by ANDREA AUSTIN
Imagine a world in which every driver stops at a stoplight before it turns red, every taxi driver drives within the speed limit, and every child travels to and from school without getting struck by a distracted driver. To many it sounds like a distant fairy tale, especially in New York where someone is seriously injured or killed by a vehicle every two hours, according to the NYC Department of Transportation. This is exactly what Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to accomplish with Vision Zero, a plan that will try to reduce the number of traffic fatalities to zero by 2024.
In a bustling and crowded city like New York, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers can never be too cautious. Two hundred eighty-six people were killed in traffic accidents last year, which is a startling number that hints at impatience, carelessness and lack of focus.
Since de Blasio announced the Vision Zero initiative a year ago, a number of things have been implemented to reach its goal, though many New Yorkers feel the progress has been too slow.
Included in the plan are 63 specific initiatives managed by a number of departments including the New York City Police Department, Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, along with the Taxi and Limousine commission. The plan calls for more enforcement against speeding, added personnel, borough specific street safety plans and expanded neighborhood slow zones.
The Vision Zero policies were developed in Sweden and are “tried and tested ideas, ideas that work and have been working in other parts of the country. They’ve been working in other parts of the world,” said de Blasio in a press conference in February.
Minnesota and Washington are examples of states that have had success with similar Vision Zero policies. “Fatality rates there have fallen over 25 percent faster than the national average over the last decade or more,” said Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the NYC department of transportation.
One of the first goals the mayor had was to reduce the default speed limit to 25 mph, which was accomplished and went into effect on Nov. 7. This was just one of the 13 bills passed by the City Council connected to Vision Zero this year.
Another bill requires the department of transportation to install seven neighborhood slow zones in 2014 and 2015 and lower speeds to 15-20 mph near 50 schools annually.
The new default speed limit applies to about 90 percent of city streets. According to the Vision Zero website, reducing speed to 25 mph cuts the likelihood of a traffic fatality in half, though some doubt that busy New Yorkers will actually follow the new law.
So far, 90 signs have been put up that show the reduced speed, starting with gateways into the city, bridges, and places drivers are likely to notice the change. The Department of Transportation plans on putting 3,000 more signs around the city, focusing on key corridors.
“This is a process that is going to take some time,” said Trottenberg during an interview for the Brian Lehrer show. She said one of the main goals is to increase public awareness.
Chenelle McCarthy, 23, of Crown Heights is one of many pedestrians who feels unsafe while walking the city streets and is glad the speed limit has been lowered. If cars are driving slower, both the drivers and the pedestrians are more likely to notice one another, which could prevent serious injuries or fatalities.
“There’s so much technology now, everyone is texting or on the phone. Drivers get distracted too much. There’s less crossing guards than I remember growing up. We need more guards,” said McCarthy.
Keegan Stephan, an organizer for the organization Right of Way, is not confident that Vision Zero will significantly reduce traffic fatalities based on the amount of progress that has been made this year. Right of Way is a group that uses direct action and vibrant street art in order to raise awareness and make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The majority of pedestrians injured or killed by motorists are struck while using crosswalks or walking on sidewalks where they have the right of way, which is the reason for the group’s name.
“So far, they’re not on course,” said Stephan. “We’ve seen more bicycle fatalities this year than in the last five years and twice as many as last year.”
In terms of fatalities caused by bicyclists, just two pedestrians and two cyclists were killed in 2013, according to a report compiled by the NYC Department of Transportation and the NYC Police Department.
He said the Department of Transportation needs to continue to add more bike lanes in the city and “gain a sense of urgency about eliminating traffic fatalities and roll out the things that are proven to save lives without staying on the same pace as the last administration.”
“I think that the rhetoric is great, it’s sort of across the board from the administration but I think that the actions are lagging a little bit,” said Stephan. “We need far more action and implementation. We need the DOT to quickly redesign the streets to reflect the slower traffic and we need the NYPD to enforce the speed limit.”
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton spoke at a Vision Zero press conference last year and said some of the major issues were speeding and failure to yield at pedestrian intersections. In addition to police enforcement, some think district attorneys fail to prosecute drivers who have killed pedestrians and as a result, have not done their part to keep reckless drivers off the streets.
Three-year-old Allison Liao from Queens was run over and killed while walking with her grandmother in a crosswalk last year. Though they had the right of way, the driver, Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, was only issued summonses for failing to exercise due care and failing to yield to a pedestrian. However, they were quickly voided by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, and Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown refused to press criminal charges since the driver wasn’t impaired. A petition started through Change.org has received 16,940 signatures so far pleading with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to bring justice to Liao’s family and change the way reckless drivers are prosecuted.
Families for Safe Streets is a group mostly made up of families like Liao’s whose loved ones were killed due to reckless drivers or unsafe streets. It is just one of the many New York City based groups advocating safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
About a dozen members of the coalition, Pledge 2 Protect, rallied outside City Hall in November, shouting, “Hey, hey City Hall, Vision Zero for us all! Hey, hey de Blasio, we want safe streets, we want clean air!” Some held signs that read, “East 91st Street Garbage Dump=Zero Vision.” One sign quoted de Blasio back when he introduced Vision Zero on Jan. 15 and said, “This is a crisis that’s happening every day in our city…we have to act right now to protect lives.”
The dump they are referring to is the East 91st Street garbage transfer station that will bring up to 500 trucks a day through East Harlem and Yorkville, an area with 11 daycare centers, 16 schools and two senior centers. The coalition has proposed that the ramp be moved one block north to 92nd Street to reduce fatal accidents.
The station was proposed as part of the 2006 Comprehensive Solid Waste Management plan by the Bloomberg administration and is set to open in 2015. Garbage trucks are statistically the deadliest single-unit vehicles on the road to pedestrians. According to Pledge 2 Protect, 29 percent of all truck traffic fatalities between January and October of this year involved garbage trucks.
Yet trucks were accountable for only four percent of all pedestrian crashes from 2002-2006 according to the New York City Pedestrian Safety and Action Plan, with 246 crashes, 74 of which were fatal.
And only 16 percent of pedestrian crashes involved a taxi or livery car, while 79 percent involve private passenger cars.
So there clearly is more work to be done. “The mayor has used the phrase “a public health crisis” about traffic violence many times. If we really have a public health crisis on our hands we need to approach it like one,” said Stephan. “I think that approaching it like one is taking every step possible to eliminate it. If our water supply were poisoned, we wouldn’t wait for community board approval, we wouldn’t act slowly and methodically, we would attack the problem head on with every resource available.”