EIGHTY PERCENT of the residents of Manhattan don’t own a car. Most of the more than 45 million tourists who visited Manhattan last year didn’t bring a car with them. But even after all the positive changes on Manhattan streets during the Bloomberg administration, we still have auto-centric policies that only benefit a small number of people dominating the design of the public realm. The car is still king, and as long as it is, we will not get to the zero traffic deaths that Mayor DeBlasio has promised us.
Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.
At the same time that the NYPD is putting 1,000 new police officers on the street to counteract a rise in murders and violence, 4 police officers were deployed today to ticket cyclists using a busy cycle track who didn’t stop and wait for the entire duration of long red lights on the Hudson River Greenway, even though for a good ninety percent of the time there were no vehicles crossing the cycle track. Riders stood astride their bikes in the hot sun, with no cars in sight, while policemen watched them to make sure they obeyed the law. Then the riders awkwardly started up again (the reason many states allow bike riders to use the rolling “Idaho Stop” is that it’s easier to go very slowly on a bike than to stop and restart).
The tickets are written in the name of safety, but it’s actually an old way of thinking that reflects a philosophy that accepts more than 35,000 traffic deaths in the US every year as the cost of keeping traffic flowing. The safety promoted by traffic engineers is part of an auto-centric paradigm that puts safety in a context in which it is understood that safety is balanced against allowing cars to go quickly and easily from here to there, without too many fenderbenders or deaths. That means that the free flow of the car comes before the convenience of pedestrians and cyclists.
The Swedish Vision Zero movement correctly points out that there are two ways to get to zero traffic deaths: separate the moving vehicles from the pedestrians, or, where cars and pedestrians can come into contact, slow the cars down. To that we can add that as long as we allow cars to legally drive outside the city at high speeds, we will have traffic deaths, no matter how many air bags are in the cars, or how far the pedestrians are from the roadway.
But our concern today is New York City, where getting to zero deaths requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about the city’s streets. Paris recently announced that with the exception of a few streets, all Parisian streets will have 30 kilometer per hour and 20 kilometer per hour speed limits—our equivalents would be 20 and 12 miles per hour. New York has taken the major and important step of changing the city speed limit to 25 mph, but that is probably just the first step in a process that will eventually make us more like Paris. That’s because a person hit by a car going 25 mph is still 10 times as likely to die as pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 15 mph. And, the driver going 15 miles per hour actually sees almost twice as much as a driver going just 25. Plus, the driver going more slowly also has more time to react, giving the slower scenario a triple advantage over the higher speed limit for saving lives.
The way to make places like the cycle track in the Greenway safe is to think about them differently than we have up until now. Instead of forcing everyone on the sidewalks and tracks to stop and wait during the long red-light cycle required for the left-turn process on the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway, the stoplights for the bicycle track and the pedestrian walk should give the advantage to the greatest number of people—the pedestrians and cyclists. The small number of drivers who want to cross to and from the highway should understand that when they cross they must go slowly enough that they won’t hit or hurt anyone. Experience in Europe shows that when cars and cyclists move at pedestrian speed, everyone can safely negotiate their way without accidents. One example is shown in the video of Seven Dials in London, seen below.
This seems strange to us, because we’ve all grown up in the age of the automobile. But in fact, this is what New York City streets used to be like, before what we sometimes call Organized Motordom realized that increasing car sales and oil sales depended on kicking pedestrians to the side of the road, so that cars could go faster (see the second video below).
The Bloomberg administration, and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in particular, began the process of turning this around when they reclaimed large chunks of roadway in places like Madison Square and Gansevoort Square for the pedestrian. Now that the DeBlasio administration has promised us Vision Zero—a wonderful pledge to reduce pedestrian fatalities in New York City to zero within ten years—it is time to build on that earlier work by expanding it to all places where the pedestrian and the cyclist should assume the privileged position previously given to King Car. Let’s stop ticketing cyclists on cycle tracks and transform the places where pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers have to share the road.
Seven Dials, London, ©2014 Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The cars, trucks, taxis, and tourists successfully manage mutual use of this shared space.
Broadway at Herald Square, New York, New York, 1907. Most of the pedestrians stay over on the sidewalk, but they feel comfortable stepping out into the street, which is also where they wait for the cable cars. Organized Motordom had not yet invented the term “jaywalker,” let alone pass legislation against it.
Babe Ruth and Harold Lloyd, Broadway Follies of 1927. We have met the enemy and he is us.