Hank Miller, like many New Yorkers, closely followed the news of a fatal traffic crash earlier this spring in Park Slope, Brooklyn. On March 5, two children were killed by a driver who sped through a red light at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street.
For Miller, coverage of the crash, which included video of a baby carriage dragged underneath the tires of a car, felt like ripping open an old wound. As details emerged—revealing that the driver had been previously cited for traffic violations that included running red lights and speeding in a school zone—he thought of his sister, Victoria Nicodemus.
In 2015, Nicodemus was fatally struck in Fort Greene, when a driver—who was later charged for driving without a license—jumped the curb onto Fulton Street, where she was strolling with her boyfriend.
“It’s painful. It’s very emotional,” says Miller. “But besides the anguish and sorrow, I feel a great sense of anger.” He echoed a sentiment from the growing ranks of New Yorkers whose lives have been touched by traffic incidents: “These crashes are preventable, and the solutions are proven.”
Miller is one of 250 volunteers who make up Families for Safe Streets, individuals who lost loved ones or were themselves injured in traffic crashes, and now advocate for greater pedestrian safety in New York. They came together in 2014 (as the first group of its kind in the country), the same year Mayor Bill de Blasio initiated New York City’s Vision Zero campaign to “use every tool at its disposal to improve the safety of our streets.”
In the United States’ car-centric culture, Vision Zero—which originated in Sweden in 1997—is bold in both name and concept. Its goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by looking at pedestrian deaths not as “accidents,” but rather failures of street design. New York was one of the early adopters in the United States, and the initiative has since been adopted by 10 American cities, from Portland, Oregon to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In the U.S., Vision Zero needed to take a multi-pronged approach beyond better street and sidewalk design. It aims to shift a culture “that devalues pedestrians,” as Park Slope parents charged after that fatal crash, to one that regards the high rate of traffic fatalities—40,000 people across the country per year—as a public health crisis that can be addressed through enforcement, policy, design, advocacy, and political support.
“This is a major shift for most American communities, by establishing clear accountability to ensure safe mobility,” says the Vision Zero Network. And coordination of the effort is key, the network states: “Even those attempting to address the problem—the traffic engineer, police officer, policymaker, advocate or public health specialist—are working upstream, often isolated in silos or trying to move forward without reliable data, resources, or political support.”
Since the implementation of Vision Zero, traffic fatalities have not disappeared in New York. But it’s undeniable that the campaign has helped shift attitudes toward how its streets are used.
When De Blasio and Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, began working to bring Vision Zero’s principles to the five boroughs, there were plenty of hurdles—in local and state legislation, in neighborhoods, and in the realm of traffic enforcement. (And this is after Janette Sadik-Khan, who was appointed as DOT commissioner in 2007 by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, laid much of the groundwork for shifting the city’s focus toward pedestrian and cyclist safety.)
Though New York is known for its public transit network, legislation to actually reduce car use—like congestion pricing—continually falters. (One Vision Zero success story, changing the speed limit to 25 MPH citywide, bucked that trend.)
And even though New York is a city where pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-driving commuters are the majority, it cannot be overstated how much the city—alongside the rest of the country—values cars. Automobiles have shaped modern American life, as well as our cities, all the while being protected by a powerful industry that’s fought against government regulation ranging from seat belts to emission standards.
The idea that government couldn’t do much to prevent traffic fatalities was also deeply ingrained in city government, says Paul Steely White, executive director at Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group that founded Families for Safe Streets. Steely White recalls one DOT commissioner telling him that “[traffic fatalities] are gonna happen—it’s a big messy city, people are going to die in traffic and it’s something we have to accept.”
“The prevailing assumption before Vision Zero was to expect we’re going to lose 200 to 300 people a year,” Steely White remembers.
There has also been significant pushback from the public when it comes to streetscape changes, with dedicated NIMBYs rallying within community boards to oppose them, particularly when those plans lead to a reduction in street parking.
Take, for example, the infamous Prospect Park bike lane: In 2010, the DOT announced that it would install a protected bike lane along the park’s western edge in Park Slope, kicking off a firestorm of criticism from some neighborhood residents and lawsuits that lasted until 2016. The DOT ultimately installed the bike lane, which now hosts 1,000 cyclists on a typical weekday and has dramatically reduced speeding along Prospect Park West.
But Streetsblog put it this way when the lawsuit finally wrapped: “In some ways, NYC DOT still seems scarred by it and more hesitant to think big about street redesigns.”
Since then, the DOT has tackled traffic calming design overhauls and bike lane installations in each borough, including major thoroughfares like Queens Boulevard (long nicknamed “The Boulevard of Death”) and Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue. Those initiatives were joined by measures like left turn safety treatments, traffic signal re-timings, and adding 180 miles of dedicated cycling space.
The numbers show it’s working. The city recently announced that 2017 was the fourth consecutive year with declining traffic fatalities under Vision Zero, with pedestrian deaths falling by 45 percent since 2013. In 2017, 214 people, 101 of them pedestrians, were lost in traffic crashes, compared to 231 total fatalities in 2016. Trottenberg called it “a historic drop in pedestrian fatalities, including through a record number of safety redesigns and by reprogramming a record number of traffic signals.”
Still, transit advocates still think more can be done—but rather than place blame squarely on the DOT, they’ve taken issue with the drawn-out public approvals process that precedes major streetscape changes.
A 2017 report by the urban think tank Manhattan Institute found that while Vision Zero is working, NIMBYism from community leaders is the biggest hindrance to implementation. As the report puts it, “[a]ny change, even if a majority of constituents favor it or are indifferent to it, upsets the status quo, and the status quo often benefits politically active residents.”
