Safety Advocates To Plan Political Strategy As Speed Cameras Get Shut Down Today

Failure by Golden and Flanagan point to need for action.

Children rallied in Albany last year for more speed cameras, but the State Senate allowed them to expire. Photo: Brad Aaron
Children rallied in Albany last year for more speed cameras, but the State Senate allowed them to expire. Photo: Brad Aaron

One hour after the city’s last school-zone speed camera will set to be turned off today due to Albany inaction, supporters of safe streets will rally — and devise a political strategy for getting the life-saving electronic eyes back in business before the start of the school year in September.

Transportation Alternatives is calling its 6:30 p.m. rally at Park Slope’s MS-51 “an all-city assembly to organize our resistance to the speed camera shutdown.”

“We are all at risk. We will not take it sitting down,” the group’s advocacy director Tom DeVito said in a statement. “For every elected official who was too lazy, greedy, or obstinate to protect us when they had the chance, know that you have unleashed a coming storm. From our schools to the streets, we will protest, we will disobey, we will not back down.”

DeVito’s statement came hours after Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk) announced that he would not allow a vote on an Assembly-backed bill to reauthorize the traffic enforcement cameras, putting out a statement that blamed everyone else but his own Republican-controlled chamber for the end of the speed camera program today.

A spokesman for Sen. Marty Golden, a Bay Ridge Republican who claimed he supported the Assembly bill, but then proposed a last-minute bill that would have dismantled them in favor of more traffic lights, declined to comment. Studies show that traffic lights increase speeding while speed cameras deter it.

Gov. Cuomo issued a statement late Tuesday that slammed Flanagan and Golden for inaction.

“Our first obligation as elected officials is to ensure public safety, and there’s indisputable evidence showing speed cameras save children’s lives,” Cuomo said. “The Senate Republicans’ refusal to return to Albany and pass this legislation is a complete dereliction of that duty. This is not an ideological issue — Senator Golden and his conference are playing politics with the lives of children, and it’s transparent.  

“Here’s a tip for Senator Golden — maybe he should hold a protest in front of Senator Flanagan’s office and demand he bring his own conference back to Albany to vote for speed cameras on the merits, like they should have done in June,” Cuomo’s statement continued. “If it helps the Senator, I will repeat the call for the Senate Republicans to immediately return to Albany and pass the bill that sits on their desk — I will sign it the same day.”

Some Cuomo critics pointed out that the governor could call a special session himself, but his spokesman Peter Ajemian batted down that suggestion.

“Only Senator Flanagan has the power to put the bill on the floor for a vote. And that’s what we’re calling on him to do,” Ajemian told Streetsblog this morning.

Flanagan did not respond to questions this morning.

City officials will mourn the loss of the speed camera program, which caught more than three million scofflaws since 2014, with a press conference at 3 p.m. today at a parking garage in Long Island City that serves as the Department of Transportation’s base for 40 of the 140 speed cameras.

The promised visual? “DOT vehicles that serve as mobile camera units returning to the garage” with the deactivated cameras, according to a statement.

All-City Assembly to Save Speed Cameras, M.S. 51, 350 Fifth Ave, between Fourth and Fifth streets in Brooklyn, July 25, 6:30 p.m. For more information, click here.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Utterly disgraceful. At least Flanagan will be irrelevant post-November.

  • MD

    I would go after the senators in their districts. Make sure that every PTA and parents group is aware of the issue and how their senator voted.

  • jcwconsult

    Many NY state Senators and Assembly Members are aware that speed cameras are for-profit rackets that depend upon deliberately mis-engineered speed limits to create profits – $50+ million dollars worth for NYC. With luck, this for-profit racket will never restart.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    If you reject speed cameras, how do you propose that municipalities put an end to deadly speeding? I have plenty of ideas, but I’m curious to hear yours.

  • Andrew

    Also, do you reject all speed cameras, or only the ones that are, in your words, “deliberately mis-engineered”?

