So Far Suburban Opposition to Safety Cameras Isn’t Playing in NYC

Well, that was quick. Two nascent safety camera programs on Long Island have been shut down, despite demonstrable success in Nassau, after elected officials turned tail in response to complaints from law-breaking motorists. Meanwhile, red light cameras in New Jersey were turned off this week after that state’s five-year demonstration failed to secure renewal in the legislature.

The Long Island backlash against safety cameras shows no sign of spreading to the city. One reason: An administration-wide focus on educating New Yorkers about the dangers posed by speeding. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr
Unlike on Long Island, NYC’s gradual expansion of speed cameras has been accompanied by Vision Zero framing and a public information campaign about the dangers of speeding. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Suburban representatives, many facing election in less than a year, see these setbacks for street safety as politically advantageous. But in New York City, the politics of automated enforcement appear to be different — the gradual rollout of more speed cams has not triggered such an organized backlash. Still, the reversals on Long Island not only imperil people in Nassau and Suffolk, they also threaten to make it tougher for NYC to strengthen its safety camera programs via Albany legislation.

This summer, Nassau County quickly rolled out a speed camera program that stirred up a hornet’s nest of motorist entitlement. County Executive Ed Mangano unsuccessfully tried to wrangle an insurgency that started with county Democrats and quickly spread to his fellow Republicans. He trimmed the cameras to just four hours a day before caving in completely to demands from county legislators that the program be eliminated. Across the border in Suffolk County, speed cameras hadn’t even been turned on before elected officials caved to pressure from motorists and stopped the program in its tracks.

“It’s not surprising,” Mangano told Newsday. “It’s an election year.”

The situation on Long Island stands in contrast with speed camera deployment in New York City, where the rollout has been gradual. By the end of the year, the city aims to have fewer than a third of the 140 cameras allowed by Albany out on the streets. The additional cameras have been accompanied by major publicity surrounding the city’s new 25 mph speed limit and an increase in the number of speeding tickets issued by precinct officers, up nearly two-thirds compared to last year [PDF]. These changes have all been framed within the context of the city’s larger Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“I haven’t heard much opposition in New York City, mostly because of how it’s been handled,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool, who testified in favor of speed cameras before the Nassau legislature Monday night. “There’s been an extensive public education campaign, and I think that made all the difference.”

“The Vision Zero context in New York is so strong,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “That’s something we have that suburban Long Island and New Jersey don’t yet, which really puts cameras solidly where they should be in the context of traffic safety.”

The most notable NYC opposition to speed cameras to date has come from Staten Island, where DOT relocated a camera and refunded tickets after drivers said it was outside the limited areas near schools where state law permits speed cameras. DOT’s response seems to have kept Staten Island state senators like Diane Savino and Andrew Lanza, who have both backed safety cameras in the past, from following the lead of their Long Island counterparts and attacking the program in response to constituent complaints.

Update 2:00 p.m.: After publication, DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel e-mailed a statement about the city’s safety camera program. It reads, in part: “We pair crash data with speeding data in order to make informed siting determinations. Each location, where fixed or mobile, is thoroughly vetted as an allowable location and we speak with each school affected to determine hours of operation before moving forward with an installation. As we move forward in implementing the entire program we continue to employ a thoughtful methodology in determining locations. It is also important to note the contractor works on a flat fee basis, and is not given a percentage of revenue for each camera, as is the case in some other jurisdictions.”

“Safety cameras are an important life-saving measure and I think New Yorkers recognize that,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families for Safe Streets after a driver killed her 12-year-old son Sammy last year. Cohen, who joined other families in Albany earlier this year to ask legislators to lower the city’s speed limit and expand the number of speed cameras, says she hasn’t heard any second-guessing from lawmakers who stood with victims’ families just a few months ago.

“In the city, the public support and the elected support is all still there,” she said. “We have a leader in New York City who has made Vision Zero a priority and who has said the truth, that this is not about raising revenue. This is about saving lives.”

