THE APPLE BITES BACK
Boosting traffic safety and sustainable transport with Vision Zero in New York City, by Michael Replogle and Julia Kite
New Yorkers’ obsession with boosting their city is legendary, with “only in New York” said by locals more often as a badge of honor than a frustrated complaint. When it comes to street safety, however, we have actually earned the boast: since 2013, New York City has experienced a 27 per cent decline in traffic fatalities, led by a 44 per cent decline in pedestrian fatalities, all while traffic fatalities have risen over 15 per cent across the United States as a whole. These figures are the product of strong mayoral leadership, inter-agency cooperation, data-driven policy, targeted investment and efforts to bring about cultural change.
Bill de Blasio made street safety a cornerstone of his first Mayoral campaign in 2013, spurred by activist families who had lost loved ones in traffic crashes and who cited the approaches being adopted in similar crash-prone cities around the world. Soon after the Mayor’s inauguration in 2014, New York City formally adopted Vision Zero, recognizing that traffic crashes that cause serious injury and death are not inevitable “accidents,” but rather preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed and reduced.
New York has unique status among large United States cities, as fewer than half of households here own a motor vehicle. More than two-thirds of all New York City trips are by walking, cycling and public transport. High pedestrian volumes lead to high exposure to motor vehicles and the doubling of cycling in the last decade has presented new challenges and opportunities for street engineering. New York City was a natural fit for an initiative that emphasized the safety of vulnerable road users and confronted assumptions about the primacy of drivers on city streets.
To ensure the plans for Vision Zero were comprehensive as well as equitable, Mayor de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg insisted on a data-driven community engagement plan to create Pedestrian Safety Action Plans designating priority areas, corridors and intersections based on pedestrians killed or seriously injured. Local communities were engaged through workshops and online portals through which residents could provide input on places in their neighborhoods that felt unsafe. This humanized an initiative that could otherwise seem very top-down and explained, in layperson’s terms, the often-opaque processes behind traffic engineering.
HEART OF THE MATTER
The first wave of street engineering interventions under Vision Zero focused on these priority areas. They became the proving grounds for signal re-timings aligned with a newly enacted 25 mph (40 kph) city-wide speed limit, the installation of leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs) that give people walking across the street a head start before turning vehicles and the creation of street geometry changes like curb extensions. Thanks to these interventions, pedestrian deaths and serious injuries declined 30 per cent at priority locations. In addition, four major arterial roads in the outer boroughs were designated “Vision Zero Great Streets” and were intensively redesigned. One of the four, Queens Boulevard, for years was known as “the Boulevard of Death,” with 18 pedestrians killed there in 1997 alone. Since reconstruction began three years ago, no pedestrians have been killed on Queens Boulevard and this once-forbidding artery now hosts a well-used bicycle lane.
A combination of citywide policies and targeted interventions where they are needed most have made Vision Zero relevant to all New Yorkers. Soon after the city-wide default speed limit was lowered, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) dramatically increased enforcement of traffic laws. The City Department of Transportation (DOT) gained authorization from the State government to use automated speed enforcement cameras in 140 school zones during limited times tied to school opening and closing hours. Today, about two-thirds of all traffic summonses are for “Vision Zero offenses” most likely to injure or kill – speeding, failure to yield the right of way to pedestrians, failure to stop at a signal, improperly turning, using a mobile phone (including texting while driving) and disobeying signs. The City has been seeking greater local authority for speed camera use. Approximately 85 per cent of serious crashes happen at times and places where State law now prohibits camera use. Where cameras do operate, speeding summonses have fallen over 60 per cent.
LOOK AND LEARN
Marketing and education have also been key. Hard-hitting public advertising campaigns remind drivers that their choices matter, greeting locals and visitors alike on TV screens, in the backseats of taxis, on the rear panels of city buses and on billboards throughout the five boroughs. A new pedestrian safety curriculum was adopted by New York City public schools while traffic safety educators conduct training programs at more than 600 schools a year, as well as dozens of senior citizen centers.
From the start, New York City’s approach integrated the work of numerous individual government agencies working together. The Vision Zero Task Force consists of representatives from the City’s DOT, NYPD, taxi and limousine commission and departments dealing with administrative and fleet services, health, law, and management and budget. In addition, representatives from the District Attorneys, the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and other agencies attend Task Force meetings to help cut traffic fatalities. Agencies have worked together to follow data and formulate responses to new challenges.
New York City has committed US$1.6 billion through 2021 to Vision Zero initiatives. In 2018, the City DOT installed nearly 25 miles (40 km) of protected bicycle lanes, implemented left-turn traffic calming interventions at 110 intersections, activated 832 leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs) and completed 114 distinct safety improvement projects.
Achieving Vision Zero is also seen as a key way to advance the City’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals – this will require increasing the share of trips by walking, cycling, public transport, and shared modes, improving traffic management and decarbonizing vehicle mobility through electrification.
In year five of NYC’s Vision Zero initiative, new challenges are emerging. Despite tremendous progress in reducing pedestrian deaths, the number of older pedestrians suffering serious or fatal injuries remains stubbornly high. New interventions will do more to protect senior citizens. The City is collecting and analyzing data regarding pedestrians walking on limited-access highways to understand how they end up in these dangerous situations. Education and outreach teams are formulating new programs to dissuade drivers under age 25 from operating recklessly and looking for better ways to identify and reduce aggressive driving.
The development of highly automated vehicles (HAVs) presents both a challenge and an opportunity to advance Vision Zero. National legislation could require HAVs to be designed and programmed to comply with traffic laws, except where necessary for safe and effective operation, and could require that HAVs demonstrate capacity to reliably recognize and safely interact with cyclists and pedestrians. But pending federal legislation could bar state or local regulation of HAV performance and undermine safety.
A fusion of leadership, policy and investment have ensured that New York City will not only continue to buck the national trend, but that improvements here will persist for many years and contribute to a long-term culture of safe streets. While New Yorkers fiercely defend their city, they are certainly not insular with regard to policy. New York City has always welcomed the world. Having built a strong foundation for safer streets, the City’s next challenge is to sustain momentum by learning more from global peers, exchanging best practices, and managing emerging technologies so they support continued progress for traffic safety and sustainable mobility.
Michael Replogle is Deputy Commissioner for Policy, New York City Department of Transportation.
Julia Kite is Director of Strategic Initiatives, New York City Department of Transportation.