Originally Published in Bklynr
Just before 11 p.m. on Thursday, January 31, 2013, Ella Bandes stepped into the intersection of Myrtle and Wyckoff avenues on her way to her apartment a few blocks north. Moments later, she was pinned under a B52 bus.
The bus was turning right off Palmetto Street, which disgorges six city bus routes into the vast, ill-organized Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection on their way to and from Ridgewood Intermodal Terminal. The driver told police she had been looking in her rearview mirror as she turned, trying to avoid two taxis parked on the corner.
After firefighters freed Bandes, she was rushed to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center a few blocks away in traumatic arrest, meaning her heart had stopped beating as a result of blunt trauma. Four days later, she died in the intensive care unit at Kings County Hospital. She was 23.
In the police logs of a city in which someone is killed in traffic every 30 hours, Bandes’ death was unremarkable. There are hundreds of victims every year, more than half of them pedestrians — and over the past five years, Brooklyn has accounted for more pedestrian deaths than any other borough.
Last October, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, 12, was run over by a van on Prospect Park West as he tried to retrieve his soccer ball from the street. In November, the driver of an SUV jumped a curb in Fort Greene, ran into a building and a parked car, reversed, tore off down DeKalb Avenue in the wrong direction, and jumped another curb, killing 9-year-old Lucian Merryweather as he stood on the corner of Clermont Avenue with his mother and younger brother.
In August, an MTA bus ran over an 82-year-old woman, Lyubov Angert, in East New York. In December, Nicole Detweiler, 32, died in Greenpoint after being hit by two vehicles, including a truck operated by a man who had recently been arrested for driving with a suspended license. In July, a drunk driver killed Roxana Gomez, 27, on the border of Park Slope and Prospect Heights. Just four days ago, the driver of a minivan backed into 5-year-old Roshard Charles in Crown Heights, killing him, and then drove away before furious pedestrians got her to return.
In only one of these cases — Lucian Merryweather’s — has the driver been charged with a felony.
The phrase “no criminality suspected” appears in reports on nearly every traffic fatality in the city, often before the police have completed their investigation. Drivers are likely to face charges only if they were drunk — and even that is no guarantee. The man who killed Gomez had a blood alcohol level of .126, well above the legal limit of .08. But he wasn’t charged with homicide because, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said in a statement to Streetsblog, “an accident reconstruction expert concluded that alcohol was not a contributing factor in the death of the pedestrian in this case.”
In fact, in a stunning 99.3 percent of motor vehicle crashes citywide that result in death or injury, Streetsblog reported in October, the New York Police Department does not even issue a citation for careless driving.
Traffic safety has been a subject of periodic public outrage in New York for time immemorial. As far back as 1927, the Brooklyn Safety Council had a “Death-o-Meter” installed at Grand Army Plaza to keep track of fatal crashes. “Slow up,” it admonished drivers. “What’s your hurry?”
But while piecemeal reforms — a lower speed limit here, a new traffic light there — often follow well-publicized fatalities, pushes for systemwide improvement have been unsuccessful.
That appears to be changing.
In December, state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens introduced a bill that would require felony charges against any driver who killed or seriously injured a pedestrian while driving with a suspended license. On January 16, after a spate of pedestrian deaths in his Upper West Side district, state Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell introduced a bill to lower the standard speed limit in New York City from 30 miles per hour to 20, except on streets where the City Council specifically determined that a different limit was appropriate. (The bill, A8478, has eight co-sponsors, including five from Brooklyn: Maritza Davila, Rhoda Jacobs, Joan Millman, Walter Mosley, and Annette Robinson.)
Traffic safety advocates are also calling on Albany to approve the installation of speed cameras, noting that traffic fatalities in Washington, D.C., have fallen by 76 percent since a camera system was implemented there. More broadly, they want “home rule” for the city: the ability to make these sorts of changes without having to seek state approval each time.
“Our city speed limit, and the ability to lower it, enforce it automatically, and thereby reduce the fatality rate from speeding vehicles, is controlled by Albany, not the city,” writes Hilda Cohen of the advocacy group Make Brooklyn Safer. “This means that the people who cannot imagine the thought of getting on a subway to go to work, taking a bus to their child’s school, or of simply walking to the corner to get groceries, are the people in control of how our city is run.”
Assemblywoman Davila, a Democrat who grew up in Bushwick and was elected to the Assembly last year, spent more than 20 years as a community organizer. As such, she says, she was always aware of the traffic safety issues in the 53rd Assembly District, which covers Bushwick and Williamsburg, including the nightmarish intersection where Bandes was hit. In the past few months alone, two elderly pedestrians have been fatally struck in Williamsburg. And on March 1, Marisol Martinez, a 21-year-old woman crossing the street at Meeker and Union avenues, was killed, like Bandes, by a turning MTA bus.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes so many lives in order for people to realize that this has been a problem for many years,” Davila said in an interview last month. “As an elected official, I feel an extreme responsibility to my constituents to be able to make my community safer. So whatever that takes, I have to be part of.”
Some interest groups and state legislators have come out against the speed limit bill. Martin Golden — the state senator for the 22nd Senate District, which covers much of southern Brooklyn, and the only Republican representing Brooklyn in the chamber — called it an “overreaction,” telling the Daily News, “Traffic would go nowhere. It would be a disaster,” and arguing that officials should focus instead on ramping up enforcement against unlicensed and drunk drivers. (He and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican whose district overlaps with Golden’s, have promoted legislation to increase penalties for drunk driving and hit-and-runs.) Golden’s office did not respond to a request for comment on what measures he would support to reduce traffic fatalities that do not involve unlicensed or drunk drivers.
In spite of these objections, Davila says the bill has enough votes to pass, at least in the Assembly. But that won’t happen until April at the earliest, according to O’Donnell, because the legislature is currently focused almost exclusively on the state budget.
“I believe the only concern that anybody can raise at this point would be how it is going to be funded,” Davila says. “We need speed bumps, we need traffic lights, we need crosswalks, we need signage; we also need more police forces so they can start ticketing these people once the speed limit is dropped. I believe that the city’s taking a big step in trying to make that happen.”
With his inauguration on New Year’s Day, Mayor Bill de Blasio brought to City Hall something known as Vision Zero NYC: a pledge to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by 2024. As quixotic as it sounds, similar initiatives have been remarkably successful in other places: in Sweden, which developed the Vision Zero approach and put it into practice in 1997, the number of people killed in traffic crashes has plummeted even as traffic volume has increased.
De Blasio spoke of Vision Zero during his campaign, and two weeks into his tenure, at a press conference where he announced the formation of an interagency working group on traffic safety, he promised it would be “a central focus.” In mid-February, he followed up by unveiling a comprehensive report on traffic safety, including a 62-item checklist of actions to be taken by his office and by agencies like the NYPD, the Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Traffic safety advocates have long argued that whatever pedestrians do, drivers are ultimately responsible for their actions on the road. At the heart of Vision Zero is the further conviction that public officials have an obligation to design streets in ways that preclude fatal crashes.
This challenges a mindset that New York has long held through its actions, if not its words: that to reduce traffic fatalities, officials must crack down on illegal pedestrian behaviors like jaywalking. Even while praising Vision Zero at the press conference in January, Police Commissioner William Bratton said that “pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions” in 2013 — an assertion at odds with published statistics, including the city’s own.
According to the Vision Zero report released last month, drivers’ actions were primarily responsible for 53 percent of pedestrian fatalities in New York from 2008 to 2012, while pedestrians’ actions were primarily responsible for just 30 percent. Seventeen percent of fatalities were attributed to a combination of the two. Bratton’s statistic, if accurate, would reflect a spike of 26 percentage points in just one year for the portion of deaths attributable in some way to pedestrian error. And in 2010, a city report that looked at more than 7,000 crashes in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured found that drivers were primarily at fault 78.5 percent of the time.
Vision Zero also challenges an order of priorities, reflected in Golden’s remarks to the Daily News, in which lower speed limits and fewer car lanes are seen not as safety measures but as threats to the efficient flow of traffic.
“The common fallacy that people have is that safety and efficiency are mutually exclusive, and they’re not,” says Michelle Chai, a volunteer on Transportation Alternatives’ campaign to redesign Atlantic Avenue, one of the most dangerous streets in Brooklyn. “The more predictable behavior you have — you know where people are going to be traveling, how they’re going to be moving — the better you can keep each other safe.”
More fundamentally, City Council member Brad Lander says, “if it takes you a little longer to get someplace without speeding, but the consequence is that fewer people will be killed in traffic crashes, that’s a tradeoff that the significant majority of New Yorkers believe is the right one.”
In a recent interview at the Bandes family’s home in northern New Jersey, where Ella and I attended school together growing up, her mother, Judy Kottick, explained the appeal of the Vision Zero philosophy.
Even in the minority of cases where pedestrians’ actions are found to be primarily responsible for their deaths, Kottick says, “they talk about how we’re human beings, so we don’t always make the right decisions. And so rather than blaming people for doing the wrong thing, you have to engineer cars and intersections and streets so that those things just don’t happen.”
In Sweden, “when there’s an accident or a crash, they study it and figure out, ‘What could we do so that this wouldn’t happen next time?’” she continues, “rather than saying, ‘Oh, that person was jaywalking, that person wasn’t crossing at the crosswalk, that person didn’t have the light.’”
Ella’s father, Ken Bandes, adds, “Pedestrians never smash cars; cars hit pedestrians. It’s a very unequal confrontation. So you really need to focus on the cars.”
The emotional heart of the growing movement against traffic violence has come from the loved ones of victims. The day before a City Council hearing last month on the Vision Zero plan, numerous families announced that they were forming a group,Families for Safe Streets. The goal, they say in a mission statement, is to “bear witness” to the devastation caused by traffic fatalities, and “to turn our grief into action so that no one else has to endure the pain we have suffered.”
