Does Vehicular Chaos Push Families Out of NYC?

Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff had an excellent letter in the New York Times on Sunday in response to the article about Sara Robbins, the Brooklyn Heights woman tragically, horrifyingly killed by a private sanitation truck last month:

To the Editor:

Your reporting in "A Death in the Family" (Dec. 24) makes clear that the traffic maneuver that killed Sara Robbins, the director of Brooklyn Law School’s library, in Brooklyn Heights last month was a left turn by a private sanitation truck.

So it’s mystifying, and maddening, that for all the article’s fussing over the "intricate mechanics of the collision," it neglected to say that Ms. Robbins, who was proceeding straight and on foot, had the right of way over a turning truck.

Eight years ago, our study of New York City pedestrian fatalities, "Killed by Automobile" (PDF file), established that the most lethal crash scenario is drivers turning into pedestrians in crosswalks, and that the most lethal vehicles, per mile driven, are private sanitation trucks.

Ms. Robbins’s awful death, combined with that of Jessica Schmitz, who was killed two days later when a private sanitation truck turned into her path as she was lawfully crossing Park Avenue in Manhattan, suggests that nothing has changed.

Charles Komanoff
The writer is coordinator of Right of Way, a pedestrian advocacy group.

The letter resonated with Kelley Pillow, a West Village woman who strolls around the neighborhood with a 9-month old baby. Here is the e-mail she sent to Komanoff after reading his letter, re-published with permission:

Dear Mr. Komanoff:

Thank you for responding to the NY Times re: garbage trucks and their rampant driving that is killing pedestrians. I did not know there existed an advocacy group for pedestrians in NYC and am happy that someone is paying attention!

I live in the West Village and am the new mom of a 9-month old baby boy. Prior to parenthood, I viewed the task of getting from Point A to Point B in the city as a kind of life-or-death adventure challenge, but now that I am strolling Sam I have increased stress and anxiety about running the simplest of errands.

DAILY I witness cabs, buses and delivery trucks (not to mention the other private cars) blatantly running the red lights – bursting between hoards of pedestrians who have the legal walk sign. And just last week, at 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, I was grazed by a private medical van that was turning – while the walk light was so very clearly in my favor! He hit my side, missing the stroller. Can you imagine what might have happened if he hit the stroller? The other pedestrians who witnessed the hit all breathed a great sigh of relief. I had tears in my eyes.

No wonder families move out of the city. I was not aware of the statistic on the garbage trucks, who do in fact appear aggressive. But the biggest violator and "out to kill" pedestrian vehicles I see regularly are the city buses. They run red lights at high speeds to cross intersections and screech to a violent halt on the other side where pedestrians jump away to avoid their wrath! Funny, we’re funding public transportation and garbage trucks that put our lives in harm’s way.

Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for fighting for us. I don’t feel we should have to move out of the city to raise Sam.


Kelley Pillow

  • P

    I had long put crime and schools as the two forces typically driving the middle class from American cities. I think you’re right to elevate the quality of life to this level of importance in retaining residents who can afford to leave.

    I think the pedestrian safety issue can be combined with an observation made on Streetsblog sometime ago: Stickball has disappeared because the streets are not a safe place to play anymore. So children today are not able to safely play in their own neighborhoods and they are often endangered simply by waking to other neighborhoods!

  • When people say they move to the suburbs because it’s “safer” and they choose to live on a cul-de-sac, I seriously doubt crime is the only thing on their mind. A lot of suburban real estate marketing shows a pleasant picture of a 7-10 year old on a bike in front of their near zero traffic street in front of their house….

  • P

    … and yet the streets in an average suburban neighborhood have a design speed of 50 mph or so.

  • galvoguy

    the suburbs are now having the same vehicle congestion and increasingly severe death by automobile problem. i wonder what the death rate in the suburbs is via automobile compared to Manhattan’s youths?
    there is no hope for the suburbs , there is no public transportation.

  • someguy

    I once heard that the teenage mortality rate was actually HIGHER in the suburbs than in the inner city, because vehicle deaths more than made up for city violence. But I can’t find a citation for that right now.

  • It appears that this might be the case in Chicago. Teen traffic deaths are much higher in the suburbs than the city…

  • I seem to remember that a study by Alan Durning found that the overall risk from traffic accidents plus crime is three times as high in the suburbs as in the city, but I haven’t been able to find that exact figure.

    Here is something I found from Mobilizing The Region, 1996:

    A new book by Alan Durning entitled The Car and the City finds that, contrary to popular belief, suburbs are more dangerous places to live than central cities because of increasing traffic. Car accidents in suburbs kill far more people — especially young people — than either guns or drugs do in cities. Durning told the Washington Post that “people dramatically underestimate the risks of driving and overestimate the risks of crime.”
    The book compares census tract data for risks posed by violence and drugs with traffic accident risks in central cities and suburbs. Since 1980 the number of fatalities in auto accidents has far exceeded those who “have died or been injured as a result of violent crime.” National statistics show traffic accidents as the leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 to 24, with 5 to 15 year olds as the age group most likely to by struck by cars while bicycling. “All told,” says Durning, “city dwellers are much safer.”

  • Someone should update that analysis. Cities have become even lower on crime.

    It might be interesting to also throw in suicides as a factor. I believe reading suicide rates are higher in the suburbs for teens.

  • Steve

    And I can’t recall the last time I read that a gun went off in a NYC school.

    We do have to look at this in context however. We all know that the main factor driving people out of NYC is the high cost of living in NYC. so for the record, the real issue is whether vehicular (or other forms) of urban chaos are driving out of NYC persons who could otherwise afford to live here. The streets renaissance can help on two fronts–by calming urban traffic and by helping foster a rich civic and arts culture that will help keep people who care about such things in NYC. The people who can’t care about those things can go to the suburbs.

  • The Times ran a piece about the four people (three teens) killed in NJ last week. At least in NY, 80% of teen deaths are vehicular.

    Do national stats include pedestrian deaths as ‘vehicular deaths’. An interesting misnomer, but I would also hazard NYC if this is so, it is the only reason we have any correlation to national rates (that is, there are vehicular deaths, but most of the people are outside the car).

    I’m normally in the ‘parents are annoying’ crowd, and so have few friends with children. One has two, under seven. Walking 15 blocks with two very normal — meaning, happy, exciting and running because we are heading to the park — kids is terrifying.


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