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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Conflicted Crosswalks: The Grand Concourse

You know it's bad when they put up the You're-gonna-die signage.

Getting across the Grand Concourse in one piece can be a challenge. The combination of long crossing distances and multiple conflicting movements from split side streets gives turning drivers seemingly endless possibilities to take a shot at you. And virtually every car on the cross streets are turning (through traffic bypasses the intersection by passing below the Grand Concourse).

Even with the challenging physical conditions presented by these intersections, there seem to be some easy improvements that might help pedestrians. High-visibility crosswalk markings are one example. There may be opportunities to make the yield signage more visible to motorists and locate it to better influence behavior before drivers make their decisions. The signal timing should also be reviewed to give pedestrians a head start.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Leading by Example

Recent news has been worrisome:
Clearly there are some problems in the NYPD. Apologists will claim that these are just "a few bad apples." They're right, too, as far as that goes. These certainly are outliers, and the extreme hazards they pose to public safety are not characteristic of the vast majority of the men and women who serve in the NYPD. Nevertheless, they are a product of a culture of corruption that permeates the department.

In rare cases, there are people who suddenly go nuts without warning. More often, there are warning signs that have been ignored. If the NYPD had any basic level of discipline to hold its personnel responsible for obeying the law, many of these "bad apples" would be removed before their reckless behaviors escalated to a level that poses a serious risk to public safety. Increasingly, it appears that the failure to police the police is becoming a larger threat to safety and quality of life in the city.

As dire as all these news stories sound, there may be a reason for optimism. These problems are not really new. Cops have been getting drunk and driving for a very long time, so the fact these incidents are now making the news indicates progress in solving the problem. Instead of automatically driving the drunk drivers home after stopping them, more officers are now doing the right thing and arresting the criminals, even if they have a badge. Rather than trying to hide these incidents to protect the department's image, it appears the NYPD brass is releasing details to make an example and improve the department's integrity.

Commissioner Bratton has even voiced his concern publicly“I personally am very disturbed about the number of incidents in recent weeks that are part of a longer-term problem of inappropriate use of alcohol by members of the department.”

Hopefully there is a genuine desire to address the problems with the NYPD's culture. Changing deeply ingrained habits and attitudes will not come easily, and even with a real effort, Bratton may have his work cut out for him. At the same time, the problems are so severe, there is a need for outside intervention. There must be a backstop to ensure that illegal activities do not continue to run rampant through the department entrusted with such great powers. 

To be successful, though, it is not enough to focus on the extreme cases like drunk driving, major theft, etc. Commissioner Bratton has been a strong proponent of "Broken Windows" policing, and if there is any place that it is truly necessary, it is the internal discipline of the police. When illegal activities are tolerated among the police, the impression that they don't have to obey the law quickly sets in. The petty forms of corruption open the door to attitudes that result in abusing prisoners, brutalizing civilians who challenge authority, and driving drunk.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Bratton has any inclination of extending his "Broken Windows" zeal to policing his own department. His own history on the issue of illegal parking is not positive, and the uncontested stories that circulated when he changed command at the Internal Affairs Bureau suggest he is even reducing enforcement of petty corruption within his department. If nothing else, there is a real problem when the NYPD starts aggressively pursuing the churros lady in the subway while ignoring the fact their own personnel create serious safety hazards on our streets.

So let's take a little closer look at how the NYPD does sledding down the slippery slope. Officers come to believe they can get away with breaking the law because of something they call "professional courtesy." While they complain about the lack of cooperation from communities with a "no snitching" ethic, the NYPD has developed the same culture of maintaining silence about the illegal activities of their own. 

From the time they join the force, their daily experience demonstrates that they can break the law and their fellow officers will go out of their way to cover it up. Consider illegal parking. Off-duty officers throughout the city park not only in NO PARKING zones, but also at fire hydrants and in hazardous NO STANDING zones. Traffic Enforcement Agents aggressively ticket neighborhood residents for minor violations, yet neglect their duties by passing over these dangerous conditions all the time. Precincts receive complaints and file false reports to cover up the illegal activities.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Robert Moses and Buses at the Beach

The Orchard Beach Criterium
The blue columns of the bus terminal are visible in the background
Last weekend, my family stopped by Orchard Beach after brunch out on City Island. We spent a little time watching the Orchard Beach Criterium bike races, and then my son and I walked over to look at the bus terminal. The Orchard Beach bus terminal is a place I like to visit from time to time, because it isn't supposed to exist. Anybody who has ever heard of Robert Moses knows that he banned buses from his beaches to discriminate against the poor, right?
What most people know about Robert Moses are the stories Robert Caro wrote. Caro referred to Orchard Beach throughout The Powerbroker, his sprawling book about Moses, including nearly three pages describing the beach's development. He never mentions the bus terminal. Instead, he wrote:
During the 1930’s, Robert Moses reshaped the face of the greatest city in the New World… He laid great swaths of concrete across it. He made it grayer, not only with his highways but with parking fields, like the one on Randall’s Island that held 4,000 cars, the one at Orchard Beach that held 8,000 and the one at Jacob Riis Park that held 9,000, that together covered with asphalt a full square mile of the 319 in the city. (p. 508)
That’s true enough. Orchard Beach has a huge parking lot. It's a vast expanse of asphalt (not concrete…) that is unbroken by any form of landscaping. Caro's allegations are quite clear, though; Moses built beaches for affluent residents with cars while prohibiting transit to discourage the poor from going. This story comes back over and over again throughout the book. A couple of examples:
…he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low-too low for buses to pass. (p. 318) 
…enough of his Henry Hudson Parkway bridges were going to have a maximum headroom of thirteen feet and a headroom at the curb of eleven feet so that usage of the parkway by buses-which were exactly thirteen feet high-would be impractical. (p. 546)
His allegations about Jones Beach and the connecting parkways are famous. Yet none of it is really true. What is surprising is how prevalent these tall tales have remained with so many glaring problems. For example, buses are not "exactly thirteen feet high," and nobody with even a passing familiarity with vertical clearances for buses could take this writing seriously. The clearance at the Holland Tunnel, to cite one example, is 11'6". Buses have used the Holland Tunnel continuously for many decades.

Observing real life, rather than Caro's tales, it is alway fascinating to look at the transit facilities Moses actually created at his beaches. The bus terminal at Orchard Beach was visibly deteriorating from decades of weather and insufficient maintenance, yet the design was still clear. The facility was laid out to create a sense of arrival and departure while efficiently and economically moving throngs of beach goers. The little terminal was under renovation, finally getting some attention to extend its useful life to greet future generations to the drama of Orchard Beach.