GObike News

August 8, 2019

Still Risky After All These Years

The state’s myopic plan to protect pedestrians on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Guest post by James B. Jones, P.E.

Niagara Falls Boulevard is a minefield for pedestrians. Within a five-year period, six people have been killed by cars while trying to get to the other side of the busy artery.

Can it be made safer? Engineers from Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda last year pointed out a slew of issues, anticipating that the state Department of Transportation would address them (view their report here).

Now the DOT’s local district has released its draft Pedestrian Safety Corridor Evaluation, proposing a series of improvements to pedestrian safety on the boulevard. Unfortunately, these actions won’t make the situation much safer – they gloss over the real struggles that pedestrians face. 

The two towns’ report documented some serious problems:

  • Traffic signals that don’t communicate with each other and don’t adapt to the changing demands of traffic through the day, increasing wait times at pedestrian crossings. 
  • Long distances between crosswalks (tempting walkers to risk crossing on their own), as well as the great crossing distance – in some areas, as many as eight lanes of traffic. 
  • Lack of “refuge islands” between northbound and southbound lanes, which give pedestrians some protection as they cross.
  • A speed limit of 45 mph, which the towns argued should be 40 mph.

A further major issue, acknowledged the DOT in its report, is that traffic on the boulevard is so heavy that there’s almost never a lull that reaches all the way across – there might be a gap on the northbound side, but solid cars on the southbound. Pedestrians start across the road but get dangerously stranded as they wait for the gap on the other side. The DOT studied traffic between noon and 6 p.m. and found that south of Eggert Road, there were only nine “critical gaps” in that time; between Dexter Terrace and Willow Ridge Road, where several pedestrians have died, there were no critical gaps at all. 

In response to these concerns, the DOT is planning a few short-term, Band-Aid solutions that fall far short of making the boulevard safer for pedestrians. They include:

  • Polishing up the stop lines and crosswalk lines, and sprucing up the signs.
  • Adding ramps from sidewalk to street to accommodate disabled people, and making the push buttons on pedestrian signals audible.
  • Reducing the speed limit to 40 mph from approximately the I-290 to the Niagara County line (though the design of the road does not encourage driving slower). 
  • Adding curbs to the I-290 interchange ramps, forcing drivers to slow down where crosswalks are in place (though no pedestrians have been killed at those crosswalks).
  • Adding Leading Pedestrian Intervals at major intersections, giving pedestrians a seven-second head start on crossing the street before any traffic gets a green light. 

The DOT plans to make these changes by next year, using $2 million from the state’s comprehensive Pedestrian Safety Action Plan. That money was allocated because Erie County had the second-highest number of car-pedestrian collisions in New York between 2009 and 2013, and the state identified Niagara Falls Boulevard as one of its highest priorities.

So what’s the problem? These are superficial solutions, skirting the problem area and avoiding the heart of the issue: how to reconfigure the boulevard to get past its car-centered 1950s origins and bring it into conformance with modern best practices. 

Niagara Falls Boulevard is a large, complex system that has been evolving and expanding for the past several decades. No one has done holistic planning – it’s overseen and maintained by the state, the towns, the NFTA and utility companies. 

The boulevard worked reasonably well as postwar housing went up in the ’50s and ’60s in Tonawanda. The rapid growth of car-dependent development on the Amherst side, however, and subsequent widening of the road to accommodate the added traffic, has produced the current dangerous situation. For half a century, pedestrians’ need and right to be able to walk safely and comfortably along the boulevard has been ignored – endangering especially those who can’t afford cars. People who are running to catch a bus are particularly at risk.

Now those patterns and prescriptions of the ’60s are changing. Progressive town planning recognizes that compact, walkable development makes life better for all residents. Reimagining Niagara Falls Boulevard will take decades, and needs the best efforts of both DOT, Tonawanda and Amherst.

Tonawanda and Amherst are making some steps in the right direction. The two towns will install street lighting north of the I-290 beginning this summer. The towns are also planning to modify zoning to reduce auto-oriented development. If the NFTA extends its light rail train to UB’s North Campus, that would take more cars off the boulevard; the planned redevelopment of the Boulevard Mall as a mixed-use facility may also reduce vehicle use. 

The DOT’s draft Pedestrian Safety Corridor Evaluation is a start – but it mostly misses the mark. A better short-term approach would be to better coordinate traffic signals, make the road narrower and add pedestrian refuge islands and mid-block crosswalks. Further out, remaking the boulevard is a project that demands long-term thinking, the participation of all parties (including the public), and a real commitment to making the road safer for pedestrians. 

Still Risky After All These Years