NEW YORK — Armed with some city traffic data and a small green notebook, it doesn’t take long for Bill Francis to buttonhole the earnest young city engineers with his list of street-level grievances.
Top of mind for Francis, a minister and member of his local community board in the northwest corner of the Bronx, are two new strip-malls planned for the working-class neighbourhood of Kingsbridge.
"Don’t take this as a zinger, but they’re city-approved, so I’m going assume they’re correct," said Francis, thumbing through tables of traffic counts that show congestion at already troublesome levels. "Those two malls will add unknown amounts of traffic."
Across the table, two department of transportation staffers scribble notes. Francis tells them the Bronx needs many more protected bike lanes. But he says the new curb bump-outs are working well for pedestrians, who can use the cement sidewalk extensions to see past parked cars and into busy intersections. Later, the DOT staffers will get Francis to spell the name of a popular Cuban restaurant where takeout customers frequently flip dangerous u-turns.
"On their mind is getting home with their hot food," said Francis. "They’re thinking, I’m gonna make that u-turn."
This conversation, around a table in a shabbily grand college dining room in the Bronx, is the nitty-gritty of Vision Zero, the bold plan by rookie New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to eliminate traffic deaths in a decade.
De Blasio unveiled Vision Zero four months ago, his first big policy move since his swearing-in. He stole the idea from Sweden and Paris. Last week, Toronto mayoral hopeful Olivia Chow stole it from de Blasio, proposing her own, scaled-down version of Vision Zero.
De Blasio has promised a huge menu of projects that rally police officers, city traffic engineers, cab drivers and politicians around traffic safety.
The NYPD will dramatically increase enforcement, focusing especially on speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians, and police will also have a bevy of new photo radar cameras. DOT traffic engineers will redesign 50 of the most dangerous intersections this summer, adding safety features such as new turning lanes, roundabouts, pedestrian bump-outs and even de-synchronizing lights to curb night-time speeding.
More neighbourhoods will be designated slow zones, where the speed limit will shrink from 30 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour. Already, several of New York’s most famous thoroughfares, including Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and 160 blocks of Broadway, have been declared arterial slow zones, where drivers will soon be barred from speeding faster than 40 kilometres per hour. Then there’s the soft stuff — night after night of meetings and workshops like the one in the Bronx, anti-speeding ad campaigns, and new technology being tested in cabs to make them go slower.
"The mayor has been a clarion voice from the top, promoting the message that traffic deaths are preventable and we can’t tolerate them as New Yorkers," said Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, the advocacy group that laid years of groundwork for Vision Zero. "If we make the streets safer for the most vulnerable people, they’re safer for everyone else."
Eliminating traffic deaths seems a crazy promise for a city where 250 people die every year in crashes and another 4,000 are badly hurt, where streets see crushing levels of pedestrians and car traffic and where New Yorkers can talk for hours about close calls, dead friends and dangerous intersections. During a recent visit to Budnick’s chaotic warren of an office in Chelsea, the New York Post left lying on the front bench carried two stories of two separate hit-and-runs in Brooklyn. One story included photos of the driver dangling out his side window as he sped off, unable to see out his shattered windshield.
New York has among the lowest traffic death rates in the country, and it’s been on a steady decline. But more people die in New York from traffic than from guns, and over the last decade groups such as Transportation Alternatives and the city’s health department have managed to shift the conversation, turning traffic into a public health crisis instead of simply the source of everyday driver kvetching.
It took a decade, and a couple of pivotal bits of research by the health department — one study on bike fatalities and a series of annual reports on child deaths that validated the fears of every new parent in the city, that traffic was the number one cause of child injury deaths.
"Before that report came out, I don’t think anyone would have thought of that, or guessed it," said Budnick, who sports a plastic "20 is Plenty" bracelet, referring to the British movement to reduce speed limits in urban areas. "That data has been very powerful to drive the policy conversation."
Vision Zero has also been a sly way to do progressive urban planning, the kind that gently squeezes out car culture in favour of protected bike paths, better pedestrian infrastructure and livable streets.
