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New York's “complete streets” law is a step in the right direction, but roads around the state continue to threaten the lives of children who live and go to school near them.

Fourteen-year-old Brittany Vega was just trying to get to school when she was killed by a driver as she crossed the Sunrise Highway in Wantagh, New York, in the fall of 2010. She was supposed to be taking the bus. Her mother had forbidden her to walk to school because the six-lane arterial road on Long Island is so notoriously perilous for pedestrians, regularly ranking as one of the most dangerous in the region.

Since Vega’s death, New York has passed a “complete streets” law that requires better accommodation for pedestrians in future road development. But Sunrise Highway, and similar roads around the state, continue to threaten the lives of children who live and go to school near them.

The situation on Sunrise Highway is so bad, in fact, that residents of the community of Massapequa are lobbying for a “child safety zone” that would allow kids to be bused to school even if they live too close to qualify for that service. I learned about the situation from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which lobbies for safer streets in the region. From a report in Newsday:

Texting drivers, vehicles that speed at more than 70 mph and other factors have made it difficult "to put safety first," said Gary Bennett , a Massapequa school board trustee. "This is something I will not tolerate, and I will not live with," he said.

Three pedestrians were killed in the past 18 months on Sunrise Highway between Wantagh and Massapequa Park, he said….

About 80 students must cross the road to get to Massapequa Park High School. They live too close to the school to qualify for a bus ride, Bennett said…

Ally Gardner, 15, a Massapequa High School sophomore, said she now gets rides to school with her cousin because her parents don't permit her to cross Sunrise by foot, she said.

Gardner cited Brittany Vega, 14, a Wantagh High School student killed on Sunrise in September 2010, as a reason for action.
"That can happen right here," Gardner said. "I don't trust the people who are driving. In the mornings, they're in a rush to get to work, and they're not going to stop for us."

I wrote a couple of days ago about new research that suggests children who are driven everywhere are less able to navigate their home neighborhoods, feel disconnected from their communities, and have negative feelings about the streets where cars dominate. It’s a sad way for kids to grow up.

And yet street design that is harmful to children continues to dominate development in America. Suburban communities like Massapequa and Wantagh are proud of their school systems, which attract families with young children. But they too often ignore the way places like Sunrise Highway affect children’s health, development, and sense of belonging.

When streets are so dangerous that kids can’t cross them safely without being inside the protective shell of a car or bus, something is very wrong. Complete streets legislation, which has been passed in 28 states, is a start at addressing the problem. Here’s an excerpt from a letter that Brittany Vega’s mother wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo in support of the New York legislation last year:

New York has some of the most dangerous roads in the nation, and it is time to stop the carnage. In the fall of 2010, my daughter, Brittany Vega, a 14-year-old walking to school on Long Island, was struck and killed by a car while crossing the road. This particular road, Sunrise Highway, is a 6-lane, arterial road that bisects the central business and residential areas of our hometown in Wantagh. With no count-down clock, there was no way Brittany could tell how long she had to get across. With no pedestrian island in the roadway, she had no safe refuge. She made a guess, and it cost her life.

Complete Streets design principles assure that when roads are built or redesigned, they take into account the needs of all users of the roads, not just cars. Simple changes in road design—such as count-down clocks, better crosswalks, protected bike lanes, and traffic calming devices—can dramatically reduce the number of fatalities on our roads. Complete Streets are safe streets: streets that encourage economic development and assure our seniors can stay in their homes and walk to services, and that our children can make it safely to school. Complete Streets are also environmental streets—providing people with transportation choices that can help to cut down on the congestion and smog that are impacting our health and climate.

I hope that the kids in Massapequa get the bus service they need to keep them safe. But wouldn't a retrofit of Sunrise Highway into an environment that is as safe for humans on foot as it is for humans in cars be an even better solution?

Top image: Sunrise Highway in Wantagh, New York, via Google Street View.

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