How To Achieve Vision Zero

Originally published in The Villager

How to achieve zero traffic deaths in New York City

Right of Way members stenciling at the scene of a child fatality during their recent “8 Under 8” action. The activists biked more than 50 miles, to eight sites where young children — all under 8 years old — have been killed by automobiles in New York City this year, painting a stencil at each fatal crash site. They say the Police Department must increase enforcement and investigations for traffic violations and serious accidents. PHOTO BY BARBARA ROSS

BY KEEGAN STEPHAN  |  Bill de Blasio promises to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. He calls this plan “Vision Zero” after the successful campaign launched by Sweden in 1997 that has been modified and implemented in cities around the world.

A cornerstone of Vision Zero — and the entire urban planning and Safer Streets movement — is that cities can calm traffic using the “Three E’s”: Education, Engineering and Enforcement. The Bloomberg administration improved our city’s engineering and, to a lesser extent, its education about street safety, but it failed to motivate the New York Police Department to improve enforcement.

Over all, traffic fatalities have decreased 30 percent over the last seven years. But, as the New York Post reported this past Saturday, pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, and more than 220 New Yorkers have been killed in traffic this year alone — more than 220 families, neighborhoods and communities have been left grief-stricken. Just last week, four people were killed by drivers within a 30-minute span. One was an 88-year-old woman hit on Avenue C on Nov. 27 at 5:15 p.m. by a Con Ed truck driver making a left-hand turn onto E. 16th St.

It is abundantly clear that de Blasio must do more in all three categories to end these tragedies and achieve Vision Zero. Here’s what needs to be done in each category:

In terms of education, more signage is critical. In the last five years, our city changed the layout of its streets more than it did over the previous 50. Yet there are very few signs educating people about these redesigns, and even fewer that warn drivers of the illegality and danger of their two most deadly behaviors: speeding and failure to yield.

Speed limit and “Yield to Pedestrians” signs reinforce the rules of the road and remind motorists of the dangers they could pose to others — yet they are almost impossible to find in New York City. These signs should be ubiquitous across the five boroughs.

As for engineering, the city needs more so-called “complete streets.” The city has identified and proven which street redesigns save lives. It has also identified its most deadly streets. Many communities have even gone to great lengths to request the installation of those lifesaving street features in their neighborhoods. Yet, the city has not touched many of its most dangerous streets, and has specifically denied applications in some areas for “slow zones,” stop lights and speed humps.

The city’s reluctance to inconvenience drivers should not take precedence over safety. If the city has identified things it can do to save scores of lives, it should just do them. For example, the city has said that lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour would save scores of lives, but it worries that doing so would violate state vehicle and traffic law. Why not pass, post and enforce a citywide 20-mile-per-hour speed limit and see if the state sues the city for making its streets safer and saving lives?

Regarding enforcement, the three key words are Enforce, Investigate and Automate. Proportionally to the danger they pose, drivers who speed and fail to yield are rarely ticketed, and even when they injure or kill people while breaking these laws, they are almost never charged with a crime. This must change. The N.Y.P.D. must target the most deadly driving behaviors, thoroughly investigate injuries and deaths, and release those investigations to the public, so we can further sharpen education and engineering practices.

The N.Y.P.D. can be aided in this effort by legislators, who can designate speeding and failure to yield as crimes instead of violations, and make drivers criminally liable when they break these laws and injure or kill.

Installing speed and red-light cameras would also calm traffic and save lives. Albany routinely pushes back against the city’s request for traffic cameras. However, one pillar of de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan is the simple but brilliant idea that New York City have home rule over the placement of traffic cameras on its own streets.

Yet, none of these changes will come easy. There will be pushback from some drivers, industries, politicians and tabloids. The most important thing we need to end traffic violence on our streets by 2014 is political will, but it is not clear where it will come from.

Bill de Blasio has committed to Vision Zero, but we do not know if he has the political will to make it a reality. Members of the City Council have proposed lifesaving legislation, but it is often watered down or rejected because of technicalities or lack of support. The city’s Department of Transportation and the N.Y.P.D. have made improvements and touted their successes, but our streets are still unsafe, and our fellow New Yorkers are still dying. Thankfully, one unwavering voice has grown more loud and clear than ever before — that of activists for safer streets.

The movement for safe streets has grown in remarkable ways this year alone. In addition to the ever-present work of Transportation Alternatives, a political action committee called StreetsPAC was formed specifically to endorse candidates who support safer streets. Also, families of victims have become leaders in the movement, while communities in every borough have organized locally, and direct action has flared up across the city.

The Tao-Liam family, whose 3-year-old daughter, Allison, was killed by a driver who failed to yield right of way, published a powerful op-ed in the Daily News calling for better traffic enforcement citywide. The Cohen-Eckstein family, whose 12-year-old son, Sammy, was killed by a driver reportedly going the speed limit, have led the push for a 20-mile-per-hour limit on all residential streets in New York City.

Two new groups — Three Children Too Many and Make Brooklyn Safer — formed and organized rallies exactly one week apart from each other in Jackson Heights, Queens, and Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Each rally drew more than 100 people, and these groups are not going away. Activists with Right of Way have created guerilla signage, infrastructure and memorials that highlight lack of enforcement and prosecution at sites like that of the 88-year-old woman killed last Wednesday whose family will likely never see justice.

The safer streets movement is poised and ready to support every grieving family and every advocacy effort that could save a life. We will put pressure on every politician and agency we must to make Vision Zero a reality. We will support Bill de Blasio and others when they fight for the change we need, and call them out on it when they do not.

Continuing to let people be killed on our streets is not an option.

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