NYC Pedestrian Deaths Fell Significantly in 2017, Bucking National Trends

The sustained reduction in fatalities should bolster the political case for moving forward with bolder street designs more rapidly.

Pedestrian fatalities have fallen 45 percent in the four years since Mayor de Blasio took office. Image: NYC Mayor's Office/NYC DOT
Pedestrian fatalities have fallen 45 percent in the four years since Mayor de Blasio took office. Image: NYC Mayor's Office/NYC DOT

NYC traffic fatalities fell for the fourth year running in 2017, with an especially large drop in pedestrian deaths, Mayor de Blasio announced today.

While the city’s Vision Zero initiatives aren’t on pace to hit the goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024, New York has managed to buck national trends and make significant safety gains. The de Blasio administration has redesigned streets, recalibrated traffic signals, and reduced lethal vehicle speeds with a lower citywide speed limit and expanded use of automated enforcement — and it is clearly making a difference.

“The idea behind Vision Zero was that there were so many crashes that happened that did not have to happen, and that we could change things so that lives would be saved,” the mayor said at a press conference in Queens this morning. “The bottom line is now four years of evidence proving that Vision Zero works.”

The gains under de Blasio follow a long-term trend that began in the 1990s. While the mayor was too eager to claim all the credit for traffic safety policies that predate his administration, New York has distinguished itself from other American cities under his stewardship.

Pedestrian fatalities are rising nationally, but in NYC they have fallen 45 percent since 2013. Instead of getting swept up in the mistaken belief that ticketing pedestrians will make streets safer, for the most part New York has followed through on a core strategy of limiting motor vehicle speeds and increasing driver attentiveness.

Image: NYC Mayor's Office
Image: NYC Mayor’s Office

The de Blasio administration — NYPD in particular — is still prone to terrible misfires like its e-bike enforcement campaign, but DOT’s street reengineering continues to chip away at the most severe crashes.

In addition to high-profile projects like protected bike lanes, which tend to improve safety for all modes of travel, DOT is getting a lot of mileage out of adjustments to traffic signals.

In 2017, DOT installed 832 leading pedestrian intervals, which give pedestrians a head start to cross at intersections ahead of turning motorists. That brought the citywide number of LPIs to 2,334, a seven-fold increase since 2013. DOT also retimed traffic signals to discourage speeding and bring drivers in line with the city’s default 25 mph speed limit.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. 2017 was the deadliest year for cycling in several years, with 23 bicyclist fatalities, not including the victims of October’s greenway terror attack. Motor vehicle occupant fatalities also increased, from 46 to 57.

As he begins his second term, de Blasio pledged to take Vision Zero “farther.” He called on the state legislature to expand the city’s school speed camera program.

“We need help in Albany, and I know the family members, who’ve done so much work up there, the family members who lost their loved ones to traffic crashes, they will be up there in force in 2018 to get further progress in Albany,” he said.

Expanding the city’s speed camera program, which is still tightly constrained, would save lives, but there are other policy options that de Blasio will have to embrace to achieve his Vision Zero target. Congestion pricing, for instance, led to major reductions in severe crashes in London, but the mayor remains stubbornly opposed to it.

To keep making progress, said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White, City Hall needs to get serious about cutting down on car trips.

White said the drop in pedestrian deaths “leaps out as a huge achievement” that needs to be accelerated and expanded. “For them to make good on Vision Zero in a substantial way, they can’t avoid the too-many-cars problem,” he said. “The lion’s share of street space is still going to motor vehicles.”

The increase in bicyclist deaths is especially concerning. “We’ve seen bike deaths rise for three years, and it’s clearly a gap right now in the way Vision Zero is being implemented,” he said.

In many parts of the city, opposition has led the city to stall or scale back safety redesigns. The sustained reduction in fatalities should bolster the political case for moving forward with bolder street designs more rapidly.

