Vision Zero and the Challenge of Culture Change at NYPD

This is the second post in a two-part piece about how Vision Zero will have to change attitudes toward streets and driving in order to succeed. Read part one here.

New York City is known for its hustle, its people perpetually in a hurry, trying to make good time. It is almost a point of pride for New Yorkers, who view themselves as tougher, faster, and cannier than other people.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio at January’s Vision Zero press conference. Photo: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

But when it comes to driving, hustling to beat the green light or press through a crosswalk can be deadly.

Too many New Yorkers view speeding as normal or even necessary. Even Council Member Mark Weprin, who was moved by his interactions with victims’ families to support Vision Zero initiatives, recently defended drivers in his district who are accustomed to speeding and getting away with it. “I don’t want to be too pie in the sky about this, but we’re going to take law abiding citizens and turn them into law breakers,” Weprin said at a recent council hearing, implying it is unreasonable to expect New Yorkers to obey the speed limit.

“We’re going to be asking New Yorkers to slow down in places where they don’t necessarily want to,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “When you get into the more difficult areas of enforcement, education, and culture change… there’s no question, there are a lot of challenges ahead.”

Speeding is rampant in New York City, but enforcement is notoriously lax. NYPD only catches a fraction of the city’s speeding drivers, as data about the city’s speed cameras proved. Twenty cameras — operational only when school activities are happening — issued 48,500 speeding tickets this June, more than five times as many as NYPD officers wrote that month.

“With speed cameras you can see the exact cultural obstacle when you go to Albany,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “Legislators are saying ‘Let’s not be unfair to motorists.’ Why are we still having this conversation when we know they’re saving lives?”

The de Blasio administration will make an impact on safety if it continues to redesign streets and step up enforcement, but in the end it will always be up to drivers whether or not they choose to speed. Likewise, the city’s shared culture will determine whether or not these behaviors are still seen as acceptable or normal.

“I think we’ll have been successful in the culture when speeding is perceived as anti-social as drunk driving,” says Steely White.

Beyond Blaming the Victim

Police Commissioner William Bratton was by de Blasio’s side when the mayor announced the Vision Zero initiative in January. “We will be just as aggressive in preventing a deadly crash on our streets as we are in preventing a deadly shooting,” Bratton said. His commitment was an encouraging sign following years of stasis in NYPD’s approach to protecting the public from traffic violence.

Bratton’s tenure got off to an inauspicious start, however. Just a week after the Vision Zero announcement, an Upper West Side police precinct rolled out a jaywalking crackdown in response to a series of three pedestrian deaths within a week.

The crackdown may have been well-intentioned — one of the victims, a 26-year old woman, had been crossing mid-block — but it was exactly the type of reaction that had frustrated street safety advocates for years. The NYPD was “not prioritizing the type of violations that were actually killing people,” said White.

The jaywalking crackdown also reflected a cultural bias within the department, one that tends to blame pedestrians and bicyclists for traffic fatalities while turning a blind eye toward dangerous driving. “I remember an NYPD chief telling me to my face that bicyclist and pedestrian deaths were due to their own fault,” said White. “The signals were everywhere that the department as a whole did not value walkers and bikers. It was basically, ‘Get out of the way.'”

The cultural bias deflecting culpability from motorists extends beyond enforcement to the way crashes are investigated and whether deadly drivers are prosecuted. In the case of 3-year-old Allison Liao, a police source told a reporter for the Daily News that the child “broke free” from her grandmother just before being struck. Video footage later showed that this wasn’t the case. The driver was issued two summonses, but faced no criminal charges.

This isn’t the only time an anonymous NYPD source had implied that the pedestrian or bicyclist was at fault in his or her own death. Why the knee-jerk reaction?

“There is a psychological safety in blaming the victim,” said Adam White, a lawyer representing pedestrians and cyclists in traffic crashes. “If we are like the victim then we are all at risk. If we can say, ‘This guy did something stupid,’ then I didn’t do something stupid, so I’m not at risk.”

