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The Low-Hanging Fruit of Vision Zero, Part 1

February 20, 2014

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 cornersThe 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.


  1. Janice D. permalink
    February 20, 2014 5:02 pm

    If only they could adjust the crossing signals at large,complex intersections like Atlantic & Flatbush or Ave.U & Flatbush to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross, and ALL vehicles to wait, no turns at all. Some intersections are never safe from competition between people in cross walks and cars told by signal to proceed with their turn.

  2. Gene Aronowitz permalink
    February 20, 2014 5:59 pm

    Very well thought out and written, Doug. However, I wish you hadn’t written the last sentence; I wish I had written it instead.

  3. February 21, 2014 10:53 am

    There is a revolution going on in America’s towns and cities. It started many years ago, as you well know, but Mayor DeBlasio’s commitment to Vision Zero is a great new step for New York and all its residents and visitors. There are only two ways to get to zero pedestrian deaths: separate the cars and the pedestrians so they can’t come in contact (not in New York City, obviously), or slow the cars down to 20 mph or slower (25 mph is a good start, but it’s a compromise with great problems—including that unless we drastically change our roads, everyone will drive 35 mph or higher).

    Once you slow the cars down to 20 mph, everything changes in street design. Drivers see much more, and have more time to react. All the tricks of the trade that enable cars to safely go fast—highway-scale graphics, lots of paint, reflectors, white plastic sticks, left-turn lanes—can go away, and the street no longer feels like 80% has been given primarily to the car. We can then design harmonious, holistic streets where “the space between the buildings” really is where public life takes place.

    Once that happens, it’s a mistake to focus on the design of the intersections more than the design of the street, and a lot of the sub-urban solutions developed by bike and pedestrian specialists workingin the 1990s on sub-urban and exurban streets that will probably never be places where people want to get out of their cars and walk become inappropriate in the context of urban neighborhoods like Park Slope.

    There are times when formulaic curb extensions are good, but 9 times out of 10 that’s not the best solution for city streets (and the formulaic extensions are never the best ones). There are times in the city when it’s good to clear the intersections of parking, but there are more times when it’s not. Urban designers focus on making good streets. Transportation engineers focus on intersections, because that’s where cars and pedestrians (and cars and cars) come into conflict. For pedestrians, the best solutions are designs for people, not cars. Cyclists will always fit on those streets.

    • February 21, 2014 11:43 am

      John, thanks for your great comment. Just to be clear, I’m not saying the city should go about daylighting or installing buffered bike lanes willy nilly. We do need to take a wholistic look at the needs of individual streets and communities.

      The message is simply that we need to simplify the process. Once DOT or a community looks at the data and says, “Yep, we need to daylight this specific corner,” for example, we can drastically simplify the process of getting that done. My overall point is that we need not over-think solutions or wait until the money or “right” design materials come through.

      There’s no one-sized fits all approach. Just wanted to start the discussion! And I value your input.

      • johnmassengale permalink
        February 21, 2014 12:01 pm

        Thanks, Doug. You’ve been working with a lot of great people for years. I haven’t met most of you,* even though I was born in New York and I was walking the streets of Manhattan at 11 imagining how to fix them. So let me tell you that my hope is that now that the table has been set by Janette, Vision Zero, Streetsblog, StreetsPAC et al we can go to an imaginative and innovative next step for walkable streets without too much baggage from the traffic engineer and the suburban specialist techniques of the 1990s.

        *I’m wondering if I met you on Park Avenue in the 50s last summer, the final day it was closed.

      • February 21, 2014 12:24 pm

        I was out of town for the last Summer Streets, so it wasn’t me! But hope we can meet soon.

  4. johnmassengale permalink
    February 21, 2014 10:57 am

    BTW, my office is 100 feet from Lafayette Street, which for me is the best and most comfortable bike lane in Manhattan. The so-called “Copenhagen Lanes” (which you will never see in such an over-engineered form in Copenhagen) on suburban-style, one-way arterials with left-turn lanes have their obvious virtues, especially in the previous context of no good bike lanes in the entire city, but the overall experience on Lafayette is better, for both pedestrians and cyclists.

  5. johnmassengale permalink
    February 23, 2014 10:37 am

    One of the leading pedestrian advocates of the last two decades, commenting on the wide-open design of a typical intersection in Florida, wrote: ” “The infamous “sight triangles” are totally clear…” Here’s a research project: demonstrate that there are far more crashes at intersections with clear sight lines than at intersections where visibility is obscured. I bet my reputation those results will be borne out. It has to be a major part of the reason we have far more crashes in the sun belt, where roads are wide, flat, and clear of obstructions.”

    In Street Design, we talk about how the squares of Savannah function as urban “roundabouts” better than any roundabouts designed recently. Why? Precisely because the roads have a geometry that is difficult for cars, visibility is poor, and drivers have to look for cars coming from the left while watching out for pedestrians on the right. The fact that all the intersections have cars parked at the corners contributes to the driver’s need to slow down and be aware. The “splitter islands” of the modern roundabout, on the other hand, assure the driver that he or she can safely and smoothly flow through the circle.

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