Isaac Yu, Contributing Photographer
After a Yale Law School student died while biking near the Yale New Haven Hospital last week, there have been renewed calls for the Elm City to address mounting concerns over traffic safety.
The accident marked the 13th New Haven pedestrian or cyclist death this year. It was also the third traffic-related death in 12 years at the York Street and South Frontage Road intersection.
“All traffic deaths are preventable,” said Lorena Mitchell, an organizer for the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition. “The city continues to prioritize cars and drivers over vulnerable [residents], pedestrians, cyclists, public transit riders. It’s completely unacceptable.”
Traffic safety concerns took center stage at the Mayor’s Night Out event held last Wednesday in East Rock Park. On behalf of the Safe Streets Coalition — an activist group composed of organizations, officials and residents concerned about transit safety — Mitchell hand-delivered a list of demands to Mayor Justin Elicker.
Other residents, many of whom rode bicycles to the event, voiced complaints about various intersections around the city and asked for immediate action to be taken at the York and South Frontage intersection. Elicker cited a lack of funding as the city’s fundamental barrier to the enactment of new traffic safety policies.
“Ultimately, almost every problem that we are dealing with as a city comes down to money,” Elicker said. “It comes down to our ability to fund traffic timing infrastructure and to fund enough police officers to ensure there’s enforcement.”
A roadmap for change
The top demand on the Safe Streets Coalition’s list is for Elicker to publicly commit to making New Haven a “Vision Zero” city — joining a growing list of communities nationwide that are pledging to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries on roads.
Safe Streets is asking the Mayor to create a task force of community stakeholders and local officials dedicated to implementing infrastructure and legislative changes in line with the city’s Complete Streets Ordinance, which the Board of Alders passed 10 years ago. The coalition is also seeking the creation of a $500,000 discretionary fund for the task force’s first operational year.
According to the letter, the City should also enforce a strict 20 mph speed limit on select New Haven roads and develop and implement a “greenway network” of residential streets prioritizing pedestrians and bicyclists. The coalition also wants to require all city-owned trucks and city-contracted vendors to be equipped with side guards, convex mirrors, cross-over mirrors and blind-spot awareness decals.
“A Side Guard on the truck that killed the cyclist last week would have likely saved the cyclist’s life,” Douglas Hausladen, director of the New Haven Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking, wrote in an email to the News.
Side guards are designed to prevent pedestrians and bicyclists from being run over by the rear tires of a larger truck. Hausladen said his department is also pushing for the use of side guards on all large trucks that are based in New Haven.
The Safe Streets Coalition is also calling on the city to actively advocate for state legislation like red light and speed enforcement cameras. Automated enforcement has become a politically charged issue in the Capitol, since standing Connecticut law prohibits the practice.
Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth ’90 LAW ’94 has been advocating for the installation of red light cameras at the intersection for several years. Although the most recent incident did not involve the vehicle running a red light, Roth said the cameras — which automatically photograph vehicles that run red lights — could help deter unsafe behavior at the intersection.
“A couple of years ago I stood at the intersection from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., on three different days, and saw a total of 156 red light runners,” said Roth. “The city does not have the resources to consistently enforce red light running, so people know they can get away with it.”
When asked about the widespread installation of red light cameras last Wednesday, Elicker reminded citizens that the state chapters of the NAACP and ACLU have voiced opposition to red light cameras in the past, citing issues of racial injustice and selective enforcement. He did, however, say that narrow policies concerning infrastructure at specific intersections were a top priority for his office.
“A perfect storm for accidents”
As the Director of Communications for Medical Education at the Yale School of Medicine, Roth used to pass by the intersection every day before the pandemic. In addition to red light running, she said the space frequently saw fast-moving traffic and high volumes of pedestrians and cyclists.
Last year, the city installed concrete bollards at the corners of the South Frontage and York intersection. Residents advocated for the bollards partially in response to the 2017 death of 42-year-old pedestrian Melissa Tancredi, who was standing at the intersection’s sidewalk when she was struck by a passing vehicle.
Yale Associate Professor of Urbanism Elihu Rubin ’99 underscored the intersection’s unique difficulties. Rubin told the News that South Frontage Road essentially acts as a highway on-ramp for Interstates 91 and 95 while cutting through the slower traffic of the city’s traditional grid structure.
Four years ago, eastbound South Frontage Road and westbound Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard were still part of Route 34, a Connecticut state highway that historically severed the city’s Hill neighborhood from downtown New Haven.
