Tonight, the Traffic and Transportation Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 will hear a presentation from DOT on upgrading the Lafayette Street bike lane from a buffered lane, as pictured above, to a parking-protected lane from Spring Street to 14th Street. It’s kind of a no-brainer, as the real estate is certainly there and little will change about the access drivers have to the street.
But despite great leadership on this committee, nothing can be taken for granted. My last experience with CB2, while positive in many regards, showed me how even the most basic pieces of bike infrastructure still face giant hurdles. Plus, it’s not just about the bike. Time and time again, protected bike lanes have improved safety for everyone on the street, including drivers and pedestrians. Seeing as how this proposal represents the first parking-protected bike lane of the Vision Zero era and one of the most significant safety upgrades early in 2014, it would be nice for livable streets advocates to show up in abundance to support the agency that’s leading the charge.
Community Board 2′s Traffic and Transportation Committee meets tonight at 6:30 at the NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, Room 520. (I.D. required to enter building.)
With New York City looking to Sweden as the inspiration for its Vision Zero plan, it’s worth asking what Sweden actually did to lower traffic fatality and injury rates. What balance should be struck between engineering, enforcement, and education? The Economist takes a closer look:
Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of “2+1″ roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.
As the article notes, Sweden isn’t at zero traffic deaths yet, although it has cut the number of people killed on its roads in half since the year 2000.
I was called out on Twitter for questioning the motives of Marcia Kramer and her sudden interest in dangerous driving. But I believe it’s a fair question. When a journalist’s previous forays into the subject involved warning New York about the threat of bike lane terrorists and airing selective clips of an ambulance using a bike lane as an escape route, I think a little skepticism is in order even if her story turns out to be as simple as she asserts. Journalists are nothing if not the sum total of their credibility, and when it comes to covering safe streets, Marcia Kramer doesn’t have a lot left.
In thinking about Kramer’s story, and the inevitable OUTRAGE! that it sparked, I began thinking a bit more about Vision Zero, the media, and what’s going to happen in the coming years. Kramer’s report, for whatever merit it may have had, offers a preview.
Vision Zero encompasses many things, including engineering, enforcement, and education. But, it should be noted, it’s also highly political. We won’t just all sing kumbaya and paint a bike lane and be grateful that we’ve saved a few lives. No, we’ll likely see years of squabbles of all shapes and sizes over every inch of street space as we — thankfully, it must be said — have some serious discussions about who and what our streets are for. These discussions will take place in political forums such as community boards and City Council hearings. There will be no small amount of political horse trading to get Albany to lower the speed limit or to enact meaningful laws that will deter and punish reckless driving. In fact, nearly everything about this process will exist in a political realm. So it’s not for nothing that CBS 2 sent its chief political correspondent to cover a story about the mayor’s caravan, just as they sent the same political correspondent to run what amounted to hit jobs on Janette Sadik-Khan’s signature projects in 2011.
So why did Marcia Kramer cover this story? First, the obvious. Hypocrisy is a juicy subject for any political reporter, especially one who, at a 1992 Democratic debate asked the question about past marijuana use that led to the infamous Bill Clinton reply, “I didn’t inhale.” It certainly makes for great TV to show Mayor de Blasio moralizing about reckless driving and then cut to video of his caravan allegedly doing the thing he just moralized against. I do this kind of stuff for a living and even I was pretty impressed with how her team edited that one together.
But there’s more going on here than just a hot story about dangerous driving and political hypocrisy. That’s because the changes Mayor de Blasio has proposed to driving culture under Vision Zero represent something even bigger than what began under JSK and Bloomberg. Vision Zero is, for all its great intent, a gigantic threat to those who man the gates of Fort Status Quo. And there are two reasons why.
One, Vision Zero has added a strong moral component to the ongoing quest for traffic safety. The recognition that dangerous driving is a public health crisis has exited the orbit of the usual suspects of Transportation Alternatives volunteers and Streetsblog readers. Kids are dying and their grieving parents are speaking out. Seniors are getting mowed down. People are showing up to community board meetings, rallies, and vigils like never before. Even police precinct commanders are getting in on the action, with my own local precinct taking a particularly strong early lead in the effort to rethink enforcement against dangerous driving. To put it simply, this thing is big. Changing our streets isn’t the pet project of that crazy nut job bike lady, her imperialist overlord, and their Twittering minions anymore. So raising concerns about bike lane terrorists and Czarina Sadist-Con just isn’t going to work this time, if it ever did.
