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Vision Zero

WHAT NEXT?: Four Things Mayor Adams Must Do to Save Vision Zero

"Zero" remains a long way off. Streetsblog asked the experts what New York City and Mayor Adams must do to get there.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

New York City’s Vision Zero program is, by some measures, a major success: Traffic fatalities dropped since Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his plan to reshape city transportation policy around reducing and even eliminating traffic deaths 10 years ago today, on Feb. 15, 2014.

Traffic fatalities declined 16 percent during Vision Zero than in the decade before it, Transportation Alternatives recently reported. Pedestrian fatalities in particular have reached historic lows — 100 last year, according to the group — countering national trends of rising pedestrian deaths.

But “zero” remains a long way off. Overall last year, there were 259 traffic deaths in New York City — including 29 cyclists, the most in over two decades.

Vision Zero isn’t a metric that a city either does or does not achieve; it’s a mentality — and an approach to transportation that policymakers and elected officials can’t lose sight of despite the setbacks.

SIDEBAR: What Does De Blasio Think? The Streetsblog Interview

Over the last month, Streetsblog spoke to national experts about what next steps New York City and Mayor Adams should pursue to recommit to both the "vision" and the "zero" parts of Vision Zero. Here’s what we learned:

1. Reduce car use

As Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff has documented, New York City residents owned 12 percent more cars in 2021 than they did a decade earlier. The city’s surrounding suburbs also saw a “car baby boom,” though at a slightly lower rate of 7.5 percent. Drivers use those cars at a higher rate as well — the pandemic wrought record-high traffic levels on MTA and Port Authority bridges and tunnels. And New Yorkers aren’t immune to Americans’ overall gravitation to larger vehicles, which further compound the safety challenges.

“We're seeing vehicle usage go up across the country,” Leah Shahum of the national Vision Zero Network told Streetsblog. “Reducing vehicle miles traveled, reducing dependence on private autos for so many trips, has to be a part of the equation.”

Congestion pricing may get the ball rolling when it launches in June. MTA planners expect the toll on car trips entering Manhattan below 60th Street to cut vehicle miles traveled by 17 percent in the Central Business District and 9 percent regionally. But forecasts could be understated, as they were when London enacted its own CBD tolls in 2003.

More cars on the road means more traffic-related death and injury, but New York leaders have doubled down on car-first policymaking by advancing roadway expansion projects across the region and state.

“There is this correlation with basically the amount of vehicle use and the amount of severe injuries and fatalities that occur,” explained former top city Department of Transportation official Ryan Russo. “For an advocate from Transportation Alternatives, reducing vehicles is totally connected with this better outcome of less people dying and being injured. I think that that has been a leap that, even in the politicians that believe in Vision Zero, hasn't been made.”

The top level goal of increasing safety has in some ways distracted policymakers from the role auto use plays in undermining that safety, Russo said.

“The city will be safer if it’s less reliant on cars, but people are still talking about this higher level thing of just like — reducing speeding, getting people to stop at red lights, reducing the general speed of traffic and traffic calming,” he told Streetsblog.

"All of those things are the first level that people think about with safety ... but I don't think there's larger buy-in to this idea that to make the city safe, we have to have less cars and less driving,” he added

To get there, Russo believes advocates must sell a positive vision of what a city looks like with fewer cars.

Officials did just that in Oslo. Norway launched its own Vision Zero program decades before New York City, but Oslo, a city of 712,000 people, actually hit zero in 2019 — after officials banned parking within the city’s inner ring road and implemented car-free streets, Terje Elvaas wrote in Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2020.

“The foundation for reaching Vision Zero is to significantly reduce the number of cars on the road,” Elvaas wrote. “Oslo officials have removed more than a thousand street-side central parking spots, encouraging people to lean on an affordable and flexible public transport network, and added more bike lanes and footpaths.”

According to Elvaas, officials pushed through the usual opposition from drivers and other skeptics by demonstrating the benefits of fewer cars for city life in general.

