The Longest Crossing

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of high-school students streamed out of Norman Thomas High School, a 12-story brick monolith on the corner of 33rd and Park. They babbled away about classes, the upcoming holiday, what to do that afternoon. High-school stuff.

This year, they have one less worry: The intersection right outside the school, which many will cross to get to the subway, is no longer a death trap.

Between 1995 and 2005, 33rd and Park saw more pedestrian crashes than any other city intersection—156, 36 more than the closest runner-up. In early August, the city’s Department of Transportation took drastic action, erecting more barriers and pedestrian islands, closing the southbound lane on a “trial basis” and festooning the whole intersection with cautionary signs.

The DOT says it has no plans to reopen the tunnel at this time. Traffic watchers approve.

“It made things a whole lot better,” said Fernando Rivera, who’s sold papers on the corner for a year and a half. “It’s just safer,” he said, while admitting that it does get more congested on 33rd.

Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has made these sorts of interventions a hallmark of her tenure, claiming large swaths of Broadway for bikes and umbrellas, even if it’s meant stepping on a few toes: Councilman John Liu told The American Prospect this month the Bloomberg administration adheres to a “new, anti-car religion” that alienates drivers from the outer boroughs.

The nonprofit Transportation Alternatives is willing to trade a little traffic for peace of mind. Wiley Norvell, the transit advocacy group’s communications director, called the lane shutdown a “dramatic intervention.”

“To me,” he said, “that signals them placing safety ahead of the flow of motor vehicles, which is for us probably the most important priority that a DOT could have.”

Mr. Norvell says it makes sense to check in on 33rd and Park after about a year of data gathering, and the DOT said it has already found “minimal impact” on traffic flow through the intersection. (Transportation Alternatives’ statistics-reporting Web site, http://www.Crashstat.org, has been unable to get anything more recent than 2005 out of state Department of Motor Vehicles.)

Councilman Eric Gioia has taken the DOT to task for its sluggishness, saying that the agency should at least provide real-time crash statistics around hot spots to allow more immediate action. He points to the Police Department’s CompStat system, which integrates levels of bureaucracy and uses weekly crime reports to police more responsively. A transportation reporting system might involve schools inputting crash data into a computer database that would be immediately available to the masses—“wikigovernment,” Mr. Gioia calls it.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of cars whizzing out of the underground tunnel at 33rd and Park has made people breath a little easier in a literal sense as well as figurative.

“I lived next to the midtown tunnel for a couple of years, and you just watched the soot pile up on the window,” Mr. Gioia said in an interview, noting the benefits of better air quality. “You don’t need a scientist to tell you that’s unhealthy.”

ldepillis@observer.com

The Longest Crossing