Pandemic Was a Disaster for Vision Zero, Says Mayor’s Own Report

Statistic after statistic in a landmark document shows declines in street-safety initiatives and enforcement and rises in fatalities, as cycling and walking boomed.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Death. Rampant reckless driving. Overdue repairs. Failure to keep New Yorkers safe.

This is the story of the de Blasio administration’s oversight of New York City’s dangerous roadways from July through October of last year — when the COVID-19 pandemic put up a hard roadblock on the city’s slow-but-steady progress on traffic violence.

This is not an opinion. It’s a fact, reflected in the city’s preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which was quietly issued in January with numbers reflecting the first third of Fiscal Year 2021, or July 1 to Oct. 31, 2020.

The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Total road fatalities were up almost 40 percent (for 76 total deaths from July 1 to Oct. 31, 2019, compared to 106 in the same four months last year).
  • Pedestrian deaths were up 16 percent (from 36 the previous year to 42 last year).
  • Motorcyclist deaths were up 80 percent (from 15 the previous year to 27 last year).
  • Car driver deaths almost doubled (from seven the previous year to 13 last year).

So why did that happen?

  • The installation of speed humps virtually stopped, declining from 94 installations in the four-month period of 2019 to just five (yes, five) in the same four-month period last year.
  • The installation of speed boards stopped, declining from 64 in 2019 to zero in 2020.
  • Installations of “pavement safety markers” declined by 19 percent (from 542 miles in 2019 to 437 miles last year).
  • Installation of painted bike lanes declined by more than 40 percent (from 44.3 miles in 2019 to 26.3 miles last year).
  • Installation of protected bike lanes was down 9 percent (from 14.3 to 13 miles).
  • Installations of leading pedestrian intervals dropped 70 percent (from 229 to 69), although progress picked up in the second third of FY2021, as Streetsblog reported.
  • The number of city employees who were trained in defensive driving was cut almost in half (from 2,511 to 1,401).

The shortcomings of performance were not limited to the Department of Transportation. As Streetsblog reported, the NYPD failed to step up its role in making the roadways safe amid an epidemic of speeding and reckless driving. The numbers bear that out:

  • Total Vision Zero moving violations issued dropped by almost 65 percent (from 223,964 in the first four months of FY20 to 84,080 in the same four months of FY21).
    • Cops issued 32,177 speeding tickets from July to October, 2020 (down 32 percent in the same period in the previous year).
    • Cops issued 14,029 tickets for driving while using a cellphone (down 60 percent).
    • Cops issued 7,394 failure-to-yield tickets (down 77 percent).
    • Cops issued just 580 right-of-way law tickets to drivers who struck a pedestrian or cyclist (down from 1,007, or 42 percent).
      • Of those, cops arrested only four people (down from 12 compared to the corresponding four months a year earlier).

The Taxi and Limousine Commission writing of such violations against its drivers declined even more drastically:

  • Moving violation summonses were almost eliminated, declining from 5,252 between July and October, 2019, to just two (yes, two) in the same four months of 2020.
  • Total summonses issued to drivers dropped from 15,000 to 343, a drop of more than 97 percent.

At the same time that enforcement and street-safety redesigns were plummeting, the city was under pressure to do more work on making roadways better:

  • Total Citi Bike memberships rose 6 percent (from 73,476 in the four-month period of 2019 to 77,910 during the same period last year).
  • Total Citi Bike trips rose 1.3 percent (from 9,081,000 in 2019 to 9,199,000 last year).
  • And bike commuting and overall trips were up significantly during the period covered in the management report (although stats are not reflected there).

It’s not as though the city didn’t do anything during the COVID pandemic: The de Blasio administration did eventually set aside scores of short roadways segments as open streets, did allot tens of thousands of curbside spaces for use by restaurants, and did complete key parts of the protected bike-lane network, including on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx and on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn.

Of course, there’s no understating the role that COVID played in simply disrupting normal city operations. The report details that in dry numbers, but also by mentioning the 300 or so city employees who died from the disease.

The DOT and City Hall declined to comment for this story. In the past, the DOT has said that it did the best it could, given that the pandemic scattered its workforce (which also suffered illness and deaths).

Two agencies mentioned in the report did respond to requests for comment:

NYPD spokeswoman Jessica McRorie cited the largely peaceful anti-police brutality protests during the period in question as a main cause of the drop in enforcement numbers:

This decrease can be attributed to officers being out sick during the pandemic, as well as the increase in officers being reassigned to monitor civil unrest which was largely spread across the city. We recognize that the NYPD has a finite amount resources and the Department continually employs precision policing to traffic enforcement as a safety tool. A relevant example of this is our enforcement against speeding motorists; despite a drop in the overall summons enforcement we were able to maintain a significant enforcement level against speeding motorists, which was a national trend during this time frame.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission declined to comment, but the agency did say that all its resources during that period were directed toward COVID relief, including the TLC program using taxi drivers to deliver food. That said, according to the agency’s own data, the average number of trips per day conducted by taxi drivers during the first four months of FY2021 versus the same period a year earlier dropped by 50 percent — from 3,756,596 per day to 1,871,724 per day — even as enforcement dropped almost 100 percent.

Transportation Alternatives pushed back on the narrative being put forward by the NYPD and other agencies, using the statistics as evidence that enforcement of reckless driving should continue to shift toward even more automated enforcement. (Late last year, Mayor de Blasio did call on state lawmakers to give the city the power to operate its growing speed-camera program all day and all night, instead of just during the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays.)

“A 24/7 speed-safety-camera program will never be off-duty, and second to permanently redesigning streets, is one of the best tools we have to reduce the alarming, deadly rise in speeding and reckless driving,” said Cory Epstein, the group’s spokesperson. (A recent poll by the group showed broad support for camera enforcement, even from drivers.)

That said, declines in enforcement and road redesigns, however lamentable, were predictable when de Blasio cut Vision Zero program budgets early in the pandemic, as Streetsblog reported. In April, 2020, the administration announced $1.3 billion in emergency budget cuts, which included livable-streets initiatives such as protected bike lanes, extra garbage pickup and public-awareness campaigns to beg reckless drivers to stop killing us.

Specific cuts included:

  • Reductions in funding for Vision Zero public-awareness campaign: $3 million.
  • Reductions in funding in markings and materials used for Vision Zero street-improvement programs: $4 million.
  • Reductions in funding for protected bicycle lane (or “Green Wave”) projects: $3 million.

“Why are only pedestrians, cyclists, and public-transit users impacted by DOT’s cuts?” Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, asked at the time. “There are $24 million in cuts [in the Department of Transportation] and none inconveniences drivers. That is unacceptable.”

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