Category Archives: History

Getting to Vision Zero

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.

Roundabout Debate Lovefest


AN EXCERPT from Street Design, called “The Problems With Modern Roundabouts” by Better! Cities & Towns, caused comment around the web in places like a private roundabout listserv. Traffic engineer Peter Swift and urban designer Geoff Dyer challenged us to a debate, which turned into more of a loveliest. You can hear it at

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Before & After: Jaywalking, Jaydriving & Jayliving

These two videos are a fascinating study in the evolution of King Car in New York City. Although the second video is joking, it shows how much control of the street had shifted from the pedestrian to the car by 1928. The first movie, shot from a New York cable car rolling down Broadway about 20 years earlier, shows how comfortably pedestrians crossed the street whenever and wherever they wanted. Organized Motodrdom hadn’t yet brought us jaywalking and Transportation Corridors.

Other links:

Tom Vanderbilt, When Pedestrians Get Mixed Signals, New York Times OpEd

Vision Zero is America’s Most Walkable City, Street Design blog

Vision Zero in America’s Most Walkable City


CITING AN INNOVATIVE NEW MOVEMENT known as Vision Zero, Mayor DeBlasio and NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg have pledged to reduce traffic fatalities in New York City to zero in ten years. In response, the NYPD last week arrested six jaywalkers in the two-block area where three pedestrians were killed this month on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A jaywalker who mainly speaks Mandarin Chinese was apparently knocked down and roughed up by the police. New Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the arrests were necessary because 66% of pedestrian fatalities in New York last year were “directly related to the actions of pedestrians.”

Commissioner Bratton’s view and solution are the opposite of what the city should be saying and doing. New York City’s real problem is that like every other city in America, New York has a long history of making the car the king of our streets. This attitude goes back 100 years, when America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods all had naturally walkable streets. The police began then to view our streets in light of the ideas of a new and influential movement of that time, known as Organized Motordom. A coalition of car companies, oil companies, auto clubs, and the like, Organized Motordom was born because pesky pedestrians were crossing city streets, getting in the way of cars, and slowing them down—and also slowing car sales.

These two photos of Lexington Avenue at 89th Street show that one-hundred years ago the sidewalks of Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were two to three times as wide they are now. The photo on the bottom was taken to document the construction of the East Side IRT subway under the avenue (the sidewalks have wooden planks because the construction wasn’t finished when the photo was taken). I took the photo on the top just last year—which shows that the buildings lost their stoops and large light wells when more and wider traffic lanes were added to Lexington Avenue in the 1950s.

The houses (designed by Henry Hardenbergh, the architect of many important New York buildings, including the Plaza Hotel and The Dakota apartment house) undoubtedly lost value when they lost their stoops and light. Perhaps the owners of the houses got in their cars and drove out to find new homes in the suburbs. That’s what many New Yorkers did when the city converted Manhattan’s wide, numbered avenues like Third Avenue into one-way arterials. Urban designers call these “auto sewers,” because they make it easier for traffic to flow in and out of the city—until all the suburbanites driving in clog the roads with what is known as “induced” traffic. And no one wants to live on a clogged auto sewer.

That’s ironic for Manhattan, where 80% of the residents don’t own cars. Manhattanites are not the ones causing the traffic jams, but they’re the ones suffering through the degradation of public life, even though many New Yorkers pay outrageous sums for small apartments because they want public life on the streets of the city. Lexington Avenue has lots of restaurants, and should have lots of sidewalk cafés. But the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate tables, and the cars rushing by are noisy and belch noxious fumes. Children living along New York’s auto-sewer avenues suffer from many health problems caused by automobile pollution.

It’s worth pointing out that New York is the last place that should suffer from this. Not only do most New Yorkers not own cars, we also have trains, subways, buses, and taxis for everyone else. Underneath the narrow sidewalks pictured above is a subway line that by itself carries more people every day than the combined transit systems of San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, traveling all the way from the Atlantic Ocean almost to Westchester County. Only a block away, under Park Avenue, run the tracks for Metro North, which is second in ridership in the US only to the Long Island Railroad. The fact that we still consider it a good idea to drive in every day despite the economic and environmental costs shows how far Organized Motordom has come.

Happily, our new Mayor and our new DOT Commissioner have pledged their allegiance to Vision Zero, which means changing the way we use our roads. If we do that the right way, we will not only save lives, we will also improve public life and public health. “The right way” means making a walkable, bikeable city where traffic is reduced and cars move slowly.

When cars and pedestrians come in close contact—as they do on streets all over New York City—nothing reduces pedestrian fatalities like slowing traffic down. That’s not only because cars do less damage to people they hit if the car is going under 20 miles per hour. Drivers going slowly literally see twice as much as speeding drivers, and they have more time to react, as well. A side benefit is that when cars go slowly we can remove all the traffic engineering detritus that enables drivers to go speed: all the bold striping and highway-scale markings that also make pedestrians subliminally conscious that the street is not a place for them.

In New York City, streets should be for everyone. As the great Danish traffic reformer Jan Gehl says, the public life of cities takes place in the spaces between the buildings. So why are we simultaneously giving 80% of that space to cars from outside the city and kicking city residents to narrow walks by the side of the road? With Vision Zero, we can stop designing our streets like suburban arterials: one-way, with left-turn lanes, lots of ugly white plastic sticks, and big signs and striping everywhere. Those are suburban-style solutions for places where people don’t walk much. They are ugly and anti-urban. We need city streets for people, beautiful streets where people want to get our of their cars and walk.

In New York City, the Vision Zero solution is not to ticket pedestrians for “jaywalking,” a word and concept invented by a Organized Motordom in the early 20th century. One hundred years later, it is easy to see that city streets should be destinations, not Transportation Corridors, and that the car should not be the king of New York’s avenues. “Streets for people” means we should ticket speeding cars, not jaywalking residents and visitors enjoying the life of the city.