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you had the ability to oversee the engineering, implementation, and revenue collection of speed camera programs. You know it’s not a racket, because you’re the one who designed the program. In this hypothetical, would you be in favor of speed cameras? How would you engineer them, and what would you do with the revenues, to satisfy your standards of both fairness and effectiveness at improving safety?

  • jcwconsult

    Re-engineer the streets so that about 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to the target speed of XX mph. Then virtually no enforcement will be needed, because the percentage of drivers more than a very few mph above XX mph will be so tiny that only a very occasional “crazy” would justify enforcement. This method works well to have almost all the traffic flow be smooth, predictable, and safe with VERY high compliance with a limit of XX mph. In reality, you could take down all the signs saying XX mph in such a location and the speed pattern would remain essentially identical – because almost all drivers will not exceed the speeds they find to be safe and comfortable. Posted speed limit signs are mostly a waste of steel and paint, because engineering controls the actual speeds of travel.

    The negatives include serious congestion issues on main collector and arterial streets currently designed to carry heavy loads of commuters, shoppers, tourists, and commercial traffic at speeds of XX + 10 or 15 mph on 4 to 6 lane main roads when traffic is free flowing. In peak rush hour times in most cities, the limits are irrelevant because speeds slow to a crawl at the worst times. If the congestion gets predictably bad, some drivers who know the area will divert to roughly parallel smaller streets that were never designed for the heavy loads and speeds the collectors and arterials were designed to handle. The main street may be safer, but the area results may be worse.

    If most of the main collectors and arterials get too congested in an area, it may damage the economy of the area as some drivers give up and stop coming to spend their money.

    Putting all the blame on car drivers for crashes with pedestrians is also false. NHTSA data shows clearly that a high percentage of pedestrians often fail to do things that would sharply reduce their risks. Safety requires responsible actions from BOTH drivers and pedestrians – so ignoring the mistakes that many pedestrians make to reduce their own safety is simply false.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    If speed cameras were installed in areas where the posted limits closely match the actual 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions, they would not be for-profit rackets. They would be targeting only the small percentage of drivers that are well above the safest 85th percentile speeds – the ones out of the normal pattern of smooth travel – the ones that justify enforcement. The “problem” with such an approach from the city’s point of view would be that the cameras would not collect enough fines to even cover their own high costs. The camera program would be a large cost item in the city budget – a program that virtually no city would use.

    Another way to set up a speed camera program would be to use enough cameras so that getting a ticket for speeding would be virtually certain. Put a camera every one or two blocks, put clear signs in front of and in between each camera, time the traffic lights for the speed limits, put up signs that the lights are timed for XX mph, and you would find the traffic flowing very smoothly only at speeds up to about XX mph. Going faster would both get red lights for the drivers instead of green ones – and tickets. This plan has the same problem for the city – the cameras would be a massive cost item in the budget with nowhere near enough ticket revenue to cover the high costs of the many cameras. You will never see such a program because it would cost too much.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    So we do have a pretty substantial agreement here — good engineering is superior to enforcement when it comes to improving safety on our streets. That’s why road diets are such a great tool. Let’s widen sidewalks, narrow automobile travel lanes, add protected bike lanes, add transit-only lanes, increase the number of crosswalks and pedestrian islands, add landscaped medians, etc. It’s a win-win-win-win for cities. Just like you point out, drivers will be forced to slow down not because they drive in fear of getting a ticket, but because physics leaves them no choice but to do so. Pedestrians will get relief from overcrowded sidewalks, people on bikes will be able to ride safely and without fear of being struck by motorists, transit riders will no longer be stuck in traffic and will get to their destinations faster, it will be safer and easier for pedestrians to cross the street, and our cities can become a little bit more beautiful. All of this happens while we reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on our streets.

