Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
New York's Vision Zero program targets reckless driving with a pair of jarring new public service campaigns.
The ad is only 30 seconds long, but it will stay in your mind long after it’s over. On a split screen, a man gets into a car; a little boy, shepherded by his watchful mother, gets onto a bicycle; their paths, at the end, intersect terribly.
The public-service spot, from New York City’s Department of Transportation, is the latest entry in the city’s Vision Zero street-safety campaign, and it is blunt in its emphasis on motorist responsibility. The tagline: “Slow down. Your choices matter.”
The Evolution of Vision Zero
Bill de Blasio announced New York’s version of Vision Zero, inspired by the Swedish policy of the same name, when he was freshly minted as mayor, back at the beginning of 2014. It aims to reduce traffic fatalities to zero through a combination of engineering and design changes, enforcement, and education. It’s an approach that is being adopted by more and more cities around the United States.
So far the highest-profile aspects of the Vision Zero effort in New York have been on the engineering and enforcement end. The reduction of the speed limit on most city streets to 25 miles per hour drew a lot of attention—including no small measure of ridicule and outrage—when it went into effect. Police have conducted ticket blitzes, which always gets a big reaction, targeting both people driving cars and people on bicycles. And the DOT has conducted dozens of community meetings to get feedback on proposed street-design changes for all five boroughs, many with the goal of reducing vehicle speed. Some of those projects, like the redesign of Queens Boulevard, long known as the “Boulevard of Death,” have already been implemented or are underway.
But this ad represents a distinct and very public change in emphasis and tone from some other campaigns the DOT has run in the past. By highlighting driver responsibility, the spot acknowledges the reality behind New York’s traffic fatality stats: According to the DOT’s numbers, dangerous actions by drivers, such as speeding and failure to yield, account for 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities in the city. A New Yorker is killed or seriously injured by a vehicle on average once every two hours.
Why This Is a Big Deal for New York
The message of driver accountability is also at the core of “Drive Like Your Family Lives Here,” a 15-minute video recently released by the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, the DOT’s Vision Zero team, and advocacy groups Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives. It tells the stories of five families who lost loved ones in crashes where they were on foot or on bicycle and hit by drivers who committed traffic violations.
It is at times excruciating to watch this cross-section of New Yorkers talk about how careless drivers robbed them of their children, their husbands, their siblings. Even the short ad about the fictional boy on his bicycle is shocking and upsetting. But this type of educational campaign—the same kind the city has used to help reduce smoking deaths—is exactly what’s needed.
Because New York is a great walking city, people on foot are more at risk here than anywhere else in the country. In Manhattan, 73 percent of traffic fatalities are pedestrians, as opposed to 14 percent nationally. Now, the city is finally starting to treat the deaths and injuries caused by reckless driving the way they should—not as an inevitable cost of living on these streets, but as a serious public health issue that can, over time and with concerted effort, be solved.