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City Council approves two bills to make NYC streets safer

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One will strengthen the commitment to Vision Zero, and the other will protect bike lanes during construction

A new bike lane on Delancey Street.

It’s been five years since Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration rolled out Vision Zero, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. But after a spike in traffic-related deaths at the beginning of 2019—which has led to questions about the de Blasio administration’s commitment to the program—the New York City Council has passed a crucial piece of legislation that could go a long way toward helping the city reach that goal.

The bill, which passed the Council’s transportation committee earlier this week, is not especially robust or controversial; it requires the city’s Department of Transportation to create a checklist of street design elements that must be considered when redesigning roadways. Those include ADA accessibility, protected bike lanes (as in, ones with a physical barrier between cyclists and vehicles), wider sidewalks (of at least eight feet), signal retiming, and pedestrian safety islands.

This checklist would apply to any arterial street redesigns, and the DOT would be required to both make those projects public, and account for why a particular element was not included in those projects. Thus, its biggest achievement will be accountability, and ensuring that internationally recognized safe streets design is at least considered in reconstruction projects.

“With the passage of this legislation, the City Council has stated loud and clear that the era of scattershot, piecemeal implementation of Vision Zero must come to an end,” Marco Conner, the interim director of Transportation Alternatives, said in a statement. “By requiring a more systematic approach to preventing injury and death on our streets, the Vision Zero Street Design Standard discourages the arbitrary and politically-driven omission of life-saving interventions while giving street design experts the flexibility to implement context sensitive solutions that prioritize safety above all else.”

It somehow took a year for the bill to pass: It was first introduced by Ydanis Rodriguez, who heads up the Council’s transportation committee, in January 2018, and by March of that year, a majority of City Council members had signed on to support it. The de Blasio administration, however, was less than enthused: In August, the DOT’s chief operations officer Margaret Forgione argued that the design standards checklist would be cumbersome to implement across every redesign, according to Streetsblog. “Intricacies of these decisions cannot be conveyed in a quantifiable checklist, which would be misleading because it would not reflect how DOT is maximizing safety at any given location using our engineering judgment,” she said at the time.

Fast forward to 2019: Traffic fatalities, which reached an all-time low in 2018, are on the rise; in the first half of the year, there have been at least 69 fatalities due to crashes, compared to 60 at the same point in 2018. The jump in traffic-related deaths led transportation advocates to declare a Vision Zero state of emergency—and led elected officials, including Rodriguez and City Council speaker Corey Johnson, to revive the stalled design standards bill.

“This bill reinforces DOT’s ongoing practice: ensuring that all safety enhancements are reviewed for any project,” Seth Stein, a City Hall spokesman, said. “We thank the Council for working with the Administration on this bill.” A timeline for when it will be implemented was not immediately made clear.

Another bill aimed at protecting cyclists also passed today: This one, introduced by City Council member Carlina Rivera, seeks to reduce disruption to protected bike lanes from the ever-present construction on or near city streets. The new legislation, which DOT says will go into effect immediately, will require contractors to create and maintain temporary bike lanes when a dedicated, protected lane is displaced for on-street construction work. Failing to do so will lead to steep fines.

“When construction impacts a bike lane it doesn’t just inconvenience bicyclists—it becomes a public safety hazard to all New Yorkers who have to navigate around these projects,” Rivera said in a statement.