City Offers Traffic-Calming Clues

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThe next time West Hills neighbors ask when the city will fix that dangerous blind turn on Valley Street, Alderwoman Angela Russell may have a new spreadsheet to show them—with some, but not all, the answers.

Russell (pictured) Monday called upon city officials to share more information with lawmakers about the state of traffic-calming improvements in the city. She said she wants to be able to assure her constituents that the city is working on making their streets safer, and, ideally, when that work will be done.

Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said the city will be putting online a spreadsheet of all requested traffic-calming improvements. The spreadsheet will show details like when a project was requested, whether the problem has been studied, whether any design work has been done, and—at the request of aldermen—some information about when the work might be completed. Smuts said the city won’t be able to lay out precise dates, but it will be able to provide a sense of whether a project will take months or years to accomplish.

Smuts shared his spreadsheet plans at a Monday night aldermanic briefing on New Haven’s Complete Streets program—the city’s efforts to make streets safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. The event was one of a series of briefings the freshman-majority Board of Aldermen has been holding. Lawmakers have been recently briefed on the Shubert Theater, Yale University, and Yale-New Haven Hospital’s pending acquisition of the Hospital of St. Raphael.

Smuts (pictured with spreadsheet) gave Monday’s briefing along with city engineer Dick Miller and traffic czar Jim Travers. They began with a brief history of Complete Streets efforts in New Haven, which gained steam in 2008 after the death of two pedestrians: a Yale medical student struck while crossing South Frontage and an 11-year-old girl killed while crossing Whalley Avenue.

The New Haven Safe Streets Coalition was formed soon after, to increase traffic safety in the city. With the efforts of then-aldermen Erin Sturgis-Pascale, Roland Lemar, and Michelle Sepulveda, the city adopted a “Complete Streets” strategy that has four components, Travers said: enforcement, education, public participation, and engineering.

Enforcement alone has meant a decrease in accidents, Smuts said. The city has gone from issuing about 10,000 tickets in 2007 to between 22,000 and 25,000 in the last couple of years, he said.

One of the most tangible outcomes of the traffic-calming efforts is the Complete Streets Design Manual, a document that guides the way the city undertakes street design to maximize safety. The manual includes a way for people to request traffic improvements using a “Project Request Form” to describe the problem they see and suggest possible solutions.

“There has to be more communication about the process, from time of application to” time of completion, Alderwoman Russell said. “There’s the perception that other parts of the city get preference over Valley Street.”

Neighbors on Valley Street have for years been complaining about cars driving too fast on a road that lacks crosswalks and sidewalks. The street includes a blind curve that can be particularly dangerous.

That’s not the only problem spot in her ward, Russell said. Speeding cars are known to crash into parked ones on nearby Fowler Street, she said. Her constituents want to know when something will be done, she said. “What am I to tell them?”

The street may need re-engineering, which can be a costly and time-consuming process, Smuts said. “The immediate thing we can do, the thing we can do tomorrow, is enforcement.”

“It seems like we are getting lost in the process,” Russell said. “What does it take to actually get the process started?”

“We’ve started,” said Miller (pictured). “Valley Street is an extremely difficult challenge. ... It needs to be looked at in a very particular way.”

“If you communicate that to me, I can tell [my constituents],” Russell said.

Fair Haven Heights Alderwoman Brenda Jones-Barnes also spoke up in favor of the city sharing more information about the status of requested traffic improvements. She said people in her ward have been waiting for something to be done about traffic on Foxon Boulevard.

Smuts said the city will “very shortly” be putting a table online that shows the status of all open complete streets projects.

Jones-Barnes (pictured) said the spreadsheet should include a “timeline” component, giving people a sense of what stage projects are in.

“I think we can put something in there,” Smuts said. He suggested a “notes” field at then end of each row might be a place to give a sense of project timeframes.

“I like numbers,” Jones-Barnes said. “Our constituents are expecting a response.”

“I’m not sure we can give an actual timetable,” Smuts said after the meeting. It won’t be possible to provide precise dates about when a project will be complete, he said. But the city can include in the spreadsheet for neighbors some sense of whether a project is a quick fix or a years-long endeavor. “We can get some information to help them understand that.”

She said after the meeting that the city should provide “something to give people a path to what to expect.” She said she was glad the city would be working to “help open up that gateway.”

“I think it’s a great start,” Russell said. More transparency will address concerns that traffic-calming improvements have been happening mostly in East Rock, not in other city neighborhoods, Russell said.

She said her neighbors notice when the city puts traffic calming devices in other neighborhoods. They say, for instance, “I see those speed bumps over on Canner Street!” she said.

In the absence of details from city officials about what a project might entail or when it might be complete, “it’s easy to jump to conclusions about what they’re doing and not doing.”

Downtown Aldermen Doug Hausladen and traffic safety activist Mark Abraham said after the meeting that transparency created by the new spreadsheet has been something the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition had been looking for since the beginning. A central question had always been: How are we going to track progress? Hausladen said. The new spreadsheet may the first answer to that question.

