In addition to its ever-so-slowly evolving Safe Routes to School effort (three years in, improvements are soon expected to be completed at 12 out of 135 “high priority” schools), the Department of Transportation trumpets Safety City as a cornerstone of the agency’s commitment to curbing the leading cause of preventable childhood death among city kids between the ages of 5 and 14. An educational program for school children that combines classroom instruction with outdoor lessons on simulated life-sized streetscapes, six Safety City campuses are located throughout the boroughs.
Negotiating West Harlem’s narrow sidewalks, active road construction sites, and crosswalk signals so short that adult classroom volunteers had to block auto traffic with their bodies as kids scrambled across the street, a group of third graders made its way to the W. 158th Street Safety City last spring for a day of so-called “hands-on experience.”
Safety City instructors must surely see a lot of unruly children, as a good chunk of classroom time was devoted to preemptive behavior management. Rules were spelled out repeatedly, and threats issued ad nauseam, before each activity. But as it turned out, much of the inevitable talking and fidgeting was necessitated by DOT teaching methods. As one instructor chatted casually with the students’ parents, and flirted with their teachers, another led the kids in a game of “Jeopardy.” Though the name of the game was appropriate, given the subject matter, the emphasis was on points, prizes and platitudes. (Question: “Cross the street how?” Answer: “Safely.”) Kids who became overly excited by the prospect of taking home a DOT pencil or whistle had to be calmed down repeatedly. One instructor prodded the children into paying attention by warning them that, if they didn’t, “I will be reading about you in the paper.”
That admonishment, more than anything, epitomizes Safety City’s message to kids: Streets belong to motor vehicles, and humans use them at their own risk.
The children were directed to memorize a chant, to be recited mentally at every corner: “Stop, look and listen. Make a safe decision.” The sloganeering was reinforced by the “Safety City Rap,” a repetitive “Barney”-esque video that seemed to serve mostly as a lunchtime babysitting tool. Not once during the day were students told of the rightful place of pedestrians in the urban environment, and not once was auto traffic depicted as anything other than an uncontrollable force of nature.
The class eventually moved outside to the fenced Safety City streetscape, where every sidewalk was clear of obstructions, every crosswalk was freshly painted, every pedestrian signal worked perfectly, and no speeding vehicles could be found. The whole of outdoor instruction consisted of kids (1) crossing a crosswalk in small groups, with hands in the air to make themselves visible; (2) lining up to ride bicycles one at a time around a sidewalk loop, stopping and dismounting to walk the bikes across the street; and (3) filing into the back seat of a car to learn how to fasten a seatbelt.
At the end of the long day, the children left the immaculate fenced-off “streets” of Safety City for the untidy reality of W. 158th, each of them equipped with a bright yellow DOT goodie bag. Lumbering uphill, as they approached the first of many hazardous intersections they would encounter on the way back to school, they dutifully raised their hands.