The New York City Model for Vision Zero Progress

By Polly Trottenberg

Image courtesy NYC DOT

When it comes to roadway safety, New York City is bucking national trends. Since 2014, the United States has seen traffic fatalities rise by over 15 percent. Meanwhile, New York City experienced a 26 percent decline in these deaths during the same period — including a 42 percent drop in pedestrian fatalities — and is on pace to see fatalities drop again in 2018.

New York City’s encouraging numbers have directly correlated with our role as the first American city to undertake an ambitious Vision Zero safety program, begun with the strong leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first U.S. mayor to so aggressively embrace the Swedish traffic safety philosophy.

Of course, for us, these are not just numbers. They are our families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and fellow New Yorkers.

I wish I could say New York City’s success was as simple as bringing together the brightest minds in engineering, enforcement, and education, locking them in a room, and tasking them with solving a problem that city officials worldwide struggle with. But it has taken much more than that.

As many people are keen to remind me, New York City — with its bustling style and sometimes aggressive personality — is not Copenhagen or Amsterdam. Every day, we move millions of commuters, tourists, and tons of freight through the densest urban environment in the nation. To make Vision Zero work in the city that never sleeps, we have taken the best practices from around the globe and combined them with our own ingenuity to create a program that has saved lives and reduced serious injuries in every part of the city and across most demographic groups. Our efforts can serve as a model for other cities to reverse the trend of rising traffic fatalities.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio’s determination was supported by a strong and effective advocacy community, including Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets, as well as the New York City Council and many other elected officials. Our first step was to pull together a Vision Zero Task Force, with committed participation from across city government, including the Mayor’s Office, my agency, the New York City Police Department, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and other city and state agencies.

To ensure our plans for Vision Zero were as comprehensive as possible and equitable for all New Yorkers, we used a data-driven approach — looking at the number of people killed or seriously injured per mile of road — to create a series of reports called Pedestrian Safety Action Plans, which became our road maps. These plans not only introduced the aims of Vision Zero, but also designated specific priority areas, corridors, and intersections based on the traffic crashes that were most deadly and injurious.

To ensure our plans for Vision Zero were as comprehensive as possible and equitable for all New Yorkers, we used a data-driven approach — looking at the number of people killed or seriously injured per mile of road.

But there’s more to creating an action plan than identifying streets and intersections. Those neighborhoods are not just lines on maps; they are communities of people who know their streets better than anybody else. Parents know the intersections where they are worried about their children crossing the street to get to school. Cyclists know where it is frightening to mix with car traffic. Seniors know where a small decrease in vehicle speeds would make a big difference to their sense of security. Through community meetings and online portals, we engaged directly with New Yorkers about their neighborhood knowledge to create our blueprint for safer streets.

Vision Zero’s first wave of street safety improvements focused on priority locations. These locations became the proving grounds for active intervention: retiming traffic signals to our new, city-wide 25 mph speed limit; the installation of leading pedestrian intervals that give people walking across the street a head start before turning vehicles; and the installation of landscape changes, like curb extensions, pedestrian islands, and public plazas. Thanks to these interventions, at those priority locations, pedestrian deaths and serious injuries have declined 45 percent.

Understanding that Vision Zero gave us the opportunity to be bold in tackling persistent challenges, we designated four major arterial roads in the outer boroughs “Vision Zero Great Streets” and began to intensively redesign them. Among these is the daunting Queens Boulevard, a wide street that for decades bore the moniker “Boulevard of Death” and saw 18 pedestrians killed there in 1997 alone, and is now home to miles of buffered bike lane, among other improvements. Since reconstruction began in 2015, no pedestrians have been killed on Queens Boulevard, and the number of cyclists has skyrocketed. This was crucial: If Queens Boulevard could be transformed from deadly divider into thriving neighborhood connector, then nothing was impossible.

This was crucial: If Queens Boulevard could be transformed from deadly divider into thriving neighborhood connector, then nothing was impossible.

Public outreach and education make sure New Yorkers know what Vision Zero demands of them. We are constantly engaging, through community board meetings and town halls, whenever we plan a project. We may not always get our plans right the first time, but we are committed to integrating public feedback into our designs and policies.

We also employed hard-hitting public advertising campaigns reminding drivers that their choices behind the wheel matter, and that while driving is hard, “saving a life is easy” by complying with traffic laws. We used other innovations as well: when data showed pedestrian deaths spiking during autumn and winter evenings, we joined with the New York Police Department and the Taxi and Limousine Commission to create “Dusk and Darkness,” an intensive enforcement and education campaign reminding drivers to slow down for pedestrians who are less visible as the sun sets during evening rush hour. We developed and adopted a new pedestrian safety curriculum in New York City public schools, and our team of traffic safety educators conducts training programs at more than 600 schools a year, as well as at dozens of senior citizen centers.

Enforcement, in itself, can be a form of education. About two-thirds of all summonses are now for the “Vision Zero offenses” that cause the most harm — speeding, failure to yield the right of way to pedestrians, failure to stop at a signal, improperly turning, using a mobile phone, and disobeying signs.

Transformational change does not come cheap. Progress on Vision Zero was reinforced by the Mayor’s support of major new allocations in Department of Transportation’s budget. Through 2021, New York City has committed $1.6 billion to Vision Zero initiatives.

My agency has honored this commitment with a comprehensive street redesign program: in 2017 alone, the New York City Department of Transportation installed nearly 25 miles of protected bicycle lanes, implemented left turn traffic-calming interventions at 110 intersections, activated 832 pedestrian head starts, and completed 114 distinct safety improvement projects.

With this combination of leadership, policy, and investment, New York City hopes and expects that we will not only continue to buck national trends, but that our improvements will contribute to a long-term culture shift, where safer streets are no longer an exception. As a former U.S. Department of Transportation official, I believe that much of our experience is replicable in cities willing to dedicate their time and resources to street safety.

In a city of 8.6 million highly opinionated people, finding universal consensus on any topic is a challenge. But the public support for Vision Zero is enormously high and grows every year: drivers increasingly understand that traffic crashes — along with fatalities and serious injuries — are no longer inevitable. We’ve created a New York model for Vision Zero, proudly and unapologetically committed to safety, and our results are proof positive that we have drawn a blueprint with potential for cities across the U.S.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]

Commissioner Polly Trottenberg leads the New York City Department of Transportation, the nation’s largest municipal transportation agency. As Commissioner, Trottenberg directs the agency’s mission — focusing on mobility, safety, equity, sustainability and economic growth in DOT’s oversight of roads, bridges, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and the Staten Island Ferry. She has led Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative to eliminate roadway fatalities. New York City has redesigned hundreds of streets and achieved legislative victories in lowering the City’s speed limit to 25 mph. Under her leadership, the City has seen its fewest-ever traffic fatalities. With more than 25 years of career public service, Commissioner Trottenberg most recently served as U.S. DOT’s Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy in the Obama Administration.

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