Mayor de Blasio’s Gotten All Blurry on Vision Zero

vision zero montage

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

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.

  • Joe R.

    If we really want to get to zero, here’s what we need to do, in order of importance:

    1) Radically decrease the number of motor vehicles on the road. Not by 5%, or some other tiny number which might be accomplished by congestion pricing, but by 50% or more, better yet 75+%. NYC’s streets should always look like they do now after 10 PM in terms of traffic levels. We can get there quickly via a combination of disincentives to motor vehicle use, like requiring an off-street parking spot in order to own a car, as well as drastically reducing curbside parking.

    2) Redesign streets to actively encourage motorists to look, and to reduce speeds at the intersections where most incidents occur. This means more roundabouts, more uncontrolled intersections, and far fewer traffic signals and stop signs. Ideally, NYC should have a few hundred traffic signals citiwide, not over 12,000. They should only be used at intersections where uncorrectable poor lines of sight obviate alternatives where motorists avoid collisions by lines of sight. Fewer traffic signals and stop signs will also greatly encourage cycling by making it safer and much faster.

    3) In order to implement #2, intersections will need to be daylighted. This also helps with #1 by eliminating some parking spots.

    4) Install better streetlighting as many incidents occur at night. The original, brighter 4100K LED lights the city installed were a good start until de Blasio caved to the complainers and installed dimmer, yellower 3000K lights on some streets. These should be reverted back to brighter 4100K or higher CCT models. Also, based on my knowledge of LEDs, I think higher color rendering LEDs ( 90+ instead of 70s) of around 5000K would aid object recognition, perhaps allow slightly lower overall lighting levels without compromising visibility, and reduce the blue spike which concerns some people (i.e. CCT is not a good indicator of the amount of blue in the spectrum, despite what the AMA thinks).

    5) More mass transit, preferably subways or els, for the outer boroughs in order to reduce the amount of driving.

    6) Have a zero emissions requirement for all vehicles operated within NYC limits by, say, 2030. While the focus for Vision Zero thus far has been on those killed directly by motor vehicles, let’s not ignore the ~10 times as many indirectly killed by motor vehicle exhaust.

    7) Ban SUVs and pickups from operating within city limits. These vehicles are proven more dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians, as well as those driving lighter vehicles. Most of those driving these types of vehicles within city limits aren’t even using their special capabilities like towing or carrying heavy cargo. Besides, a van or minivan offers just as good cargo carrying capabilities while being much safer to those around them.

    Thus far, the cornerstone of the Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative has been a slightly lower speed limit which isn’t really enforced anyway. Small wonder deaths are up. Motor vehicle speed only has a second order effect compared to motor vehicle density. That’s where the focus needs to be. Yes, it’s not going to be politically popular implementing a lot of the things on my list, which is why they should probably be done by people who would be immune to the election cycle. For example, we could empower DOT with #1. #2, #3, #4, and #7 (yes, DOT can regulate the types of vehicles allowed on the roads). We could empower the NYC DEP with #6. For #5, as well as other massive infrastructure projects which need to be done in a big hurry, we could emulate the power structure Robert Moses used. Sure, a lot of people will absolutely be very unhappy in the beginning but once they see the results the political winds will shift. Unfortunately, we can’t have the results without a sustained effort which needs to be immune to election cycles.

  • Larry Littlefield

    One might say the Mayor is responsible for not driving deaths down further, but not many prior policies have been reversed to cause an increase. Something else must be happening.

    It could be luck — and up and down variation until something makes a real change.

    It could be vehicle size.

    It could be something else. Opioids?

  • brklynmind

    None of this will ever happen so you need another more realistic perscription

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    bigger cars and distracted driving/cell phones.

  • r

    Nothing is going to change until the mayor has a lobotomy and replaces the part of his brain that thinks parking is the most important thing in the world.

  • Larry Littlefield

    People being people and motor vehicles being motor vehicles I think this is as close to zero as NYC is going to get until a game changer comes along.

    Since the big drop, the NYC murder rate has bumped along with random upturns and downturns. Even though it is “low” and no longer a story, it is still higher than in, say, London. Perhaps the relatively availability of weapons keeps it from going lower here.

    The same thing might happen with the motor vehicle deaths.

    I’m not sure less traffic would help, because that would allow the traffic to move at a higher speed. Automatic over-rides by the vehicles is what we need, limiting turning to 5 mph and stopping if the vehicle senses something the driver does not.

  • Urbanely

    Agreed. It seems like many of the crashes covered here involve larger vehicles going at slower speeds. Take, for instance the mail truck that killed someone after moving off a stop sign. I’d be surprised if he even made it to 10mph but the size of the vehicle and the way the person was hit made it fatal.

  • iSkyscraper

    Just wait until someone gets killed on Dyckman Street, which is still missing the separated bike lanes that Ydanis Rodriguez removed and the mayor hid from reinstalling.

  • Joe R.

