Vision zero’s decades-old roots

| 30 Mar 2015 | 05:45

Vision Zero, the de Blasio administration’s pivotal traffic-safety initiative, has been as notable for the speed of its rollout as for what it’s managed to accomplish. In just over a year, the city has rolled out improved road designs and configurations, increased enforcement of traffic laws, installed new street signs, and lowered the speed limit to 25 m.p.h. across most of the city.

That effort has been accompanied by increased activism among families of traffic victims, and a focused effort to increase the number of drivers prosecuted for causing traffic deaths.

In a city long seen as more friendly to drivers than to walkers, the past year would seem to mark a dramatic — and sudden — swtich in thinking.

In fact, Vision Zero’s foundational thrust can also be traced back several decades, when citizen advocates and some elected officials started calling for improvements in road engineering and traffic-law enforcement, efforts that followed spikes in pedestrian deaths in the 1980s and 1990s. And it followed blueprints from other parts of the world, most notably Sweden, which adapted a similar pedestrian plan nearly two decades ago. That was subsequently implemented in the U.K., the Netherlands and Norway, as well as in a few American cities, Boston and San Francisco among them.

For Charles Komanoff, the incident that galvanized his advocacy was the death of a maternity ward doctor, nine months pregnant herself, after she was hit while crossing York Avenue at 69th Street in October 1994.

“That was six days after the birth of my first child,” said Komanoff, who had for years already been involved in the push for increased traffic safety, most notably as president of the city-based advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives.

The doctor’s death, though, intensified his commitment. “When I read about this, it just pushed me harder,” he said.

For John Kaehny, the impending closure of bike lanes on East River bridges in the early 1990s spurred his involvement. Kaehny, then a researcher for a Manhattan hedge fund, joined the weekly demonstrations and helped eventually secure commitments for bike lanes over the crossings.

The protests, he said, “helped hugely. It turned into a big cause.”

High-profile accidents would further prompted his push for traffic safety initiatives, and he joined Transportation Alternatives as a “super volunteer,” he said.

But prioritizing pedestrians’ and bicyclists’ welfare in an urban setting where motorists had long been irreproachable kings and queens of the road proved frustrating, difficult and perplexing initially, they said.

“The culture of automobility that for 100 years enthralled and in some ways devoured America such that running over and killing people was just seen as the price of progress,” said Komanoff, 67, who would found the pedestrian rights group Right of Way in the 1990s.

While activists stepped up their efforts in the mid-1990s, elected city officials from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on down to community board members were either immune or indifferent to the advocates’ efforts.

“Giuliani, despite being a big city mayor, was not urbanist,” said Kaehny, 50, who would go on to become executive director of Transportation Alternatives and the co-founder of the national Alliance for Bicycling and Walking. “The mayor himself said we want more cars, because every car is a sign of economic activity.”

In effect, motorists were a priority, and keeping cars moving through a dense city grid made it difficult for traffic engineers to design, much less implement, safer pedestrian streetscapes, he said.

Bette Dewing, an East End Avenue resident for decades and the founder of Pedestrians First and now director of Safe Travel First, said pedestrian-safety efforts were frustrated by policymakers’ apathy.

“We got a lot of media attention. But nothing substantial was being done,” said Dewing, who said she started writing letters and op-eds about the issue in the early 1970s and was further galvanized when she had children and people were still getting run over and killed, by motorists and bicyclists, on nearby York Avenue. She later became a regular columnist for Our Town, where she continues to write a bi-weekly column.

“Too many people are under-sensitive to these things,” she said. “After I had children, I become more concerned.”

Kaehny and Komanoff said other things conspired to keep pedestrian safety initiatives from being implemented, not least the fact that politicians and appointees were themselves drivers – and were consequently shaped by “windshield perspective.”

The police’s institutional reluctance to enforce traffic laws also contributed, the advocates said. Officers, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, joined the force to arrest criminals, not to chase down speeding motorists or drivers who refuse to yield to pedestrians.

“They had so many other things to contend with,” Dewing said about police and those decades’ high crime rates. “Generally speaking, it was not high on their list of priorities.”

Within a few years, though, concern among business owners and politicians, including by a formerly recalcitrant Giuliani, started percolating and a consensus developed that pedestrian safety was paramount if the city was to thrive.

“There was a growing urbanism in New York City and business leaders were very vocal,” said Kaehny, who lives in Morningside Heights and is now the executive director of the open-government group, Reinvent Albany.

The change in the political headwinds led to the enacting, in 1999, of state and city “traffic calming” laws following a vociferous three-year campaign by Transportation Alternatives that had met pronounced opposition, including from the state Department of Transportation.

The legislation, coupled to federal, state and city funds, gave traffic engineers green lights to redesign pedestrian crossings, widen sidewalks, construct speed bumps, institute slow speed zones, build bike lanes and introduce other safety measures.

“They untied their hands legally,” Kaehny said.

Traffic improvements began to reshape the city in significant ways.

The year before, 183 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents, according to the city’s Department of Transportation, the first time fewer than 200 were killed since city authorities started keeping records in 1910. The number of people killed in traffic accidents annually dipped consistently after that, reaching more than 200 only once, in 1999, when 202 were killed.

Last year, 138 were killed, the fewest ever, according to police and DOT statistics. In total, 255 people – pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and occupants of motor vehicles – were killed in traffic accidents last year, the second-lowest since 1910.

“There’s less overall kind of chaos, and some of that translates into less crashing and less egregious driving behavior,” said Komanoff, a lower Manhattan resident and energy-policy and transport economist. “There is a declining sense of driver entitlement. I see drivers wait at a crosswalk more than before.”

Still, both Komanoff and Kaehny caution that the dip in traffic fatalities, while admirable and impressive, obscures another telling statistic: serious injuries that, but for improvements in trauma care, would likely have resulted in death just a few decades ago.

Citing city statistics, Transportation Alternatives says that, since about 2007, “for every eight traffic fatalities, New Yorkers suffer 100 life-altering serious injuries.”

While both Komanoff and Keahny praise and approve Vision Zero’s focus and objectives, more needs to be done, particularly with regard to vigilance and enforcement of traffic laws by police. And Komanoff said stiffer prosecutions and punishments need to be doled out by prosecutors and judges, particularly after accidents that maim or claim lives.

“I still observe greater adherence, respect for pedestrians’ right-of-way than I did 20 years ago,” Komanoff said. “The biggest thing that needs to change is criminal justice.”

Ultimately, though, the focus on traffic safety, however belated, is a welcome development in a city where drivers and policymakers had too long demonstrated disregard and disinterest.

“If you look at New York City 30 or even 20 years ago,” Kaehny said, “it’s incredibly encouraging.”