanovitz, who has lived on West End for three decades, said she was still struggling through her recovery and was lucky to be alive.

“It’s horrifying to me when I’ve actually watched post-crash what it’s like at 96th and West End,” Chazanovitz said. “Even with the light in the crosswalk, you can get hit like I did.”

Chazanovitz joined Rosenthal at an April 5 press conference held at the intersection that called for the DOT to reevaluate the intersection and enhance safety measures there. The councilmember’s suggestions have ranged from a dedicated right turn signal, similar to that given traffic making left turns from West End Avenue, to a Barnes Dance setup, where all traffic at an intersection is stopped once each cycle of lights to allow pedestrians to use any crosswalk unimpeded.

Rosenthal brought her concerns to the DOT and said the agency’s responses so far have been insufficient. In a March 13 letter, DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Luis Sanchez said that making changes to the signal timing changes — involving the left turn signals and the leading pedestrian intervals already in place — was not feasible. He also said that a pedestrian island placed in the West 96th Street crosswalk on the west side of West End Avenue would not be feasible since that would require a lane reduction on 96th.

The DOT said it also looked into extending the hours of the left-turn ban for eastbound vehicles on West 96th Street turning onto West End Avenue, but said that would create traffic problems because a similar restriction exists on West 95th Street, which also carries eastbound traffic off of the Hudson Parkway.

The one feasible possibility that Sanchez noted in his letter to Rosenthal was a curb extension on the southwest corner of West 96th Street, which would result in fewer parking spaces for P.S. 75, the school the intersection sits next to.

A DOT spokesperson, emphasizing that the agency continues to work with the communities across the city to address pedestrian safety concerns, said it has evaluated the intersection already this year based on community requests.

But Rosenthal challenged the agency’s claim of responsiveness, telling Manhattan Express, “We’ve asked DOT to do street studies, they’ve come back and said there’s nothing we can do. They, so far, have closed the door, and I’m asking them to open it back up.”

Neither Rosenthal nor CB7 is satisfied with the agency’s response and emphasized they won’t be giving up. The councilmember said she’d continue to press the agency for specific solutions for that intersection and is also pushing legislation that would require the city to study intersections with high injury incidence rates and consider Barnes Dance configurations among potential solutions. Her bill, Intro 1177, is expected to go before the full Council for a vote on April 25.

On April 11, CB7’s Transportation Committee passed another in a series of resolutions calling on the DOT to revisit the intersection. Andrew Albert, its co-chair, said the committee has brought this particular problem to the DOT’s attention dating back more than two years. Albert recently spoke to the DOT and Rosenthal about changing the traffic light timing at West 97th Street to make it virtually impossible for a vehicle to travel south across West 97th without reaching a red light at West 96th Street, thereby slowing the flow of traffic turning onto West End Avenue.

The committee passed a resolution calling for three possible solutions, including that change in the signal timing at West 97th Street, a curb extension, and the Barnes Dance setup.

“There are things they can do here,” Albert said of city transportation officials. “I just don’t know why they’re refusing. Someone’s going to get killed.”