Council members clash with New York City over stop signs

“The People’s Stop Sign” emerges occasionally from Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer’s district office, usually when years of letter writing fails him.

Five times the Queens elected official installed his stop sign, a cardboard facsimile adhered to his office’s coat rack, during rallies in his district to highlight both traffic safety concerns and what he calls an unwillingness to act on the part of the city’s Department of Transportation.

“It shouldn’t have to take that, but we’ve done it,” Van Bramer said. “The DOT—they don’t respond. They’re not nimble. They don’t seem to acknowledge that neighborhoods change; traffic patterns change.”

The People’s Stop Sign has a record of three-for-five when it comes to nudging the department to install the real thing. The two heretofore misfires include intersections near PS/IS 78 in Long Island City and PS 343 in Sunnyside. At PS/IS 78, Van Bramer’s office had been writing letters requesting stop signs for the better part of four years.

Stop sign requests, and the city’s inaction, is a common source of frustration among councilmembers, particularly in rapidly developing parts of the city. Staten Island Councilman Steven Matteo said he has been working on repeated requests for a stop signs along Greeley Avenue to curb speeding drivers since he became a staffer for his district’s then-Councilman James Oddo in 2004.

“It’s frustrating to me and constituents when we’re denied over and over again even though it’s obvious there should be a stop sign installed,” said Matteo, who had recenlty requested all-way stops for Freeborn Street and Olympia Boulevard. “The frustration is that the city just goes by numbers when you know a human element is needed to make the intersection safer.”

To determine if stop signs or traffic signals are appropriate for a corner, the Department of Transportation conducts an intersection control study, a detailed process that includes manual traffic counts, diagrams of existing conditions and the monitoring of commuter behaviors, among other, more location-specific steps. Data collected is checked against federal guidelines—the 816-page Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices—to confirm if signage is warranted.

The city does have the power to grant exceptions—perhaps near Van Bramer’s new schools, or along Matteo’s more suburban streets—but DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg believes that a more strict adherence to the guides brings a constant to the city’s daily traffic tango, backed by well-established rules.

“If this becomes an area where DOT commissioners just sort of do what they like depending on who asks, it makes me nervous that once I start to depart from what is very low established engineering judgment, the decisions become more subjective,” Trottenberg told Matteo during a Transportation Committee hearing in May.

“[The federal guidelines] involve the best traffic engineering analysis, and if you depart into subjective array, you may find yourself on thin ice,” Trottenberg added.

And sometimes, transportation experts say, stop signs are inappropriately viewed as a cure-all for traffic safety issues. Maybe a constituent suggests adding a stop sign on a street where a gateway, road narrowing or high-visibility crosswalk might solve the problem.

“The DOT is right, or else you’ll have stop signs on every corner,” said Jon Orcutt, communications director at TransitCenter and former policy director for the department, speaking generally. “What’s needed is education on the part of the DOT to illustrate what else is on their menu of solutions.”

But both Matteo and Van Bramer see room for exceptions where they say studies fail to point out the obvious.

“What about where there are schools with little kids—four-year-olds—trying to cross the street?” said Van Bramer. “How in God’s name do you deny traffic calming measures on streets where there are schools? I will never understand that.”