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Huge Hunks of Concrete Are Key to the Mayor’s Plan for Safer Intersections

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The mayor announced this week that his administration will be making design adjustments to 2,000 intersections across the city per year, including visibility improvements known as “daylighting” to at least 1,000 of them. There are about 40,000 intersections in the city, and they can be deadly — the scene of more than half of traffic fatalities and 70 percent of injuries. By making sure pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers can better see each other where they’re most likely to meet has been a really simple way to prevent collisions.

But not all forms of daylighting — paint, physical barriers, or extending sidewalks — are created equal, and the mayor’s announcement didn’t offer much detail about what form these interventions would take. (When asked for more information, the Department of Transportation did not have numbers on how many would include physical elements but said it would use a mix of treatments depending on the location. The DOT also noted that bike corrals were used at the 100 intersections they daylighted last year.) To understand why improving sight lines around crosswalks matters, how to get it right, and what the mayor’s pledge really means, we spoke to Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy at Bike New York and former director of policy at the city’s Department of Transportation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why is daylighting among street safety advocates’ top demands right now? 
We have sort of a built-in conflict in the way signaled intersections work, where a car making a turn gets the same sort of signal as the pedestrians trying to cross an intersection. It can also be very hard for the driver and the pedestrian, or even cyclists, to see each other at these crossings: SUVs are getting bigger so you can’t see over them; illegal parking is completely epidemic. People park in crosswalks, they park in the curb cuts, they park diagonally in intersections, they park wherever it’s flat, and that exacerbates the visibility problem. A few weeks ago there was a child killed in Fort Greene in a case where a police tow truck was going around the corner. Daylighting might’ve avoided that.

So the idea with daylighting is to make sure there’s no parking near the intersection so everyone can see each other a little better. How would that have mattered in the death of Kamari Hughes? 
If there was just more visibility through the turn, the driver might’ve seen the child and the parents might’ve seen the tow truck beginning to turn. There’s nothing rocket science about it. If people can see each other, things are more predictable, and then things are safer.

What do you think about the mayor’s proposal?
One of the questions I have is are we just talking about more paint? Painted intersections still get parked up because it’s just paint. If that’s the case, then the announcement isn’t a very big deal; it’s just creating more space for people to park illegally in.

Any examples come to mind? 
Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn — there’s a bike lane there that goes for around 65 blocks. Every single intersection has that sand-colored stuff — the city does this when they don’t have enough capacity to pour concrete or stick some objects there — and every single intersection is parked up with SUVs and police cars every day.

I’ve definitely experienced that on my bike. 
Right, and people get hit by cars! Nobody can see each other because the design stinks.

You’re saying there has to be something actually in the way.
The city knows how to do daylighting with objects. They did it on some very problematic intersections near where I live on McGuinness Boulevard — basically putting in big rocks and some bike racks in the painted area. And the theory is they’ll come back down and pour a concrete sidewalk extension there someday. To me, if you really were serious about traffic safety, you’d be looking at DOT’s concrete pouring capacity and increasing that. You’d be figuring out how to contract for that stuff much faster than we do today. And you would be declaring up front that this stuff is all going to have big rocks and other stuff in it if you’re not going to build it out as actually curb space.

The physical barriers would also help with speeding, right? 
Yeah, you make the turn more of a right angle when you cut that radius.

To me, daylighting seems like a really simple fix. Why do you think it’s taking so long to implement? 
It’s not like there’s a bunch of idle street workers around. They’re doing other stuff right now. But again, if we’re going to have people out painting a thousand intersections that are going to get parked up on Tuesday, then why do it? If we were just bulbing out every sidewalk at every street corner with a concrete curb, that would be great, but it’s expensive.

The details really matter. 
If there’s some vertical pieces to it that aren’t plastic, then I’d say, yes, absolutely fantastic. Hallelujah. But if it’s paint or it’s those floppy sticks, then I’m like, man. I don’t know what they’re going to do here. When you’re talking about a thousand intersections, do they have 4,000 big rocks laying around? I don’t know. But I want them to have them and they should find them.

What about scale? We have a lot of intersections. 
People want universal daylighting. But if you’ve got 40,000 intersections, you have years and years of work to get to that. The question is: When do we really see some changes in the structure of what the city does?

Concrete Is Key to the Mayor’s Plan for Safer Intersections