Three takeaways from NYC DOT’s Vision Zero Talk at DVRPC

We’ve been covering pedestrian safety issues a lot over the past year as the Vision Zero issue has made its way into the election year conversation. Simply put, that’s the idea that cities should “design around the idea of human fallibility,” as Rob Viola of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) put it at yesterday’s Regional Traffic Safety meeting at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). That meeting covered a lot of territory on safety policy developments at all levels of government, with a few big takeaways for the practitioners who may be working on that issue next year. 

Getting the police on board

In New York City, Vision Zero has taken the form of a collaborative approach between different departments of New York City government, each with their own piece of the action. Rob Viola is the senior project manager for Vision Zero, so he’s overseen the implentation of the plan across the different departments. 

As we’ve been reading since the NYC campaign began, getting the New York Police Department (NYPD) on board with the project has been among the biggest challenges.

“I’m sure this exists in other places, but police are not necessarily focused on traffic safety as their number one priority,” he said. “They have lots of other things they’re working on and sometimes working together and bringing that up to be a priority can be tough.”

The phrase “culture change” makes frequent appearances in the articles about this, and Viola confirmed it’s been difficult sometimes to get buy-in further down the chain of command. He said that’s changing though, and pointed to a new “street team” initiative between NYCDOT and NYPD staff that seems to be yielding some early good results. 

“The street team is basically a tactic where they go out to corridors that have been identified as high-crash and pass out literature, do trainings about how people should be using the roads, and then that’s followed up by a wave of enforcement,” he said.

Focusing on school zones

The state legislature in Albany was about as eager to pass new speed camera enabling legislation in 2014 as our legislature in Harrisburg is today, which is to say not at all, but Vision Zero advocates in New York were able to win enabling legislation anyway by turning the conversation toward children’s safety.

“Speed cameras are often a difficult political sell,” said Viola, “There was a big story about how they went in in Long Island and then they were pulled out after residents felt it was just a revenue grab. But how we approached it in New York City was to keep the focus around schools, so DOT pulled together a lot of data showing speeding near schools, injuries near schools, and then we were able to get a bill passed in the state house in Albany to put in 140 speed cameras near schools.”

Viola said the cameras can only be used for enforcement within a quarter mile of a school, and during school hours, so it’s a limited program. NYCDOT hopes that the impact they’ve had on reducing speeding behavior will help mainstream that program and build support for an expansion of the case where speed cameras can be used. 

Shame Equality vs. the Hierarchy of Danger

One thing that stands out in all the ad spots for Vision Zero in NYC is that very little of it is actually focused on pedestrian or cyclist misbehavior. It’s a lot different from the “It’s Road Safety” campaign MOTU rolled out earlier this year in Philly.

Listening to participants in WHYY’s Speakeasy forum earlier this year, it became clear that there are two general frames people use to think about this topic. To one way of thinking, since all people seem to behave inconsiderately on the streets in roughly equal measure, it’s only fair to spread the shame and enforcement resources around roughly equally among all users.

To the other group, the most important factor is the “hierarchy of danger” (coined by DVRPC’s Andrew Svekla) presented by different types of vehicles. Even if all people behave equally badly, the thinking goes, the public policy response should mainly focus on cars, trucks, and buses for enforcement, since those vehicles have the greatest potential to cause harm to others.

In New York, the Vision Zero campaign has come down decisively in the second category, while Philly’s “It’s Road Safety” campaign is an example of the first. That’s caused some friction between the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities and Philly’s Vision Zero supporters as to whether that campaign amounts to victim-blaming. 

Viola said NYC DOT considers the issue of distracted pedestrians “overblown,” at least in New York, in response to an audience question about this.

“A really tiny portion of our fatalities [have pedestrian actions] actually marked as the cause,” he said. “And we think the driver actually has a very large incentive to claim pedestrian fault if they did think that was the cause…In terms of the pedestrian issue, It may be different in some other places, but I think in New York it’s a little overblown. People are on their headphones, but you can still hear traffic when you’re on your headphones. And if you’re crossing with the signal, you know, you could be blind—the cars still have to yield to you. It’s the responsibility of the driver.”

Gus Scheerbaum, who runs the Red Light Camera Enforcement initiative at the Streets Department, agreed, saying the “It’s Road Safety” campaign’s intent wasn’t to blame victims, just to remind pedestrians to pay attention to their surroundings too. 

“We’ve found in our crash data analysis of pedestrians involved in crashes, where someone was severely injured or killed, 30% were between the ages of 1 and 17, and then 30% more were between the ages of 17 and 34,” he said, “These are younger people who tend to be part of, perhaps, this entertaiment culture [Ed. a reference to the ads’ snarky tone]. We’re certainly not trying to blame the victim here. We understand that the thing that’s doing the killing is drivers in multi-ton hunks of metal. But we’re trying to make sure that pedestrians are cogniscent and aware.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal