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Park Slope residents demand safer street design in the wake of fatal crash

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“There is a culture that cars come first”

Safe streets activists rallied outside of the Park Slope YMCA, and called on city officials to do more to protect pedestrians.

When Mayor de Blasio arrived at the Park Slope YMCA on Ninth Street Tuesday morning, more than 100 concerned parents and advocates lined the entrance, shouting “safe streets now!”

The rally came in the wake of a fatal crash nearby on Monday afternoon; overnight, police had confirmed the deaths of one-year-old Joshua Lew and four-year-old Abigail Blumenstein, both of whom were killed by a driver who sped through a red light at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street. Three adults were also struck, according to the NYPD: two women in their mid-30s (reportedly the children’s mothers), and a 46-year-old man. All were hospitalized in stable condition.

“There is a culture that devalues pedestrians,” said Kathy Park Price, a 43-year-old Park Slope mom of two. “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 driver, identified by the New York Daily News as 44-year-old Dorothy Bruns, was not arrested, though the NYPD confirmed that an investigation into the crash is ongoing. (“This very tragic incident is under active investigation and we are looking into all aspects of this case,” a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney confirmed to Curbed.)

On Tuesday afternoon, officials confirmed that Bruns’s driver’s license was suspended. The white Volvo sedan she crashed Monday had reportedly been cited 12 times in two years, including four times for running a red light and four for speeding in a school zone. Police sources told Pix11 that Bruns self-reported a seizure during the crash, though the NYPD could not confirm this to Curbed.

In the hours since the crash, elected officials, including Mayor de Blasio and Park Slope City Council member Brad Lander, have called for heightened enforcement of traffic infractions and more stringent Department of Motor Vehicles penalties for drivers with numerous violations. Bruns “said that she had a seizure, but I don’t know if she had a seizure all those other times she failed to stop at traffic lights, all those other times she sped in a school zone,” Lander said, standing at a memorial of candles and stuffed animals a few feet from the crash site Tuesday morning. “She should not have had a license, she should not have had a car.”

De Blasio also emphasized that Albany lawmakers are responsible for regulating speed cameras, which are currently limited to 140 school zones. “I can’t believe we don’t have more speed cameras,” De Blasio told protesters outside the YMCA. “I don’t know what you have to say to everyone in Albany to get them to want to do something that protect kids.”

But for transit advocates and Park Slope parents, an immediate redesign of Ninth Street is paramount—and within Mayor de Blasio’s power to implement. The intersection at Fifth Avenue saw two serious crashes between 2012 and 2016, according to the Department of Transportation, including one that killed 41-year-old Bahtiyor Khamdamov. Park Slope parent and safe streets advocate Doug Gordon made a formal request for protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands on Ninth Street between Third Avenue and Prospect Park West in 2017, but DOT responded that the roadway does not have “sufficient width.”

But today, the agency changed its tune. “We will immediately review the area for any safety improvements,” DOT spokesman Scott Gastell said in a statement to Curbed. “Among the traffic-calming enhancements we will now consider is a protected bike lane on Ninth Street.”

But for Gordon, that’s too little, too late. “The idea that we have to hit some threshold of dead people before we act—it strikes me as a damning indictment of how things work in this city,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Lew and Blumenstein died on the eve of a City Council lobby day to promote Vision Zero, the city’s initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities by the year 2024 (there were 214 traffic deaths last year, 101 of whom were pedestrians). Groups including Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets rallied in lower Manhattan, calling on DOT to standardize 10 street safety improvements, including wider sidewalks, pedestrian islands, and protected bike lanes. While these improvements have already been implemented on some roads, like Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, advocates say standardization would prevent uneven application from one neighborhood to the next.

”These don’t have to be capital-intensive, multi-year projects,” said Transportation Alternatives Director Paul Steely White. “Enforcement and street design work together, of course, but really we often prioritize street design because safe street designs work to prevent reckless driving.”

Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who often represents pedestrians and cyclists injured in traffic crashes, bemoaned the current DMV policies for license suspension and revocation. Drivers can skirt consequences by postponing their DMV hearings, he said.

But he also insisted that Mayor de Blasio should not escape scrutiny. Pedestrian deaths have fallen 45 percent since Vision Zero went into effect in 2013, according to City Hall, but with his own gym commute habits, Vaccaro argues, De Blasio continues to promote casual driving. “The mayor doesn’t seem to understand that Vision Zero means raising barriers to driving,” Vaccaro said, adding that the mayor should embrace congestion pricing and implement more pedestrian-only areas similar to the one recently completed in Times Square.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks with transit advocate Doug Gordon outside of Park Slope’s YMCA.

Standing outside of the YMCA in a sweatshirt and workout gear Tuesday, De Blasio spoke in low tones to Gordon while the assembled crowd yelled for him to speak up. The mayor called for “aggressive and consistent” traffic violation enforcement.

“This is one piece of the equation: street safety,” he said. “I understand why people care about it, but I’m telling you that the Vision Zero orthodoxy requires enforcement.”

“I can say as a parent, I don’t want drivers pulled over for speeding. I want them not to be able to speed in the first place,” Gordon countered. “Because the minute they are speeding is the minute they can hit somebody.… I want streets where a driver looks at it and says, ‘I’m the guest here.’”