As part of a plan to reroute the corridor into city streets, lanes on both boulevards were narrowed, and the speed limit dropped to 25 mph. A bike lane was constructed on Dr. King Boulevard, but none exists on South Frontage.
Despite changes in road design, Mitchell said that South Frontage “basically feels like you’re driving on a three lane highway.”
“It’s really a perfect storm for accidents,” Rubin said. “I think that [the accidents] are an indication now that [the city] should treat the South Frontage Road more as a surface street and not as a highway on-ramp.”
Rubin added that there is a large garage at the intersection close to the edge of the road, which reduces driver visibility. The danger is worsened by the lack of bicycle lanes along York Street and South Frontage Road, he said.
The victim of last week’s accident was traveling on the far right lane of York — as cyclists often do — but was hit by a box truck turning right from the middle lane. According to Neil Olinski, a traffic engineer who lives in New Haven, changing curbs to narrow or widen the road becomes costly quickly. He said a bike lane positioned on the far left side of the road could prevent similar “right hook” accidents.
According to Hausladen, the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department recently launched a traffic study to analyze changes to the vehicular, pedestrian and cyclist traffic at the South Frontage and York intersection. The study will determine how many turning lanes are required at locations where two turning lanes exist in the transport corridor.
Other engineering changes proposed for the intersection include a dedicated bike lane, clearer road markings and a traffic light that allows cyclists to cross the intersection before vehicles.
According to traffic safety advocates, common traffic-calming practices — like narrowing the road or introducing speed bumps — would be challenging to implement on York Street, which ambulatory vehicles use to turn left into the Yale New Haven Hospital.
Budgeting, finger pointing: a “problem of political will”
None of these demands are new to the transit safety community.
“A decade has passed [since the passage of the Complete Streets Ordinance] and our streets are not safe, let alone convenient, for its most vulnerable users,” the Safe Streets Coalition letter stated.
According to its website, the Elm City’s “Complete Streets” movement aims to “rethink the physical design of streets” and provide “safe and convenient user access” for New Haveners. A 100-page manual outlines a participatory decision-making process to implement best road design practices on New Haven roads.
“Around 2008 and 2009, there was a strong effort to implement the Complete Streets Policy. But the effort kind of stalled,” said Olinski.
Roth said the failure to implement the policy as intended is partially due to financial constraints and difficulties regarding the approval of state legislation.
Ten years ago, Elicker, himself an avid cyclist, was at the center of a citywide push to change Martin Luther King Boulevard and South Frontage Road into two-lane roads with a target speed of 25 mph. He told the crowd last Wednesday that cyclist and pedestrian safety was one of the reasons he first became involved with the City.
Mitchell said that the coalition sees Elicker and city officials as allies, but find that scaffolded responsibilities between local and statewide administrators like the Connecticut Department of Transportation has led to “a lot of finger pointing.”
Though the streets are intimately connected to the daily routines of local residents, municipalities in Connecticut don’t have the authority to implement traffic control changes like speed limits and camera fixtures. Traffic control changes are under the jurisdiction of the state — and Elicker said that in the past, multiple requests to lower speed limits have been denied.
“It’s hard to always pinpoint where we lose momentum,” Mitchell said. “We’re up against many levels of bureaucracy and stagnation.”
At the recent Mayor’s Night Out event, Elicker called on Yale to contribute funding for traffic timing infrastructure and greater enforcement mechanisms for traffic violations.
“We have a systemic problem where New Haven has an inordinate burden,” said Elicker. “The suburban towns and organizations like Yale University and the Hospital do not pay what I believe is their fair share.”
Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications did not return the News’ request for comment on traffic safety.
After a Yale School of Management student was hit by a car on Pearl Street last year, the University donated $50,000 to fund the construction of a new sidewalk to improve pedestrian safety for its students. However, the donation came more than a year after the accident.
Roth pointed out that a significant number of the pedestrians and cyclists crossing at the intersection are Yale faculty, staff, students or patients at the Yale New Haven Hospital. She said that the University’s support in advocating for automated enforcement or funding infrastructure changes would help improve safety on the streets.
Mitchell added that traffic safety sits at the convergence of many other issues, like resource distribution, racial inequity and sustainability. She said Yale has the resources to circumvent some of the structural barriers the city is facing around safety.
“There’s currently a lot of renewed conversations about traffic violence in New Haven, certainly how it affects parts of the Yale New Haven Hospital,” said Mitchell. “My hope is that the conversation includes some of the larger concepts of transportation and mobility justice and expands to more than just specific intersections.”
In 2008, a 27-year-old Yale medical school student died while crossing at the same intersection.
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