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Mayor de Blasio’s Gotten All Blurry on Vision Zero

Vision Zero needs a new prescription.

Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero plan to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2024 has stalled — and street safety activists will rally on Tuesday at City Hall to urge the mayor to take his eyes off the White House and turn the tide on an "epidemic" 30-percent rise in deaths in the first four months of this year.

“We were horrified to start getting data. As a result of Vision of Zero, deaths were going down, but for the first time there has been a significant increase,” said Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen, whose 12-year-old son was killed by a driver in 2013. “It’s become apparent that we have an epidemic that's not being treated with the urgency that is necessary.”

Cohen spoke to Streetsblog on the day when Charles McClean was killed in the Ocean Hill section of Brooklyn by a mail truck driver, and one day after 3-year-old Emur Shavkator was run over in Bath Beach.

Flowers marked the rainy vigil for Emur Shavkator on Sunday. The 3-year-old was run over and killed on Thursday in Bensonhurst. Photo: Melodie Bryant
Flowers marked the rainy vigil for Emur Shavkator on Sunday. The 3-year-old was run over and killed on Thursday in Bensonhurst. Photo: Melodie Bryant
Flowers marked the rainy vigil for Emur Shavkator on Sunday. The 3-year-old was run over and killed on Thursday in Bensonhurst. Photo: Melodie Bryant

At least 63 people have died on the streets of New York this year — an increase of 30 percent, according to police statistics.

Tuesday's rally will be an attempt to get the mayor to refocus on his signature achievement — road fatalities had been dropping steadily in de Blasio's first six years in office, hitting 202 last year, a record for the automobile era.

Activists are increasingly critical of a mayor who offers his thoughts and prayers to grieving families, yet dispatches cops to ticket and harass cyclists.

The day Shavkator was killed, de Blasio told reporters during an unrelated press conference on crime stats that Vision Zero is working and will continue to improve, but he struggled to explain how he plans to do better.

“When it comes to Vision Zero, it’s five years of driving down fatalities every single year, each year better than the one before. We intend to have a sixth year," said de Blasio who plans to announce his bid for president this week. "But the – that’s going to be – the big changes, of course, like the traffic designs, but it’s also going to be – we’re going to have a lot more speed cameras at schools, going forward, because we’ve got some much better legislation in Albany that we fought for, for a long time. And we’re going to have a lot more enforcement by the NYPD. So, you will see continued progress, there’s no question.”

The trendline is in the wrong direction.

“Clearly we’re on the wrong track after a number of several years on the right track. It’s hard to imagine a 30-percent increase in traffic collisions in a short period of time without some explanation," said lawyer Steve Vaccaro, who often represents victims of road violence. "The city should be doing more redesigns, doing them quicker, and ramping up enforcement. Something is going on, we need to get to bottom of it while continuing with Vision Zero, with yet greater urgency.”

So what's going on — or not? We asked the experts:

Making streets safer

Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets said de Blasio can stop reckless drivers by implementing traffic-calming measures — and implementing them faster and in a holistic rather than piecemeal approach.

“The mayor is resting on his laurels," said TransAlt spokesman Joe Cutrufo. "The city has made progress in the past, but now it seems pretty clear that we’ve plateaued. Traffic deaths are going up because the city has been not nearly as bold in making streets safer. De Blasio has not really unleashed the DOT to do what we know they are capable of.”

The DOT has proved it can act quickly when it and the mayor want to — days after a driver hit and killed two kids and injured their mothers on a Park Slope street, the city started making changes. 

But other neighborhoods are still waiting, and victims there have died because the city failed to act.

"Safety projects are collecting dust because the mayor has not fully embraced Vision Zero and is still prioritizing parking preservation and level of service over safety," said Transportation Alternatives' Co-Deputy Director Marco Conner. "Every delay in implementing safety measures as a matter of fact is paid for by lives lost."

The mayor only last week overruled a Manhattan community board that spent the last two years opposing critical safety improvements along a dangerous stretch of Amsterdam Avenue, where a driver hit and killed Erica Imbasciani on March 22. In between the first presentation of the plan to Community Board 9 and Imbasciani's death, 27 cyclists, 58 pedestrians and 116 motorists were injured, and one killed, in 927 reported crashes on the portion of the roadway that the city wanted to fix.

And Council Member Mark Treyger also accused the de Blasio administration of dragging its feet on implementing traffic-calming measures where the 3-year-old boy was killed on May 2.

Holding Drivers Accountable 

The emergency rally on Tuesday comes more than two months after a hit-and-run truck driver killed 25-year-old Aurilla Lawrence — a skilled bike messenger — as she was riding in Williamsburg on Feb. 28. Police said back in March that they had a lead in the case, but have yet to make any arrests.

“Far too many families have had to bury a loved one this year because of unsafe streets and reckless drivers. Nothing will bring her back, but at the very least Mayor de Blasio ought to be doing everything in his power to make sure nobody else’s family has to go through what mine has,” wrote the victim’s father, Kenny Lawrence, in an emotional plea to the mayor.

But Lawrence’s friends and family are not alone in waiting in the deafening silence following a fatal crash. The 25-year-old cyclist is just one of the thousands of victims whose death goes unsolved each year, and whose killers walk free.

In 2018, there were a total of 5,699 crashes involving death or serious injuries where the driver left the scene, according to city data. Of those, there were just 492 arrests — less than nine percent.

That citywide percentage shrinks in some boroughs. In Brooklyn, with the lowest hit-and-run driver arrest rate, authorities charged only 105 drivers out of the 1,894 who fled — just 5.5 percent. In the Bronx, there were just 72 arrests out of the 1,138 collisions — 6.3 percent.

Other boroughs were slightly ahead of the citywide average: In Staten Island, cops arrested 16 arrests of 168 hit-and-run drivers — 9.5 percent. In Manhattan, 118 of 1,048 drivers — 11.2 percent — were caught and charged. And in Queens, police made 181 arrests out of the 1,451 hit-and-run drivers, or 12.5 percent.

But what happens to the other nearly 90 percent of victims’ killers? And why does one borough solve more cases than another?

Police say the statistical variances are “due to the fact that conditions in each borough and for each investigation are unique and can vary widely,” but that the NYPD is committed to investigating every crash.

“The NYPD will always follow the evidence to hold anyone accountable who would break traffic laws and jeopardize safety on city streets,” said an agency spokeswoman.

Stopping reckless drivers

Police are have been cracking down on cyclists, but they've written far fewer tickets this year for drivers.

Whenever Mayor de Blasio is asked about whether the NYPD is a willing partner in Vision Zero, he responds that the agency has written more moving violation summonses — which was true for the period from 2014-2018.

But something has changed.

In the first three months of 2018, police wrote a total of 370,530 tickets. But during the same period this year, police wrote 346,186 tickets — a decline of 6.6 percent, according to city data. No one has explained why.

Holding drivers who break the law or who kill someone while behind the wheel accountable is critical for making streets safer, but what's proven most successful in eliminating traffic fatalities is implementing holistic street redesigns — which the mayor has failed to take the lead on, said Cohen. 

“The lack of political will to invest in change is not working. We still treat these like 'accidents,' these are not 'accidents,' they are 'crashes,' they are causes we can prevent,” she said. “Holding drivers accountable is a piece of solution, but redesigning our streets can have the biggest benefit.”

For context, there have been 67,118 crashes through April this year, injuring 1,063 cyclists, 3,439 pedestrians and 13,386 motorists. There are roughly 560 crashes per day in New York City.

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