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posted by: robn on August 21, 2012  8:47am

“There’s the perception that other parts of the city get preference over Valley Street.” Neighbors on Valley Street have for years been complaining about cars driving too fast on a road that lacks crosswalks and sidewalks. Alderwoman Russell

I just looked at Google Maps and 80% of Valley Street has sidewalks on both sides and the other 20% has sidewalks on one side.

Is it “squeaky wheel gets the oil” time of the year for the BOA?

posted by: anonymous on August 21, 2012  10:15am

That may be the best spreadsheet-in-action photo ever.

posted by: JuliS on August 21, 2012  3:29pm

“Enforcement alone has meant a decrease in accidents, Smuts said. The city has gone from issuing about 10,000 tickets in 2007 to between 22,000 and 25,000 in the last couple of years, he said.”

with enough officers, i think 25,000 infractions could be given in one weekend in new haven.

can the NHPD create coordinated traffic violation stings, where they focus on a different neighborhood every week? just blitz one section of the city with tickets for a week to make a tangible change in behavior?

posted by: westville man on August 21, 2012  4:04pm

Excellent idea, JuliS. When an Alderwoman from our neighborhood told us that it was mostly local residents running stop signs and speeding, I thought exactly what you did- if they got an occasional ticket they might hesitate.
Instead, the police sit in tandems down by Yale Bowl talking for hours at a time. Once in a while, they nail some poor sob driving 35 down Chapel in the middle of nowhere.

posted by: anonymous on August 21, 2012  4:48pm

I agree with JuliS.

Besides, how many of the 25,000 tickets are for the new DUI stops (paid for by the State) and unregistered cars, and how many are for problems like red light running and speeding?

We bought some noise meters and radar guns a few years ago but I don’t see too much evidence of their use.

posted by: HhE on August 21, 2012  4:58pm

JuliS, I rather agree with you.  Fortunately, the NHPD does just that.  I for one cheer when they set up on Whitney.  I just wish they would do even more.

posted by: streever on August 21, 2012  6:04pm

If the city can’t give out timelines, I don’t understand what the practical value of the city information is.

City Hall needs to learn: you fire an employee that won’t report. Reporting and information sharing should be top priorities. If employees can’t present time tables and projections, how can they manage employees and projects?

Maybe the city could just fire of the half-dozen “communications” people they’ve employed and re-hire one of them as a data analyst to be able to make real assessments of things and then report back to the city.

posted by: anonymous on August 22, 2012  9:36am

Streever, there is a deep-seated fear of reporting any information like that, because it gives people the idea that the city might be able to accomplish something.

This is particularly true of complex community conditions - like jobs access - that are beyond the ability of any one unit of government to control or influence.

Eliminating this current sense of hopelessness is what would enable Aldermen, advocates, not-for-profit agents, and every day citizens to demand accountability and ask for more work to be done.

Currently, government sees citizens as a source of criticism.

Communications, like press conferences about the new McDonalds attended by dozens of paid city staff, is seen as a better strategy for the city, because it distracts from real progress. 

However, I think that is misguided - getting citizens to work together directly with government and to have a seat at the table in demanding accountability is ultimately the only thing that will improve community conditions, particularly for complex issues like this.

posted by: HhE on August 22, 2012  10:46am

I am absolutely with streever on this one.  Three years ago, I attended a meeting held at Foote School.  Alfreda Edwards (one of my three favorite Alders), local residents, and representatives from Foote and Calvin Hill were there.  Mike Piscitelli told us in one year the traffic light at Highland and Prospect would be replaced with one that had pedestrian crossing and better timing.  A year latter, we had the same meeting with much the same people.  At that meeting, Mike told us in a year or two, the traffic light at Highland and Prospect would be replaced.  About two months ago, curb cuts and bases for new traffic lights were put in, but still no new traffic lights.  In the mean time, a pedestrian was hit while crossing.  The fortunate thing was it was not a child going to school, but a gangster carrying a gun.

posted by: anonymous on August 22, 2012  1:26pm

HhE - Great example of why it would be amazing if all of those requests, and milestones (such as meetings), would be made public as part of this process.

posted by: HhE on August 22, 2012  2:25pm

An update:  it appears that the new traffic lights on Prospect are now going in. 

Anonymous, agreed.  Transparency can be a wonderful thing.  Imagine the advantages of accountability as well as the dissipation of cynical doubt that could be achieved if we could all look at the cities plans, the planned time line, and the achieved time line.  Imagine. 

I think this speaks to the need for a new Mayor.  I have read, and understand, the argument of his administrative competence.  Yet these systemic problems remain.  A new mayor would be on a learning curve, but if that Mayor had a commitment of seeing residents as the reason for all of this, I opine we would be better off.  In other words, if someone has the necessary aptitude, they can learn.  If their philosophy is flawed, it does not mater if they do learn.

posted by: streever on August 22, 2012  2:53pm

hhe: well-said. If a company ran itself the way the city does, it would fail. That isn’t to say government should be business, but government SHOULD be accountable, and employees should be accountable. They can moan about union rules all they want, but they need to really start addressing the performance of the managers and department heads. If they can’t get quality work out of their employees, they need to figure out a way to fire employees. They need to institute serious employee reviews, warnings, and any other practice that any employer needs.

They need to actually be employers.