At today’s press conference, newly-elected City Council Member Bob Holden, who previously opposed protected bike lanes, safety improvements on Woodhaven Boulevard, and Vision Zero policies in general as head of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said he’s had a change of heart.

“I was one of those ‘Doubting Thomases’ on the civic level,” Holden said. “You can’t argue with saving lives. You can never argue that that’s the paramount here.”

“I was wrong, I want to admit that,” he said.

  • Ken Dodd

    It’s nowhere near enough. The vast majority of NYC drivers continue to break the speed limit. You only have to stand on Park Avenue at any time of the day to see that virtually every car is ignoring the speed limit, oftentimes traveling at 50mph or more. We need speed cameras, and the one person standing in the way of them is the serial road offending criminal Marty Golden.

  • r

    One thing that de Blasio doesn’t get is that you can have a city where nobody dies in traffic that’s still a terrible place for walking and biking. He needs to get his head around congestion pricing and parking reform to reduce the amount of cars in the city so that more space can be dedicated to making getting around on foot and by bike pleasant AND safe. He needs to look not just at Albany and *hope* that it comes around on speed cameras, but to international cities that are reclaiming space from cars.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    We need de Blasio to experience the “joy” of being challenged by an SUV driver while entering a crosswalk.

  • We need eletronic speed governors that cap a vehicle’s speed at the legal speed limit.

    While the blanket coverage for such a system doesn’t exist yet, before long it will be technologically feasible on every mile of road in the country. But, don’t worry — even then we won’t have this obvious safety advance, on account of the prevailing ideological orthodoxy, not to mention outright buying of legislators.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I keep seeing people claim, simultaneously, mind you, that manhattan is so congested that cars crawl along at under walking speed, and that cars are also regularly driving highway speeds on surface streets.

    Here’s the traffic cam feeds from the DOT: http://dotsignals.org/

    Do you see many cars approaching 50mph on park avenue?

  • r

    Two things can be true at once. That NYC has a horrible congestion problem and that there are lots of times during the day where it’s possible to speed. It’s even possible for a place to be choked with cars at one time and then, not too much time later, a speedway. What point do you think you’re making here?

  • Ken Dodd

    Yes absolutely – Park Avenue is not that congested, and drivers frequently get the opportunity to speed. I cycle on it all the time and cars zip by me very close at way more than the speed limit. You often see drivers speeding very fast.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Which camera do you see massive speeding on? i just looked at a handful from downtown through the 40’s and I didn’t see any speeding.

  • r

    Do you honestly think anyone believes that traffic congestion and speeding happens on the same road *at the same time*? Is anyone making that point? With what straw man are you arguing?

  • reasonableexplanation

    Thanks for responding! Presumably speeding can only really happen late at night then right?

    All of the talk about curbing speed on these board has focused on speed cameras (which i’m not opposed to, by the way). Speed camera advocacy has focused on putting them near schools, to protect the children. If speeding happens at times well outside of school hours, wouldn’t it make sense to be honest and open about the goals and best locations for speed cameras?

  • r

    No. It can happen at any time, which is why most advocates want 24/7 speed cameras. The discussion surrounding speed cams has been unfortunately hamstrung by politicians who apparently can only be motivated to act if it’s for the children. I don’t know a single person outside of Albany who thinks that speed cams really ought to only be restricted to schools and school hours.

    You’re making up a lot of straw men!

  • djx

    I had an office overlooking Park Ave at 85th Street for years, and worked on Park Avenue South for years too, and never or almost never saw cars going 50mph. Perhaps late at night, but it’s just not possible during the day, at least in the CBD.

    I saw plenty of law breaking – particular running red lights to make a turn. But 50mph? No way is that anything but very rare.

  • vnm

    They don’t just break the speed limit. They break all kinds of rules. Ever notice people adhering to restrictions on left turns or right turns or U-turns? I’d love to do a study by setting up a time lapse camera and seeing how many people break the no turns rules at any given intersection.

  • Joe R.

