How Many Deaths Does It Take to Redesign an Intersection?

Sunday, June 01, 2014 - 09:00 PM

Judy Kottick and Ken Bandes at the Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection in Ridgewood, Queens. (Jim O'Grady/WNYC)

Judy Kottick and her husband, Ken Bandes, recently stood on a corner at a hectic intersection on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The couple have a keen interest in the spot: It's where their daughter, 23 year-old Ella Bandes, was struck and killed by a city bus in 2013. Each time they come here and see how 25 lanes of traffic converge from six directions in the gloom beneath the elevated tracks of the M train, they wind up asking themselves two questions. Why didn't the city redesign the intersection to be safer after a crash killed a pedestrian there in 2009? And, if the city had done that, would Ella still be alive?

"It's the worst nightmare that you can't imagine will ever happen to you," Kottick said of the phone call she received at home in Montclair, New Jersey, late on the night of January 31, 2013. "It was the police saying, 'Your daughter's been in a terrible accident, come to the hospital immediately.'"

As Kottick spoke, evening rush hour traffic pulsed through the intersection behind her, where Myrtle Avenue, Wyckoff Avenue and Palmetto Street converge. Buses and cars, cabs and trucks were bulling their way through the spot's contested and vaguely marked patch of asphalt. At the same time, on the sidewalks around her, commuters streamed down from the M and up from the L train to enter the fray.

Kottick says it's still hard to accept the fact of the crash when she thinks about how Ella's adult life was just beginning. "She was a dancer, a musician, an artist," Kottick recalled. "She was applying to grad school for a PhD in clinical psychology and working in a psychology lab. She was a beautiful person."

Ella moved to Ridgewood in 2012 with hopes of becoming a psychotherapist, like her mother. On the night Ella died, she stayed late at her internship. Then she stopped off in the East Village to visit friends before hopping back on the L train and heading home.

Ken Bandes can describe what happened next because he's read the police report, as difficult as that was. He says that as Ella exited the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop in Ridgewood, she turned and moved toward the curb to cross Myrtle Avenue. It was dark and maybe a train clattered overhead, making it hard to hear an approaching vehicle, even a bus.

"She would've been crossing and we know, actually, that she was not on the phone or texting because we have her phone," Bandes said. "We think that she was probably aware but presumably didn't expect the bus not to stop."

The police report says an MTA bus was turning onto Myrtle Avenue as Ella stepped into the street. The driver, 35 year-old Andrele Colvert, had been on the job less than a year. Colvert later told police that as she made the turn, she checked her rear-view mirror to make sure the bus didn't hit a cab parked near the subway. When Colvert looked forward, Ella was in front of her. Colvert hit the brakes ... too late.

Ella went under the bus. She was taken to Wyckoff Hospital but died four days later.

Her parents have since learned that the Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection was known to be unsafe. In the five years before Ella Bandes' death, 29 crashes occurred there. Four of them caused serious injuries. And in 2009, a pedestrian died. With those numbers, Myrtle-Wyckoff compares to some of the city's most dangerous intersections.

Ken Bandes said he's also heard from Ridgewood and Bushwick residents who say they agitated with the city for improvements but got nowhere. "If they had been successful then I think that there's a good chance that Ella would be alive,"  he said.

Since the crash, the New York City Department of Transportation has added LED lights under the elevated tracks. And it has proposed giving the Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection a safety makeover. The plan includes widening curbs with yellow paint and flexible posts, adding more crosswalks, and repainting existing crosswalks that are so faded they're almost invisible. DOT is also thinking about banning five vehicle turns, although buses will not be affected.

Ryan Russo, DOT's assistant commissioner for traffic management, says the most dangerous intersections must be fixed. But he cautions that it's only a start to solving the problem of crashes at intersections — because those crashes happen everywhere in the city. "There are about 1,800 severe pedestrian injuries a year and you'll rarely find an intersection with more than three or four in an individual year," he said.

Russo says that if you could eliminate every death and serious injury at the 52 most dangerous intersections, you'd reduce the citywide total by only four percent. So the department is lowering speed limits and upgrading intersections on extended stretches of city streets, or corridors, that range from a mile to eight miles long. "We've done a significant amount on corridor street redesigns and we continue to do that work," Russo said.

Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative will create 25 slow zones by the end of the year in corridors with high crash rates. And the DOT has a goal of re-engineering 25 dangerous intersections per year.

