Mayor de Blasio Isn’t Perfect on Talking the Vision Zero Talk — Or Walking the Walk

He puts up big signs, but undermines them frequently. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
He puts up big signs, but undermines them frequently. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Mayor de Blasio remains under fire for not walking the Vision Zero walk anymore — but on Friday, he showed he can’t even fully talk the talk.

Appearing on Brian Lehrer’s “Ask the Mayor” segment on WNYC, the mayor once again failed to clearly establish proper blame for the city’s ongoing double-digit increase in road fatalities this year, agreeing with a caller that pedestrians should “behave better” when, in fact, a pedestrian has never killed a cyclist or driver — perhaps in history.

The scintillating exchange between “John from Harlem” and Hizzoner starts at 27:40 in the segment. Continue after the exchange for Streetsblog’s analysis:

John in Harlem: Mayor, I wanted to ask about your Vision Zero campaign and have you ever considered the other side of it and doing some sort of pedestrian awareness or pedestrian education? I think that pedestrians could behave better.

Mayor de Blasio: Yeah, I think you’re right (laughs heartily). And look we’re New Yorkers. New Yorkers have their own approach to everything and definitely pedestrians are part of the equation so we should do more education particularly around the reality of folks who ware focused on their electronic devices more than what is going on around them. And this is true for drivers. This is true for bicyclists. It’s true for pedestrians. There are way too many people focused on a screen when they should be focused on the road or focused on what’s happening around them. And that’s something we need to educate people on and we will be doing more of that. At the same time, John, the central problem still is motor vehicles. The central problem is changing behavior. Getting people to slow down. Getting people to actually follow the laws. Stop at the stop light. Stop at the stop sign. Yield to pedestrians. That’s still central issue and central problem here. We’re going to keep upping enforcement levels with Vision Zero. Vision Zero has been working consistently over five years … that’s going to be a lot more enforcement and more street redesign. … [But] yes, you are right and we will be doing it, but I want to remind everyone: it’s first and foremost about cars and trucks and slowing down.

Lehrer then interjected about a much-publicized Albany bill that would allow cops to write tickets to so-called distracted pedestrians who are crossing while “using any portable electronic device.”

Lehrer: Are you for that?

De Blasio: I haven’t seen it, Brian. It sounds a little Draconian to me on first blush. The education and awareness approach makes sense. There are situations where we’ve got to find ways to get across to people that this is actually dangerous to them. I mean, I’ve seen in the days when I was driving, I remember vividly in Midtown one day, coming up to a crosswalk I had the green light and doing everything the normal way and there was a pedestrian literally not paying any attention to anything, so lost in their screen and walked out against the “Don’t walk” sign right in front of my car and I saw it coming so I was able to stop. But there is something about screens that hypnotize us and it’s dangerous — and especially if someone is driving and we have to crack down on that even more. But I’m not sure that particular law is the way to do it.

Let’s consider a few things:

  1. John from Harlem opened by asking the mayor to consider “the other side of” the Vision Zero equation — as if there is another “side” to the notion that car and truck drivers, who killed 202 people last year, are equally endangered by cyclists and pedestrians. John then went on to say that pedestrians should “behave better.” Rather than dismiss that out of hand, the mayor began by saying, “You’re right” and then laughing.
  2. To his credit, eventually de Blasio got around to returning the central focus onto drivers. And he did come out against an insane bill that would criminalize pedestrian behavior. Though advocates weren’t convinced that he had come out strongly enough: “He should come out more forcefully against this bill, which won’t do anything for pedestrian safety but will open the door to arbitrary fines and harassment,” Ben Fried of TransitCenter told Streetsblog. “We know from discriminatory patterns of jaywalking enforcement that people of color would be singled out disproportionately. It’s a terrible idea and the mayor should reject it with complete certainty.”
  3. Also in the exchange with Lehrer, he reverted to the politicians’ greatest crutch: the anecdotal personal experience from when he was behind the wheel and was himself frustrated by a pedestrian. As Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives told Streetsblog, “Of course, the mayor should not be giving oxygen to the notion that there is any semblance of parity in responsibility between pedestrians and drivers. That’s probably the most disturbing part here. Sadly, this is about the best we’ve come to expect. And sadly the mayor’s windshield perspective continues to show with this failure to strongly address the harmful notion that vulnerable road users bear anywhere near the responsibility that car and truck drivers hold.”
  4. Finally, the mayor issued an edict about cellphone use while driving — “we have to crack down on that even more” — that his own NYPD is increasingly unconcerned about.

The NYPD’s own statistics show that officers have issued 20 percent fewer tickets to drivers using their cellphones over the first four months of 2019 than they did over the same period last year. The numbers? From January to April, 2018, police and transportation bureau officers wrote 18,629 tickets for cellphone use. Over the same period this year, the officers have written 14,880.

Do a little bit more math: Those 14,880 tickets amount to just 124 per day in a city with millions of drivers who are on their cellphones frequently (and, in the case of city cab drivers, permanently). One hundred and twenty-four tickets per day is paltry.

And here’s a reminder: According to NYPD stats, total road fatalities are up 31.7 percent so far this year versus the same period last year. Some members of the street safety community quickly pilloried the mayor online. “I can’t stand this guy,” tweeted Ben Kabak, who recently analyzed de Blasio’s mixed record on transportation for Curbed.

Overall, activists were not as alarmed as some listeners about the mayor’s comments.

“Of course, there are some troubling elements, but in the middle section he does an OK job focusing on cars and drivers as the actual problem,” said Conner. “Obviously even education resources should almost exclusively focus driver education. But if there is going to be any focus on pedestrians, and bicyclists for that matter, then education is the way to go as opposed to fines or other penalties.”

Jon Orcutt, a former DOT official who is now a spokesman for Bike New York agreed that de Blasio did OK in Friday’s exchange with John from Harlem.

“For a guy who is not a specialist in this stuff, and for someone who’s been off base a lot on city transportation, this isn’t bad,” Orcutt said. “Despite entertaining the idea that education will have an impact and the false ‘distracted pedestrian’ narrative, the mayor did settle down to identify the main problem as cars, say the city would do more enforcement toward cars and identified speed cams as the key in that area, basically oppose legislating against ‘distracted pedestrians.'”

Orcutt did add that he was alarmed by the drop in cellphone summonses.

“The mayor’s comments weren’t terrible … but the much bigger issue is the chasm between city policy statements and what the police department actually does on traffic enforcement and its own officers blocking bike and bus lanes and sidewalks,” Orcutt said.

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