New York City is known for being a hard-driving metropolis — literally. At nearly every intersection, you can hear a car’s honk, squealing brakes, and the occasional swear from a cut-off driver or jaywalking pedestrian. New Yorkers want to get where they want to go, and they want to get there now. The city’s passion for moving fast is practically a cliche; having an attitude to match is a characteristic part of living in New York.
However, this move-fast-and-get-there culture comes at a cost. On average, vehicle accidents seriously injure or kill one New Yorker every two hours; according to recently-published findings, roughly 4,000 New Yorkers experience severe injury and over 200 die in traffic-related accidents each year. These numbers are shocking, especially given the sheer avoidability of most car accidents.
But what if navigating daily life in the city wasn’t so dangerous? Is it possible to lean into that avoidability in a way that could make New York’s fast-paced attitude safer and more peaceful for all?
The answer seems to be yes. While the number of traffic fatalities seems high at a glance — and to be clear, it is — the fatality rates and injury rates reported in the city have nevertheless been on a steep decline for several years. In the five years between 2018 and 2013, the total number of people killed in traffic collisions in New York dropped from 299 to a comparatively low 200. As matters stand, New York’s fatality statistics are currently at their lowest recorded level since the city began collecting such data in 1910.
This is all good news — but why has this change come to pass? Most attribute the positive change to a 2014 citywide initiative called Vision Zero.
What is Vision Zero?
While Vision Zero has been the impetus for sweeping change in New York, it did not start in the city — or, for that matter, the country. The program first took root in Sweden during the 1990s. The initiative developed around a revolutionary new philosophy towards urban planning and design; rather than place sole responsibility for traffic safety on drivers and pedestrians, the program attributes partial accountability on system designers and policymakers to lessen the potentiality of crashes and ensure that when they do occur, the damage they cause is negligible.
Or, as one writer for the program in New York describes the founding idea: “Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities.”
The program acknowledges that designing or overhauling public streets is a complex issue that encompasses a multitude of factors such as roadway design, behaviors, speeds, technology, and policies — all of which require input from different municipal departments. To that end, Vision Zero provides the framework for a cross-disciplinary and collaborative approach between local engineers, policymakers, traffic planners, and public health professionals.
The program’s approach has shown results across its home of Sweden, Europe, and now, New York City.
Tracking Vision Zero’s Impact in NYC
Mayor Bill De Blasio instituted NYC’s version of Vision Zero in 2014. In its original form, the plan encompassed 63 specific initiatives deployed across six city departments. Within its first year, Vision Zero committed $52 million to fund safety-related projects, overhauled 35 dangerous intersections, dropped posted speed limits to 25 mph on 27 high-fatality streets, and collaborated with the NYPD to conduct targeted enforcement efforts for speeding, distracted driving, and failure to yield.
More recently, Vision Zero organizers further opted to both increase the number of traffic cameras in school zones by over 500% and to expand their hours of operation. By June of 2020, these cameras will be installed throughout high-crash corridors across the five boroughs; notable areas include but are not limited to Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, Northern Boulevard in Queens, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and First Avenue in Manhattan.
All of these efforts have borne results, as the record-setting drop in New York’s traffic fatalities demonstrates. Mayor De Blasio himself recently highlighted the win in an interview for the New York Times by saying, “Vision Zero is clearly working.”
However, there is still work to be done. While traffic deaths are at an all-time low, pedestrian fatalities have seen a worrisome rise. According to recent statistics, the number of such deaths rose from 107 in 2017 to 114 in 2018. The uptick is troubling, given that pedestrian accidents tend to inflict more severe damage than any other form of traffic collision.
“Drivers haven’t taken their responsibility to yield very seriously,” Mayor De Blasio commented for the Times. “There has been a lot of enforcement, and there will be more.”
His point cuts to the founding principle of Vision Zero. Regardless of whether they walk, drive, or bike, New Yorkers deserve to feel safe as they move through their city — and it’s the city’s responsibility to make sure they have an environment that allows them to do so.