    The real goal here is to keep people from dying. Reducing speeds doesn’t necessarily follow from that. Think which is safer from a pedestrian or cyclist standpoint—a busy urban street teaming with cars going 30 mph or less, or a country road with a few cars per hour traveling at 70 mph? I’ll personally take the country road every time as there will be far fewer encounters between pedestrians and motor vehicles.

    The real goal here should be radically reducing the number of motor vehicles in NYC. Ideally, you should only have emergency, sanitation, delivery, construction, and public transit vehicles. Taxis should serve primarily to transport the disabled. Eventually you should set things up so even delivery or sanitation trucks are mostly not needed. You may or may not need to also reduce speeds when you do this.

    The bottom line though is speeds have a second order effect on fatalities. The real cause is the density of motor vehicles. Put lots of motor vehicles in close proximity with lots of vulnerable users and bad things will happen regardless of laws or how careful drivers are. Note even in countries with far stricter licensing standards, plus active efforts to control pedestrian fatalities, rates are still 1/3 to 1/2 of what they are in the US. These countries eventually need to make their cities mostly car-free also to get to zero.

  • Joe R.

    We don’t need it on every mile of road in the country, just in places where there are lots of vulnerable users like cities, and then only on local streets, not highways. This makes it pretty much feasible right now. If you’re within city limits and not on a highway, your speed is governed to the local speed limit. Due to the limits of GPS, on urban highways you might need to set up transmitters telling the vehicles to disable speed governing.

  • Rex Rocket

    I’ve driven on Park–you might be able to hit 50 if traffic is extremely light–but the lights sequencing, intersection blocking, cabs, parked trucks, double and triple parked Ubers, left turners, all preclude anyone coming anywhere near 50 during business hours. Not to say that they are good drivers, but they are certainly not able to drive as fast as they want to.

  • AnoNYC

    Speeding between lights in sections, especially on the Upper East Side. Less during the day, but commonplace late at night.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I think folks severely overestimate how much of a problem speeding is, especially in the CBD. That’s why I posted the link to the traffic cams above. if you watch any of the ones in the CBD, you’ll very rarely see the kind of speeds people here regularly claim to see.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I’ve spent a decent amount of time on these boards arguing with people that pushed the school angle; it;s not a straw man, at least on here.

  • Ken Dodd

    I’m not saying every car is speeding at 50mph at all times. But most of the time I’m on Park Avenue, the traffic is doing way more than 25mph. Not, of course, during times of congestion, but any time those drivers (especially cabbies) get a clear run to put their foot down, they’re doing it.

  • Ken Dodd

    None of those cameras give anywhere near an accurate representation of speed. The frame rate is very low, and is also inconsistent. It’s probably buffering at times.

  • Ken Dodd

    The CBD is a small part of New York. Speeding across NYC as a whole is a huge problem. Of course nobody’s speeding during times of congestion. But what I will say is that, any time drivers in this city get a clear run to put their foot down, they’re flooring it.

  • Ken Dodd

    I’m the exact opposite. Biking out in the sticks terrifies me. Everyone’s driving like a bat out of hell, visibility is often compromised and there are a lot of blind summits and corners. In addition to that, you can forget about protected bike lanes. You’re right there on a narrow road with cars being driven by people who feel that nobody’s watching them given how few cops (or even other road users) there are. So you have bozos driving 70-80mph on roads they’re deluded into thinking they’re alone on. They come around a corner out of nowhere, suddenly a bike is in their path – too late to stop, they’re going too fast…..many of the worst bike accidents I hear about happen outside the city. Especially when speeding motorists plow into groups of cyclists.

  • Cartski

    Two big fallacies with fatal stats: medicine saves victims’ lives, lowering fatal count, often more effectively than prevention efforts; severely injured is more costly than fatals to people and society, so lowering the VZ speed-fatality-risk curve to 20kph (12-13mph) for 10% risk makes sense. VZ and its politicians must change their measures before declaring victory.

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