6 Reasons NYC DOT Needs to Get Bolder About Street Redesigns in 2015

With the release of Vision Zero safety plans for every borough last week, NYC DOT should be poised for a great run of street redesigns across the city. DOT knows where the problems are. It has a modern street design toolkit at its disposal and years of data proving that these templates work in New York City. The mandate from City Hall is urgent – eliminate traffic deaths by 2024.

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg at Mayor de Blasio’s inauguration last January. Photo: Stephen Miller

One year into Polly Trottenberg’s tenure at the top of the agency, however, the bold steps from DOT exist mainly on paper. DOT may set a new standard for busway design in NYC with its plan for Woodhaven Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit. It could completely overhaul Queens Boulevard for safe walking and biking.

Making good on these early promises would be a huge accomplishment, but right now that’s still a big if. These are major projects that won’t be finished for at least a couple of years. Not only will it take some guts to see them through, but DOT will also need to make a lot of headway with its quicker, short-term projects while the major stuff moves through the planning and implementation process.

In 2014, the agency didn’t pursue its annual allotment of street redesigns with the strength of purpose that a Vision Zero goal requires. DOT kept things moving in the right direction, but it also left the best street design options on the table and failed to advance ideas that should be in the project pipeline by now.

DOT’s proposed road diet for Riverside Drive inexplicably left out protected bike lanes, which could narrow the general traffic lanes, reduce speeding, and provide more space for pedestrians crossing the street. Residents of the Upper West Side had to demand more pedestrian refuges on West End Avenue than DOT first proposed. The agency still hasn’t come out with a plan for a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue, despite the impending arrival of Citi Bike and repeated votes from the local community board asking for a proposal.

The first-year transition period is over. DOT’s Citi Bike negotiations are out of the way. The borough safety plans are public. Now it’s time for action to match the bold goals of Vision Zero.

Here are six reasons why Polly Trottenberg’s DOT needs to raise its game in 2015.

1) To achieve its Vision Zero goals, the de Blasio administration must improve street safety more rapidly

Traffic fatalities dropped to 250 last year from 293 in 2013, a sizeable improvement that indicates the street safety policies enacted in year one of Vision Zero had an effect. But 2013 was an unusually bad year, and 250 traffic deaths is just an 8.4 percent drop from the prior three year average of 273.

To even come close to eliminating traffic deaths by 2024, the de Blasio administration will have to accelerate the reduction in fatalities. Something on the order of a 30 percent annual drop for nine years running is what it will take. City Hall can’t rest on its laurels.

2) NYC DOT is the agency in the best position to make change happen fast

In 2014, NYPD made incremental progress, increasing enforcement of speeding and failure to yield violations. The department is just beginning to apply the new Right of Way Law. There’s still much more room for improvement. Making traffic safety a top priority at every precinct is going to be a long, difficult fight, requiring agency-wide culture change.

At NYC DOT, the agency culture is already aligned with Vision Zero to a large extent. The talent is there to pull off bold street redesigns. The question is whether the agency and City Hall have the political will to make good on that potential.

3) Bolder street redesigns make a big difference

DOT’s street redesigns routinely reduce crashes that cause injuries between 20 and 50 percent, as documented in the agency’s 2013 report, “Making Safer Streets” [PDF]. Effective interventions can’t be boiled down to a single strategy, but in general, you have to claim space from general motor vehicle traffic to create designs that slow drivers to a non-lethal speed and provide safe conditions for walking and biking.

Perhaps no major global city has claimed more street space for walking, biking, and transit in recent years than Paris. Most of the city’s big avenues now have physically separated transitways, and a network of major two-way streets have been transformed into “civilized spaces” with bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian zones.

Boulevard Rochechouart in Paris is a major two-way avenue that now has physically separated bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and new pedestrian areas. Photo: Ben Fried

Together with better traffic enforcement and parking management, these steps helped reduce traffic deaths in Paris 75 percent from 2001 to 2013. In the same period, NYC traffic deaths fell 25 percent. Even accounting for the drop in fatalities last year, NYC’s population-adjusted traffic fatality rate is now twice as high as Paris’s. We have to do better.

4) The political support for street redesigns has never been greater

City Council support for repurposing street space is at an all-time high. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her deputy, Brad Lander, are veterans of the 2011-era bikelash who stood their ground when major street overhauls in their districts came under attack. There won’t be a repeat of episodes like this on their watch.

Council Member Julissa Ferreras is writing to DOT asking for protected bike lanes in Corona. Freshman council members Ritchie Torres, Vanessa Gibson, Mark Levine, Costa Constantinides, Antonio Reynoso, and Carlos Menchaca are all on the record supporting the need to change our streets. Even Southeast Queens Republican Eric Ulrich is asking for major changes to Woodhaven Boulevard to protect his constituents from getting run over. The opportunity to overhaul our streets is immense.

