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De Blasio: Vision Zero Will Have to be Finished by the Next Mayor

Vision Zero ain’t done. File photo: Julianne Cuba

Will the city's Vision Zero get any clearer next year?

Mayor de Blasio said on Tuesday that the next mayor — who takes office on Jan. 1, 2022 — will have to build on the strong foundation, but incomplete success, of Vision Zero that he and departing Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg built almost on the day he took office on Jan. 1, 2014.

It's unclear how deeply the current crop of candidates for the June, 2021 primary accept the challenge. So far in the campaign, very little has been said about the singular public health crisis that started long before, and will continue long after, the COVID-19 pandemic.

De Blasio said it is essential that the next mayor keep continue and expand on the program, which he claimed has been a success, even as more than 230 people are going to be killed on the roads this year.

When Vision Zero was announced in 2014, the goal was to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024. Oslo did it. Helsinki did it. Zero road fatalities last year. Yet in New York City, overall deaths have dropped from about 250 a year when de Blasio took office to about 220 so far this year, coming off a year when fatalities rose for the first time under Vision Zero. So Streetsblog asked the mayor on Thursday a simple question: why are so many people still dying on the roads of New York City?

"We definitely have more work to do," the mayor started. "Over the seven years, we had some moments of extraordinary success and we've had some setbacks, too. But the basic concept works. And it will continue to work and deepen. I hope that the success of Vision Zero will be amplified while I'm still mayor, but by the next mayor as well, because every single street redesign helps, all the enforcement helps, all the speed cameras work — we just gotta keep doing it! And it does change behavior. ... I am certain this is the model that will protect people in the future."

But what happens to the model if one mayor's fashion goes out of style? We asked all the leading candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination to answer a simple question: "Vision Zero: Will you expand it, rebrand it or defang it?"

Seven candidates responded — an indication that maybe Vision Zero will, indeed, live on:

Maya Wiley (statement)

New Yorkers should not be dying on our streets — period. Vision Zero can't just be a slogan, it needs to be a policy that we actually strive towards and that starts with acknowledging that New York City is a pedestrian city first and foremost. It also means that we need to put policies and plans in place, like more protected bike lanes, find more ways to calm traffic, make open-streets permanent and work to get more cars off the roads so that New Yorkers don't have to be worried when they step foot out of their homes.

Kathryn Garcia (statement)

As Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn led a comprehensive reform of the private carting industry that will slash truck travel by half and create safer streets for both industry workers and the public. Vision Zero was designed in a pre-COVID world, before the pandemic broke the stalemate on use of the streetscape for community uses. Kathryn believes this is a moment to go bolder, and envision a new streetscape that prioritizes safety, cleanliness, and community over private cars. This includes:

    • Creating Complete Streets in all five boroughs that prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders. Our streets and sidewalks today are a losing battle between competing uses, and we must ensure that our public spaces serve the public first. It’s time we take back space used to store private cars for bike parking, trash collection, seating, and community use.
    • Creating permanent Open Streets that prioritize pedestrians and public use over cars, while preserving access for emergency services and deliveries.
    • Regulating delivery companies like Amazon to reduce congestion, improve safety and protect workers and pedestrians—given the outsize role trucks play in traffic accidents and pedestrian fatalities.
    • Expanding the protected bike lane network by 250 miles, and better maintaining the bike lanes we already have. We will better integrate CitiBike into the existing transit network, and subsidize expansion into communities that have been underserved by the existing program.

Scott Stringer (statement)

I want to expand on Vision Zero. Reducing traffic deaths and injuries in this city will be a top priority of my mayoralty. To get there, we’ll need to fundamentally redesign streets around our city. That includes widening sidewalks; more slow streets, play streets, and Barcelona-style superblocks; better designed, fully-protected bike lanes; daylighting street corners to improve sightlines; improved enforcement of traffic laws with a huge expansion of speeding, red-light, bus lane, and bike lane cameras; better street cleaning and maintenance so that our sidewalks and bike lanes are clear and safe; and a whole lot more. Mode share will be a guiding metric on these issues. My goal will be to maximize bike and public transit ridership and minimize car ridership. When you make investments and design streets for pedestrians, bicycles, strollers, wheelchairs, and public transit first, you get a more vibrant, healthier, more sustainable, and safer city. The best way to get to zero deaths and injuries in New York City is to do everything in our power to reduce our reliance on cars and build a city for people.

