Signed up! Protesters line Prospect Park West with 20-mile-per-hour speed limit signs

Signed up! Protesters line Prospect Park West with 20-mile-per-hour speed limit signs
Community Newspaper Group / Nathan Tempey

They’re ped up.

A crew of road safety activists sick of waiting for the city to lower speed limits took matters into their own hands on Saturday night, posting faux 20-mile-per-hour speed limit signs along Prospect Park West, the road that lost a lane of car traffic to a controversial bike lane in 2010 and where a 12-year-old boy was killed by a van in early October.

“The idea that my kids would be taking their life into their hands when they get on a bike or cross the street here is ridiculous,” said Ben Shepard, a Gowanus activist whose kids attend school near Prospect Park West.

Shepard and eight others with the revived 1990s-era group Right of Way strung 10 of the simulation signs on lampposts running the length of the thoroughfare despite icy winds that at times threatened to knock over their ladder and send their protest placards airborne. The recent death of Samuel Cohen Eckstein should serve as a wake-up call for politicians and transportation planners who are weighing whether to reduce speed limits in residential areas to 20-miles-per-hour, the activists said.

“My son is the same age as Sammy and goes to the same school, MS 41, and I know his dad,” said Red Hooker Alan Mukamal, a founding Right of Way member who came out of activist retirement for the protest. “I couldn’t not do anything.”

The walk-by-night demonstration occurred three and a half weeks after Cohen-Eckstein’s parents testified before the Council in support of the Safe Streets Act that would lower the speed limit on residential streets narrower than 60 feet to 20-miles-per-hour, which has languished in the Council for the last two years.

Cohen Eckstein ran into the street chasing a soccer ball and, though he had the light when he entered the road, it quickly changed and the driver, who entered the intersection without slowing, could not stop in time, his mother Amy Cohen said, arguing that a lower speed limit could have saved her son’s life.

“Our family has suffered an unspeakable loss,” she said. “We only hope that something positive comes from Sammy’s death and are pleased that there seems to be growing concern and pressure to make our streets safer.”

Police do not suspect speeding to have been a factor in the crash that took Cohen-Eckstein’s life, the New York Post reported, and the investigation is closed and no criminal charges have been filed, according to Cohen. At last month’s hearing, she and her husband pointed to federal data that shows pedestrians have a 19 out of 20 chance of survival if they are struck by a car traveling at 20 miles-per-hour compared to a 12 in 20 chance at 30.

But the safe streets crusaders with Right of Way say that the slow-down bill is beside the point as the city’s Department of Transportation has said itself that it can lower speed limits on its own on roads within a quarter-mile of a school. Two-thirds of New York’s streets fit that bill, according to WNYC, as do all but one-and-a-half blocks of Park Slope, according to neighborhood civic groups that in 2011 applied to make the neighborhood a so-called “Slow Zone,” complete with lowered speed limits, speed humps, and other traffic-calming measures. The transportation department rejected the application because the neighborhood logged relatively few auto-crash deaths and injuries, according to Eric McClure, co-founder of Park Slope Neighbors, one of the groups behind the failed bid.

“We applaud what Right of Way is doing,” McClure said. “The effort to make New York City’s streets safer sometimes calls for working through official channels and, at other times, guerrilla action is more than justified.”

Cohen Eckstein’s death was still fresh in the minds of some of the people out walking on Prospect Park West on Saturday night. One dad strolling with his two sons wanted to know what all the flashing cameras, bikes, and the telescoping ladder were about and was surprised to learned that it had to do with his boys’ late classmate.

“These guys knew him, so I guess we approve,” said Peter Reuther of the protest.

The fatal crash hit MS 51 hard, the family said.

“There was basically no school for two days,” his son Josef, 13, remembered. The boy had been invited to Cohen-Eckstein’s bar mitzvah, which would have been Nov. 16.

Another curious passerby said that the speed limits are just fine the way they are — enforcement and punishment are the real issue.

“They should give you a life sentence if you kill someone with your car,” said Menhart Friedman of Borough Park. “Lowering the speed limit will just make more traffic.”

Two other Brooklyn kids have been killed by cars in recent weeks, including a 9-year-old crushed by a sports-utility vehicle in Fort Greene and a 5-year-old run mowed down by a Cadillac Escalade in Sunset Park.

The Department of Transportation removed the signs on Monday morning, an agency spokesman said.

Reach Nathan Tempey at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4504. Follow him at twitter.com/nathantempey.
Prospect Park Test: Protesters affixed simulation speed limit signs reading “20 is Plenty” along the length of Prospect Park West on Nov. 23.
Community Newspaper Group / Nathan Tempey