“The city center is now a thriving area and all the top-brand shops want to establish themselves on the car-free streets,” Oslo Department of Mobility Director Rune Gjøs told Elvaas.

“This shows that consumers find these streets attractive, and they’re leaving as much money behind as if they were coming by car.”

To further cut back on car usage, the city needs to add more metered parking to create turnover on commercial streets and "reduce road capacity," according to Jon Orcutt, who helped craft New York's Vision Zero plan as an official in de Blasio's DOT.

"As you reduce the ability to drive or reduce capacity, increase capacity on the stuff you want like cycling, transit," Orcutt said. Simply investing in transit isn't enough if policies persist to encourage car usage.

"If you want to go to a goal, you can't just say the goal and then keep doing crap," Orcutt said.

2. It’s the daylighting, stupid

Across the Hudson River, the little city of Hoboken hasn’t had a traffic fatality in seven years. The city of about 60,000 achieved Vision Zero with a focus on daylighting — a street design practice that prohibits parking in the immediate radius around intersections and crosswalks.

Hoboken already banned parking next to intersections, but Mayor Ravi Bhalla went a step further by installing bollards at intersections to make it impossible. The city also installed crosswalk signals and curb extensions to calm traffic at intersections.

“Not only is it not permissible to park there, but it also eliminates the sightlines of pedestrians who are trying to cross the road,” Bhalla explained. “We have received a lot of pushback when we [installed] delineators, bollards, rain gardens, curb extensions — all these forms of daylighting we run into resistance with, but at the end of the day this is all about political will.”

“If a bollard costs $40 to put in, but it can save a human life. Is it worth it? I think it is,” he said. “The fact that we haven't seen any traffic fatalities is proof that what we're doing is working.”

New York City, in contrast, allows parking around most intersections because it is allowed to exempt itself from state law requiring daylighting. The city DOT has upped its commitment daylight — promising to remove parking at 1,000 intersection in 2024 — Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez has also called the practice “not the right solution everywhere.” His agency insists daylighting without physical barriers like Hoboken’s bollards encourages drivers to make dangerous turns.

Advocates have responded with a major push for the practice. Community boards in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan all called for daylighting in the last year after a driver killed 7-year-old Dolma Naadhun in an intersection where drivers had parked up to crosswalk. The movement picked up steam this fall after 7-year-old Kamari Hughes was fatally struck in Brooklyn. Last month, seven Brooklyn elected officials called on DOT to cease its practice of ignoring the state law that requires daylighting.

"In a city where the Vision Zero initiative is in place, we should be leading the way forward to safer streets for every community, not continuing to exempt ourselves from common sense state legislation and ignoring dangerous intersections,” the politicians said in a letter to Rodriguez.

3. Get the worst drivers off the road

New York City’s 25 mph speed limit and speed cameras — both implemented and expanded under de Blasio — have proven to make streets safer by reducing overall speeding; 80 percent of speedsters caught on camera don’t commit a second offense. But many thousands of drivers pick up dozens of violations and treat their $50 fines as merely an additional driving expense — continuing to break the law with relative impunity. No legal mechanism exists to hold those recidivist violators to account.

Notably, those automated tickets also don't count against their driving record.

Such drivers are more likely to cause serious injury and death to themselves and others, according to DOT: Motorists with at least five red light camera or speed camera tickets are nearly twice as likely to crash and injure someone. For motorists with at least 10 such violations, that factor jumps to three.

Recent tragedies highlighted the scourge of reckless drivers on New York City streets. On Jan. 10, a hit-and-run driver killed one person and injured three others after receiving 11 speed tickets in six weeks leading up the crash. The following week, a driver with the vile, state-approved vanity plate NDRTAKER killed a 52-year-old in Dyker Heights. The plate had been caught on speed cameras 27 times since 2018.

“Motorists can cause a lot of harm and feel very little penalty,” de Blasio told Streetsblog in a recent interview. “In terms of the reckless drivers who think they can speed incessantly and keep their car or keep their license, I just think the culture right now is that you can get away with it.” (In the interview, he called on the state to take more action.)