Two, Mayor de Blasio was supposed to be different. After twelve years of Bloomberg, he ran as Not Bloomberg. He waved his motorist flag proudly. He had “profoundly mixed feelings” about Times Square. He was against congestion pricing. He was, in a word, safe for those who liked things the way they used to be, especially for New Yorkers of a driving persuasion. Sure, he had a safe streets policy section on his website that satisfied a lot of advocates, earning him a StreetsPAC endorsement, but there was probably a sense in the political and mainstream media establishment that the changes to the city’s driving culture that began under Bloomberg would slow down or be reversed when de Blasio was elected. But in the two short months since he took office, just the opposite has happened. He’s made eliminating all traffic fatalities one of his signature policy initiatives, right up there with providing universal pre-k. That’s probably made a lot of people very nervous about the future. If you hated bike lanes and pedestrian plazas under Michael Bloomberg, you’re going to despise Vision Zero under Bill de Blasio.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that Marica Kramer was right and Mayor de Blasio’s caravan was, in fact, violating any number of traffic laws for no good reason. Well, she sure got him. Everyone from from politicians to journalists to advocates joined the scold brigade, chiding the mayor for not practicing what he preaches. Even I took part. That’s not to say such a scolding wasn’t deserved. Reckless driving is reckless driving, no matter who is behind the wheel and it’s not too much to ask our politicians and police to obey the law. But I don’t think we should be so naive as to think that Marcia Kramer exposed the mayor’s seemingly reckless ride out of any morally righteous sense that Speeding Is Wrong.
Marcia smelled an exclusive, one that had the added benefit of potentially taking the wind out of the sails of this fast-moving Vision Zero thing without making her look like a fool, and she ran with it. Given her past reporting, she’ll certainly look for the next and best opportunity to do it again, but let’s just hope the mayor has learned his lesson and doesn’t give her any ammunition.
There is an upside to this latest bit of controversy: To the casual viewer, Marcia Kramer staked out a strong moral position against dangerous driving. If you’re not an inside baseball type and are unaware of her past ridiculousness, she made it clear: speeding is wrong. Her report put the subject into the thoughts of every journalist, politician, and TV viewer in New York City. You better believe that the mayor’s office will put out the notice to top administration officials that they are not to drive in any manner that could be considered even remotely dangerous. Lots of people, including CBS 2 news reporters, will actually have to watch how they drive.
After reading through Mayor de Blasio’s bold and comprehensive Vision Zero action plan, I’ve found a lot to like. From its sweeping engineering recommendations to the fact that it brings enforcement of both the automated and old fashioned variety straight into the spotlight, it’s hard to find much fault with what the city chose to include, especially given the limited window of time between the mayor’s January press conference and the report’s February 15th deadline.
Of course, as John Petro writes in Streetsblog, the devil is in the details of implementation, benchmarks, and budgets. What engineering changes will come first? Where will the money come from to institute such sweeping changes in meaningful and impactful ways? How long will the window be between drafting plans for new street designs and getting them installed? And what happens if Albany thumbs its nose at some of the plan’s key components, such as a reduced speed limit or additional traffic cameras?
If some parts of Vision Zero fail or are delayed, it won’t be for a lack of trying; the mayor has made his commitment to this effort loud and clear. There are ways in which the mayor can do more than just try. As one Jedi put it, he can do.
So what are the low-hanging fruit of Vision Zero? In the realm of engineering, I’ve thought of five. They are the things that can be implemented almost overnight, with minimal cost and almost no loss of political capital. I don’t think my suggestions are particularly innovative or revolutionary, but that’s the point. While there are certainly some big lifts coming our way when it comes to implementing Vision Zero, many safety enhancements can be accomplished quickly, easily, and cheaply using things that already exist in the city’s street engineering tool kit.
If you have ideas for other easy fixes along these lines, please leave them in the comments.
1. Daylight corners. The mayor’s Vision Zero action plan includes the suggestion to “open up intersections to improve visibility” and suggests removing “visual barriers such as parking that can cause traffic crashes and injuries near intersections.” (Cap’N Transit includes “sidewalk extensions” on his pedestrian wish list, but ties their implementation to future sidewalk reconstruction; it’s a great idea, but I don’t think we need to wait for capital projects to act.)
Under JSK, the DOT was very adept at this, using paint and plastic delineators, but the process can be simplified still. The city of Hoboken was able to daylight many street corners using simple plastic delineators, at a cost of just $40 per treatment, a cost that’s well within the reach of BIDs or community associations looking to enhance key intersections. In fact, a single participatory budgeting item could probably pay to cover an entire neighborhood and then some.
This treatment would offer immediate safety benefits while allowing the debate over what such spaces should become — Expanded sidewalk space with poured concrete? Bike corrals? Bioswales? Parklets? — to continue for as long as necessary, or, as is often the case, longer than necessary.