The group includes the Bandes, Cohen Eckstein, and Merryweather families, as well as the parents, children, siblings, and spouses of other pedestrians and bicyclists killed in Brooklyn and throughout the city. It is at once a public advocacy committee and a support group, and one of its members’ first goals is to reach out to families that want to do something but are unacquainted with the growing infrastructure.
Even before the families announced the group at a well-attended press conference on February 23, some of them had appeared in public to support Vision Zero, including at de Blasio’s inauguration. The day after the press conference, members testified before the City Council, which later introduced a resolution that would express support for the speed limit bill in Albany.
“I think we give life to the statistics,” says Amy Cohen, Sammy Cohen Eckstein’s mother. “Every 30 hours, someone is killed [in traffic] in New York City. That means every 30 hours, someone has lost someone like we have.”
Cohen plunged into the movement soon after Sammy died, writing to de Blasio to ask for a meeting. “He had described a tale of two cities, rich and poor,” she says. “I was writing about a tale of two families, those who have children and those whose children have been killed in traffic.”
Lander, who represents the Cohen Ecksteins’ neighborhood and attends the same synagogue, helped bring the letter to de Blasio’s attention. De Blasio quickly agreed to a meeting, but wanted to wait until he had appointed new police and traffic commissioners. When it took place on February 14, the Cohen Ecksteins were joined by the relatives of several other traffic victims, and the mayor by Bratton and the transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg. The meeting lasted an hour and a half, Cohen says, and the officials seemed eager to listen to the families’ stories and demands.
The members of Families for Safe Streets plan to work with de Blasio not only on efforts to lower speed limits and redesign roads, but also on public awareness campaigns. Among other things, Cohen mentioned public murals and collaborations with city schools.
She and other families expressed optimism about the prospects for change in the current political environment, along with a new sense of being part of a larger fight.
“Until essentially a month ago, we weren’t aware of any movement,” Ken Bandes says. “We were just doing what we could about this one horrible intersection. We felt very much on our own, and the whole thing just felt like this horrible freak thing that only happened to us.”
“It was like us against the transportation authority of New York,” Kottick says. “We just felt like these peons: ‘How can we get anything changed? We’re nobodies.’”
“The sense of having it recognized as a broad problem, and that what happened to Ella was one piece of a big problem, actually makes a difference,” Bandes says. “I think about it differently.”
When the families of victims speak out, their voices have unparalleled emotional resonance. But they are not the only ones with a role to play.
One pillar of the Vision Zero advocacy infrastructure consists of organizations like Transportation Alternatives that worked on traffic safety for years or even decades before the current push, fighting an epidemic that rarely made headlines and challenging the idea that traffic deaths were an inevitable consequence of urban living. Then there is a new breed: small, grassroots groups that have sprung up or been resurrected in the past year to push a campaign whose time seems to have come.
“It wasn’t so long ago that that set of folks was seen as some sort of fringe, radical bike lobby,” Lander says. “But as I talk to my colleagues on the Council from neighborhoods that are thought of as more car-owner districts, there is no council member who isn’t hearing from their constituents passionate support for the idea of safer, more livable streets.”
For Hilda Cohen, a mother of two living in Fort Greene, the tipping point came when Merryweather was killed in November. Before the month was out, she had started Make Brooklyn Safer.
“It was — it still is — such an egregious, terrific tragedy,” she says. “It’s something that everybody still thinks about, and that was really the catalyst for Make Brooklyn Safer. We all wanted to do something. We all wanted to get together. … It seems like I had the right tools and everybody had the energy to make it happen.”
Cohen is not a stranger to traffic safety issues; she has biked everywhere she has lived. But in other cities, she never paid much attention to whether, for example, there were bike lanes. In New York, she says, “you see the roads differently. What used to be sort of an annoyance becomes real here.”
This is a common refrain. Benjamin Shepard, a member of the direct-action group Right of Way and an associate professor of human services at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology, told me that the roads are simply more dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians here. “I grew up riding a bike around in several cities in the United States — Princeton, Atlanta, Dallas,” he says. “I’ve never seen cars drive in such an out-of-control way as in New York City in this current moment.”
The “in this current moment” addendum is significant. Shepard, a Gowanus resident who has been involved with cycling and public safety advocacy in New York for fifteen years, noted that when he was a child, “this was never a city where people would drive.” Now, “the cars are acting like these cyclists are a new thing,” he says. “We’re not.”
That is clear from bicyclists’ organizing prowess. Though pedestrians are the most frequent victims of traffic violence in New York, it is no coincidence that so many safety activists are also cyclists: they know their way around effective advocacy.
Make Brooklyn Safer is not yet five months old, but it has already built a substantial membership, forged working relationships with local political and law enforcement officials, and helped to organize events like a vigil in Bushwick in January that drew hundreds of people.
