By Kim Plummer
Margaret Human, 66, moved to New Paltz after she retired. She wanted to be closer to her grandchildren. She chose New Paltz because she could be a pedestrian here.
“It’s hard for people to stop driving,” Human said. “If you haven’t set your life up consciously to be in a place where you don’t have to drive you’re suddenly trapped at home.”
In New York State, drivers in either lane of traffic are required, by law, to yield once a pedestrian enters the crosswalk. With drivers disregarding the law, pedestrians are forced to become more aggressive in the crosswalks or wait stranded on the corner. Safety in the crosswalks has become a concern in the town of New Paltz.
“Drivers are pretty good at stopping if you’re in their lane,” Human said. “But then people get stranded waiting for the drivers in the other lane to stop. They’re supposed to stop, but they don’t. Maybe drivers feel like it’s too much to stop.”
Two years after moving to New Paltz, Human joined the Bicycle Pedestrian Committee (BPC) to make the crosswalks safer.
“A lot of people walking are kids or older people,” Human said. “I’m not that young, but I can still hear and see things well.”
The mission of the BPC is to create a safer environment for cyclists and pedestrians. The committee uses various programs to make drivers more aware that they need to share the roads.
The BPC’s last project started in April 2008. The program promotes the use of pedestrian flags in the crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible to drivers.
Alan Stout, chair of the BPC, says the idea for the program came from other cities using it. The program encourages pedestrians to hold the bright orange flags when traveling in the crosswalk and then return the flags to the canisters on either side of the street for the next pedestrian.
Right now, pedestrian flags are only available at the crosswalk on Main Street by the Water Street Market, connecting to the Rail Trail.
Maggie Broderick, 20, a third-year anthropology major at SUNY New Paltz, said she thought the flags make pedestrians more visible.
“The flags remove the ‘Should I go?’ or ‘Should I wait?’ hesitation I feel when I’m waiting at the crosswalk,” Broderick said. “I think the flags will make it clear to drivers they need to stop. If someone’s holding a flag you know they’re crossing the street.”
However, Broderick feels that the pedestrian flag program would be most beneficial in uptown New Paltz. She said the most foot traffic seems to be at the crosswalks where Plattekill meets Main Street.
The crosswalk at Plattekill and Main Street seems to be particularly troubling for pedestrians because it is a difficult intersection for drivers to navigate. The Starbucks at the intersection, which expanded the building closer to the road in its original construction, creates a blind spot for drivers on Plattekill who can’t see the east bound traffic on Main Street. With pedestrians becoming more aggressive and drivers inching out to compensate for the blind spot, the corner has become increasingly dangerous.
Stout said that they have considered expanding the pedestrian flag program, but it’s a difficult process since you need the permission of whoever owns the road. The village controls the crosswalk by the Water Street Market, Stout said, and getting permission from them was “not a problem.”
However, the rest of Main Street, east of Chestnut, including the Plattekill/Main Street intersection, belongs to the state. In order to expand the program into those crosswalks, the BPC would need permission from New York State to build on those crosswalks.
Stout said that the process is a long one since they’d have to file several different applications.
Instead of expanding that program, the committee really wants to focus on signs in the crosswalk, reminding drivers that it is a state law to yield to pedestrians.
Stout said in order to get the signs they have to apply for permission from New York State. He said usually it is granted.
He said that their request had been approved once before, about four years ago. However, Stout said that miscommunication regarding the maintenance of the signs led to the end of the program.
According to Lt. Steven Osarczuk of the New Paltz Police Department, the Department of Transportation had requested that the signs be removed from the crosswalks.
“The Department of Transportation said the signs were a hazard for snow plows,” Lt. Osarczuk said. “Also, tractor trailers that are required to use Main Street, because it’s a state road, had to move the signs in order to pass.”
Osarczuk said that the signs eventually became a burden because they were expensive to replace and they were constantly getting knocked around.
Stout said that regardless of police involvement, a main goal of the BPC is to get those signs back in the crosswalks on Main Street.
“I met with the New Paltz Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Association and the New Paltz Senior Coalition this summer to get support for those signs,” Stout said. “They were unanimous. I actually feel like I could go to any community group and ask them if they thought the signs were a good idea, and they’d all say, ‘yes.'”
The Bicycle Pedestrian Committee has reapplied with New York State for the crosswalk signs. According to Stout, the plan this time is to keep the signs in the Main Street crosswalks 24 hours a day and to eliminate the need for police maintenance.
While the Committee awaits approval from the state for the signs, they have begun other pedestrian initiatives. The most recent project is the completion of the Pedestrian Master Plan.
Stout said it is a proposal based on a recent crosswalk survey by the BPC in the town and village of New Paltz. It outlines what sidewalks need updating, which crosswalks need repainting and suggestions for new crosswalks.
Stout said the proposal has been adopted by the village board. However, they’re still working with the town board.
Recently, police officers have been handing out informational cards to drivers and pedestrians. The cards inform drivers that it is state law to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. It also informs pedestrians that it is against the law to jay-walk and that it is dangerous.
Lt. Osarczuk said that he believes pedestrian safety is an issue because people, both drivers and pedestrians, are unaware of it.
“The brochures are part of a larger educational movement,” he said.
Currently, the New Paltz Police Department is producing PSA’s regarding pedestrian safety for radio stations. They are also working with New Paltz Town Supervisor Toni Hokanson to produce an informational video that will be seen on both the New Paltz Public Access Channel and at the New Paltz Cinema.
Stout said he was pleased to hear about the police initiatives to make the streets safer for pedestrians and drivers.
“One great thing about downtown New Paltz is the number of pedestrians,” Stout said. “There are a lot of people on the streets. It’s a really good thing. A lot of communities would love to have that kind of foot traffic. We want to protect and encourage it however we can.”