Vol. 11, No. 25 Dec. 31, 1998 - January 13, 1999


Despite Popularity, City Speed Humps on Hold


A popular city traffic program is hibernating this winter, worrying community residents and transportation advocates that it's been put in a permanent deep freeze.

Since it can't pour asphalt in below-freezing weather, the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) is using the cold months to study its year-old speed hump program. But as requests for new humps mount, the indefinite pause in the year-old traffic-calming campaign has frustrated residents and school parents.

"I was hoping for the spring of 1999 was to get more speed bumps," said Andrew Laiosa, chair of Community Board 7's committee on traffic, "but everything seems to be on hold for now."

At the Mosholu Woodlawn South Community Coalition's annual meeting in November, DOT Bronx Borough Commissioner James Kilkenny announced the stoppage.

"There's a moratorium on speed reducers. The reducers transfer traffic to other streets, and ambulances are hampered," Kilkenny said. "The only place they're going to go is around schools."

"That's an unfortunate term," said Maria Smith, a spokeswoman at DOT headquarters, when asked about the moratorium. "We want to see if they're working. Do they slow speeds down? Do they prevent accidents? What are their effects on the surrounding neighborhoods? We're doing a comprehensive overview from A to Z."

Speed humps are made of asphalt and slow cars to protect pedestrians on city streets, usually those located in residential or school zones. Smith said only one stretch of road in Community Board 7 got humps during the city's current program: Last summer, three rolling hillocks were installed on Briggs Avenue between 194th and 197th streets in Fordham Bedford.

Early reviews are positive.

"They have to slow down," said Zaida Arce, the president of the parents association at Our Lady of Refuge School. "The ones who use [Briggs] as a raceway find it a challenge."

To get the Briggs humps, the parents of OLR worked with Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group, and the Bronx borough president's office, which had contracted TA to research and identify ways to calm traffic around Bronx schools.

Transportation insiders have several theories as to why the DOT is now reviewing a program which has received plaudits across the board.

A source close to the issue said that DOT would be testing the humps' effectiveness for winter weather, in spite of their long-established use in Northern Europe and urban Canada.

"This hesitancy will prove false, as it has in almost every other snow city in the U.S., but, regardless, people will still bring it up," said a former DOT official who requested anonymity.

Others believe the DOT will use the break in installation to create standards as to who gets the prized humps first.

"Basically, it's been such a successful program that the DOT has been inundated with requests," said Laiosa, who has petitioned the city for humps on the Williamsbridge Oval. "They are now going to revisit the issue and come up with some kind of priority system."

Kilkenny's leadership on traffic-calming has come in for scrutiny from the borough at large and Community Board 7 in particular. Councilman Adolfo Carrión (D-West Fordham) recently met with Kilkenny to question the agency's sluggishness in carrying out an $80 million school traffic-calming initiative promised for spring.

"I went to see if we can bring some attention to that and ensure we move that project forward in as expeditious a way as possible," Carrión said.

The lag in implementation was necessary to properly study the issue, Smith said. She described a massive survey conducted by the DOT, in which 22 interns assessed traffic conditions at every city school.

"We'll implement traffic-calming measures as a tailor-made program for each school," Smith said. "We feel it's a much better approach than just saying, "Okay, let's put a speed hump in front of every school.'"

Carrión said he is looking forward to reading the study's recommendations and would not hesitate as a councilmember to "dig deeper into the budget purse" for traffic-calming measures around schools.

"There's one thing we should never question," Carrión said. "If we can save kids from getting hit by cars ... from dying or being permanently injured, and we don't do it, we've pretty much thrown away our responsibility as public officials."

Among Kilkenny's critics are Mothers on the Move, a South Bronx community group popularly known as MOMs, which marched on his Westchester Square office to demand the enforcement of truck routes and to submit yet more requests for humps.

MOMs' calming campaign became more urgent this summer, after a truck hit and killed Crystal Vargas, a 6-year-old who was walking on a residential street in Hunts Point.

"We demand signs to keep the trucks out of the residential area," said Francisco Pérez, a MOMs activist. "We want them to come only on the commercial area. Also, speed bumps to avoid fast trucks and protect the kids.

"The demonstrators, who held up a Grinch doll labelled "Kilkenny" and an effigy of a child on a stretcher, were able to secure meetings in January to plead their case with Kilkenny himself and also with staff at DOT's Manhattan headquarters, said Juan Haro, a MOMs organizer.

Like their southern neighbors, northwest Bronxites have gripes about the DOT's lack of pedestrian friendliness.

"First of all, I've seen a lot more pedestrian initiatives in other parts of the Bronx than in Community Board 7, [which] has stood out in its lack of progress in this area," said Rich Gans, head of TA's Bronx chapter. Gans said more signage, especially posted speed limits, and painted crosswalks need to augment engineered speed reducers to help make the Bronx a safer place to walk.

"Historically, we've been far more car-oriented," Gans said. "The measures we're taking now are beginning to address this imbalance."

Photo by Matthew Corey

CAPTION: The death of a Hunts Point girl prompted a march on DOT's Bronx headquarters.

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