Merryweather was killed November 2. On November 5, the day she was elected public advocate, then-Council member Letitia James held a vigil in his honor. About 150 people attended, Streetsblog reported, many of them residents pushed into action by Merryweather’s death.
“You could see the people obviously, including myself, devastated about what happened,” says Jessica Doyle, a Make Brooklyn Safer member who lives in Clinton Hill and whose 5-year-old daughter attends school with Merryweather’s younger brother. “But you could also see them freaking out about what was going on in the neighborhood, and the relationship between cars, drivers, and their own sense of well-being.”
The group began working with James to organize a forum on traffic safety in Fort Greene, to be sponsored by Laurie Cumbo, James’ successor on the Council. They drew ideas from a similar forum held at the United Methodist Church on Sixth Avenue in early December after scores of Park Slope residents, working with Lander, formed the Park Slope Street Safety Partnership.
Amid the transition from James to Cumbo, the Fort Greene forum had to be postponed from its original date in January. The delay may have been a blessing in disguise, as at Cumbo’s suggestion, Make Brooklyn Safer now plans to extend the event to the full 35th Council district, which also includes Clinton Hill and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Prospect Heights.
The group hopes to hold the forum in the spring. In the meantime, it has made it a priority to establish the type of relationship with Cumbo that it had with James. Its members are also working with the 78th and 88th police precincts, attending the precincts’ community outreach meetings and speaking regularly with the commanders.
Cohen says she is already seeing more enforcement of two of the most common and dangerous driving violations, speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Statistics bear that out: According to WNYC, the number of tickets issued for speeding, failure to yield, and failure to stop at traffic signals has increased in most precincts over the past year, in some places by more than 150 percent.
At Make Brooklyn Safer’s monthly meeting on February 11, held in a spacious back room at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, the fifteen people in attendance — including Hannah Holland, Cumbo’s budget and communications director — discussed who would chair a media outreach committee and who would contact local schools. A teacher from Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts volunteered to speak to her principal and to officials at other schools about holding educational events, including ones that would teach students, in Cohen’s words, “how to be a better backseat driver.”
Collaboration with politicians is a huge element of the group’s work. “We need the elected officials as much as they need us to vote them into office,” Cohen says. “I think that politicians are seeing more and more how important this issue is.”
Like many traffic safety groups, Make Brooklyn Safer is focusing on the “three E’s”: enforcement, engineering, and education. While the first two have dominated public conversation, education can be equally powerful. And while a comprehensive drive — including outreach to school officials, classroom presentations, public service announcements, and advertising campaigns — will take a lot of time and resources, Cohen notes that people can also help in simple ways.
The morning of the February meeting, for example, Cohen and her 11-year-old daughter took a car service home. Making a left from Union Street onto Eighth Avenue, the driver turned in front of an oncoming car “so that he himself has limited the amount of time to get across this intersection safely,” Cohen says. He did not seem to notice that a woman was in the crosswalk with two children.
“I screamed, because he was really literally about to hit them, and his attitude was, ‘Well, they should stop for me, because I have to get across the intersection,’” Cohen recalls, the astonishment palpable in her voice. “And there was no sense that he had made a really bad choice in the way that he drove, and then he made a really dangerous choice in cutting through this crosswalk, and it’s not even in his mindset.”
So, Cohen says, she had a choice: should she yell at the driver? Take down his license number and file a complaint?
She chose a third option. At each turn for the rest of the ride, she reminded the driver to yield to pedestrians. “Maybe everyone is like a toddler and you just have to say it again and again and again, and you can’t get too annoyed with it,” she says. “I’d like to think that letting the driver know that he has options, that every time he makes a turn there’s choices — maybe that’s part of the education.”
It may be a small part, but it is a part nonetheless. And among de Blasio’s 62 points are steps to give taxi drivers financial as well as moral incentives to drive safely.
One proposal, for example, would pause fare meters if a driver exceeded the speed limit. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the union representing taxi drivers, has objected strongly, saying in a press release, “To shut off the meter in the middle of a fare is not only insane Big Brother, it’s severe, cruel, and simply unhelpful. … Drivers already have no guaranteed income, only expenses on the lease, fuel and vehicle repairs. Every statistic shows taxi drivers are the safest drivers in New York City. We don’t deserve to be singled out and punished to do even better.”
The union does support many elements of the Vision Zero plan, including, according to its statement, “making changes to traffic patterns and street design so that motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists are not all competing on increasingly narrow and congested space; better lighting, especially at crosswalks; more split signals directing turns; more traffic control agents; and public speed signs.”
Another element of education is convincing people that safety can, in fact, be improved without turning neighborhoods into parking lots — that pedestrian deaths are not the price of living in Brooklyn.
“Pedestrian and traffic safety are listed now as New York Police Department issues,” Cohen says. The precinct commanders “want to talk to us; they’re getting back in touch with us. It’s just different. It’s very, very different. So all these little things that seem, ‘Oh, well, all it is is talk’ — this talk has never happened before.”