The de Blasio administration’s goal, as stated in its Vision Zero Action Plan, is to enact legislation in Albany that would allow New York City to shape its safety camera program without asking permission from the state for every change. Intermediate steps, like expanding the hours of operation or loosening the state’s location and time-of-day restrictions, which limit camera enforcement to tightly defined areas near schools when class is in session, could be more difficult in the wake of Long Island’s revolt against automated enforcement. The increase in NYC from 20 speed cameras to 140 moved forward with relative ease in Albany earlier this year because, at the time, Long Island legislators wanted more speed cams too.

NYC’s Albany contingent may still be capable of making progress in the next session. The Democrat-controlled Assembly may be sympathetic to a de Blasio policy initiative. Another reason for optimism is that Staten Island’s Lanza, one of only two NYC Republicans in the State Senate, has backed speed cameras before and has argued that they should be expanded beyond school zones. The other NYC Republican, Marty Golden, has fought speed cameras in recent sessions but ultimately voted for them after securing some concessions.

“We really need our elected officials to stand up,” White said. “There’s no shortage of neighborhoods and neighborhood schools that want speed cameras.”

  • Jesse

    Let suburbs be suburbs, but let cities be cities too!

    So many of New York’s livable streets problems (and maybe this is true for all the livable streets problems in every major American city) have to do with the city’s lack of sovereignty making them beholden to the state. The state sees its job as providing unfettered access to the city for suburban drivers.

  • com63

    I’m amazed at how quickly the Nassau and Suffolk politicians rolled over on this issue. Who was the pro-camera faction that got these things passed in the first place? Where were they when the opposition formed?

  • Alex

    Still disheartening to see areas so close and that many of us inevitably spend at least some time in get whipped up into a fervor they way they were in Nassau. But it does seem the role out there was poorly planned. I usually bemoan the slow pace of progress in NYC, but I think in this case it’s helped prevent widespread backlash.

  • Alex

    Pure conjecture, but I have to wonder how many people who tell cyclists nailed in ticket stings to suck it up and stop whining are the same people who whined and cried about the safety cameras.

    That said, I do think it’s very important to make sure the cameras are functioning properly and are used, first and foremost, as safety devices. Revenue from them should go directly to street safety improvement and never be counted on as a reliable revenue source. When the cameras are doing their job, not many people should be getting ticketed.

  • tbatts666

    For safety advocates are safety cameras worth advocating for?

    It’s easy to spin this as a narrative of motorists (particularly suburban ones) feeling entitled to drive dangerously on streets. It’s easy to make this a divisive issue. It does make me angry…. but……

    This is an issue that can further divide urban/suburban stakeholders. We are still just a small group of people advocating for safer cities.

    I think we should be focusing our energies on better infrastructure and zoning laws. We should be focusing on smart urbanism. Once our cities have physically change our attitudes will change. Safety cameras will become popular once we can agree that traffic safety is a priority.

    Advocating for safety cameras is low yield IMO, but I am just some dumb guy who lives in a terribly sprawled city.

    Walkability, bikeability, and public transports are something we can all agree on.
    What do you guys think?

  • Jonathan R

    Sounds great if you define advocacy as sitting through meetings.

  • c2check

    I agree, particularly that revenue should go to improve safety–ideally through streetscape redesigns and such.

  • tbatts666

    True that. We can’t have city hall using revenues to pump up the general fund.

    It would invalidate safety cameras, just as it invalidates parking fees.

    Safety camera funds should stay local, and not be excessive.

  • BBnet3000

    Part of the problem here is that in the suburbs, the police actually give people speeding tickets. This isn’t to say enforcement is actually good, but it happens. As a speeder in NYC, you endanger the many pedestrians present and can expect to never be pulled over.

  • BBnet3000

    A lot of safety advocates are focused on the whole region, such as the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Death rates by auto are way higher in the suburbs than they are in the city.

  • Alex

    I think the advantages of speed cams are too great to give up on. They’re proven to reduce speeding, they’re efficient in that they do the work of dozens of cops, and they’re immediate. Changing the built environment is essential, but it’s a glacial process. If we can save lives now, why wouldn’t we do that? I agree that avoiding backlash is important, but I think that can be achieved through smart roll outs and use as I noted below.

