POSTCARD: from New Amsterdam, Vision Zero & New York’s Commitment to Safer Streets & Fewer Deaths
New York, like Philadelphia, tops the lists of “most walkable” cities in the United States. Yet despite the many pedestrian advantages of New York, being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under the age of 14, while traffic accidents are the second leading cause of injury-related death for seniors.
Many assume fault for the pedestrian, who must be distracted staring at their smart phone while they walk into traffic. Evidence does not support this is assumption. 44% of New York pedestrians injured are struck in crosswalks with the right of way. Incidents occur when turning vehicles and pedestrians both have a green light and drivers either choose not to yield or do not see pedestrians. 6% are struck while standing on the sidewalk. Just last week two pedestrians were struck on a Staten Island sidewalk, one fatally. These two groups form half of New York’s traffic violence victims. This year alone as of June 9th, 50 pedestrians have been struck and killed by motor vehicles on New York’s streets.
Much of this problem can attributed to lax enforcement of traffic laws combined with driver and pedestrian inattention and reckless behavior. Reckless driving does not carry criminal charges in New York City. Drivers must be found guilty of at least two misdemeanors to have criminal charges brought against them, even if they kill or injure a pedestrian. Freakonomics just did an episode about pedestrian safety, claiming that hitting someone with a car is the best way to kill someone and get away with it in New York City. In rare cases even drivers who are intoxicated are not held liable for the deaths they cause. This creates a culture of impunity for drivers. Why would drivers change behavior if there are zero consequences for their actions? As the advocacy group Streetsblog notes, “In New York City, ‘I didn’t see him’ is not an admission of negligence, but rather a virtually ironclad defense for motorists who injure and kill.”
We see this culture of impunity in Philly as well. More on that later.
Bill de Blasio has made pedestrian safety a priority as one of his first signature policy changes after 3 terms of former mayor Michael Bloomberg. In February of this year he debuted Vision Zero, his pedestrian safety plan for New York to save lives and change the way in which drivers, pedestrians and cyclists interact with each other on New York’s streets. Vision Zero is a concept treating pedestrian deaths not as unavoidable results of city life, but as preventable (Swedish) or capable of being minimized (Dutch). The 63 point plan includes both punitive measures like better enforcement of traffic laws, lowered speed limits and more red light cameras and preventative measures like the redesign of problematic city streets and intersections. Both measures have proven effective in saving lives in Sweden, the Netherlands, and throughout Europe.
Many actions in the plan are already taking effect. Vision Zero is even changing New Yorkers’ mindsets of who streets primarily serve. The plan unites City Council, the NYPD, Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as well as neighborhood community boards and citizens to create a “new public dialogue on street safety.” These new partnerships between agencies are crucial to changing this mindset.
Yet today in the US and New York, when asked “who are streets for?” many answer: “for cars”. Recent national coverage of San Francisco’s decision to close the famous hairpin turn section of Lombard Street to car traffic there bears out this assumption. News outlets across the country stated that the city had "closed" the street, even while the city left it open to pedestrians and cyclists.
For now, the important task of redesigning streets least friendly to pedestrians is the primary focus of de Blasio’s plan. This includes areas with fatal accidents on high volume multi-lane arterials like Queens Boulevard (the “Boulevard of Death”), Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and Broadway in Manhattan. The speed along Broadway from 59th to 220th streets has been lowered to 25mph as of May. Pedestrian refuge islands are being enlarged, while curb bump outs are being extended along Broadway.
Intersections are being redesigned for greater safety and visibility including delayed turning for vehicles, addition and widening of crosswalks, relocation of high conflict turns to lower demand intersections, providing clearer lane designations, squaring off of intersections for slower vehicle turning radii, improved lighting, extension of medians, and more signals and signage. These improvements individually and in combination are redesigning intersections and reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths. Here’s what some look like before and after:
Yet European cities like Amsterdam and Stockholm and American cities like Chicago are well ahead of New York. In 2012, Chicago implemented the “Chicago Forward” plan that combined enforcement, education, and engineering to bring their pedestrian fatality rate down 47 percent in 2013. The city also implemented several “all way” crossings where all vehicular traffic is stopped and pedestrians are allowed to cross the street in whichever way is most convenient for them. Concepts such as these could save many more pedestrian lives in New York City if added to the de Blasio Vision Zero plan.
Complete Streets can further change this model. Through integrating all users, Complete Streets become shared spaces for cars, pedestrians, children, the elderly, cyclists, transit riders, and people with disabilities. Philadelphia has adopted these policies but as the Streets Department increasingly delays repaving and restriping of the city’s roadways, many of these Complete Street models remain just that, models in printed literature not yet implemented.
Yet even beyond Complete Streets are “Living Streets” where pedestrians and cyclists are given priority OVER motor vehicles. Implementing these concepts can change opinions of who city streets primarily serve while they provide equitable and safe transportation for every user. Reducing the car-centric mindset of New York’s streets and slowing down drivers is the biggest challenge de Blasio’s Vision Zero faces. Philadelphia grapples with this challenge as well.
Already In New York, the few changes put in place have reduced pedestrian fatalities by 30 percent from January to May 2014. Just last month New York City Council passed 11 bills aimed to support Vision Zero’s goals. It is unclear if New York City will be able to meet the goal of zero pedestrian deaths, but we are on our way.
Having lived in Philadelphia for a number of years, it seems the city in some regards is ahead of New York with Complete Streets legislation already passed. Yet in other ways Philly has long way to go. Some of the most basic steps of better traffic enforcement have not yet occurred. Harrisburg does limit Philly by prohibiting speed cameras. However, better local policing would go a long way to improve safety. The casual running of red lights, aggressive driving and speeding is common throughout the city. Street redesign also seems very far off. Some improvements have been made. The reconfiguration of the Walnut St Bridge for more buffered cyclist protection comes to mind. However, even this reconfiguration was a missed opportunity. New York would have already bumped the row of parked cars flanking the southern side of the Walnut Street bridge over to provide cyclists with a protected bike lane, and pedestrians with a new refuge islands. Instead only paint was applied in a new way. Better interventions on Walnut may have saved the life of the Wharton student recently killed there.
At the expense of pedestrians and cyclists, Philadelphia politicians seem reluctant to take on issues that appear to disfavor the car. Will Philly’s political class respond more definitively to this life and death matter and lead in the interests of all users of the street or will they continue to wait for a street repaving and point to plans yet to be built?