Design changes for Hempstead Tpke. urged
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Queens Boulevard was notorious as the "Boulevard of Death" in the 1990s because pedestrian fatalities and injuries were so frequent.
But by 2006, big changes to make the thoroughfare through Queens safer for people on foot had dramatically reduced deaths. From 1999 on, tens of thousands of linear yards of barriers were put up, midblock crossings with signals for walkers were added, and medians were redesigned to be safer stopping points.
To tame the dangerous road, "It was clear early on that the pre-eminent concern was the pedestrians -- not the cars," said Iris Weinshall, the former city transportation commissioner who now is a vice chancellor at the City University of New York.
Nassau's Hempstead Turnpike, like Queens Boulevard, carries a high volume of traffic through a dense commercial environment. Both roads double as major avenues used by motorists for morning and evening commutes, with stoplights timed for traffic movement. Both also serve as local roads for people on foot, many of them older, who live in neighborhoods close by.
A Newsday investigation of police accident reports from 2005 through 2010 found that pedestrians are killed an average of more than five times a year on the turnpike in Nassau. People are in significant danger whether they cross at intersections or take the risk of crossing midblock or at other spots away from intersections, the analysis of more than 450 police reports found.
Traffic engineers and transportation advocates said design changes that made Queens Boulevard safer for pedestrians and vehicles should serve as a model for Hempstead Turnpike, the metropolitan area's deadliest road for people on foot.
"It's going to take more than the repainting of lines," said Dan Burden, executive director of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute Inc. of Townsend, Wash., a traffic safety advocate who has worked in Long Island communities. "When we have so much traffic, we have to get it to slow down and behave properly."
Newsday asked traffic engineers to weigh in on the full range of changes that could make pedestrians safer on Hempstead Turnpike. Among their recommendations are:
New traffic signals. Adding signals on stretches that have no crosswalk signals for as much as a half-mile would allow pedestrians to cross more safely.
Signal timing. Changes to traffic signals -- such as adding a red left-turn arrow or a "lead pedestrian interval," which would give pedestrians a 4-second head start while cars are stopped -- help to keep cars from turning into people in the crosswalk.
Fencing. Pedestrians who cross midblock or at spots other than intersections contribute to many accidents, police reports show. Fences can deter pedestrians from doing this and channel them to safe crossings.
Bus stops. Stops that aren't close to intersections or crosswalks can invite risky midblock crossings. They should be moved closer to intersections where that is feasible.
Pedestrian islands. These offer refuge when people can't make it to the other side of large intersections in the allotted time.
Medians. Raised medians slow cars and give pedestrians a haven if there is no crosswalk nearby.
Bulb-outs. Extending a sidewalk several feet into the intersection -- for example, into a lane used for parking -- gives pedestrians a shorter distance to cross.
Landscaping. Trees and shrubs on sidewalks and medians can send a subliminal signal to drivers that pedestrians are nearby and they should slow down.
Education. A safety-information campaign focused on pedestrians and drivers, along with stricter enforcement of traffic violations, could help reduce injuries and deaths.
'It's a big issue'
The high number of pedestrians killed and injured on the turnpike should make it a priority for capital improvements, the engineers and transportation advocates said.
"I'm not sure what the holdup is," said Dilruba Ozmen-Ertekin, a Hofstra University engineering professor who has studied pedestrian safety and drives the turnpike regularly. "It's begging for a median."
State and federal funding typically is allocated to "making vehicle traffic faster, increasing the capacity and decreasing delays," she said. "But we should spend in proportion with the number of pedestrian accidents. It's a big issue."
Manhattan-based traffic engineer Gary Toth offered the most sweeping vision among the traffic engineers who examined the turnpike at Newsday's request. His redesign would be expensive -- $100 million to $200 million, he estimated -- and could be accomplished in stages.
Toth proposed changing traffic flow so that vehicles move more slowly but more steadily, reaching their final destination in the same amount of time while making the turnpike safer for drivers and pedestrians. He would replace some traffic lights with roundabouts and create access roads behind stores, to allow the closing of driveways that feed into the turnpike.
"Could you sell the public on the fact that in some spots, you need to take a lane of capacity out?" he asked.
Experts said the problem of chronic jaywalking could be addressed through a combination of fencing, enforcement and education.
"Fences. This is a no-brainer," said Leon Goodman, a former Port Authority engineer and past president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. "You have it on Queens Boulevard and places like that where they cut down on accidents."
On Queens Boulevard, since the city Department of Transportation implemented its pedestrian safety program in 1999, the fatality rate had fallen to 4.5 people per year -- compared with 12.6 during each of the previous 61/2 years, according to a 2008 DOT Safe Streets report.
The number of pedestrian crashes also fell significantly. The number of people hit in any one year along Queens Boulevard peaked at 154 in 1995; over the next 11 years, that statistic gradually decreased to an all-time low of 61 in 2006, the report said.
DOT tepid on big projects
Officials with the state Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining all of Hempstead Turnpike other than a 1-mile stretch through Hempstead Village, said the agency has not included any major pedestrian safety projects for the roadway in its long-range capital plan.
DOT officials said changes such as new medians or traffic signals would be expensive and would have to compete for limited funds with other needs, such as keeping aging highways and bridges in a state of good repair.
"It's a big lift," said Frank Pearson, the DOT's top traffic engineer on Long Island.
The DOT has made some pedestrian safety improvements at five turnpike intersections since 2009 under a program focused on senior citizens' safety. The recent modifications include high-visibility crosswalk striping, improved signage, traffic signal adjustments and trimming of tree branches that blocked crosswalk signals.
The agency installed new pedestrian countdown signals along most of the turnpike as part of a separate, Islandwide federal stimulus project.
The milelong section of the turnpike maintained by Nassau County already had countdown signals.
Pearson said the recent efforts will reduce pedestrian crashes. If not, "then obviously, we'll look at some other things," including new traffic signals, raised medians and pedestrian islands, he said.
DOT officials noted that fencing at curbs interferes with on-street parking. They said an education campaign would be the most effective way to deter people from crossing against the signal or crossing midblock.
Education efforts also could encourage people to press the crosswalk button, an action that many pedestrians do not take.
"If there's public awareness about the fact that these walkways are designed to make it more safe for people to walk, perhaps then they'd be more prone to use them, push that button," Pearson said.
An education campaign would have to be conducted by some other agency, as that is not part of the DOT's mission, he said.
New safety features
In addition, Complete Streets legislation adopted by the state Legislature last year mandates that designs of major road projects include safety features for all users of the road, including pedestrians, bicyclists and bus riders.
An example of Complete Streets design principles already used on the Island includes a redesigned roundabout near the Great Neck Plaza railroad station, which offers shorter, safer paths to cross.
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit group that advocates for smart growth, said local governments in Nassau and Suffolk counties and the state's transportation department should seize new opportunities to make changes to chronically troublesome highways such as Hempstead Turnpike.
"The governor is looking at investing multiple billions of dollars in infrastructure," Alexander said, referring to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's message in his State of the State address.
"So these types of roadways, where people are literally dying, should move up the list. If tax dollars are available for fixing the roads, let's at least fix the ones that are broken."
Newsday's Hempstead Turnpike data analysis
Newsday in this investigation reviewed 457 police reports on people killed or injured from January 2005 through December 2010 along Hempstead Turnpike in Nassau County.
For additional information about some of the fatal crashes, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was consulted.
The database for these reports was compiled by Kathy Diamond.