Right of Way has taken a more attention-grabbing approach than Make Brooklyn Safer, posting DIY speed limit signs on crash-prone streets and memorializing pedestrian victims with sidewalk stencils.
Until last year, the group, founded in the 1990s, was dormant. Then its founders approached Keegan Stephan, who had become the “voice of public safety” for the direct-action environmental group Time’s Up, and asked him to revive it.
Stephan quickly drew on his experience with Occupy Wall Street to establish the organizational framework through which Right of Way would operate. “I invited all of my friends within the safer streets world to come to a meeting and lay out how we’d communicate with each other, how we’d make decisions,” he recalled in an interview last month in his South Williamsburg apartment. “And then we started planning actions.”
The group got some news coverage around New Year’s when it announced aVision Zero Clock, inspired by the 1927 Death-o-Meter at Grand Army Plaza. The Internet-age version tracks the number of people — pedestrians, bicyclists, and car occupants — killed in traffic since de Blasio became mayor and calculates, based on the death toll at the same point last year, whether he is on track to accomplish the signature goal of Vision Zero, eliminating traffic deaths citywide within ten years.
As of March 19, the clock showed 27 pedestrians, two bicyclists, and sixteen drivers and passengers killed in 2014. That means the city is not on course to eliminate any category of fatalities by 2024. (Last year, according to preliminary NYPD statistics released in January, 168 pedestrians and ten bicyclists were killed in traffic citywide, while 12,014 pedestrians and 4,045 bicyclists were injured. Brooklyn accounted for 41 pedestrian and six bicyclist fatalities.)
But while the clock may have gained more attention, Right of Way’s signature activities are its direct-action campaigns. The original incarnation often stenciled human outlines at sites where pedestrians and bicyclists had been killed. The revived group quickly resumed that tactic last year, with members biking around the city in October and stenciling in memory of eight victims under 8 years old — including Denim McLean, a 2-year-old boy killed in East Flatbush last March, and Kiko Shao, a 5-year-old girl killed in Sunset Park in September. In January, it organized a similar ride for seven victims over age 70.
“We’re trying to figure out different ways to make people think,” Stephan says. “At the scene of any homicide you have these chalk outlines that are like — they wake people up. They’re horrifying, like, ‘Oh my God, a crime was committed here.’ And you don’t get that same intensity from traffic violence. The NYPD just cleans it up and hoses down the road and makes sure traffic can continue moving smoothly.
“So this was a way to memorialize and a way to shock people and be like, ‘Oh, shit, a crime was committed here.’ And then when they look closer they’re like, ‘Oh, killed by an automobile,’ and start thinking about traffic violence in terms of crime, of violence, and things that we normally try to gloss over because we’re such a car culture.”
In November, not long after Cohen Eckstein was killed on Prospect Park West, Right of Way members came out on a Saturday night to post 20-mph speed limit signs bearing the slogan “20 is Plenty.” (The speed limit on Prospect Park West was 30 mph at the time; in January the Department of Transportation lowered it to 25.) Stephan had designed the signs on a whim several months before — “The facts are all out there,” he says; “it’s clear to me on New York City streets, little residential streets, cars don’t need to be going 30” — but it had taken time to get them printed at a reasonable price, and by the time they were ready, the location seemed obvious.
The guerrilla approach common to many of Right of Way’s actions — members put up the speed signs under cover of night — makes it difficult to assess how public response to the group’s efforts has changed as Vision Zero has gained prominence.
“We don’t generally have public events, because we’re doing direct action,” Stephan says. “We sort of plan and execute without telling anybody.”
But when the Brooklyn Paper contacted Stephan at the beginning of February to ask if Right of Way would stage a photo shoot in support of the speed limit bill in Albany, and Stephan sent out a notice asking supporters to gather the next day, more than 100 people showed up at Grand Army Plaza with “20 is Plenty” signs.
“That’s pretty amazing — people don’t usually show up to rallies to support legislation,” Stephan says. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to show that support for this is much larger than just rogue activists putting up their own street signs.”
From his 21st-floor corner office across Court Street from Brooklyn Borough Hall, Blair Brewster can see the intersection where Martha Atwater was killed.
It was February 22, 2013. Bandes had died three weeks before, Cohen Eckstein and Merryweather had about eight months left, and Atwater — a 48-year-old television writer and producer who won an Emmy Award in 2009 — was leaving a café in Brooklyn Heights, on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street, with a bag of cookies.
Atwater, who had two young daughters with her husband of nineteen years, was standing on the sidewalk when a driver lost control of his pickup truck and jumped the curb. The driver stayed at the scene, and the NYPD promptly told news outlets, including the Brooklyn Eagle, that no criminality was suspected.
“It sort of broke the innocence, at least in Brooklyn Heights, about traffic in a fundamental way,” says Brewster, who lives in the neighborhood and knew Atwater while growing up in Rochester, N.Y.