Mike King, an expert in street design, joined Kottick and Bandes at the Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection, where he cast a critical eye on what he saw. "Why do you have to put people in these positions where they have to constantly be vigilant?" he asked. King thought a good first step toward improving safety at Myrtle-Wyckoff would be simplifying the traffic flow and timing the lights to give pedestrians a head start at crossing the street.

"We're watching buses turn here," he said. "The buses are making these obtuse turns, they're honking at people who are crossing with the light, in the crosswalk, saying, 'Get out of the way because I've gotta get through.' The buses, the drivers they want to get through. But the people coming out of the subway, they want to get home."

Of course that's what 23 year-old Ella Bandes wanted as she came out of the subway that January night and headed toward Myrtle Avenue: she wanted to get home. 

Watch a video version of Jim O’Grady’s report, with Andrew Siff of News 4 New York:



Andrea Bernstein


Comments [13]

tng from Ridgewood

Guess just happened? another accident today October 30, 2014 at 6am in the morning. Another person got struck by a vehicle/bus at the intersection. Obviously, redesigning the intersection doesn't work. I still see car turning into Palmetto St from Myrtle Ave because there is no sign indicates no right turn. People don't slow down at this intersection and it is so confusing to cross the street here. I wish DOT will come up with a better plan other than painting the extended curb into the street. This is a nightmare.

Oct. 30 2014 08:55 AM
Chang from NYC

Marie from B'klyn, you took all words from my mouth! Thank you! Terrible tragedy to see accidents but who are victims? All involved, peds, bikers n drivers emotionally devastated.

How can we avoid these senseless collisions to vision zero? You said "playing superman", I would say New Yorkers are being raised as sacred cows as in the street of India, roaming everywhere with a sense of right totally insensitive to drivers frustration for waiting for turning. Peds are munching on something taking time not aware of turning cars or looking at cars with blank cow eyes while crossing. They just say, "I don't drive", unlike average American. But some attitude of respecting others right would go mutual. Reciprocal insensitivity is reverberating between peds n drivers or peds n bikers. All have been mentioned and suggested except pedestrians awareness.

With all videos, it will be interesting to see how peds r hit. Of course drivers n bikers can be blamed for violation n distractedness. But how pedestrians could avoid accidents by fully awaring n defending oneself? When city will start making a campaign for defensive n smart crossing?

Jul. 25 2014 02:28 AM
tng from Ridgewood

I think DOT is wasting money mainly in Manhattan borough. I don't even understand why they are spending millions of dollars redesigning times square still in good condition sidewalks while other boroughs are suffer with crack streets and sidewalks. It is more about political games they are playing and which politicians have the power to persuade the Mayor to make the change.

I walk at the Myrtle/Wyckoff intersection everyday and I see cars speeding by and turning fast. There is no room for pedestrians to make error when crossing the street. DOT is planning to put the flashing lights underneath the subway track wont help because cars wont stop at the flashing lights. They need to create traffic calming streets like other neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Jul. 02 2014 09:12 AM
TOM from Mesa Brooklyn

Has anyone looked at the performance measurements for NYCDOT in the latest Mayor's Management Report. We have a new mayor and commissioner you know.

Jun. 16 2014 05:49 PM
J.B. from Queens

While it is certainly true that many pedestrians and bicyclists can and should be more careful, both for their own safety and for everyone's sake, in general; the notion - repeated in several comments here - that drivers are not primarily at fault for how dangerous NYC streets are is so completely off-base as to be offensive. I have lived in Brooklyn and Queens for 20 years and own a car and drive daily, and aggressive driving is by far the norm. Speeding, honking the instant a light turns green, flashing brights and illegally passing when someone is actually going the speed limit, and, most dangerous of all, cutting pedestrians off when making turns and going through red lights - it is not possible to drive half a mile in NYC without witnessing or experiencing an assortment of these. If I drive through a yellow light, it's frightening to see not one, but two cars behind me follow, through a light that has clearly turned to red. It is stunning how often we read about pedestrians with the right of way, green lights and walk signals, killed in the crosswalk, yet no charges are filed. Safe streets are a shared responsibility, and drivers, at least as much as pedestrians and bicyclists, need to remember/be reminded of the role they play either way. I'd advocate for more sensible and consistent enforcement, along with PSAs reminding people to calm down, slow down, use your signals, pull to the curb rather than stopping in driving lanes, stop for red lights, put lights on your bike, don't jay walk especially at night or in the rain, etc, etc - it seems clear that a little more patience and caution on everyone's part would reduce the stress and save lives.

