Could Albany’s Central Avenue be the Next Hempstead Turnpike?

Filed Under: Advocacy & Policy, Local Communities
Post By: jwilson
Posted On: April 19, 2013
Central Ave Colonie

Central Avenue in Colonie, NY.

“Toll: 8 dead, 300 Injured”

That was the headline of a Times Union article last week about pedestrians being struck by vehicles on Central Avenue, a 15.4-mile road that runs through Albany and Colonie. The article has stirred a whirl of debate about how to fix one of the Capital District’s most dangerous roads. It will be the subject of a WAMC/NPR public forum this week, and it has already prompted a renewed focus from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) on ways to improve safety in the area.  Spurred forward in part by a couple of recent, high-profile deaths on the same road, the City of Albany is also currently considering a Complete Streets ordinance.

However, this much-needed attention on a treacherous road begs an important question: will New York take a reactionary, media-driven approach, or is there a way to enact a more comprehensive policy-driven approach to safety?

“All the ingredients are there: A five-lane road with no median. Long distances between crosswalks. Businesses on both sides of the road that cater to foot traffic. Bus stops. A 40 mph speed limit on its long, suburban stretch. And small motels — situated across the street from a supermarket — that cater to low-income people with no cars.”

The Times Union’s description could be used to describe Hempstead Turnpike on Long Island, for years named the most dangerous  road for pedestrians in downstate New York. NYSDOT is to be commended for their recent attention to Hempstead Turnpike, which was spurred in part by substantial media coverage of the crashes. During a recent discussion about the Times Union’s article, one transportation professional told Tri-State: “We’ve got dozens of Hempstead Turnpikes, all across the state.” The speaker’s concern was that, unfortunately, it seems that only a localized media frenzy drives real change.

At the moment, instead of taking the bull by the horns, NYSDOT could be accused of taking a piecemeal approach. The agency’s modifications on the Hempstead Turnpike will be used as “a model” for other roads in the state, but it’s not clear to the public how or when that effort will manifest. In 2010, they released a pedestrian and bicycle policy, but the more comprehensive draft Pedestrian Safety Action Plan was never adopted by the Department. The state’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council has been defunct for two years, apparently a victim of the SAGE Commission efforts to streamline government, and the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee is trying to fill the void. The Department said a website and guidance materials are coming this spring in response to the State’s 2012 Complete Streets Law, but in the absence of a fair share for safety policy, those grumbling behind the scenes argue these efforts don’t add up to effective policy or action.

As the Times Union article points out, there’s an inherent equity issue on the table. People who walk and take buses and stay in the small motels along busy roads are more often than not the people who don’t own cars, and the people who don’t vote. In a state where pedestrians and cyclists account for 27 percent of all traffic fatalities, but only two percent of transportation dollars are used to improve safety for vulnerable users, it will take more than an occasional media blitz to overturn systemic policy inequities.