Today, Brewster is the CEO of SmartSign, which manufactures signs for purposes ranging from traffic to dog poop. He and the company’s content director, Conrad Lumm, caught wind of Right of Way’s campaigns last year and reached out to Stephan with an offer: would he like 100 free “20 is Plenty” signs?
The company has worked with Transportation Alternatives in the past and donated products to other advocacy groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It also runs several blogs on traffic- and safety-related topics. This is good for business as well as for the safety cause, Lumm acknowledges, although the company does not usually broadcast its donations.
Lumm and Brewster were drawn to Right of Way, they say, because its “DIY attitude” was reminiscent of SmartSign’s own efforts. What makes something like a homemade speed-limit sign on Prospect Park West so effective, Brewster says, is that “it looks just like it should be there.”
The donated “20 is Plenty” signs — which SmartSign would normally sell for $300 to $400 — went up last weekend in ten neighborhoods that have applied for slow zones, but either have been rejected or have not yet seen the promised changes in spite of official approval. Brooklyn had the most representation among the neighborhoods, with four: Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Greenpoint, and Prospect Heights.
The message, Stephan says, is simple: “De Blasio, if you want to improve 50 corridors a year as part of your Vision Zero plan, you can do this immediately. Just grant these back applications for slow zones.”
A Department of Transportation program gives designated neighborhoods 20-mph speed limits and a variety of safety measures, including speed bumps and narrower roads. Of the 74 areas that applied in 2013, fifteen were approved to receive slow zones within the next three years, including five — Brooklyn Heights, Brownsville, Clinton Hill/Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Prospect Heights — in Brooklyn, more than any other borough. According to the DOT, these neighborhoods were chosen based on “crash history, community support, proximity of schools, and senior and daycare centers, among other criteria.”
In London, the DOT reports, the creation of slow zones led to a 42 percent reduction in traffic injuries.
Shepard, the Right of Way member and CUNY professor, says the underlying message of these campaigns is that simple actions can lead to seismic changes. “The lesson that I got with Time’s Up and that I get with public space activism is that the city is mutable,” he says. “We can create pressure to create bike lanes. We can create more bike lanes; we can create safer bike lanes. We can create community gardens. We can alter our streets so this is a safer city, a more sustainable city in the long term.”
A few subway stops east of SmartSign’s offices, John Longo, a Clinton Hill resident for more than a decade, crosses Atlantic Avenue at Washington Avenue at least four times a day on his way to and from Dean Street, the restaurant and bar he co-owns in Prospect Heights.
As at the intersection where Bandes was killed, three roads meet here: Atlantic Avenue going east-west, Washington Avenue going north-south, and Underhill Avenue, also north-south, which detaches from Washington south of Atlantic and cuts diagonally west. Atlantic spans six lanes, with a narrow median separating the east- and westbound halves, and pedestrians have 30 seconds to cross: a mere five seconds of the white walk signal, followed by a 25-second flashing-red countdown. There are no left-turn signals on Washington, so in those 30 seconds, pedestrians and turning vehicles compete for the right of way.
“There’s no enforcement down here ever, ever,” Longo says. “So cars routinely go through red lights. Cars routinely fail to yield to pedestrians. Cars always are in the crosswalk at the red light, if they stop, which is also extremely dangerous on an intersection like that, because if you have to walk around the car that’s in the crosswalk, you’re putting yourself in danger with cars going in the other direction.”
I asked how long he had been conscious of how dangerous the spot was.
“My manager Rachel and I have talked about it for three years,” he replied, “that it’s only a matter of time. If you’re not fully alert crossing that street, you’re going to get hit eventually.”
At around 9:45 p.m. on December 6, Longo was crossing Atlantic, walking north, on his way home from the restaurant. As he stepped from the median into the westbound lanes — in the crosswalk, the light in his favor — a vehicle turning left from Washington hit him. He was flung onto the hood and catapulted off the windshield, landing 15 or 20 feet away on the back of his head.
An ambulance took him to Kings County Hospital, where X-rays revealed three broken vertebrae in his upper back and a pinched spinal cord. Four days later, he underwent surgery to fuse the broken vertebrae together.
When we spoke on February 26, he had worn a neck brace 24 hours a day for twelve weeks and had one week to go. He had just begun one to two months of physical therapy to regain strength and motion in his upper body, which had been immobilized since the accident, and he still had pins and needles in his left arm.
The driver who hit him acknowledged in a statement to the police that he was at fault — that he had hit Longo in the crosswalk on a green light. He did not face criminal charges, and Longo says he would not have wanted to pursue any.
Longo does firmly believe the driver should have received a ticket or summons, but doesn’t know whether he did.
“He was trying to kind of scoot through really quickly, and right around the median,” Longo says. “Ordinarily what happens there is that cars coming from Washington heading north make a slow, wide left in case there’s a pedestrian making that cross. This guy didn’t do that. He ran right into me, like never saw me, didn’t blow — I didn’t hear a horn. There were no brakes. He didn’t notice that I was there at all.”