In 2020, city leaders attempted to start to chisel away at that problem with the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program. The program allowed DOT to require vehicle owners with a certain number of camera tickets to take a driver safety course or have their cars booted.

De Blasio’s administration reduced the proposal from five tickets in a 12-month period to 15 speeding tickets or five red-light violations. In the end, the city seized just 12 vehicles. Only 885 people took the safety course — even as the city mailed notices to 1,605. The City Council killed the DVAP last year after the DOT declared it a failure.

Proposals to add penalties for vehicle owners with significant numbers of camera tickets failed to gain muster in Albany in recent years. Legislation in 2022 that renewed and expanded the speed camera program excluded proposals to suspended registrations on vehicles with a certain amount of tickets and force the DMV to inform insurance companies about repeated recklessness.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) proposed last year to install speed-limiting devices on cars with at least six speeding tickets in a single year. It's unclear whether the proposal has legs.

"I think a lot of politicians just hate that stuff because they're afraid it's going to catch them," Orcutt said. "There's plenty of documented cases of that happening."

4. Get beyond 'community' opposition

Mayor Adams prides himself on community engagement around transportation projects that he deems controversial — and it’s shown in his administration’s lackluster output.

"My legacy I want to be left with is that this was a mayor that heard us on the ground, and communicated with us on the ground, and respected us enough to hear our input, and we can reach both goals at the same time," Adams told DOT employees last year.

In practice, that’s meant a total retreat from the livesaving redesigns that are Vision Zero’s hallmark. Adams administration officials watered down several projects in 2023 on McGuiness Boulevard, Ashland Place and Underhill Avenue. DOT proposed 86 percent fewer bike lane projects in 2023 than it did in 2022. The agency hasn’t put forward a single such project so far this year at all.

De Blasio, in contrast, sees street redesigns as a hallmark of his Vision Zero policy. In interviews with both WNYC and Streetsblog, the former mayor prided himself on his ability to listen to communities while not letting opposition get in the way of progress.

“In the end, democracy certainly involves consultation. I think it's very healthy. There were traffic redesigns and bike lanes that community members objected to and offered real feedback — real, honest, and helpful feedback that led to alterations. That's good, that's healthy,” de Blasio said earlier this month. “But in the end, the executive branch has to guarantee the safety of New Yorkers… You listen, you think about it, you weigh it, and then you still have to move forward.”

Orcutt has a different perspective on de Blasio's tenure — while the former mayor did push through controversial projects, he often spent months in back and forth with community boards. The final phase of Queens Boulevard bike lanes — which de Blasio cites as his favorite project — delayed for several years as the city negotiated plans to build a new jail in the area.

"Strong policy doesn't work with transactional leadership. De Blasio turned out to be pretty transactional about street stuff," he said. "The current administration is even more transactional."

Advocates and DOT officials have to broaden their arguments as Vision Zero projects fan out through the five boroughs to include more than just safety, Russo argued.

“The skids aren’t being greased with the red meat for the base,” he told Streetsblog. "We've seen the limitations of ‘Vision Zero’ as the topline frame of this work. … As much as it calls for a proactive systemic approach, it still in practice has become a reactive framing. We've said the goal should be zero, but because that's the goal, we somehow don't have the will to do the aggressive thing in advance of tragedy. You're kind of one back foot when you're arguing this is just for safety, as opposed to all the other benefits."

In Paris, the city government is pushing a $2.2-billion investment in new bike lane construction. The bike lane map is centrally planned, and won't be subjected to the community-by-community input and gripe-collection process typical of New York. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has cut back on parking spots and car lines, but done "good job of combining the carrot and stick approach," according to Shahum.

The carrot is "making walking and biking much more comfortable by adding all these car-free streets and car-light streets," she said. "Even when there is heartfelt commitment to Vision Zero, which I believe there is in many places, there's still this old school 'balancing' of competing interests.

"We need to get past this idea of someone's ability to speed on a street to go as fast as they want or as fast as they used to go on this street is anywhere near equal to the right of someone to be safe on the street," Shahum concluded.

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