Bill de Blasio’s Route to Vision Zero

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

t’s almost impossible to imagine a city where no one is killed or injured in traffic. The realities of modern urban life­—powerful cars, crowded streets, rumbling trucks, lax policing, distractions and demands and plain old bad luck—seem to conspire to create a streetscape where serious injury or death are simply the cost of doing business.

Traffic violence is so ubiquitous in New York City that one in three voters has been seriously injured in a traffic crash or knows someone who has been seriously injured or killed in one. There are stories in the news almost every day about a horrendous collision or a distracted driver. Someone speeds; there’s a mix-up; they lost control of the car; it was an accident.

This is one version of our streets, but there is another. It’s a more responsible and honest approach; one that accepts the power and responsibility of modern life and individual actions; one that moves forward from the premise that every traffic crash is preventable and that every injury and life lost on a city’s streets is a fundamental civic failure. This is Vision Zero and it has long been Transportation Alternatives’ philosophy. For the first time in New York history, it will be shared by City Hall as well.

“The City must take decisive and sustained action to reduce street fatalities each year until we have achieved ‘Vision Zero’ — a city with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by car crashes on the streets of New York,” declared a policy paper released by Bill de Blasio this August. And now that candidate de Blasio is Mayor-elect de Blasio, it’s time for the promises of his campaign to become the life-saving policies of a new government.

hough T.A. has been talking about Vision Zero for the past five years, it isn’t an idea that originated here. It’s Swedish, dating back to 1997, when that country’s Parliament passed a transportation bill based on the idea that society should never exchange life or health for benefits such as mobility, economic growth or convenience.

Since that time, and with the help of Transportation Alternatives, the Vision Zero philosophy has spread across the Atlantic. At the state level, transportation departments in Minnesota, Utah, Washington, Oregon and West Virginia have identified zero roadway deaths as the core objective of their strategic safety plans. Major municipalities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. have also set their sights on a future without pedestrian, bicycle or automotive fatalities.

Of course, every road is paved with good intentions. Whether it actually gets to where it’s going is an entirely different matter.

n 2011, 268 people were killed on New York City’s streets, and there were 2,942 serious-injury crashes. Mayor-elect de Blasio’s plan to stop that carnage is, according to his policy paper, “a bold, comprehensive approach that balances smart design choices, sweeping expansion of 20-mph Slow Zones, expanded enforcement of reckless driving like speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians, and a camera-based deterrent and enforcement system that is free from Albany politics.”

Certainly, these are all important steps. They are a continuation of Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy, and goals that Transportation Alternatives has had its sights set on for years. Redesigning New York’s biggest and most crash-prone corridors as Complete Streets with dedicated bike lanes and wide sidewalks would have a massive impact on traffic safety and quality of life. Tackling speeding, which is the number one cause of car-related fatalities in New York City, and failure to yield, which accounted for 25 percent of all crashes that injured or killed pedestrians between 1995 and 2009, would drastically reduce the threat that bikers and walkers face each day. Installing more 20 mph Slow Zones, especially around schools and in pedestrian-dense areas, is a time-tested strategy for saving lives, as are automated enforcement cameras. Freeing enforcement cameras from Albany’s control, however, is a heavy political lift, as are all the other items in the Mayor-elect’s Vision Zero plan.

ormer New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously quipped, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” If that’s the case, then the text of Bill de Blasio’s safe streets policies will be dense, cryptic and far more challenging than simply saying it and making it so.

Transportation Alternatives has been fighting Albany for enforcement cameras in New York City for 15 years. We’ve won a lot, and we’re certain Mayor-elect de Blasio can make significant gains, but he’s going to have to prioritize the issue. Allowing New York City total home rule over automated enforcement cameras is essentially Albany legislators voting to restrain their own power. That’s not something New York City has seen often, and it’s not going to become a reality unless the Mayor-elect is willing to kick, scream and horse-trade to make it happen.

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

And that’s not the only fight he should expect. Though life-saving Complete Street improvements like bike lanes and wider sidewalks are wildly popular in polls and among the vast majority of New Yorkers, there is always opposition. Shepherding a life-saving street redesign from planning to community proposals to construction to completion requires thick skin and self-assurance. In a city as big as New York, there will always be dissent, whether it’s from a parking-obsessed community board, a City Council member looking to make a name for themself or a resident who doesn’t like change. Often times those voices will find traction in the media, and in the most extreme cases, they’ll make their way to court. If Mayor-elect de Blasio really wants to make New York City’s most dangerous streets and intersections safe, he’s going to have to codify a strategy to do so. Last year, T.A. and Council Member Gentile worked on a bill that mandated improvements to the City’s most dangerous intersections every year. Legislation like that would allow Mayor-elect de Blasio to move past the inevitable confrontations and reframe the discussion around his administration’s obligation to save lives.

The next Mayor will also have to find a way to make the NYPD get serious about crosswalk enforcement and speeding enforcement if he hopes to truly tame New York City’s streets. There is a windshield perspective in the police department that tacitly encourages officers to turn a blind eye to life-threatening behaviors like speeding and failure to yield. What’s more, those are “difficult tickets.” Speeding enforcement requires trained personnel and dedicated resources. Crosswalk enforcement demands boots on the ground. Though the police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, changing the NYPD’s priorities isn’t as simple as issuing a directive. It will require more resources, a rethinking of policing practices and a real commitment from every link in the chain of command.

As if all of that wasn’t challenging enough, Mayor-elect de Blasio is going to have to do it all while scaling up an already ambitious series of projects piloted by the Bloomberg Administration. Neighborhood Slow Zones, public plazas, Safe Streets for Seniors, an expanding bike network and even better bus service are all critical parts of the historic drop in pedestrian fatalities that New York City has seen in the past 12 years. Life-saving Complete Streets are, as their name implies, a holistic product. They require simultaneous and sustained efforts to truly work, and if Mayor-elect de Blasio wants to live up to his bold and inspiring vision for a New York City with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by traffic crashes, he’s going to have to push forward on all fronts with the focus that such a noble task requires.

e will have help, of course. Transportation Alternatives brought the Vision Zero philosophy to New York City’s political world and has every intention of fighting to make it a reality on our streets. Dozens of T.A. advocates, hundreds of volunteers and a 100,000-person activist network will continue to lead the grassroots campaigns that have been getting results for 40 years and keep on raising the bar, bringing the latest and greatest ideas to city leaders and calling for more, better and smarter street improvements.

A City Council that increasingly understands that safe, sustainable streets are not just a priority but a necessity will help too. Many progressive planning stalwarts are returning to the Council and many of the chamber’s new faces are everyday cyclists and proud pedestrians. The business community and real estate interests are onboard as well, and increasingly supportive of streets that attract shoppers and facilitate the sort of lifestyle that a mobile workforce demands.

Most importantly, though, the vast majority of New York voters will support Mayor-elect de Blasio’s Vision Zero agenda. Sixty-seven percent of New York City voters, and 65 percent of voters who own cars, support bringing protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands to their neighborhood, according to a new T.A. poll. Eighty-six percent of voters, and 82 percent of car-owning voters, say they support the city installing more speeding enforcement cameras in school zones, according to the same poll. These are powerful numbers, representing voters that Mayor-elect de Blasio can rely on as he fights to remake New York City’s streets. They’re a call to action and a mandate for life-saving changes.

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker