Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
As NYC makes serious changes to reduce pedestrian traffic deaths, some New Yorkers resist out of romance for the city's chaotic streets.
The driver ran her car right up onto the concrete bollards on the pedestrian island in the middle of West End Avenue, leaving its front end suspended in the air. She was one of two drivers to run into this new feature—designed to slow cars in this residential neighborhood and save pedestrians’ lives—in as many weeks. The woman driving reportedly told cops that she just didn’t see it.
That was the same thing that a cab driver told investigators about 9-year-old Cooper Stock, whom he ran down and killed as the boy crossed the street in the same crosswalk, holding his father’s hand.
The bollards and island are part of a street redesign that has been implemented in the wake of Cooper’s death, which happened in January. The boy was one of 52 pedestrians hit on the street in two years, and one of two to die.
“When I hear about these crashes, it makes me sick, and it makes me scared,” says Dana Lerner, Cooper’s mother, who has become an outspoken advocate for safer streets since his death. “The whole concept of ‘I didn’t see it’—that’s not OK. The question is, why are people not seeing these things?”
Not long after Cooper died, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who had just been sworn into office, proclaimed his intention to launch an initiative called Vision Zero, modeled on a Swedish program of the same name. The goal: to reduce traffic fatalities in New York City to zero within 10 years. In 2013, 286 New Yorkers died in traffic crashes; 333 were killed by homicide. Of the people who died in traffic, 173 were pedestrians, and 14 were children. One of those children was a schoolmate of my son’s, run down while he was walking on a sidewalk with his mother and brother on a pleasant fall afternoon.
Each one of these deaths affects dozens of other people. And almost every one of these tragedies could have been prevented if drivers had been acting with due care.
By February of this year, the mayor’s office had released a multipronged action plan to start moving toward the zero goal. Tactics include increased enforcement of traffic laws by NYPD officers and by cameras; redesign of streets to slow traffic create safer environments for pedestrians; and the reduction of the citywide speed limit to 25 miles per hour, a move which had been blocked by state lawmakers in Albany before. New legislation aims to stiffen penalties for drivers at fault in fatal accidents. Cooper’s Law, for instance, named for the son that Dana Lerner lost in January, will allow the city to pull the taxi licenses of cab drivers who kill or critically injure a pedestrian while breaking a traffic law. Public service announcements are aiming to explain the reasoning behind some of the new policies.
Several elements in the Vision Zero plan have already been implemented, and others are soon to go into effect. Most recently, the mayor was able to sign the 25-mile-per-hour limit into law. And while it is in its early days yet, there has been a downtick in the number of pedestrians killed (although the number of bicyclists killed has gone up).
Enforcement, engineering, education: this is the way that Sweden has done it, with remarkable success.
But New York City isn’t Stockholm, and changing the way that people drive on these streets is going to take time. Every day, New Yorkers are faced with more reminders of how deeply rooted bad driving habits are, and how resistant some people can be to the idea that the city could be a more forgiving and less deadly place.
Those reminders come in all different forms. Only a few days after the latest driver crashed into the bollards on West End Avenue, Rylee Ramos, age 8, died after being struck on the sidewalk outside her Bronx school by a driver who lost control while backing her car down the block. Several other women and children on the scene were injured. Then, a few days after that, Edgar Torres was killed in a Brooklyn crosswalk when the driver of a public bus hit him while making a turn.
This was not just a random intersection: It was the place where 23-year-old Ella Bandes had been killed by a turning bus in January of 2013. In 2009, another pedestrian was struck and killed at the same complicated six-way intersection, which is slated for improvement by the city’s department of transportation.
Torres was the eighth person to die this year after being hit by a city bus, a toll that includes six pedestrians, a cyclist, and a motorcyclist. As Streetsblog points out, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has not participated directly in the Vision Zero initiative, “saying its existing bus driver training program was adequate.”
Another group has been slow to warm up to the Vision Zero idea, providing yet more reminders of how hard it is to change long-standing attitudes: some members of the New York press.
At the Daily News, columnist Denis Hamill held forth over the weekend about the new limit. In his cartoonish, old-timey New York tough guy way, he recounts a trip in which he speeds to get his kid to school on time, then tries driving 25 miles per hour instead, getting honked at by a bunch of motorists who yell in-character insults such as, “You drive like a f------ nun!” The piece is alarmingly headlined, “We may lose lives to road rage with the new 25 mph speed limit.”
Over on the highbrow side of town, Nick Paumgarten, writing in the New Yorker, starts out a recent piece on the 25-mile-per-hour limit saying that all New Yorkers would like the number of children killed by drivers to be zero—before sliding into some romantic meditations about the desire for speed in the city. “In a city of lost time—there’s never enough, never enough—any chance to regain some is sweet,” writes Paumgarten, going on to say this:
One day, we may all wistfully recall our own grim, turn-of-the-millennium on-the-town cab rides—hurtling home after a late night out, storefronts racing by in a blur, potholes rattling the hubcaps. No seat belt, either. From now on, the trip will be a crawl, and the Uber car will turn into a pumpkin.
Ah, yes, nostalgia for the speeding Uber.
Paumgarten muses philosophically about the reasons the city might have “devised” the 25 mile-per-hour limit without mentioning the real rationale, which is clearly stated in all the city’s communications on the subject: people struck by a car going 30 are twice as likely to die as those struck by a car going 25. Drivers, of course, also have more time to react to the city’s myriad obstructions if they are going slower, giving them a greater opportunity to avoid a tragic collision entirely.
Hamill and Paumgarten are hardly alone in their kvetching about the new speed limit, or about the way that streets are being redesigned to give more priority to pedestrians. All of the complainers are missing something fundamental: Celebrating the chaos and lack of civility on the city’s streets is just as toxic as celebrating gun homicides. This is not about “keeping it real” so that you can drive your kid to school faster, or feel the thrill of imminent death in a hired car. This is not about being a tough New Yorker. No one is tough enough to withstand being hit by a car going 35 miles an hour that jumps the curb. No, Denis Hamill, not even you.
Changing the way New Yorkers drive is going to take time. (And it’s not all New Yorkers on these streets, either; the pale-yellow of a Jersey plate can strike fear in a pedestrian’s heart.) Change is possible, though—if enough people become aware of the problem, and start believing that it can be solved.
“We all buy into it,” says Dana Lerner, talking about the idea that New York’s dysfunctional streets are a fact of life in the big city. “I bought into it until my son was killed. But this is unacceptable that we’re allowing this to happen.”