    Based on your post, it sounds like you might be in favor of “shared street” designs in certain locations. In certain areas with high pedestrian traffic, remove all signage, remove the differentiation between roadway and sidewalk, remove all lane striping, and let physics and social interaction do the work of keeping people safe. It sounds a little scary, but these designs have been remarkably successful where they’ve been properly implemented. What I find so interesting is that it’s not really “engineering” that works in this case, but an utter lack thereof.

    Despite our agreement on the role of engineering, I must say that I disagree about the role of automated speed enforcement. I do fundamentally disagree with you that all speed cameras are “for-profit rackets”; that said, I actually have no problem with cities making a profit off of people who endanger the lives of others. To be clear: the end goal is safety, not profit. I would like to see speed cameras generate $0 in revenue, because it would mean that speeding has been eliminated. But if, on the way to the elimination of speeding, cities generate some revenue by penalizing reckless drivers, I don’t see a problem with that.

    What I would ultimately love to see is the elimination of even the possibility of speeding through speed governor devices. Vehicle systems should be able to recognize the speed limit of the road they’re on, and they shouldn’t allow the driver to exceed that speed limit. The European Union is considering mandating speed-governing systems on vehicles sold there (I tried posting the URL here, but Disqus flagged it as spam. See the first link when you search for “Intelligent Speed Assistance Briefing” for more info). I’m really excited about this technology; it would make our streets substantially safer while eliminating the accusation that speed enforcement — automated or otherwise — is all about profit.

  • jcwconsult

    Andrew has a thoughtful response that starts … “So we do have a pretty substantial …”

    I got two copies of it by email saying it was posted on STREETSBLOG, but it has not appeared on the site. I will reply if and when it appears on the site.

    James C. Walker

  • jcwconsult

    Could it be that STREETSBLOG is blocking Andrew’s last response? – so that I don’t respond to it with more of the realities of traffic safety engineering.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    This is Andrew’s thoughtful response which never appeared.
    Andrew
    So we do have a pretty substantial agreement here — good engineering is superior to enforcement when it comes to improving safety on our streets. That’s why road diets are such a great tool. Let’s widen sidewalks, narrow automobile travel lanes, add protected bike lanes, add transit-only lanes, increase the number of crosswalks and pedestrian islands, add landscaped medians, etc. It’s a win-win-win-win for cities. Just like you point out, drivers will be forced to slow down not because they drive in fear of getting a ticket, but because physics leaves them no choice but to do so. Pedestrians will get relief from overcrowded sidewalks, people on bikes will be able to ride safely and without fear of being struck by motorists, transit riders will no longer be stuck in tr affic an d will get to their destinations faster, it will be safer and easier for pedestrians to cross the street, and our cities can become a little bit more beautiful. All of this happens while we reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on our streets.

    Based on your post, it sounds like you might be in favor of “shared street” designs in certain locations. In certain areas with high pedestrian traffic, remove all signage, remove the differentiation between roadway and sidewalk, remove all lane striping, and let physics and social interaction do the work of keeping people safe. It sounds a little scary, but these designs have been remarkably successful where they’ve been properly implemented. What I find so interesting is that it’s not really “engineering” that works in this case, but an utter lack thereof.

    Despite our agreement on the role of engineering, I must say that I disagree about the role of automated speed enforcement. I do fundamentally disagree with you that all speed cameras are “for-profit rackets”; that said, I actually have no problem with cities making a profit off of people who endanger the lives of others. To be clear: the end goal is safety, not profit. I would like to see speed cameras generate $0 in revenue, because it would mean that speeding has been eliminated. But if, on the way to the elimination of speeding, cities generate some revenue by penalizing reckless drivers, I don’t see a problem with that.

    What I would ultimately love to see is the elimination of even the possibility of speeding through speed governor devices. Vehicle systems should be able to recognize the speed limit of the road they’re on, and they shouldn’t allow the driver to exceed that speed limit. The European Union is considering mandating speed-governing systems on vehicles sold there. I’m really excited about this technology; it would make our streets substantially safer while eliminating the accusation that speed enforcement — automated or otherwise — is all about profit.