Since the crash, Longo has attended several community board meetings and 88th Precinct events. Asked what changes he would like to see at the intersection, he mentioned left-turn arrows on Washington for traffic going in both directions, and a longer walk signal for pedestrians crossing Atlantic.
Then, of course, there is the enforcement issue, “which means more police eyeballs on intersections,” he says. “I don’t know how they pull that off, but if this is going to be a main focus of the new administration, then I think that they have to put some dollars behind it in the form of police.”
Longo is also filming a public service announcement, which he plans to unveil on April 16 at his restaurant’s monthly comedy night. In addition to telling his story and outlining the changes he supports, it will include “funny man-on-the-street interviews with people who are afraid to cross Atlantic,” he says. “Which is everybody.”
That Longo was able to tell his story in the back room of Dean Street on a recent Wednesday night is almost certainly thanks in part to the speed of the vehicle that hit him: 25 miles per hour, he estimates. His survival is one example of a statistic that advocates of lower speed limits cite frequently: hit at 20 miles per hour, a pedestrian has a 95 percent chance of surviving; hit at 40 miles per hour, they have a greater than 70 percent chance of dying. At the city’s current standard speed limit of 30 miles per hour, survival is essentially a coin toss.
This explains why the call for a 20-mph speed limit is an integral part of Vision Zero and of traffic safety activists’ rhetoric. But of course, that alone is not enough to make a major thoroughfare safe.
Miller Nuttle, a Transportation Alternatives organizer, cites First and Second avenues in Manhattan as examples “close to the ideal of a complete street where everyone has a dedicated, predictable space.” Each has a bike lane, sandwiched between the sidewalk and the parking lane so that parked cars shield bicyclists and pedestrians from potential curb jumpers. There are pedestrian islands and dedicated lanes for the M15 Select Bus Service, and three lanes are still available for cars on each avenue.
Since the avenues were redesigned, Nuttle says, collisions have dropped by 30 to 50 percent.
With such success stories in mind, Transportation Alternatives is pushing the city to redesign Atlantic Avenue.
Volunteers like Michelle Chai, the Clinton Hill resident who has worked on the Atlantic Avenue campaign since October, have been going door to door, collecting signatures on an open letter calling on the Department of Transportation to study Atlantic and determine the best ways to make it safer. Already, Chai says, more than 2,600 people and organizations have added their names, including Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Two Trees Management, the Atlantic Avenue Business Improvement District, and a slew of churches, synagogues, and schools.
“We’re working to win complete street improvement for that corridor,” Nuttle says, “which we think would really transform the entire borough, make it a safer, more inviting place.”
On January 26, in the kind of cold that numbs toes through leather boots and layered socks, hundreds of people gathered on a street corner under the elevated M tracks in Bushwick, at the intersection where Ella Bandes was killed a year earlier.
The families of victims like her were there, as were politicians who vowed that this time, they would not relent.
“I stand … with a new class of City Council members, members that ride bikes and understand how important it is for public transportation to run well and for the streets to be more friendly for people than for cars,” said Antonio Reynoso, the neighborhood’s newly elected Council member. “That’s it. It’s very black and white to me.”
He was joined by a number of elected officials from Brooklyn and Queens, including, on the Brooklyn side, Assemblywoman Davila and Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna, who represented the 34th District on the Council before Reynoso. The event, conceived as a vigil for the first anniversary of Bandes’ death, had become a vessel for a broader declaration that locals would no longer tolerate a stream of preventable deaths.
“Traffic-calming mitigations don’t cost more than the life of a human being,” Reyna said to applause.
In the nearly fourteen months since Bandes died, her parents have begged city officials to make the Myrtle-Wyckoff intersection safer, and have received many promises. At a community forum they helped organize last April on traffic safety in Bushwick and neighboring Ridgewood, Queens — held just two days after Bandes would have turned 24 — a Transportation Alternatives member suggested a number of bold measures, including widening sidewalks, creating a raised pedestrian crossing, and having all directions of traffic stop at once. Local police officials promised to pursue various simpler improvements, including better lighting, clearer crosswalk markings, a designated place for taxis to park, and countdown timers for pedestrians.
Together, these changes would address the confluence of factors that may have contributed to Bandes’ death: the poor lighting and badly faded crosswalk lines she faced when she stepped into the street long after dark; the design of the intersection, in which vehicles are always turning and a pedestrian is never the only party with a green light; and the fact that taxis are allowed to and constantly do park on the corner, which led the bus driver to make a wide turn and to look in her rearview mirror rather than at the road ahead.
Yet only one of the changes, the countdown timers, has been made — and since Ella died, six more crashes have occurred at the intersection.
“I think we can do better,” Kottick told the crowd gathered at the vigil.
Interviewed later, Bandes’ father expressed frustration. “More than any specific change,” he says, “there are evidently a lot of things that can be done, and they need to be done, and they haven’t been done.”