Jun. 03 2014 08:31 PM
Marie from Brooklyn

I feel bad for this young woman and her parents, of course, and I am not saying she crossed the street carelessly. Though, personally, if I see a bus turning, I am assuming nothing-I am staying my butt on the curb. I don't drive fast or carelessly, I am a great driver, but New York pedestrians are completely careless, entitled, and probably primarily at fault for these traffic incidents where they are hit by a car or bus or whatever. They don't stand on the curb when waiting for the light to change- they are in the middle of the street almost; often they don't wait for the light to change for them, they see a red flashing hand telling them to wait because cars are supposed to turn now- and they are steady crossing the street as if that red flashing hand is not even there telling them to wait for cars to turn; they cross the street anywhere anytime barely cognizant of the fact that they are in the street where cars might be coming their way! I have seen kids literally jump in front of a moving car and smile as if daring the car to hit him. I have lived in San Francisco, Huntsville, AL, Baltimore, Md, and have never seen this amount of ignorance in pedestrians. You can fix lights, intersections, whatever- it is wasted money if pedestrians continue to play superman in New York City. Redirect their brains and maybe help them understand what a flashing red hand means and how to intelligently navigate these streets!

Jun. 03 2014 02:31 PM
AMHess from Harlem

Slowing and simplifying enormous intersections like this one has to be part of Vision Zero and should have been done long ago. I wonder whether a roundabout could work here.

Jun. 03 2014 09:18 AM
specialtim from ridgewood, queens

very sad story. i lived a couple blocks from this intersection for over 5 years so I know how dangerous it is. I have two things to contribute. In 2009, a neighbor told me that a girl was run over by a bus at this intersection, you didn't mention that. Is that not true? You only said "a pedestrian died". And in the photo of the parents, you can see a silver car driving behind them. That car is driving on the BUS ONLY portion of Palmetto St. It's clearly posted DO NOT ENTER. It's only for people waiting for buses... just goes to show how dangerous that intersection really is.

Jun. 02 2014 07:10 PM
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY

How about addressing the causes at the some of these accidents at these so-called intersections rather than just the effects? In some of these accidents, the pedestrian crossed the street when they didn't even have the walk signal and treated it like a decoration. Others just went on without even looking. However, I keep on hearing everyone saying that the motorist is the bad guy even when they were found to not be solely responsible for their actions. I won't argue that pedestrians and cyclists that flout the laws can't actually kill anyone, but they are still placing themselves into harm's way, but it won't matter to them because they know that car hating websites like Streetsblog will always see them as martyrs no matter what they do.

Jun. 02 2014 02:47 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

Jim, thanks for this article. I read the linked proposal for this intersection and am alarmed at the complete lack of reference to data analysis or any reasons for why they propose these particular things. I would love to see a follow up article that digs into the possible failure of the Department of Transportation to properly collect and analyze data about high risk intersections. It seems to be that they are being very remiss to spend city money without properly identifying the most effective way to spend that budget.

Jun. 02 2014 01:30 PM
hitch from nyc

Al Cinamon from Yonkers

you have a point, however, the city hasn't taken all the steps it can, to improve streets, traffic. can we totally lay the blame on the driver if a certain intersection has a repeated history of deaths?
if anything, sue the city.

Jun. 02 2014 12:29 PM
Al Cinamon from Yonkers

The article doesn't say so, but I'm willing to bet the bus driver was not charged with any wrongdoing. Therein lies the real problem. If the politicians want to make streets safer they have to pass a law that makes killing with a motor vehicle a crime. They're not just accidents that happen for no reason! There are reasons and they are avoidable but since there is no real incentive to drive safely, it's not going to happen.

Jun. 02 2014 10:56 AM
Fred from Brooklyn

Fixing these kinds of problems should be a basic function of NYCDOT. Unfortunately, for the last 12 years, bike lanes, needed or not, have been the main focus of the agency, and numerous routine traffic issues have been ignored. Hopefully, the bicycle lobby will have less access to the Commissioner than in the past, and NYCDOT will focus on solving problems like this one, which will benefit everyone: motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Jun. 02 2014 09:30 AM

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