    12:24 p.m., Friday July 27

  • jcwconsult

    And this is the response I had prepared for it.

    Engineering is indeed superior to enforcement – to the point that enforcement would virtually not be needed at all to enforce speed limits set at the actual 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions. I have two major 4 lane segments of a roadway that is the city business route for two freeways about 1 mile from my house that I use frequently when I go downtown. They were formerly posted at 30 and 35 mph with 85th speeds of 40 & 47. Both segments were fiercely enforced for profits for decades. In April 2008 the limits were corrected to 40 & 45 and I have not seen even one single enforcement action for a decade. The 85th speeds remained 40 & 47 – NO change from when posted 30 & 35.

    But you totally failed to acknowledge the negatives when things like road diets are applied to the high volume collectors and arterials often causing severe congestion and diversion to nearby smaller streets that are not designed for the high volumes that the collectors and arterials are designed to carry – with negative economic results in some cases if enough drivers stop coming to spend money.

    Transit only lanes or bike lanes that take away normal traffic lanes often severely increase congestion. Making streets and sidewalks wider overall to accommodate NEW transit lanes and bike lanes on asphalt that does not now exist works fine.

    “Shared streets” without controls tend to work in small towns or other low traffic areas.

    Speed cameras in the quantities that cities will actually use them so they produce profits above their own high costs but still leave 40% to 60% of the violations intact are for-profit rackets that no one should tolerate. They are robbery.

    As an ADVISORY system, speed assistance information is fine and I have driven in Europe in rental cars that display the limits in the instrument cluster. But far too many limits in the USA and Canada are set so far below their correct levels that such a system would be unacceptably intrusive for most people.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    To start, I want to point out that I write this from the perspective of a NYC resident. I have plenty of thoughts about street design, congestion, traffic safety, public transit, etc. elsewhere in the country, but as this is Streetsblog NYC, I want to keep my posts NYC-centric. Let’s remember that it’s a city where most people can get to where they’re going via public transit, and many can get there on bike or foot as well. Traveling by private car for most trips in NYC is optional. Sometimes it’s more convenient, but it is optional.
    ?Congestion happens when too many people drive private cars on streets that can’t accommodate the volume; this is a different issue from that of reducing a road’s design speed. It’s certainly possible to implement a road diet without adding appreciably to congestion. Road diets don’t necessarily have to include the removal or repurposing of automobile lanes. They can lower the design speed of a road and increase safety by narrowing travel lanes, adding bump-outs, adding pedestrian refuge islands, daylighting, converting one-way streets to two-way streets, etc. Using these strategies to compel NYC drivers to slow their maximum speed from ~35 mph to ~25mph won’t add appreciably to their travel time, especially when you take traffic lights into account.

    Even some road diets that do reduce overall private car capacity can help to ease congestion. For example, converting a 4-lane road to 2 lanes + turn lane + bike lane can help to smooth traffic flow while making the street safer for all users.