At one point during the vigil, as if to underscore the sense of urgency, a bus entered the intersection and, while turning, almost drove onto the sidewalk.
It is easy, when looking at an issue as vast as traffic safety, to get lost in statistics. Just consider the partial toll for one year, in one borough:
Ngozi Agbim, age 73. Lyubov Angert, 82. Martha Atwater, 48. Ella Bandes, 23. Elvis Batista-Francisco, 22. Emma Blumstein, 24. Vernon Bramble, 47. Sammy Cohen Eckstein, 12. Felix Coss, 61. Lillian Cruz, 60. Nicole Detweiler, 32. John Dozier, 64. Karin Eberts-Ayub, 53. Lorraine Ferguson, 47. King Fong, 79. Irvin Gitlitz, 83. Roxana Gomez, 27. Gerald Green, 52. Yuliya Hermanska, 27. Sara Kishik, 15. James McCloskey, 71. Denim McLean, 2. Lucian Merryweather, 9. Christopher Meyer, 32. Michael Pratt, 25. Sheila Rivera, 50. Ethel Rubinstein, 69. Jose Santiago, 44. Kiko Shao, 5.
No age group or income bracket escaped, and virtually no neighborhood was spared. The victims were 2, 12, 24, 32, 44, 50, 64, 71, 83. They were struck in Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Brooklyn Heights, Bushwick, Canarsie, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills, Dyker Heights, East Flatbush, East New York, Flatlands, Fort Greene, Greenpoint, Kensington, Midwood, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Red Hook, Sheepshead Bay, Sunset Park, and Williamsburg.
But behind each of the names is a story of goals that will never be reached and a family that cannot fathom how to move forward. Cohen Eckstein was preparing for his bar mitzvah when he was killed; Bandes, an artist and dancer, was working at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Weight Watchers while applying to graduate programs in psychology. Part of the mission of the families that have joined this movement is to convey the depth of their pain to people who care but cannot truly understand.
“Reports of traffic fatalities in the city are in the news so frequently that the human toll barely registers. The stories become statistics that are frightening but seem remote until the tragedy happens to you,” Kottick said at the vigil. “While the rest of the world can go on as if nothing ever happened, our planet stopped spinning. We are now mere observers of those families who are whole and can revel in all the activities of their children.”
When Gregory Merryweather, Lucian’s father, tried in an interview with The Nabeearlier this month to describe the feeling of living on after his son’s death, he began to cry.
“It’s almost like a train or like a conveyer — one of those people movers at an airport or something,” he said. “It feels like Lucian got off and we’re going ahead and he’s stuck back there. And you wish you could go back and get him.”
“Our lives the way it was is over,” he said. “Normal isn’t really the point anymore. It’s about finding another way to exist.”
As the momentum surrounding Vision Zero builds at an almost dizzying speed, the members of Families for Safe Streets have a dual mission: to continue pushing for change at both the city and the state level, yes, but also to support one another on a journey that, as Merryweather observed in the Nabe interview, none of them ever thought they would have to take.
“We want to be support for other families who have gone through this,” Kottick says. “And—” she winces, “—are going to go through this.”
At a meeting in early March, the group planned two trips to Albany to lobby legislators to pass the 20-mph speed limit bill and, perhaps more important in the long term, to give New York City “home rule.”
Several things need to happen before state legislators can vote on the speed limit bill. The language has to be vetted and approved by lawyers for all interested parties, in the city and in Albany. O’Donnell will then send a letter formally notifying the City Council of the bill, and the Council will have to approve it before the state can proceed.
On Tuesday, Families for Safe Streets made its first trip to Albany. The group returned with a major victory: Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who had been skeptical of the 20-mph bill, announced his support for it. “I understand why this is a difficult bill for some of my members, and for a lot of people,” he said, according to Streetsblog. “They believe that they can safely speed. Even I do. All of us do. … We’re wrong.” As chairman of the Assembly Codes Committee, Lentol, who represents Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Fort Greene, is an important ally.
A second trip, on which the families hope they will be joined by hundreds of supporters, is planned for late April or early May.
Asked whether being active in the Vision Zero movement has helped her cope with her grief, Kottick sighs.
“Some days it helps and some days it doesn’t,” she says. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what we’ve experienced, and so if we can help save lives, there’s some satisfaction in that.”
“I wish someone had done it before, because then Ella would be here.”
Amy Cohen, Sammy’s mother, says action has helped, “to the extent that that is possible.” And victims’ relatives who were not previously involved in traffic safety efforts have thanked her for helping to start the group, which they have found to be an outlet. They tell her, she says, that it has “provided a ray of hope in an otherwise intolerable situation.”
The families “want to be known,” Kottick says. They want people to hear their loved ones’ names, and the stories that were cut short.
“Ella had so many plans for how she wanted to make a contribution in the world,” she says. “This was not how she intended to do it. But it’s all we have.”