That, in a city famous for its complaining, should have sparked a backlash, and it still might. Most of the big changes — the shrinking speed limits, the prized parking spots lost to new curb extensions, dozens of new speed humps — won’t really come until the summer and fall. But, Budnick says New Yorkers have been remarkably supportive of Vision Zero. Even the tabloid Daily News ran a recent editorial chastising the state legislature for offering New York only a modest expansion of its photo radar cameras.
Even in Staten Island, a borough where cars rule and cycling advocates earn eye-rolls and chuckles when they talk about bike paths, a recent town hall in a high school auditorium saw residents beg politicians for more traffic safety measures and gently criticize the city for not acting fast enough.
Residents were angry that a new slow zone hadn’t really reduced speeding, prompting one resident to condemn it as "bogus." And several residents vented about their own dangerous road, such as Oakdale Street, whose bungalows and split-levels look like postwar North Kildonan. Truck traffic has been inexplicably diverted down Oakdale, and city traffic crews recorded speeds of nearly 100 km/h.
"That’s recorded by a DOT engineer who was outside my home," said Anthony Magnavito, who lives on Oakdale and was first up at the microphone. "This is a residential area. Sometimes there are days I can’t go outside the diesel is so bad."
Only one Staten Islander used his two minutes at the mic to complain about Vision Zero.
But this is New York, and most cities pale in comparison. How much of Vision Zero is transferable, especially to a western Canadian city built to serve the car, with a feeble pedestrian and bike culture and where we can’t even keep lane lines painted on the road?
In fact, Winnipeg has recently done the opposite of Vision Zero. A move by some city councillors to reduce speed limits on residential streets was kiboshed, and the province nixed a plan by MPI to create a fund that would pay for modest safety improvements on Manitoba roads. And, in recent years, the installation of a series of small roundabouts, widely seen as effective traffic safety devices, in established neighbourhoods sparked weeks of controversy.
Jeannette Montufar, a civil engineer and traffic expert at the University of Manitoba, says New York has three key things Winnipeg doesn’t — cash, freeways and leadership.
First, for the last 50-plus years, American fuel taxes have funded the Highway Trust Fund, which doles out roughly $30 billion every year to states for road and transit projects. It’s why North Dakota’s highways are typically much nicer than Manitoba’s, and it gives cities suich as New York access to a relatively stable source of federal cash for transportation projects. That fund is now facing a shortfall, but for decades it's been head-and-shoulders above what Ottawa has traditionally offered Canadian cities, says Montufar.
New York also has a mayor who has rallied his city’s notoriously complicated and slow-moving bureaucracy around one issue.
"He is saying, ‘This is my top priority. I want New York City to be a leader in the world,’ said Montufar. "And, he’s putting money on it. Do we have that in Winnipeg? Absolutely not. Far from it."
Montufar cautions reducing traffic deaths to zero is a patently unrealistic goal. No matter how well the streets are designed and how many cops are watching for law-breakers, people will still make split-second mistakes. But, she said, most crashes are preventable, and most cities aren’t doing nearly enough of the simple things to shrink them.
Then there’s the freeways. Winnipeg is unique in that it has virtually none, thanks to a failed attempt to build a network of expressways in the late 1960s that sparked huge public outcry. It took Winnipeg 30 years to get the small Disraeli Freeway built, and even Bishop Grandin Boulevard is peppered with stop lights.
In New York, a series of freeways — the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, the Major Deegan, FDR Drive — criss-cross the city. Those are still gridlock nightmares, and they sparked their own set of public debates. But Winnipeg’s lack of freeways, for better or worse, condemns the city to hybrid streets, arterials that must move people and trucks quickly from one part of the city to another but that also have to offer on-off access to residents.
"Here, we have a 'help me move fast, but don’t' culture," said Montufar. "This is the set of cards we have been dealt."
That makes it very hard to balance the need for efficient traffic movement with safety measures designed to slow us down. And it makes modest engineering fixes such as roundabouts, bike tracks or bump-outs a tough sell.
"We have to strike a different kind of balance between mobility and accessibility," said Luis Escobar, Winnipeg’s transportation manager. "Those expectations don’t always go together, and that creates a little bit of a different kind of friction here."
Escobar says Winnipeg already does much of the stuff de Blasio is promising. It’s not called a fancy name and it’s not city council’s major political initiative, but traffic engineers are quietly trying out progressive safety measures as money permits. That includes pedestrian countdown timers, synchronizing lights on streets like Portage Avenue and Henderson Highway to keep traffic moving a safe and steady speed, adding left-turn lanes on streets with many T-bone crashes and building more roundabouts in the coming years.
"We don’t have it tied up and put together in one package, but a lot of these things we do already," said Escobar.
The Bronx had 34 traffic deaths last year, a number that’s been roughly stagnant since 1998. It’s also got the highest percentage of hit-and-runs of all New York’s five boroughs. It has wider streets and a bit less congestion, an invitation for frustrated motorists to speed.
Maps of those streets line the walls of the college dining room, and Bronx residents at the public meeting wander from map to map, putting stickers on intersections where cars run red lights or pressure pedestrians, where jaywalking might call for a new crosswalk or where the visibility is bad.
This is where city staff want to hear from armchair traffic experts about what intersections ought to be fixed, what arterials ought to become slow zones and where bike lanes are needed as part of Vision Zero.
"It’s not going to happen over night. It’s something that’s really hard to achieve," Rich Carmona, a young traffic engineer tells his table of Bronx residents, including Bill Francis. "But all decisions we make will be in that direction."
"I’m a walker, but I’m also a driver, so I know it’s a two-way street," nodded Francis as the meeting wrapped up. "Whether we reach zero or not, we’re going to improve.
Three keys to Vision Zero
- New York City will create eight more neighbourhood slow zones, where speed humps and speed signs force drivers to go 20 miles per hour instead of the regular 30. There are already more than a dozen slow zones throughout the city, requested by neighbourhood residents or groups.
- The city will create 25 arterial slow zones, where the speed limit will shrink to 25 miles per hour (about 40 km/h). Among the first on the list is about 13 kilometres of New York’s famous Broadway, slated to become a slow road this summer.
- Ultimately, the city wants permission from state legislators to reduce the urban speed limit everywhere to 25 miles per hour.
Dave Thom subverts his better nature and floors it over a speed hump. His Hyundai SUV crests the summit and gently thuds on the other side.
"But try that in a Camaro," says Thom. "When these first went in, I saw a guy lose his muffler."
Thom, a Canadian expat whose mother spent her teenage years in Portage la Prairie, championed the first slow zone in Manhattan, convincing the city to install a few humps and reduce the posted speed limit to 20 miles per hour as a safety measure.
The slow zone, one of a growing handful in New York, covers a few square blocks in Inwood, a mixed-income enclave on the very northern tip of Manhattan that is often used by commuters as a cut-through to avoid the toll on the Henry Hudson Bridge.
Thom, an engineer who works for a large real estate development firm, first got active on the traffic safety front when his young sons hit that tricky toddler age where they hate holding hands and can dart off the sidewalk faster than the sharpest parent.
That innate parental fear, combined with the neighbourhood’s speeding problems, prompted Thom to lobby for a slow zone.
They’re fairly easy to get. A resident just needs to show modest local support and get the approval from the area’s community board. There’s no need for long, costly traffic studies, and the speed humps, road paint and signs cost so little that department of transportation engineers often have a "let’s try it and see" attitude.
Since slow zones first emerged, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York neighbourhoods have been clamouring for them. Last fall, DOT approved another 13, though five times that many neighbourhoods applied. Residents in the Bronx were particularly put out that their neighbourhoods got rejected.
In Inwood, the only low-grade grumbling Thom heard was when a few much-coveted parking spots at corners were removed so pedestrians were more visible and so big signs could be installed alerting drivers to the slow zone.
The signage signals to the good drivers to take it slow, which in turn sets the pace for all. But, especially in New York, signs and paint do little. It’s the speed humps that work. Commuter traffic still cuts through Inwood, but they do it more slowly, even though there are only ten speed humps in the slow zone, one or two per street.
"If anything, we’d like more of them," said Thom. "There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone flooring it and then seeing the taillights when they realize there’s a speed hump."
- Increase the number of speed and red light cameras, which means getting permission from the state legislature in Albany. The city already has dozens of red light cameras, but speed enforcement has lagged. New York wants to increase its speed cameras from about 20 to 140.
