Traffic Fatalities are Way Up — Is Vision Zero Becoming Unfocused?

Cyclists mourned one of their own earlier this year when Aurilla Lawrence was killed. Road fatalities are up so far this year. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Cyclists mourned one of their own earlier this year when Aurilla Lawrence was killed. Road fatalities are up so far this year. Photo: Julianne Cuba

It has been a very bloody year on New York City streets.

The NYPD’s latest stats show that fatalities are up 38.5 percent so far this year, with 54 people dying from Jan. 1 through April 7 — up from 39 over the same period last year.

If that bloodshed were to continue at that pace, fatalities would be on pace to reach roughly 280 deaths, up from the 202 that city officials say were recorded last year and heralded by city officials as a watershed moment for Vision Zero.

The ghost bike for Robert Spencer was installed on last month in Long Island City. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The ghost bike for Robert Spencer was installed on last month in Long Island City. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It is unclear what is driving the increase in deaths — other than drivers, of course. Total injuries are also up, but only by 1.6 percent this year, even as the number of reported collisions is down 3.4 percent. Injuries to cyclists are up 9.2 percent, with 723 people injured so far this year — an average of more than seven people per day.

Percentages don’t tell the full story: In real numbers, there have been 56,405 collisions reported to the NYPD across the city in just over three months — 10,551 of which caused injuries to a pedestrian, a cyclist or a motorist. Drivers ram their cars into each other, into stationary objects and, of course, into people hundreds of thousands of times every year.

The fatality numbers are more or less gruesome depending on which NYPD command you examine:

  • In Brooklyn North, fatalities are up 20 percent — from five last year to six so far this year.
  • In Brooklyn South, they have more than doubled, from six last year to 13 this year. Five of those deaths came in the last 28 days. Injuries to cyclists are up 14.4 percent.
  • In The Bronx, fatalities are up from six last year to eight so far this year, an increase of 33.3 percent. Injuries to cyclists are also up 23.5 percent.
  • In Manhattan North, there have been four people killed so far this year, up from two over the same period last year.
  • In Manhattan South, three people have died, up from two. And cycling injuries are up 20 percent.
  • In Queens North, a slight uptick in overall collisions has led to an increase in fatalities from seven to 10 so far this year, or a jump of 42.9 percent. Injuries to people who bike are up 32 percent this year.
  • In Queens South, fatalities are down to seven this year, from nine over the same period last year, but injuries are way up. Cyclist injuries are up 21 percent, pedestrian injuries are up 3 percent, driver injuries are up 6.7 percent. There have been 7,545 crashes in just that portion of the borough so far this year, or roughly 77 per day.
  • In Staten Island, the carnage continues, albeit with lower raw numbers because of the borough’s lower population. Fatalities are up from two last year to three so far this year, and total injuries are up 26.4 percent. Even on quiet Staten Island, there are roughly 28 crashes per day.

The latest reports of a major increase in fatalities came as NYPD officials started a public awareness campaign on Thursday on the dangers of left turns, which drivers typically undertake at higher speeds.

“Left turns are three times as likely as right turns to cause injury to pedestrians and our bicyclists on the roadway,” said NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan. Left-turning drivers killed 21 pedestrians last year — roughly 18 percent of the total 115 that were killed by motorists, according to Chan.

As part of a “public awareness” campaign, the NYPD released a video urging drivers to slow down, use caution and always look both ways when making a left turn. The video featured the families of Allison Liao and Cooper Stock, two children killed by left-turning.

The agency also touted its role in enforcing Vision Zero, saying it wrote 704,284 summonses for moving violations last year, up from 569,754 in 2014, when Vision Zero got underway, an increase of 23.6 percent. It is unclear what percentage of those tickets were written to drivers of cars and what percentage were written against cyclists, who are frequently the subject of NYPD crackdowns, despite causing a minuscule number of injuries — and zero fatalities — compared to drivers.

But that effort comes with some concern that Mayor de Blasio has lost focus for his Vision Zero program. As he ponders a presidential run, de Blasio has been inconsistent on street safety, rejecting calls for more car-free streets and announcing a parking placard crackdown that will actually end up encouraging more NYPD officers and employees to drive to work. A pedestrian safety announcement by the mayor back in February offered little new in the way of proposals. He announced that he would slightly trim the city’s massive vehicle fleet, he left out a key detail: city workers drove 25 percent more miles last year than they did in the mayor’s first year in office. The mayor has also not committed to finishing his own administration’s improvements on Queens Boulevard or restoring the protected bike lanes on Dyckman Street that officials removed last year.