The report found that in lower-income neighborhoods, opposition from elected officials and community boards is often strongest, leaving those communities more vulnerable to traffic fatalities. While “NIMBYism occurs in rich, middle-class, and poorer neighborhoods,” the report states, “delays to safety fixes in poorer neighborhoods mean that they remain much worse off than wealthier neighborhoods, as they start off at such a disadvantage.”
“It’s still a very politicized process,” Steely White says of engaging with communities for Vision Zero initiatives. “The evidence is getting so strong that Vision Zero street design is saving lives, so why are we still subjecting these proven safety improvements to a laborious, long, drawn-out community process that’s more appropriate for debatable kinds of urban policy?”
For activists, the work required to advance Vision Zero proposals can be draining. “It shouldn’t have to take a Herculean organizing effort to win every safety improvement, which is the way it’s been,” Steely White says.
Christine Furlong, co-founder of advocacy group Make Queens Safer, notes the challenge of breaking down the assumption that “we’re a bunch of entitled activists or bicyclists … actually, this is an epidemic and we want to get the word out that these changes save lives.”
In Corona, Queens, for example, a Vision Zero proposal to add bike lanes to 111th Street sparked outrage from supporters last year, who accused the borough’s Community Board 4 of dragging its feet over two years to vote on the plan. (A veteran board member who opposed Vision Zero claimed the area’s bike lanes were only used by “illegal” immigrants, and wouldn’t be necessary after President Donald Trump deported them.) More recently, in Long Island City, Furlong says plans to install a protected bike lane on Skillman Avenue “have been pushed back so the DOT can get more consensus [within the community board].”
On initiatives in which advocates like Make Queens Safer have been successful, traffic deaths and injuries have fallen. Along Queens Boulevard, where the DOT has installed protected bike lanes and other safety measures each year since 2015, traffic injuries dropped 35 percent and pedestrian injuries dropped 63 percent along a 2.5-mile stretch.
Furlong calls the community board approvals process “flawed,” noting that that “the DOT does months and months of research [for Vision Zero proposals], and sometimes they are only seen by the Transportation Committee of a community board, which might only have three members.” She believes DOT must do a better job engaging communities in street design and pushing forward with measures proven to reduce traffic deaths even in the face of local opposition.
Ann Marie Doherty, DOT’s senior director of research, implementation and safety, points to measures like signage campaigns, educational work with street teams, and street safety events hosted by NYPD that aim to tackle the issue. And the agency is banking on the data coming in from Vision Zero to strengthen its future proposals to community boards.
“We evaluate all of our projects before and after to make sure we’re accomplishing what we set out to do,” Doherty says. “Our record is speaking for itself.”
Enforcement is another major challenge; perhaps no article sums it up better than this Village Voice piece, titled “How to kill someone in NYC and get away with it.” Few motorists involved in fatal crashes with pedestrians or cyclists are charged with even minor traffic infractions—even despite the passage of the 2014 Right of Way Law, which established clear civil and criminal penalties for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. Marlon Sewell, the motorist who killed Hank Miller’s sister, was charged only with aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the third degree, a misdemeanor, and driving without a license.
In New York, it’s also common practice that repeat traffic offenders are getting back into their cars. The driver who caused the Park Slope crash was previously cited for speeding through a school zone four times and running red lights. In January, 13-year-old Kevin Flores was killed on his bicycle in Bed-Stuy by an oil truck driver with a suspended license.
Though the DOT partners with the NYPD for Vision Zero, the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad is understaffed and falling short. According to the Village Voice, “there were more than 3,000 crashes causing serious injury or death [in 2016], but CIS, which has fewer than 30 officers, investigated only 369 of them.”
Julia Kite, director of strategic initiatives for DOT, points out that increased enforcement often requires changes at the state level, where there can be disappointments. Advocates were hopeful the latest budget would allocate funds for the city to expand its speed safety camera program to more New York City schools, but funding was not included.
“The Assembly showed admirable leadership this session by including speed safety camera expansion in their one-house budget, but petty politics and obstructionism led by a single state senator means that family members and victims of traffic violence will have to continue their fight during the legislative session,” a press release by Transportation Alternatives stated. (Streetsblog later identified the senator as Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, whose efforts against street safety measures have been well-documented over the years.)
At least locally, political will has started to lean toward pedestrian safety. StreetsPAC was founded in 2013 during the mayoral race, in the face of “leading candidates who were differing degrees of unfriendly to [street safety improvements],” says Eric McClure, its executive director. (De Blasio received the group’s endorsement.)
Back in 2013, 18 candidates endorsed by StreetsPAC ran city council races; last year the number rose to 23. “We see those running for office more and more interested in talking to StreetsPAC and advocating for safe streets policies,” McClure says. “The trends are encouraging.”
Brad Lander, a Brooklyn city council member whose district includes Park Slope, has seen the neighborhood come a long way since the Prospect Park West bike lane wars of 2010. “When I came into the council [in 2009], it and most community boards were hostile to street safety proposals,” he says. He has since watched advocacy groups grow more prominent, heard more victims share their stories, and watched in-depth news coverage of street fatalities increase. “We have definitely seen a shift in the council, and a lot of the community boards,” he notes. “Most of the credit goes to the activists for that—but Vision Zero has been meaningful.”
In the wake of the Park Slope crash, Lander called on DOT to redesign the intersection, which the agency will move forward on. “But these two kids that were killed… it’s too painful,” he says. “Big picture, we’ve made some very meaningful steps forward. And we have a long ways still to go.”