Carlos Menchaca (via text)

I would expand Vision Zero. No life should be lost on our streets. That was the promise of Vision Zero and we failed as a city. Other cities around the world have been able to achieve vision zero and so can we. By removing the hesitation of this last administration to solve problems in the name of safety, communities can begin to work side by side with designers to implement solutions. We need to dramatically increase the capital budget for safer streets and focus on building a first phase of a city-wide bike network. Defunding the NYPD means removing armed police from traffic enforcement. We either value the lives of our New Yorkers or we don’t. Let’s value the lives of our neighbors. Vision Zero is a. promise we didn't keep as a city. I will not hesitate to save lives.

Loree Sutton (statement)

The Vision Zero approach has achieved success in reducing traffic and pedestrian fatalities by recognizing the intersection of design and engineering with law enforcement and legislation, and that multiple agencies and entities have roles and responsibilities in keeping our streets safe. This multi-discipline, multi-agency approach aligns with my larger public safety plan to reimagine and rebuild our police department for modern, 21st-century policing. I view traffic and street safety as a component of public safety, and therefore would incorporate Vision Zero into the Public Safety Coordination Council I would establish as mayor.

The Public Safety Coordination Council would be comprised of representatives from the NYPD, FDNY, Department of Sanitation, Department of Parks, Department of Corrections, Department of Transportation and the Board of Education. With the Mayor’s Office serving as the integrator of these agencies, the Public Safety Coordination Council would be a mechanism for extending the COMCAST function, originally developed by the police department, to all of the relevant agencies for public safety. This would provide us with a holistic perspective on emerging patterns, areas for which resources are in excess and areas to which resources need to be diverted. We would work as one city to address public safety, instead of having eight separate agencies looking very busy but not being very effective.

Under this plan, the 311 function would not be simply a receptacle for complaints, but for complements and ideas for improvements and innovation. The Public Safety Coordination Council would hold regular town halls and public meetings, where it would not only hear and address citizen complaints, but also have a forum for evaluating complements and ideas to do better and improve.

Law enforcement is only one element of public safety, and traffic and street safety is one element of public safety. When it comes to our streets, certainly the departments of sanitation and transportation, the Board of Education, have obvious roles—which is why we would bring the “big eight” agencies into the Public Safety Coordination Council. It is imperative we take a systems approach that evaluates all the competing demands for our public spaces, all of the transit and transportation options—from bicycles and scooters to buses and subways—to develop street safety solutions that work for everyone.

The Public Safety Coordination Council would also help us rebuild trust between the police and the public. Rebuilding trust is a challenge and an imperative that cannot be borne solely by the police or even the mayor. This new Council would really be the next-step innovation toward greater transparency, accountability and effectiveness.

Shaun Donovan (statement)

As a parent, public servant and architect, I refuse to accept New Yorkers dying in the crosswalk as an unavoidable part of city living. The biggest contributors to unsafe streets are illegal speeding and unsafe drivers - and that’s where I will prioritize my efforts as mayor.

Vision Zero only scratches the surface of what is needed — a comprehensive plan with a series of policy changes that brings stakeholders to the table and is laser-focused on all New Yorkers' safety and security and an overhaul of the program is critical.

Shaun Donovan is committed to lead the effort to reimagine the city's streetscape, reduce the city’s reliance on cars, expand bus and bike lanes, and end traffic violence. We need to put people, not cars, at the center of all transportation conversations and projects. A Donovan administration will work to get reckless, unsafe drivers off our streets and reduce illegal speeding by cars and trucks. With more strategic and consistent enforcement, and improved street design, we can make streets safer and stop traffic violence in New York City.

Zach Iscol (statement)

This is personal to me. I’ve been hit by car doors on my bike. Also my cousin, who is like an older brother to me, was hit by a city truck on his bicycle in 2010 and spent months in a coma.

Vision Zero needs to be more than a marketing campaign, we need to invest in actually changing the composition of roads and streets. To eliminate traffic deaths and injuries, we have to re-examine our fundamental relationship with our streets. Our roads, avenues and plazas are the soul of our city; they're the fundamental fabric that connects all of us together. Unfortunately, too many of our streets remain highways in everything but name, and although the most negative impacts are injuries and deaths, the pervasive effects are omnipresent. We must fundamentally tackle runaway car culture to achieve the spirit of Vision Zero.

I would rebrand the program and work to cut through the bureaucracy the current administration and DOT seem to hide behind. DOT, backed by this administration, has had a canned response for everything — from budgetary restrictions to engineering qualms. The city has 1,000,001 excuses to not do something. I challenge the notion that the government has to be slow to move. It rests on the executive to implement and execute projects and to hold the government accountable.

