By Paul Steely White
Opinion, New York Daily News
published, Thursday, May 18, 2017
New Yorkers held their breath when alerts came through on our cell phones Thursday afternoon: Somebody had driven into a crowd of pedestrians in Times Square, leaving one dead and almost two dozen injured. We wondered whether New York City was about to join the ranks of Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm — cities where motor vehicles have been used as weapons of terror and mass murder.
But when news emerged that what happened in Times Square was not an act of terrorism, instead of breathing a sigh of relief, those of us in the safe streets movement could only shake our heads: It had happened again.
Yesterday’s crash was not an isolated incident of pedestrian carnage on Midtown streets. In 2013, British tourist Sian Green lost her leg to a curb-jumping taxi driver at Rockefeller Center. In 2014, Charity Mahouna Hicks died while waiting for a bus on 34th St. because a man decided he had to text while driving. In 2016, Carol Dauplaise, Po Chu Ng and Yuenei Wu were all run over by Midtown drivers failing to yield the right of way.
Yet despite this historic pattern of innocent pedestrians mowed down by drivers making deadly or sociopathic choices, and scores more throughout the rest of the city, many reporters, elected officials and first responders referred to yesterday’s tragedy — and countless others — as “accidents.”
We should all know better. As Mayor de Blasio heralded earlier this week, the street redesigns recently implemented on Queens Boulevard have dramatically reduced pedestrian casualties on what was long known as the “Boulevard of Death.” And at the few schools that the state Legislature has allowed to have them, automatic speed safety cameras are working to reduced deadly speeding by 60%. The mayor’s action on Vision Zero has proven that crashes are preventable.
Yet even today, despite the clear evidence that these Vision Zero improvements save lives, traffic deaths are widely accepted as unfortunate, unpreventable costs of living in close proximity to cars and trucks. Even today it is still commonplace to blame pedestrians and cyclists for their own deaths, as if they had it coming when the evidence much more often indicates otherwise.
This is the definition of cowardice, for it takes political courage to change the weak street designs and enforcement practices that still fail to insulate innocent pedestrians from reckless drivers or even sociopathic drivers hell bent on destruction.
To prevent further loss of life, in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy we must realize that it was the controversial street safety improvements applied to Times Square in recent years — including wider sidewalks protected with steel and concrete bollards — that prevented the tragedy from being far worse.
These types of pedestrian safety measures, even now still sometimes opposed by drivers, must be urgently applied on all streets without interminable community process. Just as we do not debate the merit of using modern infrastructure to separate our sewage and water to prevent cholera, we should not argue over the merit of proven, life-saving design and enforcement.
Then, de Blasio must take Vision Zero much further. On commercial streets teeming with pedestrians, the mayor and his DOT must restrict car and truck traffic during peak pedestrian hours and give more streets entirely over to pedestrians, buses and cyclists. In Midtown, the Financial District, Flushing, Queens and other increasingly pedestrian rich areas of our city, walkers must receive far more protected space than they have now.
Making these improvements will require a deep culture change. As the mayor said two weeks ago at the Vision Zero Cities conference at Fordham University, it is imperative that we “move beyond the mythology of the automobile.” The supremacy of motor vehicles above all other modes of transportation must be challenged. We must make difficult decisions about what we value. Are a few parking spaces worth more than a human life?
And as we absorb the lessons of yesterday’s crash, we must remember that more often it is sober speeding drivers doing the killing on our streets. The state Legislature must expand the schools-based speed safety camera program.
It is likely that the next pedestrian death will not occur under the worldwide lens of Times Square, but on a regular street in a regular New York City neighborhood.