Editor’s note: This Brooklyn News Service story first appeared in City Limits.
By RENEE HARARI
On a Sunday afternoon in October 2013, 4-year-old Allison Liao was mowed down and killed by a motorist as she crossed a street with the light in Flushing, Queens. She had a sleepover at her grandmother’s house the night before, and her parents and older brother, Preston, were attempting to make gluten-free bread 10 minutes away at their Fresh Meadows home.
“We got a text from my nephew saying, ‘Please hurry back something happened with Allison,'” says her father, Hsi-Pei Liao. “We didn’t know what happened.”
When Allison’s parents arrived at the emergency room at New York Hospital Queens, they saw her grandmother crying and chanting Chinese grief prayers in a private room, and then they spotted Allison’s bloody shoes on the floor. Some 20 hospital workers were trying their hardest to resuscitate his daughter.
That Sunday afternoon, Allison Liao died.
Heartbreaking stories like these happen all of the time in New York City. City records show that vehicles kill or seriously injure someone in New York every two hours, and being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14. On average, 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes.
Roughly six weeks into his term, Mayor de Blasio sought to address this problem by launching Vision Zero, an idealistic plan to eliminate traffic fatalities in New York City. Since then he’s encountered opposition on a variety of fronts—especially to the use of cameras that ticket thousands of speeders—but over the past year and a half, Vision Zero has already begun to have a significant impact on the safety of city streets. Although traffic crashes have increased by 1 percent citywide, traffic fatalities decreased approximately 12 percent in January through September 2015 compared to the year before, according to New York City Motor Vehicle Collision data.
In addition, during the first 10 months of this year there was a 2.5 percent drop in the number of people with serious injuries from traffic crashes compared to the same period last year, according to Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates for safer streets in New York City.
Slowing things down
One of the city’s most important Vision Zero measures so far has been the focus on forcing drivers to slow down. In October 2014, de Blasio signed legislation that reduced the city’s default speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour.
“Speed kills,” says Carl Berkowitz, a transportation and traffic-engineering expert who has served as a litigation consultant since 1997. “When something takes places there’s perception reaction time. The slower you go the more time you have to react. That’s why speed counts.”
Besides lowering the citywide default speed limit to 25 miles per hour, de Blasio has been cracking down on speeding drivers with increased enforcement. According to a report by CBS, officers wrote 6,600 tickets in November 2013, but in November 2014, the same month as the citywide speed change, 13,606 tickets were written out. In 2014, vehicle crashes near speed cameras declined 3.9 percent, and crashes with injuries dropped by 13.4 percent where speed cameras were present, according to WNYC.
Despite these numbers, many New Yorkers are furious about the new installations of speed cameras in their neighborhoods. Fed up Brooklyn residents recently started a petition on change.org urging de Blasio to restore the speed limit of a major street, Ocean Parkway, to its original 30 miles per hour. Beyond simply signing the petition, many people left comments expressing their annoyance with the reduced speed limit and increased enforcement. The top-ranked comment, with 17 likes, said that the city needs to “change the speed or change the mayor.” Other people who signed the petition left comments that accused the city of lowering the speed limit to make more money, and some said that the new speed limit causes longer commute times.
“The reduced speed limit is great on some streets, but on others I feel like it leads to greater stress,” said Allison Tawil, 20, a New York City motorist who lives near Ocean Parkway but did not sign the petition. “On the bigger streets drivers want to drive fast and will do so whether there’s a speed limit or not. I don’t think that speed cameras help drivers reduce speed.”
Brooklyn residents who commented on the petition are not the only ones who are skeptical about the lower speed limit and increased presence of speed cameras. The American Automobile Association in New York has questioned whether the city is being transparent enough about its cameras.
“We have skepticism overall about camera enforcement,” says Alec Slatky, a legislative analyst at AAA New York. “We’re supportive, but we recognize ‘Hey, this is something that can work,’ but it certainly has the potential for abuse and we’ve seen that elsewhere. The technology is being used improperly around the country.”
Slatky says that the city hasn’t been releasing enough data about camera enforcement. In the most recent report that the city released, it only released borough-wide data from the last couple of years instead of producing several years’ worth of data for specific intersections. With data on specific intersections, the public would be able to see where cameras are effective and which locations should be changed.
“People want to know that the cameras are being operated transparently,” Slatky says. “These things can work. We just want to make sure that they do work, and if they don’t we want to put them somewhere that they might.”
Addressing traffic patterns
In addition to a lower speed limit, Vision Zero has enabled the city to plan for more traffic calming measures. In some neighborhoods, the city has already created more bike lanes, redesigned dangerous intersections with safer layouts, increased traffic enforcement and starting educating the public about safer driving habits.
Sam Schwartz, a leading transportation expert who is responsible for popularizing the term “gridlock” to describe stalled New York City traffic, speculates that recent changes in traffic patterns have led to less severe crashes.
“Fewer injuries and fewer deaths generally means that the crashes are less severe, and that is often a result of speed,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes with some of the [Vision Zero] designs you do get more rear end collisions if, indeed, the timing was changed to make the intersections safer. You may get more crashes, but they may not be as severe.”
Schwartz says that Vision Zero may not be entirely to blame for the one percent increase in crashes.
