Morning rush hour at the corner of College Street and North Frontage Road. Interstates 91 and 95 feed traffic‒an estimated 70,000 cars per day‒into the Route 34 Connector, then onto North Frontage. The third and final exit at York Street is closed because of construction, so now all drivers go through just two exits. Traffic flows west on North Frontage, also called Martin Luther King Boulevard, to College Street. At that intersection many drivers turn south, but they are slowed by the closing of the eastern half of the College Street bridge for renovations.
Pedestrians‒including students, staff, and faculty traveling to or from the School of Medicine campus‒cluster on the intersection’s northwest corner as they wait to cross. A red light halts the Frontage Road traffic, but then College street traffic gets a green light, and many drivers turn west onto North Frontage Road. Pedestrians must wait.
The construction is part of a massive project called Downtown Crossing‒a mixed-use development of apartments, offices, and businesses‒that was designed to undo an urban renewal project of the 1960s, revitalize the neighborhood, and reconnect downtown with the medical school and the Hill neighborhood. [ See “Reconnecting the medical school and downtown New Haven,” Yale Medicine, Spring 2013] Work on the roadways began in March and the project’s first phase will see the conversion of the Connector into an urban boulevard. A 12-story building with offices, research labs, and retail outlets will rise between the College Street bridge and the Air Rights Garage. While there is a consensus that rebuilding the area will ultimately make for a safer and more vibrant neighborhood, many at the school of medicine worry about safety. A recent traffic and safety survey elicited 773 responses from the medical school‒the top three issues were dangerous intersections, dangerous pedestrian crossings, and aggressive drivers.
“Many of the concerns related to these intersections are related to the construction impact on traffic due to the Route 34 project,” said Kirsten Bechtel, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, and chair of the university’s traffic safety committee. “Our committee has been working with the city and New Haven Police Department to address these concerns.” The southern bridge crossing at South Frontage Road and College Street is a particular worry. The bridge work slows traffic and leaves pedestrians with long waits for crossing signals. Some cross against the light when they spot a lull in traffic. “You have to watch for turning vehicles from South Frontage onto College if you are crossing College on the same side as the Child Study Center,” said Bechtel. “This is problematic for pedestrians because of the high volume of traffic on South Frontage.”
Bechtel and traffic committee members meet regularly with city officials to discuss their concerns. The city, said Jim Travers, director of New Haven’s Department of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking, has taken several measures to mitigate traffic problems. A recent traffic enforcement blitz led to 139 tickets issued in one week. Safety crossing-guards are now posted at key intersections at peak times. Pedestrian signals have been modified to help people safely cross the intersections. And the city is working with the New Haven Parking Authority, which manages the Air Rights Garage, to inform drivers of alternate routes to the interstates in order to ease congestion near the medical campus. The city, Travers said, remains committed to improving conditions for all users during construction and through completion of the project.
Early next year, Travers said, exit 2 will close, which will have all vehicles leaving Route 34 at exit 1. To accommodate the increased traffic volume, North Frontage Road will have three through lanes. That new configuration, Travers said, will allow for better flow with fewer conflicts.
“We face a challenge anywhere in the city where we have signals so close to each other,” Travers said. “We have the exit 2 signal followed by the College Street signal. A lot of activity is taking place in a very short space. Once we do the next phase, where we remove exit 2, traffic will flow and you will have more opportunities to do lane changes to get where you need to be.”Improving traffic flow will also benefit pedestrians, Travers said.
“They really go hand in hand,” he said. “It’s about a shared roadway. If we can avoid people having to weave in a short distance across a roadway, the driver’s not going to get stuck in the middle of the intersection, which has a negative impact on pedestrians. It all works together.”
Anyone traveling in the area of construction is urged to sign up for email updates on roadway changes. To sign up visit http://downtowncrossingnewhaven.com/.