- Police will hand out many more tickets for speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians, the two top causes of fatal crashes. Collision investigators will get more training and will reconstruct more crashes — the ones with critical injuries, not just fatal outcomes.
- After several years of cuts, the traffic unit will be bolstered by more than 50 officers to 263, and precinct cops will do more traffic enforcement, as well.
Traffic is arguably the least sexy assignment for any police officer, especially a member of the legendary NYPD. That’s part of the reason New Yorkers frequently complain about the lack of enforcement. Drivers cut into crosswalks, speed down residential streets and roll through stop signs — and there never seems to be a cop around to catch them.
Key to Vision Zero has been getting the slow-moving NYPD on board, and it appears, even to skeptics, this has happened.
At a recent town hall meeting on traffic safety, more than a dozen uniformed officers crowded into the front row of the high school auditorium, and the NYPD’s top traffic cop made his umpteenth public pitch for the NYPD’s commitment to Vision Zero.
"After Mayor de Blasio made the announcement, we sent a letter to every precinct just saying, by the way, this is who we are, we’ve done research on best practices, on enforcement, would you like to meet with us? Give us a call," said Noah Budnick, deputy director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. "We sent that out in mid-February and over the following three months I met with more police precincts than I have in the ten years I’ve worked here."
- The city will overhaul 50 intersections and corridors a year to add a menu of safety fixes such as clearer lane markings, better lighting, more stop lights, bump-outs that give pedestrians a better view into the intersection and medians where slower walkers can take refuge if the light changes.
- Street lighting will be enhanced at 1,000 intersections.
- Install more traffic signals and enhance lane painting.
By Winnipeg standards, it looks a little like Confusion Corner, a mess of merge lanes, no-turning rules and paved islands to avoid. On a sunny morning last week, two forlorn cyclists found themselves stuck in the middle of the intersection trying to turn left, shrinking from traffic shooting by them in all directions.
If Jackson Avenue in Queens looks scary, you should have seen it before.
"To get from here to the other side was almost impossible," said Steve Blanco, a musician, and Long Island City resident for more than a decade, who chatted while nursing a coffee outside a local shop. "I still see people almost get hit all the time."
That intersection, at the foot of the Pulaski Bridge, is one of a couple dozen city traffic engineers try to redesign every summer. Under Vision Zero, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to double that to 50 as part of a bid to eliminate traffic deaths in the next decade.
Before the overhaul three years ago, cars coming off the Pulaski Bridge jumbled down unclear lanes and into an intersection bogged down by many complicated movements. Crosswalks were confusing or nonexistent and on-street parking cluttered the flow.
Now, bigger medians and islands give pedestrians a refuge and shrink lane widths, a signal to drivers to slow down and smarten up. The turning lane off the bridge and onto Jackson is delayed, giving walkers a head start through the intersection. Parking has been eliminated at some corners to improve visibility. The department of transportation says injury crashes have shrunk by two thirds.
Trouble is, Jackson at 11th Street is one of several intersections in the booming neighbourhood that need attention. Two women out for a mid-morning coffee break point down Jackson to the next big crossing as the one they fear the most. And, longtime neighbourhood resident Sheila Lewandowski said the huge construction boom that has transformed Long Island City’s warehouses into glass condo towers has so dramatically increased car and pedestrian traffic that fixing one intersection doesn’t quite cut it.
"I do think it’s good to target 50 a year, but we should also be looking at the next 50," said Lewandowski, who runs a local theatre, and is a supporter of Vision Zero.
WINNIPEG AIN’T NEW YORK
New York is a major global metropolis. Winnipeg is a tiny burg. Here’s how we’re different, and the same, when it comes to traffic safety.
Scale of the problem
New York has exponentially more traffic deaths than Winnipeg. We’re at about 18 per year. They’re at 250. Even when population is taken into account, we’re still a little safer. We have roughly 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people and New York has about 3.2. Still, NYC is among the safest cities in the United States when it comes to traffic. They want to do even better.
We’ve got them, New York doesn’t, really. The city has appealed to Albany for the right to put up more speed and red-light cameras. Now, the city has a paltry 20 speed-camera — 13 less than Winnipeg — and wants 140.
