Fighting for a Comprehensive Redesign of Northern Boulevard

Sumon Sarker was waiting to cross the street on the corner of Northern Boulevard and 69th street in Jackson Heights. As soon as the red signal turned white, Sarker started walking to the other side of the road in front of a series of lined up cars. But one car got out of the line speeding, crossed on red, almost running over Sarker. “I was so afraid,” he said.

Queens has a new boulevard of death: Northern Boulevard.

Transportation Alternatives, a transportation advocacy group, and Cristina Furlong, co-founder of Make Queens Safer, are fighting for the redesign of Northern Boulevard, their next fight after their recent success with making Queens Boulevard safer.

They are joining forces to promote comprehensive change in a street that has provoked an outraged number of accidents and deaths. “In 2013, there was a ten-month period where three children were killed along Northern Boulevard,” said Cristina Furlong.

The idea to create a petition for the redesign came right after 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero was killed on the corner of Northern Boulevard and 70th street in Jackson Heights. On April 30th 2018, Giovanni was crossing the street with his mother, when they were both hit by an 86-year-old driver who was making a left turn. At the intersection, Furlong created a vigil for Giovanni that still remains today. “We brought a lot of attention in Northern Boulevard. It is a place where children are known to cross it but it’s centered on cars,” Furlong said.

Rezaul Kawnain works at Dhaka Bazar, a store at the intersection of Northern Boulevard and 70th street. He crosses Northern Boulevard every single day and he noticed that people often speed and are careless with the left turn. “Left turn is the problem. When you make a left turn, you must think,” Kawnain said.

Northern Boulevard is part of New York State Route 25A and is considered a state highway, starting in Long Island and going up to New York City. “We have to get rid of the highway aspect of it and make it a road that connects communities,” Furlong said.

Juan Restrepo, team member for Transportation Alternatives, agreed. “Transit planners tend to think [Northern Boulevard] needs to be maintained for level of service for car use as opposed to neighborhood use,” said Restrepo. “These are streets that are very scary to walk on or to ride a bike on.”

Transportation Alternatives, or TransAlt as it is commonly known, was founded in 1973 with a clear mission: regain the streets from the automobile and promote other forms of transportation such as walking, biking and mass transit all around New York City. Restrepo has been working as Queens Organizer for TransAlt for almost two years. With the help of other team members and a big volunteer network, Restrepo promotes the organization’s mission in Queens, New York. “It’s not just me, that’s the reason why this job is bearable, otherwise it would be impossible,” he said.

This is not the first time Transportation Alternatives is behind a petition to make comprehensive changes to a street. They fought for the Queens Boulevard redesign, which is still undergoing change under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program, aiming to reduce crashes on the city streets. “Crashes have severely gone down and nobody’s been killed on the portion that has been redesigned,” Restrepo said. “Ironically, in the portion that hasn’t been redesigned, last year someone was killed.”

Advocates hope that Northern Boulevard will have the chance to undergo changes just like Queens Boulevard did. The petition has been circulating for two weeks and so far it has received 650 signatures. Furlong and TransAlt are also hoping to bring other organizations and neighborhood groups into their partnership to bolster the number of supporters.

“We are saving lives here,” Restrepo said. “It’s the ultimate goal.”

About Maria Florencia Smith

Maria Florencia Smith is a visual storyteller from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Through her reporting, she strives to create a safe space where marginalized people are being heard and can share their stories. Some of her interests are women's issues, culture and nutrition.