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As traffic fatalities rise in NYC, safe streets advocates demand action

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The City Council will vote on a bill to strengthen the city’s implementation of Vision Zero design standards

Members of Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets rally on the steps of City Hall on May 7.
Amy Plitt

Traffic fatalities are on the rise in New York City, according to the latest numbers from the city; in the first few months of 2019, at least 65 deaths from car crashes have been recorded by the NYPD, a 30 percent increase from the same time last year, according to Streetsblog. (DOT disputes that figure, saying it’s only a 10 percent increase.) And that number has already risen with the death of a three-year-old child in Bath Beach last week.

That bleak figure has pushed safe streets advocates to demand a more robust implementation of the city’s Vision Zero initiative, which Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out in 2014 with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. Now, the New York City Council is poised to pass a crucial piece of legislation that advocates believe will go a long way toward helping the city reach that goal.

At a rally on Tuesday led by Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, who heads up the Transportation Committee, announced that with the backing of council speaker Corey Johnson, the Vision Zero Street Design Standards bill (Int. 0322) will get a vote in the council’s stated meeting at the end of the month. According to Streetsblog, a “veto-proof majority” of council members already support the bill.

That legislation, which Rodriguez introduced last year, would create a checklist of various safety measures—including pedestrian islands, protected bike lanes, signal retiming, and wider sidewalks—that the city must reference when redesigning streets. It would also require the city to explain why it has not implemented a particular measure from the checklist in any redesigns.

“The New York City Council is committed to making our streets safer and breaking car culture,” Johnson said in a statement. “Smart street design saves lives, which is why the council will vote on the Vision Zero Street Design Standard bill at the end of the month.”

“We agree with the Speaker that we must aggressively pursue Vision Zero to save lives across our city,” Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration, said in a statement. “We are reviewing this legislation and look forward to working with the Council to ensure the legislation allows DOT to continue carrying out their important street safety design work.”

At the rally, members of Families for Safe Streets, an advocacy group whose members have been injured or lost loved ones in crashes, carried flowers and signs with the names of people killed in crashes, with some as young as four, and as old as 89. They were joined by other council members, including Antonio Reynoso—who represents the district where Aurilla Lawrence, a bike messenger, was killed in a hit-and-run in February—and Mark Treyger, who represents the district where three-year-old Emur Shavkator was killed last week.

In emotional remarks, Treyger demanded that the de Blasio administration take the issue of traffic fatalities more seriously, noting that the city had previously failed to act on adding traffic-calming measures to Bay 25th Street, where Shavkator was killed.

“Let me again remind the public to put things into context—we had a three-year-old child with a scooter up against a driver with a multi-ton vehicle in an intersection that the city knew for years was highly dangerous and problematic,” he said. “There is something deeply wrong. Whatever data points [DOT] are collecting in their studies, they’re not capturing the moral sense of urgency to act and to save lives now. … And in a city with a budget of over $92 billion, advancing common sense traffic-calming measures across the five boroughs should not be an issue.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation noted that the agency continues to work on various safety measures throughout the city, including new design measures to reduce collisions in intersections, and retooling streets that are known to be unsafe, including Ninth Street in Park Slope, where two young children were killed in 2018. “No death on our streets is acceptable, and under Vision Zero, this administration has brought traffic fatalities to historic lows for five consecutive years with record numbers of ambitious street redesigns across all five boroughs,” the DOT spokesperson said in a statement.

But advocates, who carried a sign with the names of every person killed in a car crash through the end of April with the header “Killed On Streets That Mayor De Blasio Failed to Fix,” say that’s simply not enough. “We need to treat this like the epidemic and the public health crisis that it is,” Debbie Kahn, a member of Families for Safe Streets whose son was killed in a crash nine years ago. “We need action now.”