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Outraged Lawmakers and Advocates Urge City Action over Unsafe School Streets

Children navigate a hectic intersection near a school in the Bronx. Photo: Bess Adler

City lawmakers as well as transportation and education advocates said they were outraged over the findings of a recent Streetsblog report on dangerous school streets, and demanded the city to do more to prevent drivers from hurting children outside schools.

Calling the findings "egregious" and "unconscionable," the Council members and advocates said the city must invest more in school street safety and prioritize low-income children and children of color — groups that Streetsblog found are disproportionately threatened by traffic violence outside public schools.

"Our city has deeply failed at keeping our kids safe. And like so many other issues, we’ve failed our communities of color the most," said Brooklyn Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, who sits on the Education Committee. "As a mother, the idea that there is such a preventable danger, but the city is refusing to act, is unconscionable."

Analyzing city data on nearly one million car crashes, Streetsblog found that streets near schools are uniquely dangerous, with rates of car crashes and injuries that exceed city averages — especially during the hours when children are arriving and departing.

The story uncovered a broad racial disparity in school street safety. During the 2019 school year, for example, school-day rates of injuries from car crashes were 43 percent higher outside schools with majority students of color than outside schools with majority white students.

Queens Council Member Linda Lee, who serves on both the Education and Transportation committees, said Streetsblog's report "confirms what many parents and educators already know: drop-off and pick-up times are some the most dangerous times to be near a school, and we cannot accept a reality where our kids are put at risk just trying to get to school or get home."

The issue was personal for some of the lawmakers, who described their concerns about their own children getting to and from school unharmed.

Alexa Avilés, a Brooklyn Council member on the Education Committee, said she fought for years — with mixed results — to get the city Department of Transportation to make streets safer outside her children's Brooklyn public school.

The Sunset Park elementary school was across the street from a gas station, where waiting cars would spill out onto the sidewalk, forcing parents with small children to walk in the street.

After multiple requests from the school community, DOT installed planters on the corner, but cars repeatedly ran into them, Avilés said. DOT eventually placed large boulders on the sidewalk in front of the gas station, she said, but even those have since been pushed out of the way.

"It didn't stop the danger," Avilés said. "It was frustrating as hell."

Lawmakers and advocates called on the city to intensify street-safety initiatives outside schools.

"We as a city need to do more to keep our children safe," said Manhattan Council Member Julie Menin of the Education Committee. "The last place children should be worried about is the crosswalk to get to school."

Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera of the Transportation Committee said lawmakers "must do everything we can to keep our schools and the surrounding neighborhood safe."

Streetsblog's findings reflect the legacy of disinvestment in communities of color, said Nyah Berg, executive director of the education advocacy group New York Appleseed.

"Reporting such as this can and should incentivize investment in street safety and transit equity so that our most marginalized students have equal access to safely getting to school," Berg added.

The Council members and advocates outlined a range of steps the city could take to protect children outside schools. Gutiérrez called on state lawmakers to pass the Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act, a package of bills aimed at reducing deaths and injuries from unsafe roads and reckless driving.

Streetsblog's report also revealed that there are around 800 fewer guards working in the city now than there were a few years ago. Crossing guards interviewed by Streetsblog attributed the shortfall in part to the job's low-pay and dangerous work conditions. Two members of the Council, Joann Ariola, of Queens and Avilés, called for  funding to hire more guards.

"The city can do that, it just has no political will, it has no interest in these workers," said Avilés.

Bronx Council Member Pierina Ana Sanchez of the Education Committee called on the city to "radically shift our approach and investments in school traffic safety" by adding more speed bumps and pedestrian islands around schools to prevent reckless driving and protect vulnerable road users.

Queens Council Member Shekar Krishnan of the Education Committee called on the city to calm traffic around schools and close more school streets to car traffic, as the city has done on 34th Avenue in Krishnan's district. Streetsblog previously reported that injuries fell by 85 percent, and crashes by 78 percent, during the hours when cars are banned from that roadway.

"As a parent of two small children, I cannot say enough how urgent this issue is for New York City families," Krishnan said.

Danny Harris, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, echoed the call for the city to bar cars from school streets.

"What we know quite simply is that, when you remove cars, especially the unfettered access of cars, it eliminates the threat, and it makes the conditions safer for our most vulnerable," Harris said. "The question really is whether our leaders are going to prioritize the lives of our kids over the movement and storage of cars."

Asked about the blow back officials could face from drivers if school streets were closed citywide, Harris suggested lawmakers put such concerns in perspective.

"Every elected official needs to be more scared of the family that they will inevitably meet during their tenure who comes to them because they lost a loved one versus the ire of a few car owners upset because they lost a few parking spaces," Harris said.

DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, in comments to Streetsblog last week, did not dismiss the idea of restricting vehicular traffic on school streets during student and arrival and departure hours to keep children safe. Rodriguez said his agency must do more to prevent drivers from injuring children outside schools — the first statement on the issue from a high-ranking city official following Streetsblog's report.

“Any tool that we have to put in place to improve safety, we’re going to be using it,” he said.

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