Vision Zero Year One: An Early Assessment

New York’s transportation reform and traffic safety movement notched huge wins when mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio adopted Vision Zero as part of his platform in 2013, and again this year when the new mayor put the policy into action within days of taking office. Vision Zero created a policy rubric for the de Blasio administration to develop its own legacy of transformative street programs after the strong progress of the Bloomberg years, and has galvanized unprecedented interest and support across New York’s political establishment for physical and regulatory changes on city streets. This expanded policy space has generated progress on difficult issues like expanded camera enforcement and speed limit reduction.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made substantial progress on the legislative agenda for Vision Zero, but Police Commissioner Bill Bratton disengaged from the street safety initiative in its first year. Photo: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

The policy has also afforded Mayor de Blasio opportunities to show his leadership mettle and political touch. Anyone who wondered about the new mayor’s style was given an impressive demonstration when de Blasio took the unforgettable, emotionally wrenching step of appearing publicly with family members of victims of recent fatal traffic crashes during the first week of his administration, and demanded rapid action on Vision Zero by city agencies.

Now, with the policy well-established and recognized, and key milestones like the recent change in city speed limits enacted, the mayor and his senior managers need to make a clear assessment of the city’s Vision Zero performance and buckle down in several key areas to ensure that the policy generates tangible street safety improvements for New Yorkers.

That’s because New York’s street safety performance in 2014 will be good, but not great. It will be more in the vein of a return to levels seen over the past five to six years after 2013’s major spike in fatalities. It will not represent a marked improvement befitting a city with tremendous expertise in delivering safer streets, operating under one of the world’s most aggressive street safety policies.

If NYC traffic deaths in November and December (often one of the worst periods of the year) are close to those in recent years, the city could close 2014 with 260 or 265 total traffic fatalities. Where 2013 was the city’s deadliest in seven years, a 2014 with 265 fatalities would rank as the third safest year in NYC history. It’s also possible the city is on track to record one of its lowest-ever pedestrian death totals. The lowest total number of fatalities was in 2011, at 249. The lowest number of pedestrian fatalities was 140 in 2007.

Expectations have been raised substantially as Mayor de Blasio and the wider public policy community have embraced Vision Zero. At the end of the year, New Yorkers will ask what city government intends to do not only to match the safety performance of recent years, but to dramatically exceed it.

Everyone from traffic safety advocates to City Hall should resist any notion of falling back on a “wait and see what happens with the lower speed limit” stance regarding Vision Zero in 2015. For one thing, NYC DOT should already know how safety performance has changed on the group of 25 mph arterial slow zones such as Atlantic Avenue, the Grand Concourse, and McGuinness Boulevard, which were inaugurated six months ago. The broader speed limit change will likely have similar or lower impact absent much greater NYPD engagement and/or much broader application of enforcement cameras.

The march to greater traffic law enforcement is likely to be a long one. Although NYPD summonsing activity has increased, the growth is relative to a negligible starting point. The chance of anyone receiving a speeding ticket on city streets is still incredibly low, and traffic enforcement remains a small, if somewhat expanded, ghetto within the NYPD. Mayor de Blasio should certainly demand greater efforts. But increased police attention may take a number of years of pressure and development to translate into real safety gains on city streets.

In addition to pushing for better strategic development of a traffic enforcement program at NYPD, de Blasio should not have allowed Commissioner Bratton to distance himself from Vision Zero during the policy’s first year. And he should publicly address total inaction on Vision Zero by the city’s district attorneys, repeatedly if needed. Whether he acts or not, the latter issue is likely to come to a head and be put to the mayor during 2015, with three city DA seats up for election.

Probably the greatest near-term impact of the 25 mph speed limit is the space it clears for NYC DOT to pursue more — and increasingly aggressive — changes on dangerous arterial streets. When it comes to safety results, DOT’s street designers know that physical changes to a street’s “design speed” will trump purely regulatory changes every time. But it’s still unclear if City Hall recognizes what a powerful force for good it possesses in NYC DOT.

The department has finely honed its capacity to remake city streets for the better quickly and cost-effectively, and closely tracks and studies the impacts of the changes it makes. Adding outreach and project resources to allow the department’s annual implementation program to grow from 50-60 projects to 75 or more would be a small investment relative to lives and injuries saved, and the potential for a signature success by the administration.

City Hall should also facilitate faster implementation of safety improvements by green-lighting DOT to proceed with major safety projects over parochial community board obstruction, and by demanding that new speed cameras and other Vision Zero-related contracts receive absolute priority in the procurement process. If DOT is not aggressively seeking to proceed, City Hall could impose periodic review of stalled projects. City Hall should also insist on further innovation from DOT if the agency does not bring forth a generation of design overhauls for major arterial streets in the 25 mph era, as well as new strategies like greater separation of crossing pedestrians from turning traffic.

So far, nothing whatsoever has been heard from the Taxi & Limousine Commission about whether its Vision Zero efforts are providing New Yorkers with a safer fleet of for-hire vehicles, but hopefully its efforts will be recounted and reviewed in some kind of official Vision Zero annual report.

The mayor, the members of his administration and the city’s transportation reform community should be immensely proud of the advent of Vision Zero and the many milestones they have achieved in its first year, and use that work as the basis for record levels of safety performance in 2015 and thereafter. In addition to its potential in New York, the policy is already doing good around the world. Other U.S. cities have followed New York in adopting municipal versions of Vision Zero. And because of the high-profile leadership Mayor de Blasio has provided on the issue, many cities around the globe are looking much more closely at their street safety performances and policies.

Jon Orcutt was NYC DOT’s policy director from 2007 to 2014. He developed DOT’s post-PlaNYC strategic plan, Sustainable Streets, oversaw creation of the Citi Bike program, and produced the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan.


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