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Pedestrian-Friendly Street Upgrades Begin in Washington Heights

By  Jess Wisloski and Paul Lomax | July 31, 2012 10:02am 

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A series of improvements geared towards senior citizens will soon make perilous crossings much safer in some parts of Washington Heights.

The Department of Transportation is making changes, starting this week, to help ease life for those who putter around the area, including lane markings, turning lanes and crosswalks — as well as adding pedestrian plazas, DOT officials said.

Washington Heights was singled out for the improvements after the DOT identified the area as one of 25 citywide that had both a high density of senior citizens and a high number of traffic accidents. The program, called Safe Streets for Seniors, went through a public review process within Community Board 12.

Two major projects will take place under the program. The first will be adding pedestrian refuge — or standing room — to the long crosswalk at Wadsworth Avenue/Broadway/West 173rd Street, where 16 accidents occurred in a four-year span ending in 2010, DOT officials said. The program may also ban right turns from Broadway towards Wadsworth Avenue. 

The second component will add lane markers, lane dividers, pedestrian plazas, and new crosswalk paint to the chaotic convergence at St. Nicholas Avenue of Fairview Avenue, Fort George Hill, Fort George Avenue, West 193rd Street, and Wadsworth Avenue, which were responsible collectively for 25 traffic accidents with injuries during 2006 to 2010, officials said. Signal timing will change at nearby traffic lights in the latter project.

Other area improvements will appear all over Washington Heights, among them improving the visibility of crosswalks, providing crosswalk countdown signals, slowing the time allowed to cross long lanes of traffic, and reconstructing broken pedestrian ramps. Benches will also be installed at some bus stops.

"I think this is a good idea to try and help a bad problem. The bus drivers in this neighborhood are crazy, they drive really dangerously especially right here," said Milagues Casanova, 75, who has lived in the neighborhood for 39 years, speaking of St. Nicholas Avenue.

Retired social worker and 50 year resident Margot German, 66, agreed with the St. Nicholas Avenue fixes. Mostly. "It's very confusing right here, but I think this is a good idea," said German.

She did wonder if it might get worse before it gets better. "Maybe too many traffic signs would confuse drivers even more. I don't know, but this is a dangerous place to cross the streets."

Gilbert Castillo, 82, a longtime resident of Washington Heights, said, "I don't drive, but I think this is a good idea."

"I've seen so many near-misses, it's nuts," the septuagenarian added. "I hope what the city does stops these drivers and make them think a little about what they are doing. Someone could get killed."

Benito Cera, 75, thought so too. "I hope this makes things better for everyone," he said.

The DOT's plan for Washington Heights can be viewed in full online here. Questions should be directed to the Manhattan Borough Commissioner's Office, at (212) 839-6210.