2. Turn buffered bike lanes into protected bike lanes. Given the mayor’s ambitious goal to increase modal share for bicycles to 6% by 2020, fast-tracking buffered bike lanes to protected status is an easy way to tip the scales ever so slightly without rocking the boat so early in the Vision Zero process. This may not be possible for all of the city’s buffered bike lanes, but Hudson Street and Lafayette Street in Manhattan, to name just two, could probably become parking-protected lanes overnight. (Indeed, a plan to convert Hudson Street’s bike lane into a protected lane has existed since 2011.)
Where full protection is not possible, plastic delineators could be installed, as is common in DC and Chicago. Imagine how the experience of riding the Chrystie Street bike lane would be improved if there was a simple way to discourage drivers from parking there. Even the shortest of buffered lanes, such as this portion of Bleecker between Carmine and Sixth Avenue, could benefit from the treatment. (For reference see “Bike Lane, Guerilla.”)
3. Look for mid-block crossing opportunities, a la 6 1/2 Avenue. The six privately owned public spaces that were connected by 6 1/2 Avenue were stitched together to create one of Midtown’s best walking shortcuts. But many desirable destinations, such as playgrounds, schools, cultural institutions, and major retailers have front gates or entries that are located in the middle of the block, essentially inviting “jaywalking” by anyone on the other side of the street who prefers not to hoof it to the corner and back to get there.
While it wouldn’t work everywhere, there are certainly many places where we can lose one or two parking spaces on either side of the street and install some sort of bump-out and high-viz crosswalk. Depending on the street, turning these crossings into chicanes would further enhance pedestrian, cyclist, and driver safety.
4. Expand loading zones. The mayor’s Vision Zero action plan includes the proposal to “Widen the parking lane” in order to “keep cars and trucks loading and unloading out of the travel lanes when double parked.” This seems to work for drivers on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, where the parking lane was widened so that double-parked vehicles wouldn’t obstruct the flow of automobile traffic. However, this idea isn’t possible on every street; the parking lanes on Park Slope’s busy 5th Avenue, for example, couldn’t possibly be widened without encroaching into the travel lanes.
Even where widening parking lanes is feasible, there are other problems with any sort of official sanctioning of double parking. For starters, wider parking lanes become de facto bike lanes, and double-parked cars are huge hazards to people on bikes, even riders daring enough to travel on arterials such as Fourth Avenue. Additionally, it sends the wrong message to drivers: once they’re able to double park with ease on one street, they’ll think no less of doing it on another. And, to be fair, drivers can’t realistically be expected to ask themselves every time they double park, “Is this parking lane wide enough?” Instead, the city should expand the use of curbside loading zones in commercial and residential areas alike, re-purposing parking to facilitate deliveries and drop-offs. Where such zones are open and available, the NYPD should be charged with more aggressively ticketing drivers who still choose to double park. (Cap’n Transit also has more to say on this idea.)
Finally, here’s one idea that perhaps influences all the rest:
5. Remove street engineering proposals that do not significantly alter the overall configuration of a street from the community board process. This is more of a procedural and political point than an engineering one, but it relates to the speed with which many of the engineering changes suggested in the Vision Zero action plan can be implemented.
For example, where a street’s travel lanes will be narrowed but not reduced in number, there’s virtually no need to seek out community board approval for such a change. If a class 2 bike lane or sharrows are to be added to a street that otherwise has one over-wide car lane, that proposal should not need to go before a community board for a resolution. I’d even suggest that Slow Zones be included in this category, since they tend to come from community-driven applications that are sometimes more representative of the community than the community board, and, as of now, require few engineering changes that significantly alter the streetscape.
That’s not to say community boards shouldn’t be advised of even minor changes in advance, but keeping these relatively small tweaks dependent on Robert’s Rules of Order and parliamentary tricks is the easiest way to make sure they take forever to happen, if they happen at all. If the threat is real and the cause is just, then there’s no time to wait.
In a future post, I’ll take a look at the low-hanging fruit of the other “e’s,” enforcement and education.
While looking at this week’s Cartoon Caption Contest in The New Yorker, I came to the realization that “Damn Bike Lanes” works perfectly with the above cartoon. (I’ve submitted it, so back off.)
Boerum Hill was among the first neighborhoods in Brooklyn to get a Slow Zone. It hasn’t all been perfect, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. There remains work to be done, and it’s great to see so many committed organizations behind this street safety forum. If you can make it, please consider attending to speak up for safer streets for people on foot, on bikes, and in cars.
“We are worried that the issues of bicyclists and pedestrian behavior are clouding the major problem at hand,” he said. “While we are all for interventions that get cyclists and walkers to follow the law, the fact is that cyclists and walkers do not kill innocent people who cross the street legally.