Myrtle Street in Brooklyn is now a pedestrian street. Photo by Kevin Barton.

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The New York City Vision Zero goal is simple and precise: to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets. This is not a mere sound bite in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Vision Zero initiative before he took office and is moving the transportation safety work started by his predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Polly Trottenberg, the current New York City Transportation Commissioner, was an opening speaker at the inaugural Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in mid-November where she restated her commitment to safety for all transportation modes, including walking and cycling.

New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg
New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg

“One life lost is one too many,” she said.

The symposium, organized by Transportation Alternatives, brought together 300 government and non-government participants from dozens of cities across the U.S. and the world. Transportation Alternatives is a grassroots organization that has worked for decades to improve cycling and walking safety in New York City. It reached a major milestone in 2013 when the city adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan. The 10-year plan sets a high bar through better street design and changing road user behavior. The details are as complex and comprehensive as you might expect for a plan that will create sweeping cultural and engineering changes to the nation’s largest city, but it is built on two fundamental principles: Reduce the chance of collisions and reduce injury by reducing speed.

The myths about New York City transportation safety defy the facts. A popular myth is that New York streets are dangerous, but the fact is their streets are far safer than San Antonio’s streets. In 2012, there were 268 deaths from traffic violence in New York City. Of those, 127 pedestrians and cyclists were killed. During the same period, San Antonio traffic fatalities per capita were 297% that of New York City, and pedestrian/cyclist fatalities per capita were 176% greater that of New York City, according to 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

Narrow streets and wide sidewalks in Brooklyn, New York encourage more pedestrian activity and slower drivers. Photo by Kevin Barton.
Narrow streets and wide sidewalks in Brooklyn, New York, encourage more pedestrian activity and slower drivers. Photo by Kevin Barton.

New York City outperforms San Antonio, and almost every other city in the nation, in traffic safety. Yet, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers share San Antonio’s culture of indifference to traffic deaths. However, a growing group of transportation safety activists throughout New York City steadily chipped away at that indifference and in the past 24 months made powerful breakthroughs. First was the adoption of Vision Zero, followed by establishment of Families for Safe Streets. Families for Safe Streets is a coalition of families who lost a child, parent, or spouse in a pedestrian or cycling collision with an automobile. Families for Safe Streets was a powerful, watershed organization, but one that no one wants membership in.

A pedestrian island in the middle of a busy street in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.
A pedestrian island in the middle of a busy street in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

The establishment of Families for Safe Streets was a pivotal step. Their tragic stories, their conviction to ending this culture of indifference compelled the state legislature to pass a bill permitting New York City to set a city-wide default 25-mph speed limit. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi trade association, has joined as partners. Major arterials are being converted to 25-mph speed zones. Streets and intersections throughout the city are being redesigned to reduce chaos, instill discipline, and convert automobile lanes to dedicated cycling and pedestrian uses.

New York City is not the only U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero policies. San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles have all adopted Vision Zero policies. San Antonio could be the next. The Vision Zero for Cities Symposium shared the strategies behind New York City’s successes. Four themes emerged:

  1. The critical role of community activists
  2. Engineering and designing for safety
  3. Changing culture
  4. Elected officials must champion safety as the absolute top transportation priority

Changing the culture of indifference was the undisputed greatest challenge, but committed governments and committed activists have proven successful in other campaigns, including seatbelt use and changing DUI laws and enforcement.

The culture of indifference is reflected in our transportation priorities. Citizens and communities exchange safety for perceived convenience. State, federal, and local governments prioritize level of service over safety.

Without branding the concept, the U.S. military proves Vision Zero is attainable. Anything less is merely an acceptance of less. As was emphasized during the symposium, culture is the difference between success and failure, not engineering or design limitations.

A quiet Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.
A quiet Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Activist groups worked for decades in New York City before elected officials stepped forward to champion Vision Zero. Today, San Antonio does not have the prominent and expansive transportation safety activist groups that have worked so long in New York City, but San Antonio does have something those groups struggled to find.

My wife is District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. She attended the Vision Zero for Cities Symposium and is committed to moving San Antonio to a Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries on San Antonio streets. Gonzales championed active transportation during her campaign, and has steadfastly encouraged cycling and walking since being elected. 

*Featured/top image: Myrtle Street in Brooklyn is now a pedestrian street. Photo by Kevin Barton.

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Kevin Barton is an Associate Professor-Professional Track in Computer Information Systems at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. A retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant, his experience living in Asia, Central...