A New Take on Traffic

Image Courtesy Dmitry Gudkov

Not too long ago, traffic data was a topic for pocket-protected engineers, and pedestrian fatalities only made the front page when the victim was famous. Recently, however, road safety issues have found their way into places of prominence among policy makers and publishers.

In the past year, New York’s City Council has held nearly a dozen hearings on livable streets topics ranging from parking policy to the NYPD’s role in safer streets to the mapping and distribution of crash data. While this number isn’t all that much larger than it was five years ago, the prominence of the hearings and the attention given to them by participating Council members, as well as the media, has changed significantly.

“Five years ago, a hearing on the NYPD’s crash investigation policies would have had an attendance figure in the single digits, and most of the Council members would have spent the majority of the time on their smart phones,” said T.A.’s Deputy Director Noah Budnick.

“Now, that hearing is standing room only, and Council members are asking probing questions, grandstanding, cross-examining and cracking wise. It’s a whole new chapter.”

At the same time, news outlets are devoting more space and resources to reporting on transportation and street safety. Recent car-on-pedestrian collisions have drawn media attention in a way that even longtime advocates find surprising. “It sounds callous,” Budnick said, “but pedestrian injuries used to fight with street fairs for space at the back of the local section, and suddenly they’re front-page news.”

When pressed for a reason why, Budnick told Reclaim, “It’s a virtuous cycle. New Yorkers care more about our streets, which means their elected officials care more and newspapers do too. Those all feed back into each other and suddenly a historically second-tier issue has a place of some prominence in the public forum.”

During the recent elections, T.A. used that positive feedback loop to help promote forums and questionnaires that got candidates on the record and voters and media outlets informed. These efforts are part of the reason that the new City Council is more attuned to livable streets issues than ever before. Among the City’s legislative body are cyclists, parking policy wonks, safe-street advocates and urban planning progressives.

In the coming months, a broad array of livable streets issues will face the scrutiny of these fresh-faced City Council members, a new mayor and an inquisitive public. Top on the list will be reducing traffic deaths and injuries, improving the city’s biggest streets and empowering all of the city’s 400 neighborhoods to realize their right to safe local streets. Though it remains to be seen whether all this new energy will significantly shift the debate, one thing is for certain: T.A.’s 100,000 supporters and millions more New Yorkers will be paying close attention.