As a council member representing Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights, Tish James was a vocal proponent of redesigning Grand Army Plaza and other street safety initiatives. Since her election to the public advocate’s office two years ago, James has amplified her message about the need to rethink city streets, advocating for better laws to safeguard pedestrians, more protected bike lanes, and bus rapid transit.
In December, James called on the city to do more to prevent traffic fatalities at a memorial for Victoria Nicodemus, who was killed by a curb-jumping driver in Fort Greene. “It really isn’t enough to mourn and pray for Victoria, it’s not enough to attend vigils and it’s not enough to cry,” James said at the time. “We need to prevent these types of crashes from happening over and over again, which means that individuals who are responsible for this crime, for flouting the law, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Streetsblog caught up with James last week, soon after City Hall released its annual Vision Zero progress report, to hear more about her policy agenda for street safety. Here’s the interview, lightly edited for length.
As a council member and as candidate for public advocate, you made Vision Zero one of your main policy priorities. Shortly after you were elected public advocate, you said that “some politicians need to be educated about the serious nature of [traffic violence] offenses” and that Mayor de Blasio’s “first hundred days [would] determine whether or not he’s serious about this issue.”
Let me begin with some of my priorities. They date back to my days in city council, when I represented a district where we had a significant number of fatalities. One of my first priorities was to redesign Atlantic Avenue. We had a charette, we had discussions about it working with the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Association as well as with other civic associations and the community board, and as of today, Atlantic Avenue has not been redesigned. It should be a priority for this administration – particularly in light of the fact that the arena is now open and has been open for some time. And there was a recent fatality. We need to make this a priority corridor. We need to work with federal and state partners on identifying funding for lifesaving projects and we need to work obviously with the community, which obviously has a stake in making sure that we prevent pedestrian fatalities and traffic fatalities as well.
Another priority for me, and I’ve spoken about in the past as a city council member and now as public advocate I’ve stepped it up, is protected bike lanes.
I wanted to ask you about bike infrastructure, since I know you’ve made it a priority. There’s a tendency often to see bike network expansion as a priority of the rich folks in Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn. In your July letter, you called specifically for more investment in bicycle infrastructure in the Bronx. However, efforts to push bike safety improvements in poorer parts of the city are often stalled by community boards dominated by car-owning upper-income residents who have the time to engage with the community board process. What case do you make for it being important that those parts of the city have better bike infrastructure?
If you go back in time and if look at the city council hearing, I talked about the bike map, where you basically fall off the face of the earth after Classon Avenue in Brooklyn and there’s [no protected lanes] to speak of hardly in the Bronx. We’ve got to do a better job in making sure that there’s parity and making sure that we construct protected bike lanes in communities of color all throughout the city of New York.
When you talk about those individuals [on community boards] who have a lot of time on their hands, they tend to be more civically engaged, but there is a silent majority of young people out there and individuals who are concerned about obesity and are concerned about health indicators — which suggests that riding a bike would be more advantageous to communities of color. I think we need to move forward and there will be a lot of support. There was a lot of resistance when I supported [protected bike lanes] in Community Board 2 and parts of Community Board 3, which lead into Bedford-Stuyvesant, but you know once you get past Clinton Hill going into Bedford-Stuyvesant, they don’t exist. And there’s no way to get from Downtown Brooklyn to Coney Island without taking your life in your hands. That’s Brooklyn — and in the Bronx there’s only one protected lane.
Have things changed since your letter? How would you assess the de Blasio’s administration’s overall record on achieving Vision Zero and safer streets in the city?
I see a lot of press releases. I don’t see a lot of construction going on. I think the mayor has paid more attention to Vision Zero than the previous administration. It’s a step in the right direction. This announcement today where he outlined his priorities gives me some hope for the future, but I would like to speed things along. Because here we are in year two and the priorities that were established several years ago have not been realized.
Turning to the issue of speed cameras. The mayor expressed concerns that speed cameras can only be placed near schools and can only be used during the school day. You both are calling on Albany to expand the usage of speed camera programs. Why do you think these programs are important? How specifically would you like to see them expanded?
A third of the crashes that kill or injure individuals happen after 6 p.m. We need more cameras after hours. I know a lot of people think it’s a cash cow, but I think it goes more towards safety anything else.
The last time I saw you, you were speaking at the vigil — in your home district — for Victoria Nicodemus, who was killed by an unlicensed curb-jumping driver a few weeks before Christmas. Since then, Marlon Sewell, the man who killed Nicodemus, has yet to be charged by DA Ken Thompson. A judge recently refused to even revoke Sewell’s license because of the lack of charges from the District Attorney.
He has yet to be charged with a crime and not much has happened. We are continuing to press for charges against this driver and I believe there’s enough evidence to suggest that a crime was committed and I believe that he should be charged accordingly.
You listed improved enforcement and effective prosecution of traffic violence as a priority for your Vision Zero efforts. What must the city, the NYPD and the district attorneys do to ensure justice for victims of traffic violence?
I think there should be more clarity in regards to the law. We really need to sit down and analyze the law as it currently exists. I don’t know whether or not the five district attorneys would be willing to have a sit-down to discuss that with the bar association or some other legal authority.
How else would you like to see the city tackle Vision Zero?
Besides the protected bike lanes and the expanded usage of speed cameras, I would like to see greater enforcement. I would like to see movement on my bill with regards to left turns. I would like left-turn signals at 100 intersections. I would like to crack down on individuals who park in bike lanes. I want police officers and I wanted cameras. With some of the bike lanes, the lanes have actually faded — and they need to be repainted.