    Historically, murder rates have been lower in some places than others not due to the availability of weapons, but due to culture. For example, Switzerland has the third highest rate of firearms ownership in the world, yet their murder rate per capita is far lower than the US, and half that of the UK where firearms are virtually banned. Here’s as good an explanation as any, and something gun control advocates need to read:

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/switzerland-high-rates-gun-ownership-why-doesnt-no-mass-shootings-a8230606.html

    I have to disagree on the last paragraph. As a thought exercise, would you rather walk or cycle on a street with 1000 vehicles per hour, moving at 25 mph or less, than on one with only 10 vehicles per hour moving at 70 mph? Granted, these are both extremes. NYC would drastically reduced traffic levels might fall somewhere in the middle. As a good example, try walking or riding late nights like I do. Yes, traffic often moves at 45 mph or better but there is so little traffic it’s easy to find a gap to cross a street. During the day that’s impossible. You’re often forced to wait for a walk signal to cross. Because of turning vehicles, crossing with the walk signal is more dangerous. The sheer volume of vehicles in this city is the biggest thing making our streets dangerous and unpleasant. I stopped cycling during the day over two decades ago because of this. No matter how slowly cars are moving, when there’s a lot them it’s very stressful for all concerned. Also, a lot of pedestrian fatalities are caused by turning vehicles which are already going far slower than the speed limit. With heavy traffic, there are more turning vehicles, hence a greater chance for pedestrian fatalities.

  • Joe R.

    Then we’ll just have to accept ~200 deaths per year (plus about 2000 indirect deaths due to pollution) in NYC as “the cost of doing business” because we refuse to take more drastic measures. This is something elected officials like de Blasio should forced to admit, either voluntarily, or by publicly shaming them. I still remember how effective the latter can be from a summer job I had at a factory. One day the boss sent everyone home early because some important supplies hadn’t been ordered and received in time. The boss also said we were not to report to work until he called us back in because there would be nothing for us to do until the supplies arrived. This place couldn’t afford to pay people to do nothing, so the end result was lost wages for everyone, me included. However, before he sent us home, he paraded around the person responsible, saying this man is the reason you have no work today. Because of the union, firing this person would have been difficult. Instead, after work resumed, the other workers made his life so difficult he quit voluntarily before the summer. We need to make the lives of public officials so difficult via shaming, both before and after they leave office, that they will choose the easier path of just doing the unpopular but necessary things to reduce traffic violence.

  • Joe R.

    This quote from Steve Vaccaro got me thinking:

    “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.”

    Maybe there weren’t 5 prior years when we were on the right track. I think the NYPD massaging statistics maybe have resulted in erroneous information until more recent, transparent reporting procedures shed some light on what’s really happening. You can explain away single digit differences over time as random statistical variations but not a 30% change. Either something different is happening as Steve said, or the prior data are wrong. Given the NYPD’s lack of transparency, I’ll bet on the latter. I’ll also hedge this bet by pointing out that de Blasio did nothing so radical which would have resulted in those prior years with supposedly lower traffic fatalities. If anything we’ve had fewer safe streets projects under him. His signature Vision Zero contribution was a lower speed limit which would have little effect for two reasons. One, traffic speed has a second order effect on fatalities/injuries relative to traffic density. Two, the new speed limit largely isn’t enforced. I certainly haven’t noticed any slower speeds on any streets.

  • qrt145

    “You can explain away single digit differences over time as random statistical variations but not a 30% change”

    Actually, you can, if the numbers are small enough. Here we are talking about an increase from 48 deaths to 63 deaths. The standard deviation is probably between 7 and 8, which means that the two numbers are two standard deviations apart. This is roughly at the edge of being statistically significant (about a 5% chance of it happening randomly). This is just a back of the envelope calculation, not a thorough analysis, but you get the idea, I hope.

  • Joe R.

    Perhaps but I’m seriously skeptical of prior numbers given that there’s really nothing the Mayor did which should have resulted in deaths decreasing prior to this year. It’s sort of like someone on top decided what the results would be, then the NYPD came up with statistics to match those desired results. I watched the first episode of Chernobyl last night, and the way NYC politics operates is eerily similar to the Soviet system. We have the same lack of transparency, plus those on top directing what the results should be, regardless of the actual results. And of course with all the petty laws NYC has, plus nearly three times the police per capita as other large cities, it’s not all that different from a Soviet-era police state. Add in the unwarranted crackdowns on certain marginalized groups (i.e. cyclists, e-bikes), and the analogy is spot on.

  • qrt145

    I think the city has actually been making *some* incremental progress over the years (even before BdB), for example by adding LPIs, pedestrian islands, road diets, etc. But I also think the apparently (and highly celebrated) dramatic improvement last year was mostly luck. Again, these are relatively small numbers, statistically speaking, so there’s always the risk of overinterpreting the noise. This applies equally to politicians and to advocates.

  • Joe R.

    The new LED streetlights could be one major factor driving down fatalities. After all, many fatalities occur after sunset. Anything which improves visibility will help. And the recent increase could also be partially explained by streetlighting. The Mayor caved to complainers and installed dimmer, yellower lighting which is quite inferior to the original LED streetlights. That lighting mostly came online in the last year or less.

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