He didn’t even challenge Whoopi Goldberg when she attacked his documented Vision Zero successes!

Meanwhile, City Council President Corey Johnson has been announcing a raft of legislation and proposals that he says are designed to “break the car culture.” This week, the Council’s official response to the mayor’s fiscal year 2020 budget called for far more spending on livable streets issues such as car-free streets, pedestrian plazas and 50 miles of protected bike lanes — roughly three times more than the city built last year.

Activists are worried that Vision Zero is losing its momentum.

“We have always maintained that the pace of implementing life-saving street changes has been wholly inadequate — too many projects are stalled or not initiated at all because of unacceptable deference to the status quo,” said Transportation Alternatives’ co-deputy director Marco Conner. “When Mayor de Blasio holds out on these street redesigns the cost is paid in human lives. Whether based on political calculations or when prioritizing parking over safety, this should be no surprise. Time after time action is not taken until someone is killed — and sometimes even that is not enough. The fourth phase of Queens Boulevard, Ninth Street in Park Slope, and Central Park West are all different examples of live-saving changes either stalled, too late, or not even initiated following tragedy.” (A woman was killed on Amsterdam Avenue last month — another roadway whose life-saving redesign has been stalled by a car-centric community board.)

Conner said that the mayor needs to step up simple, life-saving strategies such as installing more leading-pedestrian-interval signals, sidewalk bulb-outs and plastic bollards.

“We know what works,” Conner said. “He can start by supporting the Vision Zero Street Design Standard bill that now has a super-majority of 43 City Council Members as sponsors and which would save countless lives by providing public transparency and helping to ensure that safety is always prioritized over convenience.”

The city of Cambridge, near Boston, became the first city in the U.S. to pass such a bill, when it voted unanimously last week to require the city to install protected bike lanes whenever it rebuilds a street.

A request for additional information from the NYPD was not returned. The agency has not responded with a comment.

  • Zero Vision

    It’s not just fatalities. Injuries, a far better metric of street safety, are way up over the past three years. De Blasio doesn’t give a shit and his DOT commissioner is too timid to propose big, bold ideas that might reverse the trend.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    De Blasio wanted to shift the focus away from mode shift (from driving to active modes) when he started and “Vision Zero” was just the smokescreen he needed to do it. If he’d actually had any interest in attempting to replicate the Swedish approach other than in name only they’d still be trying to decrease driving and reduce ubiquitous free parking along every single curb, but instead it’s small interventions here and there on the street and slogans, slogans, slogans.

    New York City residents are paying for De Blasio’s Presidential delusions with their lives. Hail to the Chief!

  • Joe R.

    Basically, deBlasio’s version of Vision Zero was lowering the default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph, which does squat for traffic fatalities since it’s mostly unenforced, and giving tickets to cyclists. The problem from the outset was his idea that you can reduce traffic fatalities without causing pain or inconvenience to motorists. You can’t. The single biggest cause of traffic fatalities is traffic volume, not traffic speeds. As a mental exercise, pick which road you would rather be on as a pedestrian or cycling—one which has 1000 vehicles per hour traveling at 25 mph, or one which has 50 vehicles per hour traveling at 70 mph? I’ll pick the latter in a heartbeat, although in truth almost anything is better than a crowded street, regardless of what speed the vehicles are traveling. To reduce traffic fatalities this city needs to reduce motor traffic volumes—dramatically. Not by 5% or 10%, but by 50% or 75% or more. NYC streets during midday should have the motor traffic volumes they have now after about 10 PM. And we can do this via a combination of eliminating free curbside parking, reducing the supply of metered curbside parking (and charging higher rates for it), requiring vehicle owners to have an off-street place to store their vehicles, banning private cars altogether from certain parts of the city (and increasing the car-free areas each year), building a trunk network of non-stop bike highways, putting in more enforced bus lanes, building a freight rail connection to the rest of the country, etc. No, we won’t get there in a year, but if we set our goal to reduce motor traffic volumes in this city by at least 75% by 2030, I feel this is a realistic goal. So is requiring every motor vehicle operating within city limits to be zero emissions by 2030.

