The assistant professor of biology at LaGuardia Community College and transportation advocate had just wrapped up teaching a class in the school’s C Building.
When he walked out, he noticed “a whole bunch of police activity” on the other side of the street. But as a “time-obsessed New Yorker,” he kept walking back to his office.
When Jacob arrived at his desk, he found out that 16-year-old Tenzin Drudak, a sophomore at Applied Communications High School on the LaGuardia campus, was killed by a red minivan that had swerved onto the sidewalk on Thomson Avenue.
Drudak, who was from Elmhurst, was pronounced dead. Four other pedestrians were injured.
The incident crystallized for Jacob and many other students and faculty the dangerous conditions surrounding LaGuardia Community College. It also began their push for street safety changes that continues today.
“Our sidewalks are overflowing,” he said. “We have a lot of pedestrians and not enough space for them.”
More than six years after Drudak’s death, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has made several alterations to intersections and the streets. But many of the college’s faculty and students say more needs to be done.
Last Wednesday, Jacob convened dozens of people at the school to renew the call for a safer Thomson Avenue. He reviewed the timeline of events, starting with Drudak’s death, that led to the changes.
Immediately after the fatal incident, DOT proposed closing a slip lane at Thomson Avenue and Skillman Avenue, which they later did.
In 2017, the agency released a plan for Thomson Avenue, centered on widening the sidewalk by six feet. But according to Jacob, DOT would have reduced the north side of the street by 10 feet, adding four feet to the roadway.
LaGuardia’s faculty and staff, including Jacob, criticized the plan.
“It was somewhat offensive to talk about widening the street when we had a fatality,” he said. “You’re basically prioritizing the needs of cars and drivers over the lives of pedestrians and cyclists.”
Advocates presented an alternative plan, which would have not only widened the sidewalk, but also added bike lanes, planted more trees and created a “campus feel” for the school.
The car lanes would have been designed as a “school zone” to slow down vehicles.
When the DOT plan was first proposed, Jacob said, LaGuardia was supposed to pay for its own sidewalk extension, which was estimated at $17 million.
That May, at a town hall hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mayor announced that the city would pay for the redesign project.
Addressing past criticism of their plan, DOT came back in May 2018 to present another iteration. Jacob said he liked some parts of the proposal, including adding more crosswalks on the north side of the school.
Later, the DOT also converted 14 off-street parking spaces underneath the 7 train viaduct to create a pedestrian walkway to the school.
But he said faculty and students were “less than happy” that the sidewalk widening part was taken out of the project.
So far, Jacob said, there has been little action in 2019. But he did note that with the passing of congestion pricing in Albany this year, traffic volumes are expected to drop.
That begs the question of whether DOT will adjust their plan to “put people first,” he said.
“DOT has prioritized moving folks who want to get to and from Manhattan via car over the Queensboro Bridge over the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Jacob said. “That’s been the reality.’
At the speak-out event last week, faculty and students shared their horror stories of crossing the street, almost getting hit, or even in some cases, getting hit.
LaGuardia student Christian Ortiz recalled that last October he was leaving the campus late one night when he saw a fellow student struggle to get across the street.
Though they had the right of way, a car turning right was inching closer and closer into the crosswalk. Ortiz instinctively put his hands up to tell the car to stop.
“It was a situation that we shouldn’t have to deal with,” he said. “It’s either I go or you go, but we had to come to an agreement. I don’t think that’s right.
“It got to a point where I had to become a crosswalk officer,” Ortiz added. “I’d rather stand back and wave to let you go rather than put myself at risk.”
When asked what he would have liked to see changed, he said in the future he doesn’t want to see cars going through the intersection “when I’m crossing.”
A DOT spokesperson said the agency has brought safety enhancements from Van Dam Street to 33rd Street to better accommodate and protect high volumes of pedestrians around the college.
The Greenstreets triangle was modified to fit pedestrian ramps in the space, and the island is now passable for pedestrian use, the spokesperson said. Pedestrians can also access the triangle using three new signalized crosswalks.
The spokesperson added that DOT Street Ambassadors were on site on three different days in May to conduct surveys with students and community members. The agency is currently analyzing those surveys.
“Additionally, we are in the process of initiating a full traffic study, which we expect will be underway soon,” the spokesperson said in a statement.