Sept. 18, 2023 By Bill Parry
The level of carnage on Astoria streets has become so alarming, that it was standing room only at a Department of Transportation workshop, with more than 200 in attendance at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Western Queens elected leaders organized the event after a surge of traffic violence during the last six months, including 40 deaths in Queens alone, with some of the most horrific taking place in Astoria.
Tamara Chuchi Kao was cycling on Jan. 5 when she was struck and killed by the driver of a cement truck on 24th Avenue. Weeks later, 7-year-old Dolman Naadhum was struck and killed by a woman who ran a stop sign on Newtown Road. In in April, 16-year-old cyclist Jaydan McLaurin from the Ravenswood Houses was struck and killed by an 18-year-old hit-and-run driver from Long Island while he was riding on 21st Street, not far from where the DOT workshop was held.
“The fact that we do not have a single open seat in this meeting is reflective of just how important of a priority this is across our neighborhood,” Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani said. “I’ve only been in office for three years and more constituents have died than years I’ve served in the Assembly and those deaths are deaths that can be prevented and they can be prevented by changes in design.”
Mamdani couldn’t find a seat as DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Nicole Garcia led her team as they presented plans to enhance pedestrian, cycling and public space conditions on 31st Avenue between Vernon Boulevard and 51st Street. Garcia said the DOT has been doing public outreach in the community all summer. That stretch of 31st Avenue alone saw a number of severe injuries and fatalities between 2016 and 2020, according to DOT senior program manager Kyle Gorman.
“One death or one injury is really an unacceptable number for us, so we’re really committed to making sure these streets are safe,” Gorman said, adding that more than 2,000 people responded to a DOT community feedback survey and more than 90% were from Astoria, and the most frequently mentioned issues were drivers disregarding traffic signals, the lack of protected bike lanes, double parking, excessive speeding, unsafe intersection and other safety concerns.
“What we want to do on 31st is keep vehicles that don’t need to be there, off the corridor,” said Theodore Wright, director of bicycle and greenway programs at DOT. “Protected bike lanes in Manhattan, they’re large avenues. That was easy to take away a lane, not so easy around here. We have to look at trade-offs.”
DOT officials set up tables for residents to give their feedback on three different stretches of 31st Avenue leaving suggestions on sticky notes. DOT will return to the community with a proposal early next year. During their opening remarks, the Astoria elected officials reminded their constituents of the urgency involved in bringing street safety to the neighborhood.
“This is another step for us in a longer fight and battle for street safety but really what we’re talking about is dignity and quality of life and making sure that the next generation doesn’t have to deal with the same issues as we’ve been dealing with,” state Senator Kristen Gonzalez said.
Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán said it is her and her colleagues in government job to push the DOT, and it is their constituents’ job to push them. She said a 40% rise in traffic fatalities in Queens so far in 2023 is unacceptable.
“Something’s got to give,” Cabán said. “We have made a commitment together to make sure that we do something. If it saves lives, it’s worth doing.”
Mamdani said the set of priorities they set out during the workshop were urgent and necessary and must be implemented immediately across the neighborhood.
“This is our one moment to advocate for the comprehensive streetscape that we know we need because no one in Astoria just goes across one avenue,” Mamdani said. “It is one thing for us to say it, it is another thing for each of you to say this to every single person who represents you in government.”
State Senator Michael Gianaris said that only by the community and the local legislators working together can lead to positive change.
“Astorians have seen tremendous tragedy on our streets for years, so I am glad the DOT is finally taking the needed steps to improve our safety,” Gianaris said. “I appreciate the many neighbors who came out and participated, the partnership from the NYCDOT that made this happen, and the collaboration with my elected colleagues. Working together, we will keep delivering the improvements our community needs.”
Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane.