While acknowledging that casualties have dropped overall in recent years, safety advocates and government officials are calling on the DOT to establish measurable benchmarks for further reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths in the city, and want the agency to get moving on relatively minor improvements that would help meet those goals.
At a hearing of the City Council’s Transportation Committee at City Hall on Wednesday, DOT Deputy Commissioner David Woloch and Director for Street Management and Safety Ryan Russo caught an earful from council members, transportation watchdogs, community board leaders and members of the public who have lost loved ones.
The protracted exchange between the committee and Woloch and Russo, during which even the simplest of questions couldn’t elicit a straightforward response, began when Chairman John Liu asked if the DOT has a systemic master plan for pedestrian safety enhancements.
The answer, which Liu never received in so many words, might be summed up as "Not exactly."
For example, the DOT is just now assembling its first-ever comprehensive study of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, which total some 10,000 and 150 per year, respectively. And though it is rote knowledge to many ordinary citizens, the agency seems stymied by the fact that the vast number of serious collisions occur at a relatively small number of intersections.
In testimony before the committee, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White pointed out that the DOT can readily recite the number of potholes and stoplights it plans to address during a given period, but that it has no target for reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths — a task White said should be "job one" for the agency that declares pedestrian safety its "most critical mission." The "real story," White said, is that DOT has reduced auto-pedestrian collisions by improving a small number of intersections, and could replicate that success elsewhere at little cost.
"Signal timing is cheap," said White.
The new collision study, expected to be ready sometime later this year, will help the DOT in the future, Woloch and Russo said. But as of now pedestrian fatalities are "diffuse" and current stats don’t indicate "where to go" to make changes, a situation further complicated by the agency’s "limited resources."
The committee also learned, among other things, that the DOT does not investigate every auto-pedestrian collision; that there is no formal process for analyzing the site of a fatality in order to prevent future collisions; that there is no set process for gauging input that might remedy dangerous conditions before a collision occurs; and that three years after launching the Safe Routes to School program, in 2007 the DOT will complete improvements at 12 of 135 high-priority schools — not a "very ambitious goal," said Liu.
Teresa Toro, NYC Coordinator of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, testified that the city should mandate physical improvements by DOT, as well as procedural changes by the NYPD. While DOT has an "obsessive preoccupation with traffic flow," Toro said, the police are "not even comfortable" enforcing laws on the books designed to protect pedestrians.
Without citing specifics, Liu said the committee has "a number of ideas" for bills that are "passable."