Inquirer Editorial: A tale of two deadly boulevards

Saa'mir Williams, 9 months , was killed with his mother and brothers on the Boulevard last month.
Saa'mir Williams, 9 months , was killed with his mother and brothers on the Boulevard last month.
Posted: August 02, 2013

Since the death of a young woman and three of her four sons as they tried to cross Roosevelt Boulevard two weeks ago, one legislator has suggested lining the notorious road with the state's first speed-enforcement cameras. City officials say they might restore the traffic signal that once stood at the intersection of North Second Street, where an alleged drag racer ran down the family. And still others have resorted to no doubt vain pleas for caution.

Philadelphians often tend to assume that their problems are unique. But we need not look far to find a similarly treacherous thoroughfare where pedestrian deaths have been dramatically reduced. The lesson is that our officials don't have to shrug helplessly in the face of constant carnage, nor do they need novel technology to stop it.

Connecting central Queens to Manhattan, Queens Boulevard is, like Roosevelt Boulevard, an antiquated, dangerous hybrid of surface street and superhighway. And like its Philadelphia cousin, it carries up to 12 lanes of traffic through crowded urban neighborhoods. During the 1990s, an average of nine pedestrians - and as many as 18 - were being killed on the street every year, inspiring the New York Daily News to dub it the "Boulevard of Death."

Starting in 2001, New York officials took a series of steps, many of them relatively low-cost, to make Queens Boulevard safer. They erected fencing and signs discouraging jaywalking, added high-visibility crosswalks, extended and protected medians, retimed traffic lights, increased pedestrian crossing time, reduced crossing distances, and more. In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to "drive the amount of fatalities all the way down to zero."

The concerted effort yielded clear results. The number of pedestrian deaths dropped to one or two in most subsequent years and has never exceeded five. The city reached Bloomberg's goal in 2011, when not a single pedestrian was killed on Queens Boulevard.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt Boulevard continues to invite danger and claim victims. Its pedestrian toll has remained steady since the mid-1990s. More than 20 have been killed on the Boulevard over the last five years, and more than 130 have been struck.

A week after last month's deaths near Second Street, NBC10 reported that six pedestrians used the same unmarked crossing in an hour. A few days earlier in Olney, an SUV hit and critically injured an 11-year-old girl attempting to bike across the Boulevard.

City and state officials have taken steps to make Roosevelt Boulevard safer. But they haven't approached the problem with the urgency, insistence, and commitment that made the difference less than 100 miles away.

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