Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A march in New York City on Monday draws inspiration from the 1970s social movement that changed Dutch street design for good.
On Monday afternoon, Abigail Blumenstein, age 4, and Joshua Lew, age 1, were crossing a street in Brooklyn with their mothers when a woman driving a Volvo sedan accelerated and crashed into them, according to police reports. Both children were killed.
Now, advocates and neighborhood groups are organizing a march to rally against the deaths of children on New York City streets. On Monday, March 12, protestors will gather near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to march to the scene of these deaths. Kevin Flores, a 13-year-old killed by a car in February, will also be remembered, according to a Facebook page.
“The message will be simple: Stop Killing Kids,” Joseph Cutrufo, the communications director for Transportation Alternatives, a local advocacy group, said in an email.
Monday’s fatal incident has become a flashpoint in New York City transportation politics. Vision Zero, the city’s campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities, has been successful by some measures: Pedestrian deaths have dropped by 45 percent since 2014.*
But critics say that the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, continues to promote “casual driving” with his own regular car commutes between Park Slope and City Hall, and that the city hasn’t taken traffic enforcement and safe street design seriously enough. The intersection where the children were killed has been a site of a number of pedestrian and cyclist casualties. Narrower driving lanes, wider sidewalks, protected cycling lanes, and traffic lights that give pedestrians a head-start, could all help cut back on traffic deaths, advocates believe.
On Tuesday morning, activists crowded outside the Park Slope YMCA, where the mayor regularly drives to exercise, to call for more pedestrian protections. “There is a culture that devalues pedestrians,” Kathy Park Price, a mother of two who lives in Park Slope, the neighborhood where the fatal crash occurred, told Curbed. “We live in a city that is a walking city, but there is a culture that cars come first. And pedestrians are basically speed humps. Our kids are speed humps.”
The event on Monday, “Kids March for Safe Streets,” will be led by children, according to Cutrufo. The protest is inspired by Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”), the cultural movement that carried the Netherlands to its current status as a global leader in street safety, with one of the lowest rates of traffic fatalities in the world.
It’s well known that few other countries are as friendly to bikes as the Netherlands, with 22,000 miles of cycling paths across the country. It’s less well known why Dutch cities began to rebuild their street networks around biking and walking in the 1980s. The oil crisis of the 1970s played a significant role, but arguably of greater importance were loud and raucous protests led by parents and children against the deaths brought about by growing post-World War II traffic. Road fatalities peaked at 3,300 deaths in 1971, with more than 400 of them children, according to a 2014 piece by the Guardian. Political action with children at the center led to one of the earliest expressions of Dutch ingenuity on safe street engineering: the woonerf.
“Today, in the Vision Zero era, we believe it's time we had our own ‘Stop the Child-Murder’ movement in the US,” said Cutrufo.
It’s not clear that safer street design could have prevented Monday’s fatalities. The vehicle involved in the crash had received a dozen citations over the last two years, for infractions that include running red lights and speeding in school zones. “More important than redesigning our streets (although of course important) is redesigning the way we deal with drivers who routinely break laws and drive recklessly but suffer no consequences,” wrote one woman on Facebook who said she’d be attending the event. Cutrufo said the protest will also be demanding reforms at the DMV to prevent dangerous drivers from getting behind the wheel.
It’s also hard to imagine the U.S. modeling its street safety policies to match those of the Netherlands where cycling is much more common: 25 percent of all trips in the country are made by bike. In Portland, one of the American cities where cycling is the most popular, that share is just 6 percent.
But the protest arrives in a moment when the value of young life in America is of particularly heated debate. The teenaged survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February are now the powerful leaders in the political fight for gun reform. Their moral gravitas actually seems to have pushed the debate around gun safety to a new place—witness Republican legislators in Florida breaking with the NRA to back new gun restrictions on Friday. That move might have been unimaginable just a month ago. Sometimes things can change quickly.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Vision Zero was first adopted in 2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.