Preventing Traffic Fatalities: Examining the Vision Zero Working Group’s Report

Testimony of Paul Steely White at City Council Oversight Hearing - Preventing Traffic Fatalities: Examining the Vision Zero Working Group’s Report

Held by New York City Council Committees on Transportation and Public Safety
Monday, February 24, 2014

Thank you Chair Rodriguez, Chair Gibson, and the members of the Transportation and Public Safety Committees for convening this important hearing.

I am the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit that has worked for 40 years to make New York’s streets safer. I am not aware of a day in Transportation Alternatives’ history, or in the history of our City, that has had more potential to eliminate the sudden, violent, preventable deaths and serious injuries that occur daily on our streets, crosswalks and sidewalks.

It has been a long road to this point. On June 9th, 2011, Transportation Alternatives released a report urging New York City to commit to achieving Vision Zero. On January 15th, 2014, our Mayor announced that commitment and placed this crisis at the top of his commissioners’ agendas. Last week, on February 18th, 2014, the Mayor released an Action Plan – a document that is impressive for its breadth, scope, details, and most of all, for its moral urgency. Yesterday, on February 23rd, 2014, survivors organized themselves under the banner Families for Safe Streets, in order to transform their grief into action.

Today, February 24th, 2014, however, is in my estimation the most important day thus far. Today’s inquiry and testimony is about how all of us, the Mayor and his agencies, Families for Safe Streets and other advocates, community leaders and civic associations, and the Council, can work together to harness this momentum and use it to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

New York needs Vision Zero, and will not achieve it without the leadership of a unified City Council, the oversight of the Transportation and Public Safety Committees, the Council's commitment to fund these priorities and the leadership of each Council Member in your home district.

Unified City Council

Reforms that are essential to making New Yorkers safe as they walk, drive and bike, such as lowering our speed limit to 20 miles per hour and assuming local control over automated enforcement programs, will ultimately be decided by state legislators who have demonstrated a different worldview than ours, perhaps because they come from cities, towns, villages and hamlets with streets entirely unlike ours. To wrest control of our streets from Albany, this entire body must speak with a clear, unified voice. Please let your state colleagues know that the Council and Mayor need local control over our streets now, by issuing formal home rule resolutions, and reaching out to your colleagues in the Senate and Assembly. Only 3% of bills that are introduced in Albany pass in any given year. In order for these bills to have a fair shot, every Council Member must be vocal and demand local control over our streets.

City Council Funding Commitment

A recent poll asked New Yorkers which streets are the most dangerous in their borough. The answers, predictably in each case, were major arterial streets like Atlantic Avenue, Queens Boulevard, the Grand Concourse, Hylan Boulevard and 5th and 6th avenues in Manhattan. Each of you has high-volume, high-speed, arterial streets with highway-width travel lanes like these in your district. While only 15% of New York’s streets are arterials, they are the site of 60% of pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. They must therefore be the priority when it comes to street redesigns

But these streets are the most expensive to redesign. The Council must commit to making sure that the NYC DOT budget has money designated for this enormous undertaking. Critically, the Council must work with the Mayor to allocate money not just for concrete, paint and signs, but also most appropriate funds to hire more engineers to study and design these projects, and to conduct the robust community outreach that is needed to satisfy each plan’s safety objectives. The Mayor’s budget doesn’t include any special funding for Vision Zero - yet. Because a budget is ultimately a statement of priorities, we expect that the Council will make sure these critical initiatives are funded.

Committee Oversight

This oversight hearing is, hopefully, the first of many called in order to keep the agencies on track towards achieving the ambitious goals contained within this report. But ultimately, the Committees must go even further than the Action Plan, and set annual benchmarks, tied to reduced death and injury goals and other important metrics in order to evaluate our City's progress towards Vision Zero. And those goals should be ambitious because we can and must expect rapid progress towards achieving Vision Zero.

Consider Paris, a similarly pedestrian-dense city, which cut its fatality rate in half within six years by reducing their speed limit to 20mph, narrowing wide streets, widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, expanding their automated enforcement programs and rolling out a robust public education program. None of these proposals are new to New York City, but the tempo and scale with which these programs were rolled out is unprecedented here. If you use your oversight power to prod our City's agencies to exceed Paris' enthusiasm for saving lives, you will save hundreds of lives before your first term ends. Consistent oversight from the Transportation and Public Safety Committees is essential to achieving Vision Zero quickly.

Leadership in Your District

Your leadership is necessary to keep the Mayor and his agencies on track to achieve Vision Zero, even when specific initiatives seem unpopular. If your local precincts are working to get drivers to slow down and respect the pedestrian right of way, they will encounter resistance, and will need your support. When the DOT proposes to narrow or eliminate wide travel lanes, or remove a few parking spots to increase visibility at intersections, some of your constituents will complain, in the press or at Community Board meetings. The DOT will need your help defending the plan. It is at those moments that your leadership is most needed. Your constituents and all New Yorkers who use your streets will need you to ignore the distractions, political or otherwise, and will need you to stand up for safety even at the expense of perceived convenience.

Vision Zero is a culture shift, and accordingly, there will be an adjustment period. These adjustments cannot wait. Never before have we declared that no death or serious injury on our streets is acceptable. Never before have we acknowledged that, because we know what causes these crashes, that we have a moral obligation to act immediately to avoid them. This is an important moment, and it is the task of this Council, the Mayor, the advocates, the State Legislature and all of us, to make sure this moment endures despite the inevitable resistance and political distraction. Thank you for your commitment to this cause.