Two Birds with One Design: Affordable Housing & The Boulevard of Death

Queens Boulevard, Queens, New York. Before & After, looking southeast from 67th Road.
Massengale & Co LLC and Urban Advantage for Transportation Alternatives

Click on any of the images to see a larger version
More photos here

QUEENS BOULEVARD is one of the most dangerous streets in New York City. Sixty percent of the traffic fatalities in New York happen on ten percent of the streets, and Queens Boulevard is one of the two or three most dangerous of those. But it’s also the central artery of Queens, with five subway lines that run underneath it and a number of bus lines that run along it or across it, and in some stretches the Long Island Railroad is nearby. With a new 25 mile per hour speed limit and New York City’s new Vision Zero policies, Queens Boulevard is in a position to become dramatically different—and it may become one of the best places for the DeBlasio administration’s to zone for some of the affordable housing it wants to see.

You can see in the “Before” photo above that the market has clearly said over the years that housing away from the artery (even just half a block away) is more desirable for most than being right on the boulevard. Even the main shopping is one block away from the boulevard in some locations. The most obvious reasons for that are the 12 lanes of parking and traffic, with lots of pavement and few trees. But in Europe, “multi-way boulevards” (boulevards with separate side lanes like the ones on Queens Boulevard) are some of the great streets in the great cities, like the Champs Elysées and the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, or the Gran Via or the Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona.

What makes those wide, heavily trafficked streets different from Queens Boulevard? Two of the most important differences are the grand allées of majestic street trees and the fact that the side lanes in Europe are designed to be places where pedestrians want to be. Compared to the European streets, Queens Boulevard is barren, and the cars on the wide side lanes go as fast as the cars in the center. Plus, even though there usually aren’t a lot of pedestrians on Queens Boulevard, the sidewalks can be so narrow that they become congested.

The two After images, made for the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, began with visions of streets and wider sidewalks. The wider sidewalks make the side lanes narrower, so that they become slow lanes where cars have to share the space with cyclists and pedestrians. Next to the traffic lanes are protected bicycle planes, planted with permeable pavement which makes the trees part of a natural stormwater management system at the same time that it gives the roots room to grow.

The result is that more than 60 feet on each side of the boulevard becomes a place where pedestrians are comfortable. Coming out of the subways, they could stay on Queens Boulevard, and their greater numbers and the wider sidewalks would create a place for stores, restaurants, and cafés to flourish. Above those stores and restaurants could be new apartments, in tall buildings appropriately sized for the unusually wide street. And crossing the street would be much easier than it is today, because the heavy traffic volume would be limited to the six center lanes. Those lanes will have a new 25 mile per hour speed limit, and with this plan they would also have a wider, planted median, much like the one on Park Avenue, in Manhattan. Building sites that have been handicapped for more than three-quarters of a century would suddenly be unusual and desirable, with great access to the subway and to a beautiful and lively boulevard at the front door.

QB-ground-action Queens Boulevard, Queens, New York. Before & After, looking southeast from 67th Road.
Massengale & Co LLC and Urban Advantage for Transportation Alternatives

From Reclaim (click on the images for larger versions):

Download the images in a small PDF
Download Reclaim at Transportation Alternatives
Larger images at

PS: In response to an email about these images, I wrote:

The images do not reflect the standard DOT approach of focusing primarily on the intersections. Traffic engineers do that because the intersections are where traffic flow is interrupted and traffic comes into conflict, with itself and with pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, the vision begin with making places where people want to be, and that naturally changes the emphasis to the space between the intersections. Jan Gehl rightfully says that city life takes place in the space between the buildings. And those buildings are between the intersections.

The most successful national retailers don’t allow fancy paving and streetscape “improvements” in front of their stores, because they want people looking at their storefronts instead of at the pavement or the benches. Similarly, a wholistic design for the public focuses on the space between the buildings rather than on the intersections. The designs by engineers and specialists that focus attention on the intersections weaken the public realm for everyone on foot.