Culture Change at the NYPD

There are signs of change at the NYPD. The department has stepped up the enforcement of dangerous driving this year, with speeding summonses up 32 percent and summonses for failure to yield up 153 percent, according to a report by Transportation Alternatives.

“I see dramatic culture change happening at the NYPD,” said Trottenberg. She points to the leadership of Bratton and Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan, who is “holding feet to the fire,” she said.

Culture change at the NYPD may begin at the top, but it must also extend to individual precinct commanders and rank-and-file officers. Some precincts have embraced the Vision Zero ethos, others less so. At about the same time the Upper West Side precinct was handing out jaywalking tickets, Brooklyn’s 78th precinct conducted a “sting” against drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians in a Park Slope crosswalk.

“Significant steps have taken place at the 78th precinct,” says City Council Member Brad Lander, whose district overlaps with the 78th. He credits Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri, the former commanding officer who has gone on to take the top spot at NYPD’s Highway Patrol, for establishing a model Vision Zero precinct. “He wanted to move even faster than he did. He was very willing.”

Ameri instituted monthly community meetings devoted exclusively to street safety, as well as a program to support and train school crossing guards, and a patrol of bicycle-mounted police officers. He was even seen shoveling snow from a bike lane outside the precinct house after a winter storm.

A big factor behind the changes at the 78th were the local residents who mobilized and pressed the precinct to take street safety seriously. Plus, officers had more time to devote to street safety because of Park Slope’s relatively low crime rate. Other precincts may find it more difficult to allocate resources to effectively manage street safety.

While traffic crashes are among the biggest threats to public safety in New York, it remains to be seen whether the NYPD will treat fatal crashes as seriously as shootings.

“The challenge is helping the police understand street safety as a fundamental component of protecting public safety,” says Lander. “It will take changes in training, supervision, and scheduling of beats — a change in the image and understanding of what a competent officer is.”

In August, Brooklyn resident Dulcie Canton was riding her bicycle in Bushwick when she was struck from behind by a speeding driver who fled the scene without even slowing down, as surveillance footage shows. Canton spent several days in the hospital with bleeding in the brain and broken bones.

Despite extensive evidence gathered thanks to people in the neighborhood who wanted to help out — video footage, a side mirror that bore the vehicle identification number — the local police precinct failed to investigate the crime for over a month. The detective assigned to the case told Canton’s lawyer that he had been too busy to investigate.

Cultural Perceptions of the Street Have Changed Before

Paul Steely White notes that at one point in the 1920s, as cars were becoming more common on city streets, there was a movement to equip them with speed governors. “These are the big battles we’ve forgotten,” he said. “There was a huge cultural struggle about the role of the car and who was going to have the right of way.”

The term “jaywalking” was invented at about that time. “Jays” were people from the country who had just arrived in the city, and the term was used to stigmatize pedestrians who got in the way of automobile traffic. Laws were established that relegated pedestrians to the sidewalk and gave the rest of the street — which had previously functioned as public space — over to drivers.

It took many decades to completely marginalize pedestrians. Pictures from New York City through most of the 20th century show children playing in the streets. Not anymore.

But once again, New York City is going through a public debate about who and what our streets are for. Vision Zero is a challenge to the cultural assumption that streets belong to motorists who should be able to go as fast as they want and find free parking once they arrive.

White imagines a city in which 20 mph is the cultural norm. “At speeds 20 or below you can rely on our powers of negotiation and eye contact, where there’s no such thing as jaywalking,” he said. “In that environment everyone is aware everyone is watching.”

That’s an idea which will probably take many New Yorkers some time to accept. But there is a strong moral imperative to change the way our streets are structured and how they function. Two hundred New Yorkers have been killed on the city’s streets already this year, including 100 pedestrians.

We have the tools to dramatically reduce the number of unnecessary deaths. And the culture of our streets can change.

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