February 22, 2022

VALDETARO | Make Collegetown Streets Ducking Safe

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Last week, one of my roommates wrote a column about communal attempts to protect a duck on the Collegetown Bridge, a situation he called “entirely unserious.” If I wasn’t the friend who interrupts every light-hearted exchange with a miniature tirade about transportation policy, I might have agreed with him. And yet, I am that person. This is why I think Duckley, as my roommate named him (without noting whether or not he wore a top hat or smoked a pipe), and his journey on the Collegetown Bridge are actually incredibly relevant. The fact that Duckley needed a collective effort to keep him safe shows a systemic failure in the design of Collegetown’s streets.

Instead of a safe environment for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike, Collegetown intersections and streets put all in danger. Instead of a livable, climate-resilient environment, Collegetown streets exacerbate the climate crisis and leave pedestrians with soaked shoes any time it rains more heavily than a passing shower. Instead of space to walk at varied speeds, places to stop and take in Ithaca’s natural beauty and areas to relax with friends, Collegetown forces pedestrians to compete with each other for space. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way —  all of these outcomes are due to policy choices. It is possible for Collegetown residents to keep their shoes dry when it rains, peace of mind as a pedestrian and ample space to enjoy with friends, if we do just three things.

First, we should take away space from cars by removing parking spots from commercialized areas and narrowing vehicle traffic on the bridge to campus to one lane. Smaller curb-to-curb widths would encourage drivers to go slowly and effectively “calm” traffic, making the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Space could still be put aside for truck loading zones, delivery drivers and shorter stops, ensuring that businesses can access supplies, people can able to receive food at home and residents who need it have the option to park close to where they live.

Reducing the bridge into campus to one lane would force vehicles to yield not only to oncoming traffic, but also to pedestrians trying to cross on either end of the bridge. The current stop signs force pedestrians to rely on the generosity of drivers, who are often speeding across the bridge into campus. This is an inherently imbalanced power dynamic, given that cars weigh thousands of pounds and people do not — an imbalance we can fight against with urban design choices.

Second, we should put space reclaimed from cars to better use. Expanded sidewalks could be used as outdoor dining for restaurants or public seating. On the bridge into campus, expanding sidewalks would allow people to take pictures of the gorges, pass others walking more slowly or walk side-by-side with friends, all without forcing other people into a dangerous conflict with cars. Furthermore, former parking spots could be replaced with pervious surfaces such as trees and bioswales, allowing more of the rain to soak back into the ground instead of our shoes. Vibrant spaces to hang out, more space to walk, and dry shoes: These are all the things we could achieve with the small sacrifice of some parking spots and one extra lane for cars.

Third, we should alter the remaining space for cars so that the environment is safer for pedestrians. The mid-block crosswalk between the law school and the engineering quad should be raised to sidewalk level, as crosswalks on East Avenue are. This would force drivers to slow down on a stretch of road that many currently speed through. It would also fix a crossing that doesn’t currently include curb cuts, making it more accessible for people with mobility issues.

Back in Collegetown, make College Avenue, Eddy Street and Dryden Road kinkier. No, this hasn’t suddenly become a Wednesday edition of Sex on Thursday. Instead, I’m referring to bumping out sidewalks to induce what’s called a chicane effect, meaning that drivers are forced to slow down because they can’t drive in a straight line. By further reducing vehicle speeds in and around Collegetown, these changes would make the space reclaimed from cars even more lively, as it would help people sitting at a sidewalk feel safer.

These changes might seem extreme, but that extra space for cars likely isn’t reducing traffic right now. In fact, it’s probably inducing traffic by making people more likely to drive in the first place. If you drive through Collegetown when you don’t absolutely need to and find it slow or difficult to park, I hate to break it to you, but you are the problem; you aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic. By taking away on-street space to drive and park, we can make Collegetown a safer, more vibrant place to live while reducing traffic.

The current problems with urban design in Collegetown don’t surprise me — systemic failures are the public policy flavor of the day. In fact, if we look back to the beginning of the pandemic, those seeking to justify inaction compared COVID-19’s death toll to that of traffic violence. This is wrong for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that the U.S. is exceptionally subpar and getting exceedingly worse at combating traffic violence. Whether it’s the way we regulate car design nationally, the continued atrophying of intercity rail and bus transportation, or the design of our streets, there are problems to solve and responsible actors to blame at every level of government.

And yet, complacency can’t be our response either nationally or locally, because the costs of it are paid in blood. In the last few days of 2021, a cyclist and a pedestrian were killed in separate incidents by drivers just a few miles from my house. This past Saturday, I saw three people nearly get hit by cars at the intersection of College Avenue and Dryden Road at two separate times; it’s a miracle that close calls haven’t become crashes at other intersections throughout Collegetown and campus. Outside of just Ithaca, the transportation sector was responsible for a plurality of greenhouse gas emissions across the country in 2019. If car crashes don’t kill us on impact, cars (even electric ones) will burn us later.

Duckley’s tale is actually instructive in this case: A street that isn’t safe for a wayfaring waterfowl isn’t going to be safe for its human counterparts. Thankfully, there are already examples of fowl-friendly streets across the globe. Although traffic violence may be a problem larger than Collegetown itself, we should take local initiative to stop it here and get drier shoes, fuller tables and less crowded sidewalks in the process. We should make our streets ducking safe.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Far Above runs every other Wednesday this semester.