Making streets where pedestrians and cyclists are comfortable naturally leads to streets where cars are going more slowly, and that leads to less conflict at the intersections. Implicit in the images is the idea that stop signs would replace stop lights in many places along the edges, and that there would be a greater lack of signs altogether. The center lanes would still have traffic lights, but cars in the side lanes would frequently come to complete stops at all times. Also part of the design is that on the edges, the parking lanes would be 7 feet wide, which is narrow, and the traffic lanes would be either 9 or even 8 feet wide, which is also narrow. That also causes drivers to go slowly, like the bollards that protect the trees. The trees, all traditional street trees such as Sycamores and London Planes, would be planted with Silva Cells below permeable pavement (creating a natural stormwater management system, as well as a healthier environment for the trees).

Traffic on the center lanes would flow as well as it does today, but more slowly, because slower is safer. Pedestrians now have to cross 8 wide lanes of fast-flowing traffic and 2 wide parking lanes, which is difficult to do during the sixty-second light cycle. If the traffic in the side lanes goes very slowly, however, the crossing is effectively reduced to the 6 center lanes, with a wide, planted median at the center. Crossing Queens Boulevard would be easier, safer, and more pleasant.

Affordable Housing & The Boulevard of Death Followup

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6 Responses to Two Birds with One Design: Affordable Housing & The Boulevard of Death

  1. Pingback: Two Birds with One Design: Affordable Housing and the Boulevard of Death - STREET DESIGN

  2. I value the proposed safety improvements, the increased tree canopy, and the new street lamps. However, I don’t see the need for high-rise after high-rise, especially in a predictable modern architectural style. An increase in condos will contribute to overdevelopment and congestion. There are some architecturally distinctive low-rise commercial buildings that would be demolished, if your rendering would become a reality. There are cases where preservation and development can co-exist.

  3. This is very elegant, John. Many thanks. Right now, Queens Boulevard is a street so unpleasant to walk on that it could make people move to the suburbs. These suggestions are improvements. Are they your designs? One assumption in your treatment that I find hard to believe is that pedestrians can share space successfully over the long term with cyclists. In New York City, not only do cyclists get killed by cars, but pedestrians get killed by cyclists. Yes, I have seen the videos of slow-moving traffic in the U.K. that includes cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. It’s just hard to believe that such good British behavior would prevail for long among bicycle messengers in New York City.

    My second concern is that you stop with the pedestrians, while we need to plan at the same time for pedestrians’ experience and for the entire urban scene. Although you cite the Champs Elysees as a model for good street design, and in many ways it is, it has become anything but pleasant. It is full of T-shirt shops, international retailers, and petty crime. That is why Paris City Hall, the origin of so many bad ideas, has come up with a big plan for re-design of the Champs Elysees. I submit that when we plan for streets, the whole urban scene must be part of the same plan.

    Lovely suggestions!



    • Mary,

      Take a look at the shared space ideas of people like Hans Monderman and Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The safest streets in the world are the ones where obstacles like trees (FHOs or Fixed Hazardous Objects in traffic engineering terms) and pedestrians (MHOs, or Moving Hazardous Objects) are not removed the streets, which forces drivers to slow down. Paris is doing this with its new speed limits—the slower limits are for shared spaces.

      Notice that there are three types of Queens Boulevard bike lanes in the image: protected lanes and slow-speed sharrows are just two of those. Cyclists who want to go fast would move out to the 25-mph bus lanes along the outside edges of the center lanes. Cyclists would not be able to go fast in the sharrows, because cars would be driving slowly and pulling in and out of the parking lanes, and people would be crossing the slow-speed lanes on their way to their parked cars.

      You’re right about the Champs Elysées, which in some ways is the Times Square of Paris. But many of the buildings are the same elegant buildings that were there when the Champs Elysées was more elegant. Uses come and go. The current uses come from the city’s plan, just as the current uses in Times Square come from New York City’s plan. But I think you wrote this before Paris released the new plan for the Champs Elysées, which is not a good one.

      You’re right about the big picture, which is precisely what I’m talking about. Queens Boulevard is now one of the most dangerous streets in New York, but it is also transit-rich and has many under-utilized building sites. Bringing VisionZero and affordable housing to the central artery of Queens is planning.


  4. Pingback: Affordable Housing & The Boulevard of Death Followup » There are two types of architecture—good architecture, and the other kind

  5. Pingback: To Stop Pedestrian Deaths NYC Must Change How it Builds Streets - STREET DESIGN

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