Freshman City Council members Carlos Menchaca, Costa Constantinides, Vanessa Gibson, Ritchie Torres, and Antonio Reynoso were all endorsed by StreetsPAC.

It’s comforting to think that the council will get progressively better on street design with every election — and that could happen! — but there are no guarantees. Several council members will be term-limited in three years, all the more reason to strike while the iron is hot.

5) New York City’s de facto veto points are self-evidently ridiculous

When a key community board member objects to a road diet because he thinks it will delay his weekend getaways to Vermont, there’s no longer any pretense that he’s speaking on behalf of “the community.” And there’s no longer any excuse for validating such perspectives by watering down or delaying street redesigns that will save lives.

6) The moral imperative

The most important reason for maximum action on street redesigns is the underlying reason for Vision Zero itself: We have a moral obligation to stop the preventable loss of life on our streets.

When the mayor and his commissioners committed to Vision Zero, they amplified the imperative to act. Other cities are looking to New York to see how we’ll pull off a dramatic reduction in traffic violence. Other mayors are following de Blasio’s lead and adopting Vision Zero platforms. With such a high profile, there’s more on the line: If New York stumbles and fails to deliver results commensurate to its ambitious goals, the premise that all traffic deaths can be prevented will lose its power.

The stakes are high and it’s time to act boldly.

  • Eric McClure

    Ben, you’re killing it lately. Great piece and an excellently reasoned call to action.

    cc: NYCDOT, Mayor de Blasio, NYC Council

  • J

    Excellent. Someone please forward to de Blasio & Trottenberg. It’s crazy how timid DOT is acting, despite all this political support.

  • HFG

    This post could’ve been titled “Six Reasons Why Culture is Ready to Eat a Hearty Policy Breakfast.” Is Polly in the kitchen?

  • Guest

    Even though tickets can’t be issued, the DOT should operate the cameras 24 hours a day 365 days a year and publish statistics about nighttime, weekend and summer speeding.

    They should even go so far as to mail out notices to drivers who are observed to speed outside of the camera operation hours to let them know that they were speeding even if a violation cannot be issued.

  • BBnet3000

    Without a huge change I really doubt we will be seeing the 5 miles of protected lanes per year/30 miles of total lanes per year promised by the Commissioner. Not sure why they upped the ante to that mileage PER BOROUGH in the Vision Zero plans, a five-fold increase in promise without any obvious changes in the project pipeline.

    50/50 chance Christie or Jay Street get touched even in a second De Blasio term but they certainly won’t get the quality of infrastructure their auto traffic, bike traffic, or importance to the bike network demand. Likewise they won’t close the gaps on the protected lanes in Midtown, not that most of the existing protected lanes in Manhattan are actually high quality infrastructure anyway. They’re too narrow and functionally a real mess for much of their length.

    Meanwhile the messaging coming from DOT is “look at the percentage increase in cycling from nearly the lowest baseline in the United States!”.

  • Aaron

    I totally agree with this. What is to stop DOT from putting up lots of speed cameras all over NYC and simply mailing non-penalty notices to speeders? “We caught you speeding at this location.”

    Even without the fine, it would send a strong message to drivers that they are being observed and held to some account. I think even without the financial penalty it would compel a lot of NYC drivers to be a lot more careful. Granted, without the fine, this system would cost money. But if you saved some lives and prevented a bunch of crashes, wouldn’t that be worth it?

  • J

    They didn’t increase the promise. If you read the text of the plans carefully, the mileage targets are always described as part of a citywide total.

  • Reader

    Fantastic piece, Ben!

    I’d add one thing: the power of advocates to support DOT has never been stronger. Even in the JSK years, advocates were still seen as a fringe constituency. Today the people who want safe streets, expanded sidewalks, ped plazas, Citi Bike, and bike lanes are just regular New Yorkers. TA, Families for Safe Streets, Make Queens Safer…the advocacy movement is huge.

    Whatever is holding DOT back, it should realize it has the support of far more people than ever before. No one is going to come out to a community board meeting speak up for wide parking lanes, but if DOT proposes big, bold designs, there are plenty of people who will show up in force to help make those designs a reality.

  • BBnet3000

    That is why DOT will work closely with communities in [Borough] to expand a bicycle network that improves safety for all road users, including constructing an additional 5 lane miles of protected bike lanes per year

    Some tricky wording IMO, but you are correct. They are working with the community in each Borough in order to do 5 miles of protected lanes citywide each year. The 30 miles total isn’t actually mentioned, my mistake.