“Crashes over time do have spikes that are unexplainable, and they have dips that are also unexplainable,” Schwartz says. “We have lots of blips that occur because crashes are sometimes a function of things beyond our control.”
Atlantic Avenue is one of the four city streets that are part of Vision Zero’s Great Streets program, which will redesign the city’s most dangerous arteries. The mayor recently announced that as part of the Great Streets program, Atlantic Avenue will receive a $60 million makeover from Pennsylvania Avenue to Rockaway Parkway to make it less treacherous for motorists and pedestrians.
“It’s very dangerous,” says Terrel Davis, a utility worker who was ordering lunch from Wendy’s on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Logan Street shortly after noontime on Sunday, October 11. “It’s too many cars too close. It’s busy on both sides, and like a million cars pass a day through here.”
The plan promises to make Atlantic Avenue safer by raising and extending pedestrian medians for safer street crossing and adding left-turn lanes at some intersections, but some intersections on this stretch of Atlantic Avenue have already begun to see a drop in the number of crashes per year from de Blasio’s Vision Zero changes.
“That’s a terrible intersection,” says Walter Campbell, the district manager at Community Board 5, which includes that stretch of Atlantic Avenue. “We recognize that intersection is very very bad, and we’ve always put in for the Department of Transportation to do some type of study at that intersection.”
The community board’s requests seem to have paid off. They led the Department of Transportation to do a close study of Atlantic Avenue and come up with a plan to combat the high number of deaths and serious injuries from crashes at several different intersections, including the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Logan Street, which was classified as a hotspot location for collisions. The Department of Transportation proposed to install raised center medians, create pedestrian refugees, add left turn bays and left turn bans, create curb extensions, and allow for midblock crossing along Atlantic Avenue.
While these changes still have not yet been made, other changes, like the lower speed limit, increased enforcement, presence of speed cameras, and placement of signs warning motorists to watch out for pedestrians, have already had an impact on crashes at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Logan Street in East New York. The number of crashes at the intersection fell from 54 in the first nine months of 2013 compared with 32 over the same period this year. That is a 40 percent decrease in crashes.
“Normally when I come everything seems like it’s moving pretty clearly,” says Bernice Reuben, who recently started working at the Wendy’s on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Logan Street. The number of people injured from collisions dropped from 26 to 9 from January to September 2013 to the same period this year. There haven’t been any deaths over the past two years.
“Before opening here there were a lot of accidents,” says Jose Tavera, who helps his friend run a new restaurant on Atlantic Avenue and Logan Street called El Cacique Restaurant and Bar. “People learn to be careful.”
The only changes so far have been the reduced 25 miles per hour speed limit, some new signs cautioning turning vehicles to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk and increased enforcement, but local residents have begun to notice that their dangerous intersection has started to change for the better.
“I know the [speed] cameras so I don’t want to get tickets, but it’s not easy, this law with 25 miles per hour,” Davis says about a new speed camera installed three blocks away. “There’s definitely more police presence down there and it makes a difference.”
Dangerous intersections remain
However, not all of the city’s neighborhoods have changed for the better. The intersection where Allison Liao was killed has actually seen an increase in the number of people injured from collisions: from zero in the first nine months of 2014 to four the same period this year. “There seems to be a lot more that needs to be done,” Liao’s father says. “We know the Department of Transportation is making changes and working with the community. For our family we don’t see the changes as fast enough.”
Many others agree with Liao, claiming that the city is doing too little, too slowly to make the city safer. “The faster a street is redesigned so that people are less likely to be hurt while using that street, the more injuries and deaths can be prevented in the long run,” says Ollie Oliver, field organizing coordinator at Transportation Alternatives. “We’ve always been pushing the city to do more.”
Many New Yorkers take the opposite position and believe that Vision Zero should stop lowering speed limits and increasing enforcement because it causes longer commute times. According to Schwartz, there has been slightly more than a one percent increase in traffic over the past year, but he does not attribute that change to Vision Zero.
“From 2014 to 2015 we have been seeing an increase in general traffic, and that’s partially due to lower gas prices, partially due to the economy doing better…and partially due to having more of the taxi type service vehicles on the road,” Schwartz says. “I don’t think we have enough evidence to say Vision Zero has contributed to it.”
The improvement in pedestrian safety over the past year didn’t help Allison Liao, who packed up her toy purse to pretend pay for some watermelon and was killed moments later when she was sucked under the back tire of a two-ton Nissan Murano SUV driven by Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha.
“The important question to ask is what is an acceptable number of deaths every year as a result of transportation?” Oliver says. “What is that number? Because if you say you think more than zero people, you’re basically saying that the speed and ease of getting from place to place is more important than someone’s life.”
Vision Zero still has a long way to go before the city’s traffic fatalities can reach any number close to zero, but seeing a 12 percent decrease in the number of fatalities over the past year is a positive indication that Vision Zero is off to a strong start.
“Those numbers are very encouraging and it helps us continue what were doing,” Liao says. “The goal is still for zero and it might be some times before we get there, but hopefully we’ll see it in our time frame. It’s nice to know that we are making a difference.”
Photo: Top, flowers commemorate Allison Liao at the Queens intersection where she was killed in 2013. Photos by Renee Harari.