The Road to Vision Zero Has Some Bumps in It

Speed bump sign on 44th Street between Skillman Avenue and Barnett Avenue, in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.

Speed hump sign on 44th Street between Skillman Avenue and Barnett Avenue, in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. (Elena Boffetta/NY City Lens)

Demands by residents and their political leaders led to the installation of two new slow zones in Sunnyside, Queens, starting in October. However, these zones will bring more than 30 speed humps to the community and some residents hate the humps.

These slow zones are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero,” an approach to improve street safety in New York City where vehicles injure or kill an average of one New Yorker every two hours, according to the official website of the city of New York. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer requested the slow zones to be installed in Sunnyside, a decision supported by District 2 board members.

“We are right next to Queens Boulevard, the boulevard of death,” James Naughton, a Sunnyside Gardens resident, said. “A lot of people have been killed trying to cross that boulevard and putting speed humps is a good idea and I think it will work well.”

Naughton said there are many children and elderly people in his neighborhood and these slow zones will keep the streets safe.

From 2007 to 2014 the two zones combined had five fatalities. From 2008 to 2012 they had seven pedestrians severely injured and seven vehicle occupants severely injured, according to the Department of Transportation.

The first slow zone, “Sunnyside Gardens-Woodside Slow Zone,” is north east of Queens Boulevard. The second one, “Sunnyside Slow Zone,” is south of the boulevard. The speed limit will decrease to 20 miles per hour, and 38 new speed humps will be installed.

Wes Guckert, president of The Traffic Group Inc., a traffic engineering and transportation planning firm, said slow zones are necessary in residential neighborhoods where drivers tend to ignore speed limits. Although drivers’ reaction time won’t change, Guckert said speed humps reduce the stopping distance for a vehicle resulting in fewer accidents. He compared speed humps to the Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning.

“The Pavlov dog theory is about positive reinforcement, by giving a dog positive reinforcement the dog does things,” Guckert said. “Here, it’s the same thing with speed humps: as you visit a community more and more and become aware of the speed humps positive reinforcement will make you drive at a slower speed.”

District 2 chairman Joseph Conley said drivers excessively speed through these neighborhoods. He said the combination of the 20 miles per hour speed limit and the speed humps will result in safer streets for the community.

“We haven’t heard of any people against these changes,” Conley said. “We invited the community to the presentation to see their opinion. No one raised their hand for objection.”

However, some residents are not happy with the humps.

Lisa Deller, a Community 2 board member and a Sunnyside Gardens resident, said she is ambivalent about the effectiveness of the slow zones and finds the signs indicating them to be aesthetically unpleasing.

“I call them ‘visual noise,’” Deller said. “It screams.”

Dolores Sofia, a Sunnyside resident, is also unsure of the positive effects of speed humps. She said she does not believe drivers will slow down and she predicts they will “just fly over them.”

“If someone is speeding they won’t care about the speed humps.” Sofia said. “It doesn’t bother me but I don’t think it will work when it is crowded with traffic. It will only make them [drivers] bump into each other.”

David Levinson, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said speed humps are not the most efficient way to slow down traffic, as drivers get used to them and tend to speed after passing one, or just avoid them by using alternate routes.

Levinson said speed humps are only one part of a measure called traffic calming, which is a change in the infrastructure and environment of the roads to slow down traffic and make the streets safer for bikers and pedestrians. He said there are other more effective forms of traffic calming.

“Other solutions would be putting trees on the side of the road, changing the pavement material, putting on-street parking,” Levinson said. “A very good one is to narrow the streets intersections. If the intersection is narrow the sidewalk is extended and there is a change in the environment, so cars need to go slower because they are driving through a narrower region.”

He said speed humps also create difficulties for fire trucks, garbage removal vehicles, and snowplows. He said one solution to lower speeds and fewer accidents in residential areas would be to follow the woonerf movement in use in the Netherlands, a system of “living streets” where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists.

Sunnyside Gardens slow zone

Sunnyside Gardens slow zone map (provided by the Department of Transportation)