We have the data to prioritize which streets and intersections need to be immediately made safer. If those places aren’t safer within six months of me taking the job, people will lose theirs.

We have brilliant and capable engineers in the city, and have spent exorbitant amounts on contracts as it is. I will ensure that we start out by building out safe street infrastructure, including protected bike lanes in as many of the as-of-yet unprotected lanes as possible, and install other pedestrian-friendly measures. This will mean scrutinizing the figures to get more from each and every project, as well as working with my colleagues at the State and Federal levels to ensure we have the necessary resources and are planning comprehensive improvements as opposed to a piecemeal approach with competing interests.

Vision Zero has missed the mark, and by a long shot. If we are being completely honest, Vision Zero has epitomized the phrase "all talk and no action." It is quite literally a marketing campaign. Slick commercials and billboards will not fundamentally alter the fact that our city's roads are designed to support speeding cars while disenctivizing mass transit, cyclists and those who merely want to meander. We've largely avoided the hard work of roadway redesigns because it requires a reprioritization of public space away from drivers, who are a powerful constituency. But these are conversations that we must have.

To reference one statistic from DOT cited in the Daily News: "as of Nov. 12, 83 pedestrians, 21 cyclists, 45 motorcyclists, and 59 vehicle occupants have died on our streets." According to DOT, this is the highest total number of traffic deaths through that date since 2014. This is a sad truth but it's not all too surprising; every advocate and traffic engineer understands that traffic calming measures and roadway diets are the only means of lasting change.

I would work with groups like the Regional Planning Association, Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets to design and implement a citywide traffic calming strategy that combats runaway car culture for good. When you lay out a policy aim as significant as this — to eliminate road deaths by 2024 — it is clear the steps taken have been insufficient. I will also do something other politicians aren’t willing to do, I will set goals to meet before my reelection, not after I have left office.

All told, nearly 1,000 pedestrians, cyclists, e-bike and scooter riders have died since the mayor took office in 2014. These deaths are the most tragic indicators of a systemic failure that touches everyone. The administration has punted on the visionary Streets Master Plan until the mid-2020s, but we need action immediately.

The death of Assistant District Attorney Sarah Pitts, who worked for Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, was eye-opening for me. Advocates were justifiably outraged in the weeks following her death — just outside where she was killed by a charter bus operator — school buses and other vehicles continued to drive through and sit in the bike lane outside of where her ghost bike memorial rests. The fact that no action has been taken while DOT "reviews" this is appalling. Sarah's life couldn't afford a delay and neither can the hundreds of others that will die on our streets over the next few years. The time to act is now.

Making the streets safer for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers through smart and common sense measures such as protected bike lane infrastructure, bike boulevards, busways, re-evaluating the uses of our bridges and multimodal transportation in the city, while considering the impacts of our actions on climate change — these are attainable.

After initial publication of this story, we received the following statement from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams:

Eric Adams (statement):

There is no question that we need to expand on Vision Zero. We have made critical strides since its inception, including lowering the speed limit, instituting speed cameras in school zones, and expanding our bike network. We also know that these strides are not enough, and that frankly progress has been particularly stifled in communities of color where rates of fatality and injury are truly alarming, and we must empower local voices to make the case for these life-saving infrastructure interventions. We are a city of pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, drivers, and mass transit riders, and the use of our streets must reflect that multitude of uses safely while encouraging forms of movement that reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

City Hall can and must lead in this effort by strategically cutting the City fleet, especially in transit-dense Manhattan, and instituting municipal car share. It's time for a real bus rapid transit network in all five boroughs, utilizing electric buses along corridors like Brooklyn's Third Avenue and Linden Boulevard, coupled with traffic-calming measures that make the roadway safer for all users of the road. We need to expand Citi Bike well beyond our more affluent communities, because every New Yorker deserves access to safe bike share, and i would commit City funding to make this a reality. Cyclists need more protected cycling infrastructure like what we've spearheaded along Classon Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, Navy Street, and 9th Street; that includes a fully built-out Brooklyn Greenway, bridge connections like the Verrazzano-Narrows, and even converting road space under highways and railways into bicycle superhighways. We need to promote electric bikes and scooters — which I've long supported — the expansion of secure bike parking, as well as initiatives that encourage a shift in how we move around this city, like major bike-to-school programs and a safe cycling routes-to-parks program that connects families to destination parks that may be further than walking distance.

These are some, but certainly not all, of what we should be doing to get closer to a true Vision Zero.

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