    That said, in a place like NYC where we can’t (and shouldn’t) simply raze buildings and add new asphalt, we need to make some trade-offs. It may be the case that repurposing an automobile travel lane into a transit-only lane and/or a bike lane will add to congestion for private automobiles. But what are we getting in return? Here’s a list:
    • We’re introducing some fairness into the distribution of street space. It’s an often-overlooked injustice that a private automobile carrying one person has an equal right to most roads as a bus carrying 50 people. To put it another way, why should a bus rider be subject to traffic congestion that was caused by drivers of private cars? Traffic congestion simply would not exist if everyone used public transit, so I think it’s highly unfair that transit riders have to suffer from a problem that they didn’t create.
    • We’re rewarding the people who use the street most efficiently. A single-occupancy private automobile is an inefficient use of street space. Not only does the car take up a lot of space in a travel lane while only serving (usually) one person, that private automobile also takes up space when it’s parked. A bus, of course, uses that street space more efficiently, and it parks, unobtrusively, at a depot. A bike takes up a negligible amount of space. Those who use our streets most efficiently should be rewarded with faster travel times.
    • By rewarding people who use public transit with faster trips, we create a virtuous cycle. More people choose to use public transit as their travel experience improves, and some of those people will have shifted from private car trips (or taxi/ride-hail trips). Public transit agencies, with increased ridership, have increased revenues with which to improve service and capacity.
    • We’re also rewarding the people whose travel choices have the lowest environmental footprint
    • Adding fully protected bicycle lanes entices more people to ride bikes. I’ve had many conversations with people who say they’d love to be able to ride bikes, but they don’t feel safe doing so because “crazy” drivers make them feel unsafe. Nobody should feel dissuaded from biking because of safety concerns.
    • We’re reducing the number of injuries and fatalities on our streets. Aside from the loss of life and the emotional impact to family members, every injury and fatality imposes an economic cost to society.

    I’m only scratching the surface with these points, but I don’t have time to write all day.

    I don’t argue that arterial or collector streets should be replaced with shared streets, but they’re also not only appropriate for small towns. Stockholm is no small place, but it has installed a number of them in recent years.

    I simply disagree with you that traffic cameras are robbery. For one thing, speed cameras aren’t very expensive to install and operate. Even if a city sets speed limits according to your own standards, and then issues tickets only to the 15% of drivers who exceed the 85th percentile speed, that’s still more than enough revenue to cover the costs.

    Second, and more importantly, the thing that “no one should tolerate” is 40,000 annual traffic deaths in the US. I don’t argue that those are all due to speeding, but high speed is at least a factor in many of these deaths (and countless more injuries). Speed cameras are proven to improve safety, so I don’t see how something that saves lives can be regarded as a “racket”.

    Finally, the Intelligent Speed Assistance legislation that’s proposed in Europe goes beyond just displaying the speed limit in the instrument cluster. It automatically limits the vehicle’s top speed to the road’s set speed limit. It can be temporarily overridden, but it requires active effort from the driver to do so. I agree that most drivers in the US would regard such a technology as unacceptably intrusive (and a legislative mandate is politically unrealistic), but I think that’s wrong. I think it’s far more “unacceptably intrusive” that 40,000 people die annually, and that I must live in fear that a reckless driver will take my life or that of someone I love.

  • jcwconsult

    I appreciate your thoughtful and reasoned responses, Andrew. Your arguments to use transit for relatively local residents have some merit and the transit systems are very well developed in NYC (even if the subways need serious repair/updating). But in my view these arguments don’t take enough account of drivers who come from beyond realistic walking, biking or transit distances. I think you also fail to account for many people who are not able or not willing to walk to and from transit stations in all weathers. Speed cameras typically cost about $3,000 per month per camera. With limits set at the 85th percentile speed and even a modest grace allowance of 5 or 6 mph over the limit for speedo error inadvertent infractions, they will almost always lose money and be removed. Neither the for-profit ticket camera companies nor their for-profit city business partners (~$50 million in the case of NYC) will keep losing cameras in place for long.

    Also do remember, we drive over 3 trillion miles per year in the USA. The fatality rate is about 1.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled – over 75% safer than when I got my first license in 1960. That is one death for about each 83 million miles driven. Similar stats apply to walking, about one death for each 80 million miles walked. We CAN do better, but we do not have a crisis. There are more suicide deaths per year than deaths from auto crashes.

    What do you think? Are we getting too repetitive without many new issues?

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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Right now, Albany limits NYC to 140 speed enforcement cameras for all 6,000 miles of surface streets in the city. A broad spectrum of New York City voters approve of expanding the program. The question is whether Albany Democrats Andrew Cuomo, Jeff Klein, and Carl Heastie will take action to save lives.