Safety City: Where Cars Rule!


As part of our back to school coverage, and in light of news from the past week, we thought it would be a good time to report on programs aimed at keeping kids safe on city streets.

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.”

SafetCity2.jpgSafety 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.

  • Willie Makit

    nice piece Brad. notice that the kids are holding their hands up in the photo, which is a ridiculous “safety measure” that the DOT also instructs seniors to do to make themselves more visible when crossing the street. does the DOT really expect everyone to raise their hands every time they cross the street?

  • The problem with holding up your arms when crossing the street is that it’s much more natural to swing them at your sides when running for your life against traffic lights that turn red as soon as you step off the curb.

  • Eric

    How ’bout making all drivers registered in NYC take a required course in conducting their vehicles more safely? Do we make crime victims take a class in how to avoid being the victim of a crime next time around?

  • MD

    My son went there last year as a third-grader and said it was stupid. I think it was the “hand up” thing that irritated him.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I can’t wait to see this program after Jan Gehl gets done with it.

  • Kids are much, much smarter than people think. And they have a very good BS meter. They watch what people do on the street not what they say in the classroom. They are first and foremost observers of behavior. The best way to educate kids is for the rest of us to do the right thing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    One of the amazing changes since I (and some others) were kids is that so few kids walk or ride bikes to school. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s almost everyone did. And while much land has been developed since, I get the feeling that kids aren’t walking to school even in places where they did 40 years ago.

    Not a good trend.

  • momos

    Excellent piece, Brad. Very perceptive critique of DOT teaching methods. Yet another gesture towards pedestrians undermined by a bureaucratic checklist mentality, narrow vision and complete lack of sincerity in seeing such an effort be a meaningful success.

  • P

    Sorry- I’ll respectfully disagree. If I had a third-grader I simply want them not to be killed on the street. I don’t care if my third-grader is a pedestrian rights advocate- I just want them alive.

    That said, the hand raising bit seems so utterly unlikely to be used I don’t know why the DOT bothers.

  • steve

    I share previous thoughts including desire to keep my kids safe. One way to improve curriculum:

    Teach kids to make eye contact with motorists when crossing intersection, raise hand to motorists attempting to turn into intersection to indicate “yeild,” and proceed only when motorist indicates assent–in the manner of vehicles at an four-way stop-signed intersection.

  • Hilary

    Part of the curriculum might include putting a child up in the driver’s seat of a high-riding SUV and showing him how limited his visibility is. The blind spots all around the car. The distance it takes to stop. Being in a driver’s seat is usually eye-opening for people who have been pedestrians all their lives. They realize for the first time how truly vulnerable they are. This would educate them in the (im)balance of power they will be dealing with as individuals and members of the community.

  • Christine Berthet

    Do you know that out of 110 questions in the drivers license only three concern pedestrians
    One of them is ” what are pedestrians responsibilities? ”

    In case of a fatality , the police fills out a report .Questions about drivers repsonsiblity are ranked 23 to 25 .. The rest is about what the pedestrian was doing and indeed the pedestrain is dead and the driver answers for him/her…

    WE have a very long way to go….

  • @alex

    The Safety City reminds me of a similar “model streets” are that I saw in the west of Berlin. I asked about it and was told that it was used for children’s bicycle safety classes, where they were taught not just to ride, but also the rules of the road, respect for pedestrians, etc. Something like that might actually be useful, especially if it got more kids out on bikes. It’s worth remembering though, that in Germany, the drivers test is much more rigorous (and expensive) than in the US, which is one of the reasons that drivers are generally more considerate and respectful of the rights of pedestrians and cyclists.

  • ddartley

    Let it stay the way it is, and eventually it will be a kitchy museum.

  • I posted a little of this in my blog; I suppose the real lesson for the kids came from going to and from the place, and every day when they walk somewhere. I def. agree that drivers should be the ones getting some extra training, not pedestrians.


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