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The “Pedestrian Menace” and Vision Zero messaging

January 12, 2016

Some quick thoughts on the so-called “Pedestrian Menace,” as described by the TWU’s Pete Donohue

Mr. Donohue’s post represents at best, a gross misunderstanding of Vision Zero, and, at worst, a deliberate misrepresentation of the greatest threats facing New Yorkers who dare put their feet to the pavement on a regular basis.

However, to be extremely charitable to the TWU, the de Blasio administration has done a mediocre job of explaining what Vision Zero is all about, leaving a vacuum into which views like Donohue’s are sucked. We’ve gotten a lot of  “your choices” messaging and platitudes about everyone doing their part. Even Polly Trottenberg told pedestrians “we all have a role to play” in making our streets safer, a comment she had to walk back. None of these things are what Vision Zero is about. But when the message is that everyone is in it together, those who are inclined to discount the awesome responsibility that comes with operating a multi-ton vehicle might think it’s awfully unfair that pedestrians who cross against a signal or who walk into the street with their eyes buried in a smartphone — even with the legal right of way — aren’t doing their part. “Come on, buddy! Take out the earbuds and pay attention! Be part of the solution, not the problem!”

Then there’s the fact that New York’s version of Vision Zero has so far had a lot of emphasis on punitive outcomes after reckless driving occurs. That’s not to discount these efforts at all. Increased enforcement saves lives, victims deserve justice, and some measures — such as increasing the number of red-light and speed cameras — have both punitive and preventative qualities with a balance that shifts over time from the former to the latter. These polices must continue and be expanded, but year three and four of Vision Zero ought to swing the pendulum back to traffic calming measures using design, as was the focus before most people in New York even knew what Vision Zero was. While holding reckless drivers accountable is important, I’d rather not be hit in the first place than have the driver who kills me go to jail.

I think Bill de Blasio has done a lot right when it comes to traffic safety and the numbers clearly back him up. However, the failure to properly frame Vision Zero for what it really is — a top-down, systems-based approach to solving traffic deaths and injuries — has allowed ideas like Donohue’s to take root. To be fair to the mayor, they’d take root even in a world where City Hall explained Vision Zero better, but at least they’d have less fertile ground in which to grow.

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