Late last month, the state legislature approved the city’s request but limited when and where they can be used — only near schools and only during weekdays. City politicians have argued those limits are counter-productive since most dangerous speeding happens at night.
Rookie Mayor Bill de Blasio has made traffic safety the centrepiece of this first 100 days in office, and all the key departments — the police, the taxi commission, the health and transportation departments — are all genuinely on board.
Young traffic engineers are nearly giddy when talking about the huge list of new safety techniques they now have the cash and the permission to try. The top traffic cop has been at nearly every Vision Zero event held so far this spring. There have been new announcements nearly every week.
By end of the month, there will be a half-dozen bills related to Vision Zero before council, promised Manhattan Coun. Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs council’s transportation committee. It’s all happened remarkably fast.
Politicians typically hate targets. Putting a number on a promise makes it that much more politically damaging if they fall short.
But, Vision Zero is jammed with targets — 50 intersection safety projects, 250 new speed humps, 263 cops on traffic patrol. And, the big, nearly-impossible one, reducing deaths to zero.
New York’s got them. We don’t, at least not in the same overwhelming numbers.
Taxis are arguably the worst offenders when it comes to dangerous driving, but they can also be the catalyst for change, setting a new tone on New York’s famously aggressive streets.
The taxi commission is a key partner in Vision Zero and efforts to get cabs to slow down include targeted enforcement and even in-car computers that reduce the fare if the driver speeds.
There’s no reason Winnipeg’s cabs and government fleet vehicles couldn’t be used the same way.
Vision Zero isn’t the brainchild of de Blasio’s backroom strategists. It’s something Transportation Alternatives, the 100,000-member advocacy group, has been talking about for a years in reports, lobbying efforts and even cheeky public events.
It’s just one of several major civic organizations such as Bike New York and the Straphangers doing independent research, proposing policy options and rallying public opinion on urban transportation issues. There are also dozens of minor groups — parents’ associations, block committees, neighbourhood organizations.
New York has a vibrant civil society. Winnipeg’s is anemic in comparsion.
Speed of change
A decade ago, the Queen’s neighbourhood of Long Island City was considered a warehouse wasteland. Now, thanks to a bevy of new glass condo towers, it looks like downtown Vancouver.
The pace of change in New York is remarkable, spurred on by the constant influx of young professionals and new immigrants. As one traffic engineer said, change quickly becomes second nature because few remember what it was like before.
In Winnipeg, where the rate of urban transformation matches our sluggish population growth, we lack that luxury, and every new idea takes longer to take hold.
We have it. We just don’t use it, at least not like New York.
That city’s love affair with data began with Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He used crime data to better deploy police, a notion Mayor Sam Katz adopted, with less success.
New York’s data wonkery escalated during the business-minded tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now underpins nearly all public policy decisions in the Big Apple, especially in the department of transportation (DOT).
"It’s not just that we think something’s safer," said Rich Carmona, a traffic engineer and project manager for the DOT. "We know it’s safer. We have the data to back it up."
In Manitoba, the beauty of a monopoly car insurer is that MPI keeps amazing data on nearly all car accidents in the city — the wheres and whens and whos. It’s published every year in a phone-book sized tome, but it’s not turned into action as well as it could be.
For example, if Winnipeg traffic engineers had a few more dollars every year, they’d do more detailed "black spot" analysis on the most dangerous intersections, using MPI’s data to proactively fix some of the high-collision intersections, says Luis Escobar, the city’s transportation manager.
Autonomy of city staff
New York’s department of transportation is widely considered the best in the country. Staff are given significant independence and freedom to expound on their expertise. Thirty-something hipster traffic engineers hold court at public meetings, trading ideas with Bronxites.The transportation commissioner meets cranky residents in the lobbies of condo towers to talk about stop signs.
In Staten Island, at a recent town hall on Vision Zero, people referred to Tom Cocola, their borough traffic commissioner, as though he was a neighbour who loaned them a cup of sugar.
"We have two speed humps that Tom got us," said one resident. Cocola took notes and nodded knowingly when people vented about a particularly dangerous intersection.
Toward the end of the public meeting, while the politicians were speechifying, Cocola snuck down off the stage, made a beeline for a loud group of young bike activists and asked them to stay behind for a chat.