Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” initiative takes pedestrians’ side in the eternal blame war with drivers.
NEW YORK—The street was so dangerous, Marjorie McGinn needs acupuncture on her neck.
McGinn has been the school crossing guard at the Manhattan intersection of Houston St. and 6th Ave. for a year and a half. She has not been hit by a car. The persistent ache is from jerking her head to the left over and over.
The walk signal would flash. McGinn would begin to help pedestrians cross. After just six or seven seconds, drivers turning right would get a green light. A wave of cars and trucks, three lanes worth, would come frighteningly close to the pedestrians’ backs. McGinn would have to snap around to protect them.
A local woman on a kick scooter was killed by a truck making the turn in 2012.
“It was just like the Wild West down here,” McGinn says. “Out of control.”
It is better now. Houston and 6th was one of 50 intersections redesigned last year under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sweeping “Vision Zero” campaign to eliminate traffic deaths.
The sidewalks have been widened to shorten crossing distances. New lights and medians have been added. Only two lanes of cars get to turn right; the third lane has been blocked off with posts. And drivers in the turn lanes are now forced to sit and wait for at least 23 seconds of pedestrian crossing time before they are given the green.
On the campaign trail and in office, Toronto Mayor John Tory has emphasized the importance of speedy car commutes. De Blasio is pouring tens of millions into dozens of initiatives intended to make streets safer for pedestrians — whether or not they inconvenience drivers.
Speed cameras have been installed, the speed limit slashed. De Blasio has made it a criminal misdemeanour to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. And he has taken sides in the eternal blame war. An aggressive city ad campaign holds drivers responsible for pedestrian deaths.
The goal is zero traffic fatalities by 2024. That seems wildly implausible in a harried big city. But the campaign may be saving lives already. While one year does not make a trend, New York had its fewest pedestrian deaths in 2014 — 132 — of any year since 1910, down from 180 in 2013, a record high.
AWARNING TO DRIVERS
New York’s graphic Vision Zero ads — on television, radio, YouTube, bus shelters and billboards — don’t settle for a broad safety warning to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Instead, they single out drivers in a blunt tone unthinkable from Toronto’s government.
One typical ad on bus shelters shows a woman’s bloody arm on the pavement. The text: “She waited for the signal. The driver didn’t.”
LOWER SPEED LIMITS
Toronto politicians have just lowered speed limits on residential streets in East York and the old city of Toronto to 30 km/h. The decision is controversial. New York has gone much further, lowering the default speed limit across the city from 30 mph (about 48 km/h) to 25 mph (about 40 km/h) and stepping up police enforcement. To help, the city has installed more than 100 speed cameras.
The bus drivers’ union has pushed back hard against the law making it a crime to strike someone with the right of way. New York’s state senate recently voted to exempt not only bus drivers but taxi drivers.
Other Vision Zero changes have generated little resistance. “A lot of people assume that we’re going to be opposed just because it may seem like it’s anti-car. But we’re not going to come out swinging against measures that are designed to improve safety,” says Alec Slatky, legislative analyst for AAA Northeast.
The relatives of pedestrians killed and injured by cars have formed their own advocacy group, Families for Safe Streets. Dana Lerner, whose 9-year-old son, Cooper, was killed by a taxi last year, says changing intersections won’t solve the problem without a lasting change in driver attitudes.
“The street redesigns are hugely, hugely important, don’t get me wrong. But there are too many reckless drivers on the road, and it’s a driver-centric culture,” she says. “It’s an epidemic. People are getting killed every 35 hours. Nobody knows that, nobody understands.”
TORONTO AND BEYOND
Vision Zero was first introduced in Sweden in 1997. Traffic deaths there have been cut in half. Versions of Vision Zero have since been launched in Norway — where the results have been less impressive — and U.S. cities including San Francisco and Portland.
At the request of Toronto Councillor Jaye Robinson, the Tory-appointed chair of the public works committee, council has asked the civil service to study Vision Zero and report back this year on a plan to improve road safety, “particularly for pedestrians and cyclists.”
“We want to look at what other jurisdictions have done and steal the best decisions and options for Toronto,” Robinson says.