    The problem remains: what are the 5 miles for 2015, and is the DOT going to make any progress in creating a connected network for comfortable cycling or are they just adding more tiny green lines to the map? What is the longest distance that someone can bike in this city today while remaining on comfortable streets, other than some Greenways on the waterfronts and in the Bronx?

  • Cold Shoaler

    I usually ride on the Hudson River Greenway for most of the distance I commute in Manhattan. As I’ve grown weary of the cold headwinds in the morning at this point in the winter, I’ve been opting for the Hudson St/8th Ave ‘bike lane.’ While I do ride elsewhere on the streets of the CBD, it’s been a while since I’ve repeatedly put in several miles at a stretch. I have to say it’s been quite depressing. This infrastructure really is just pathetic.

    I suppose I should be grateful that we have “Protected Bicycle Paths” and “Bike Lanes” at all, but they’re essentially unusable for more than a couple blocks at a time. What is the point of having a bike lane if it’s so full of shit-that-isn’t-a-bike* that one can’t actually ride a bike through it? They should just erase these things from the “bicycle map” until DOT does something different.

    *ice, garbage, cars, trucks, armored trucks, ConEd trucks, garbage trucks, boxes, boxes on hand trucks, traffic cones, mixing zones every 500′

  • Corrine

    Remove Bike Lanes from bus routes

  • Corrine

    Left turn signals for buses. Ticket pedestrians who cross against lights when buses are making a left with the green turn signal

  • Eric McClure

    Since eight of the nine pedestrians struck and killed by bus drivers making turns last year were crossing with the right of way, ticketing pedestrians seems like an odd remedy. As does removing bike lanes – how do you rationalize that?

  • Joe R.

    I haven’t ridden in two months on account of the state of the local streets. Basically, I would need to take the lane on arterials with 45 mph car traffic. And then there’s the cold headwinds you mentioned. They’re probably worse here in eastern Queens.

  • Corrine

    And many pedestrians hit by buses have crossed against the light. Many injuries. Bike riders should be encouraged to ride on quiet streets not narrow busy bus routes. Shared bus/bike routes are dangerous. The pedestrian in the Dec 23 accident does not even show up on the bus camera. So your 8 out of 9 info is wrong. Some cases still pending.

  • Corrine

    When the bus left turn signals are installed we need real pedestrian enforcement from NYPD. Pedestrians who cross against the arrow should be ticketed.

  • Eric McClure

    “Bike riders should be encouraged to ride on quiet streets.”

    That is patently ridiculous. Do you think people on bikes don’t have to shop, go to work, drop or pick up kids at school, etc.? People on bikes want to go the same places that people in cars or in buses want to go.

    And I’m pretty sure the 8 of 9 figure is fact.

  • Corrine

    Pedestrian injuries caused by their own reckless behavior do not make it into the newspaper.

  • Corrine

    They should also have cameras to catch crazy bike riders and ticket them. I think bike riders should have a license plate and undergo drug and alcohol testing when they hit someone.

  • Corrine

    Bike riders who speed and ride the wrong way on bus routes should be held accountable

  • Corrine

    Pedestrian zombies looking at their cell phones crossing the street… walking into the side of buses that are stopped…big problem

  • Corrine

    Your wrong, the DA is backing off the Dec 23rd case. Check the News reports. People on bikes can shop and go to work…. it would be safer for them to ride on streets without buses. Mixing buses and bikes on narrow streets built for trolleys is a disaster. Bike routes can be put on streets without buses in some cases. Look at some of the bike routes… a bus driver has to cross the route on his blind side to pick up passengers in a stop… do you think that is safe?

  • Corrine

    The only thing ridiculous is your lack of knowledge about buses.

  • Dropping 10 comments into the same thread in the space of a few minutes, repeating the same points and responding multiple times to the same comment, is an abuse of the discussion section.

  • Joe R.

    We’ve heard this shit 1000 times. It’s no more true the 1000th time than it was the first time.

  • linstur

    Great piece and very diplomatic!

    It is time for the Mayor to show he has more than a wonderful vision, and that his team can get stuff over the finish line. Results matter.

    And yes, the “first-year transition period” is over. De Blasio carries an added burden as the Poster Child for liberal ideals (which he has brought on himself). If his ideas cannot become reality on the ground – Vision Zero, a world-class public education system, an expanding middle class, a building boom of affordable housing – then the criticisms will take hold – that liberals are out of touch with reality, their ideas are just ideas and not actionable, and they often lack the experience to actually govern.

    The ideas are great – now we need to see them work.

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