  • dporpentine

    From the statement from DOT (in the updated version of the article): “It is also important to note the contractor works on a flat fee basis, and is not given a percentage of revenue for each camera, as is the case in some other jurisdictions.”

    So: in NYC, the funds stay local. And to say that the speeding tickets aren’t “excessive” is really, really understating things. They’re criminally low.

  • Simon Phearson

    “Safety advocates” in the NYC area have evidently chosen to prioritize high-profile band-aids on bad infrastructure – e.g., lower speed limits, traffic cameras, pushing road cyclists out of Central Park, etc. – rather than actively pursue the kind of cultural shift that has to support smart urbanism. This isn’t too surprising, really, once one understands that they have institutional pressures of their own. They need to demonstrate, to their stakeholders and financial supporters, that they’re actually effective; so they pursue measures that are relatively more politically achievable than would be the things that make up smart urbanism.

    Really, it’s only a happy accident that traffic cameras work. That they do certainly isn’t the primary motivation for safety advocates supporting them, in this area.

    It’s disappointing to see. Safety advocates are among the first to trumpet the evidence that smart urbanism works, but when it comes to strategy, it’s all about more regulation, more enforcement, more education. You’d think they spend most of their time driving.

  • qrt145

    I don’t think it’s either one or the other. Speed cameras can be installed practically overnight, while the “cultural shift that has to support smart urbanism” can take decades. Why not save some lives in the meantime?

  • Simon Phearson

    Because speed cameras *aren’t* installed “practically overnight.” There are multiple levels of political negotiations to get through; educational campaigns to run; communities to mobilize; and all through it, plenty of money to spend.

    How long did it take, and how much political capital was burned, to get the default speed limit down to 25 mph? And when do you think that measure will actually slow traffic and start saving lives?

    As the LI sagas are making clear, you can get as far as installing the cameras and *still* fail to have the support to keep them running, get the tickets paid, and ultimately, to change behavior. So this bit about cameras that can be “installed overnight” and start “saving lives in the meantime” is just misleading pabulum. The campaign for cameras is a distraction that is symptomatic of a long-term failure of the advocacy groups in the region. We’ll spend ten years fighting for lower speed limits and more cameras, when we could be spending that time developing focused test cases proving how smart urbanism makes cities more livable.

    Personally, I question the camera strategy as even being effective in a dense road network like that in NYC. You put speed cameras on any street that has a nearby alternative route, you’re likely to be just diverting fast traffic to streets even less well-suited for it. And red light cameras – how many deaths are caused by red light runners? It seems the steady onslaught of ped deaths we see require real, infrastructural changes of intersections and car/ped conflicts, not the threat of tickets.

  • NYC Safety

    Speed Scameras are bad for everyone.Its a hidden tax.

  • I heard that if you repeat stuff like that over and over it becomes true. But not in NYC, only in Jersey and Long Island.

  • Scameradoooosh

    Hidden right behind the speed limit sign. Read it. Follow it. Beat the scam! NYC Safety win 🙂

  • It’s neither hidden nor a tax. It’s a penalty for bad behaviour about which everyone would be well informed.

    But even accepting momentarily for the sake of argument the meritless assertion that speed cameras constitute a “tax”, this would be a tax designed to discourage behaviour that we want to see less of. Someone who does not want to pay this “tax” can exempt himself/herself simply by not speeding.

    This is a perfectly appropriate reason for a tax. The community benefits either way: if the deprecated behaviour diminishes, then we get the health or safety benefit; if the miscreants continue misbehaving, then our public coffers get a boost.

    But, of course, it’s not a tax. We should note that the miseducated use the word “tax” as a kind of slur, with the obvious implication that there is something illegitimate about taxes. The civilised, by contrast, do not mind paying taxes in return for services and infrastructure.

    It’s possible for reasonable people to disagree on how the revenue collected through taxes ought to be used. But it is not possible rationally to disagree about whether taxation is inherently legitimate. It is. End of story. Anyone who fails to accept this truth has no place in a serious discussion.