    Besides the reduction in deaths/injuries, fewer motor vehicles will dramatically increase the quality of life by reducing the noise and confusion caused by large numbers of motor vehicles.

  • PSA

    Jeez, another video asking drivers to be careful? Come on! People make left turns in other cities where Vision Zero has been successful (or even in cities that don’t call what they do Vision Zero) and the way it works there is that they don’t waste money on videos or asking people to play nice. They build intersections and curb extensions so that drivers who didn’t happen to see a video are FORCED to slow down and proceed carefully.

    This isn’t rocket science. Stop wasting our money and build better streets!

  • There are two and only two ways to make the streets safer: 1) better design; and 2) better enforcement.

    But, whereas redesigning all the streets in our enormous City would take a century or more, enforcement priorities could be shifted tomorrow. Therefore that is the where the primary focus should be, as we simultaneously do the slow work of changing the design of streets.

    Drivers routinely speed, blow stop signs, stop at red lights ahead of the stopping line (sometimes within the crosswalk), turn without signalling, open their doors without looking, and so forth; this is because they know that there is essentially no chance that they will ever get caught committing these dangerous acts. We need to turn this on its head; we need to replace drivers’ sense of entitlement with a sense of fear; we need enough enforcement to change drivers’ behaviour.

    Our City has a police force that should, theoretically, be charged with this task. Unfortunately, this police force does not acknowledge the authority in the civilian government, and so would just ignore any order to direct its enforcement towards drivers. What’s more, this police force consists mainly of serial offenders who simply refuse to enforce the very laws that they themselves break on a consistent basis.

    Someone just has to be able to figure out a way to get the police on board with taking traffic enforcement seriously, considering that drivers’ sociopathic behaviour is the type of lawbreaking that most frequently affects most New Yorkers.

  • djx

    I don’t know if I notice it more because I have a little kid or if things are actually getting worse, but drivers are out of control and NYPD won’t do anything.

    You can see light turning yellow, gun your car, end up in the intersection with the light red, and NYPD will never stop you. They’ll just watch.

    In midtown where I work you can drive around a corner bullying pedestrians in a crosswalk and NYPD will never stop you. They’ll just watch.

    They could site at any of hundreds or perhaps thousands of intersections and write tickets all day long for either of these behaviors, but they wont. They will set up stings to get cyclists and ebikes though.

    It’s appalling.

  • Here on 20th St in Stuyvesant Town, because it is a quiet, slow-looking stretch of road, cars regularly blow through the two signal lights between Ave C and 1st Ave. Not talking about rushing in after a yellow light. Talking about full on intentional disregard. Been living here seven years, never seen a single car get cited for this.

  • Also people are most certainly collectively getting worse at driving, just like they’re getting worse at standardized tests, at climbing stairs, at not being obese, etc. If I had to guess I’d say that DMV standards are getting very soft at the same time.

  • LOL at the West Side Rag story. It sucks that a kid got hit by a cyclist but the photo is a little dramatic.

  • Joe R.

    In the comments I called some people out on the cyclists going 30 mph part. Hyperbole doesn’t help these people’s cases. It just makes them look like pearl clutchers. Then of course you had the usual calls for bicycle licensing, giving speeding tickets to bikes, speed bumps, zig-zags, etc. One person even suggested that licensed cyclists should have to wear a bib. Cyclists hitting kids, really hitting anybody, isn’t good but the solution is separate paths everywhere, regardless of the cost. The people advocating speed bumps or zig-zags aren’t even thinking things through. Besides creating a huge liability for the city if a cyclist falls, or a pedestrian trips on them, they’ll make walking unpleasant and make the path totally useless for cycling.

    One comment, supposedly by the mother of the kid who was hit, claimed the cyclist was going “about 30 mph”. I’m dubious that this is the mother because no mother I know would be posting on message boards while their kid was recovering from injuries. They would be tending to their kid’s needs, talking to doctors, etc. But anyway, those injuries aren’t even remotely consistent with a small child being hit by a bike going 30 mph. Most likely the kid would be dead, and the cyclist would be in an emergency room. That brings me to my next point, which is how many people fail to realize cyclists don’t want to hit pedestrians. They can and do often get hurt worse than the person they hit. I’m sick of the comments acting like you have a horde of cyclists ready, willing, and able to mow down anything in their path.

  • Joe R.

    People in general are getting collectively worse at everything. How many people nowadays can’t do simple arithmetic without a calculator? It sometimes phases people when I pay with odd amounts of cash, like when I’ll give $21.28 for a $16.28 grocery bill. Then they put the numbers in the machine, and see that I’m supposed to get back $5 even. Funny thing is when I do this at Chinese take-out places, the people generally just give me my change, exactly, without even putting the numbers in the register, and doing all the calculations in their head. Then again, these are people who mostly weren’t born here, and had the advantage of a better educational system. They also come from a culture where weakness and stupidity generally aren’t tolerated.

    When you read about natural selection, it’s frightening because we’re doing the exact opposite to the human race by making things too easy for people. Before then, the lazy or weak or sick or stupid generally didn’t survive long enough to breed, or if they did often nobody would want to breed with them. Now we tout laziness and stupidity almost as if it were a virtue, and act as if every view on a subject is equally valid. What’s the point of having experts when nobody listens to them?

  • djx

    “When you read about natural selection, it’s frightening because we’re doing the exact opposite to the human race by making things too easy for people. Before then, the lazy or weak or sick or stupid generally didn’t survive long enough to breed, or if they did often nobody would want to breed with them.”

    Delete your account.

  • Joe R.
  • quenchy

    congestion pricing would be start for the reduction in traffic volume and will only work if there is almost zero exemptions (only emergency vehicles are exempted- firetrucks, police (not owned vehicles), ambulances)

  • Bob Rooney

    then maybe the cyclists shouldn’t be speeding. what this overpopulated cesspool $hitole city needs is massive fines. $25,000 for each speed violation.

  • Joe R.

    Who says they’re speeding? The speed limit on bike paths is generally taken to be the same as that of the nearest adjacent roadway, which is the Henry Hudson Parkway. In that case, the “official” speed limit would be 40 mph, not that any cyclists even come close to that. Probably nearly all of the so-called speeding cyclists were going 20 to 23 mph, which is still under the NYC default speed limit of 25 mph.

    And a $25,000 fine for speeding is excessive even for motorists, never mind cyclists. That’s not even getting into the fact you can’t legally apply speed limits to cyclists because bikes aren’t required to have calibrated speedometers, nor would such a requirement be even remotely feasible:

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2014/jul/25/can-cyclists-be-fined-for-speeding

    What this city needs is a lot less space devoted to private autos so cyclists and pedestrians don’t have to share the small space left over from motorists. Sharing space is the problem here, not how fast the cyclists are riding, which isn’t actually all that fast to start with.

  • MatthewEH

    I honestly don’t think the cycling ticket blitzes are a deliberate part of Vision Zero strategy. I do think it’s lack of clear direction from the top “hey, don’t do this, it’s poor marshalling of resources”, cultural attitudes within NYPD (including disinclination to make de Blaz look good), and the fact that cycling numbers are up, leading the clutch-my-pearls-community-board-types to whinge about “out of control bikers” in their neighborhood that drives the whole thing.

  • MatthewEH

    To be fair, it was a dramatic picture but the kid wasn’t hurt that badly. My daughter got hurt like that — stitches on her forehead, etc. — at about the same age. It was from losing her balance while dancing/spinning in our living room and hitting the edge of the coffee table on her way down.

  • MatthewEH

    The stopping at red lights far ahead of the stopping line (and often into the crosswalk) drives me absolutely batty. When the light changes it’ll do, what, save the motorist a fraction of a second? Like, I *get* the idea of a motorist running a red light; it’s not the right thing to do, by far, but at least I see what the payoff is.

    Creeping forward at a red light just presents obvious dangers to others without even the benefit of a payoff.

    I idly imagine that if I were a deity, drivers that do this would find that their cars spontaneously explode. With occupants of the vehicles unharmed, deposited lightly on their feet 30 yards away. No personal injury, just loss of property.

  • MatthewEH

    I could get behind a $25,000 fine for a cyclist speeding. But only if we’re talking about an enforcement regime like in Finland, where fees are proportional to income, and the offender in question is a zillionaire. (And that a similar offense while driving would have been a $100,000 ticket.)

