A couple of years ago, the Queens Activist Committee of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (TAQ) approached Hunter College with an idea for a planning studio. Queens Boulevard, an arterial road slicing diagonally through the borough from Long Island City to Jamaica, has for years maintained its reputation as the “Boulevard of Death” despite the New York City Department of
Transportation’s (NYC DOT) attempts to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Many TAQ members felt that NYC DOT’s approach was piecemeal, unambitious, and lacking in imagination. Could planning students do better?
That’s what we spent the 2014-2015 school year trying to do. We have looked at Queens Boulevard from every angle—its history; the demographic characteristics of the people who live on and around it; the zoning and uses of the land that surrounds it; the way it looks and feels to people in cars, on foot, and on bikes; and of course its physical characteristics as a street. We even tried to get into the minds of the people who use it, to figure out how they could stop endangering themselves and others.
What we found was an anachronism from the mid-20th Century: a concrete delivery system to get cars, most of them from other parts of the City or Long Island, into Manhattan and back again. Its history suggests that Queens Boulevard, from its earliest days, was designed to achieve this goal as quickly as possible, with few pesky distractions in the form of speed limit enforcement, traffic lights, buses, or people with the nerve to walk or ride a bike instead of drive a car.
While Queens Boulevard performs this function with depressing efficiency, it also has effects that we can hope were unintended. It acts as a tall and forbidding wall between the neighborhoods above and below it. Its appearance, ranging from grim and desolate to merely ugly over most of the length of the corridor, drives most of the people who have to go there to leave as soon as possible. And every year, except for a short-lived hiatus in 2011, pedestrians are killed there.
Queens Boulevard has been a thoroughfare long enough. We think it’s time it became a destination. Our plan can serve as a roadmap.