Albany, We’re Ready for Our Close-Up
You can tell pretty much everything you need to know about a city by watching its children arrive at school.
For example, in Amsterdam, parents shuttle their little ones in bakfietsen and other similar human-powered contraptions. I’ve seen it. It’s adorable, like they’re delivering a box of chicks on wheels.
“Awww,” you think to yourself. “This must be a society that places a value on childhood and human life.”
Here in New York City it’s a little different, and the scene outside of school is less Easter basket and more active troop deployment. Double- and triple-parked cars, minivans, and SUVs surround the perimeter of the school, disgorging educational combatants laden with backpacks full of learning provisions. Beyond the safety of the perimeter, crossing guards in Hi-Viz flak jackets halt the attack of rush-hour traffic just long enough to urge the second wave of the juvenile infantry across the street. Then come the great big yellow troop transporters, and eventually the surge is over and a fragile peace falls over the school…until dismissal time when the army begins its retreat.
“I love the smell of car exhaust in the morning!” you shout to your child over the cacophony of horns.
School staff and crossing guards work incredibly hard to get our kids in and out of school safely, and they do a fantastic job. Their greatest challenge is New York City motor vehicle traffic. Outside of diseases, the number one killer of New York City kids is drivers.
Kids and their schools, and their parents, need help.
Back in 2013, the state graciously allowed New York City to install 20 speed cameras in school zones, and our erstwhile mayor Michael Bloomberg celebrated at PS 81 in the Bronx, where the city had found 96 percent of drivers were speeding (the remaining 4 percent probably slowed briefly in order to rummage for their cellphones).
“For the first time ever — sounds hard to believe — but for the first time ever, we’re going to be able to install speed cameras at up to 20 locations,” he said.
Hard to believe indeed. The New York City Department of Education is the largest in the United States. It runs more than 1,800 schools and teaches over 1.1 million students. Only 20 cameras to help protect all these kids? Pathetic. It’s the 21st century! There are probably more than 20 GoPros in your nearest skate park on any given afternoon.
Clearly we needed more speed cameras, and soon the program was expanded to allow for a measly 140 of them. The last of these cameras was installed just before the first day of school in September 2015, meaning we’ve now got approximately .08 speed cameras for every school in the system.
In other words, if speed cameras were refreshing bottles of Snapple, each student would receive roughly .002 of an ounce of delicious, sugary safety.
(Oh, also, the cameras are only legally allowed to operate on school days, because everybody knows city kids never hang out at the schoolyard on weekends, and instead play at home in their lush, giant backyards.)
Meanwhile, in 2014 alone, this paltry smattering of cameras issued 471,625 tickets, resulting in over $23 million in fines — and that’s before all 140 were even online.
This is because people in this city drive like freaking lunatics.
Statistics show these cameras are improving traffic safety where they’re deployed, yet not everybody likes speed cameras in school zones. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association feels they are “no substitute for live policing,” which is true, because so far no camera can replicate the sporadic, haphazard ticketing performed by a human being.
As a parent I’m regularly stunned by the reckless driving I see around schools, so placing a camera in every single school zone in the city seems like it should be considered the bare minimum as far as keeping kids safe. And speed cameras in school zones don’t even begin to address the way people drive outside of these zones when kids are present. Drivers honk at my son’s school bus in the morning while he’s boarding it, or else they lose patience altogether and simply speed around it. The sun’s been up for only half an hour already and the bus driver stops for maybe ten seconds.
That level of impatience is a cry for help.
While I’d never deprive my son of riding the big yellow school bus (he’s made his desire to do so quite clear for as long as he could talk), twice a week I pick him up from school by bicycle, which always makes me nostalgic for my visit to Amsterdam. I’m unusual among the other parents in their cars, but I don’t want to be. I also don’t think I would be alone if the city’s streets were safer.
Someday this war’s gonna end. But in order for that to happen, some drivers are gonna have to smile and say “cheese.”
Right now, Transportation Alternatives is begging the nice people in Albany to put a speed camera in every school zone. Ask your legislator to support the campaign at everyschool.nyc.
Eben Weiss writes the blog Bike Snob NYC and is the author of Bike Snob, The Enlightened Cyclist, and Bike Snob Abroad. His fourth book, The Ultimate Bicycle Owner’s Manual, is out now.