  • You make an excellent point that stopping ahead of the stopping line lacks the obvious payoff to the driver that blowing a red light has. It is the manifestation of an unconcious bias, an expression of the driver’s perception of the illegitimacy of pedestrians.

    We should note that bicyclists, too, can be guilty of overlooking pedestrians. I admit that I have on occasion committed this error. I can think of a few times when I stopped at a stop sign and looked both ways for crossing traffic, and then proceeded, only to have to stop short again for crossing pedestrians. These were pedestrians whom I could have seen in the first place if I had been looking for them; but I had been looking out only for cars (and bicycles, too, I guess), but not pedestrians. I now keep the need to avoid this error in mind; as a result, I have not fallen into it in quite a while.

    I remember being embarassed and feeling regret at these oversights. By contrast, when a driver in a crosswalk causes a pedestrian to walk around the car, he/she feels no embarassment or regret whatsoever, in the manner of a sociopath. Indeed, any comment to the driver about the need to stop behind the stopping line, no matter how politely made, will evoke an aggressively antisocial response along the lines “I can stop wherever the f I want” or “Mind your f-ing business” (as though the encroachment into pedestrian space is not everyone’s f-ing business) or “F you, motherf-er”.

    While I love your idea of exploding the cars of drivers who stop ahead of the stopping line, I would settle for enforcement. Of course, the police could not possible catch every single offender; but they wouldn’t have to catch them all in order to put drivers on notice that the police are looking for this and to create the perception amongst drivers that there is a realistic possibility of getting caught, which in turn would change drivers’ behaviour.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly why I mentioned that an injury like that isn’t consistent with a cyclist going 30 mph. Sure, I never feel good about a kid being hit by a bike, but that’s not a reason to to spout hyperbole, or all the crap in the comments thread about bike licensing. In the end separate paths will mostly fix the problems.

  • Joe R.

    It depends upon context. Going 40 mph on a crowded shared path merits a hefty fine in my opinion. Doing the same 40 mph on a regular city street, even one with a 25 mph limit, probably shouldn’t elicit any fine for a cyclist. That said, the law makes it pretty clear that any attempt to sanction a cyclist just for speeding, without any other contributing factors, wouldn’t hold up to a court challenge. You can’t hold vehicles which aren’t required to have a speedometer to a numerical speed limit. The only thing you can do is fine them when it’s obvious that their speed is completely out of context, to the point of being reckless by any reasonable standards, like the 40 mph on a busy shared path example I gave earlier. Even here, doing the same 40 mph at 3 AM when the path is empty wouldn’t constitute reckless operation.

    I think people obsess over bike speeds way too much. I’m a fast cyclist by most standards, and in my prime I was very fast as I was seriously considering bike racing. Still, I couldn’t continuously cruise over about 25 or 26 mph for any length of time. This was under the 30 mph general speed limit at the time. I could do 35 mph in short bursts on level ground, but even here this speed is low by motor vehicle standards. Even my peak speeds down hills, which usually weren’t higher than mid 40s, were no faster than many people drive on city streets. My all-time high of 65 mph, which was down a long hill in NJ with a very strong tailwind, wasn’t much over the 50 mph speed limit on that road, and slower than I had seen many motorists driving on it. The only time bike speeds might be an issue is on crowded, shared paths, but by definition such paths shouldn’t exist. Shared paths work OK if there are small numbers of both cyclists and pedestrians. When the numbers of either, or both, increase, it’s time for separate paths.

  • Joe R.

    Minor additional point—cameras represent the best type of enforcement because they catch offenders all the time and they don’t give professional courtesy. It’s plainly obvious at this point that the NYPD won’t rigorously enforce traffic laws, probably because they’re among the biggest offenders. So that means more red light and speed cameras. Also, if it’s technically feasible, and I think it is, we should have failure to yield cameras.

    As for your “mistake”, it’s something we’re all guilty of. One time when I was passing a red light after checking for cross traffic I saw a crossing pedestrian stop mid-stride as I started moving. Like you, I was too preoccupied looking for vehicles to check for crossing pedestrians, even though I usually do. I apologized profusely and told her this isn’t something I normally do. She has the legal right of way, and I should have let her cross first before proceeding. She seemed pretty cool about the entire thing but I vowed not to repeat that mistake.

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