Before looking to the year ahead, it’s helpful to look back at where we’ve been.
First, the big picture is important. Overall, the safety of New York City’s streets has been improving. In 1971, there were nearly 1,000 traffic deaths in NYC – half of whom were pedestrians. Between 1916 and 1993, there was never a year with fewer than 500 traffic deaths in the city. Since 1993, we have never again surpassed 500 fatalities. In 2011, the city hit a record low of 249 fatalities.
At the same time, the culture was changing. The idea that streets are public spaces that can enhance the life of the city, and shouldn’t be operated exclusively for the storage and movement of vehicles, began to take hold for the first time in decades. People began to demand and expect that streets should be safe and livable. And the culture of city government began to change as well, responding to this public expectation by redesigning streets to safely accommodate all users.
But amid this changing culture and evolving expectations, things began to move in the wrong direction. Fatalities jumped to 277 in 2012 and 293 in 2013. Transportation advocates like StreetsPAC began asking political candidates pointed questions about their commitment to improving street safety and Transportation Alternatives began educating the public about Sweden’s “Vision Zero” initiative. And in late 2013, NYC voters elected a mayoral candidate and a new majority in the City Council deeply committed to safer streets.
At the same time, there was a heartbreaking rash of children being killed on streets all around the city – a trend that jolted the public’s attention. Responding to the repeated trauma of losing children to traffic violence, concerned neighbors and mourning families organized the Three Children Too Many march and vigil in Jackson Heights, and then began to form a new group to support local efforts boroughwide – and Make Queens Safer was born. And still the tragedies kept coming, as the neighborhood lost yet another child to a reckless driver in late December. The year 2013 couldn’t have ended on a more discouraging note.
The death toll from traffic violence in 2014 was unbearable as well, but it was also a year of hope for a better future. Here’s a timeline of key developments for Queens in 2014:
- January 1: As Bill de Blasio was inaugurated, Make Queens Safer, Make Brooklyn Safer, and Transportation Alternatives celebrated by thanking him for his commitment to Vision Zero, carrying a large “Vision Zero Starts Today” banner near City Hall. They were immediately and warmly greeted by Polly Trottenberg, the incoming DOT commissioner.
- January 15: Mayor de Blasio came to PS 152 in Woodside, near where a child was killed a few weeks earlier, to reaffirm his policy commitment to Vision Zero and launch the process of developing an implementation plan. MQS called the policy announcement “historic” but noted a key omission – the lack of focus on safer access to schools. MQS began advocating for a school access component of Vision Zero.
- January/February: Sadly, there were more vigils to be held, including a memorial on the anniversary of the death of Ella Bandes in Ridgewood and a vigil for Angela Hurtado in Elmhurst. Both had strong participation by local elected officials (including Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, Councilmember Mark Weprin), who comforted mourners and advocated for changes in state and local law to hold unlicensed drivers accountable. After multiple-injury hit & run crash on Northern Blvd, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and Sen. Mike Gianaris called for the city to focus on Northern Blvd. safety and Van Bramer advocated stronger penalties for hit and run drivers.
- In February, Mayor de Blasio released the city’s new Vision Zero Action Plan: “We refuse to accept the loss of children, parents and neighbors as inevitable.” Throughout the spring, NYCDOT, NYPD, and various elected officials held town hall meetings and workshops around Queens, including in Jackson Heights, Long Island City, Astoria, Springfield Gardens, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.
- Also in February, Families for Safe Streets was founded to serve as the voice for families that have had loved ones killed or injured by motor vehicles in NYC. They and other groups around the city launched the “20 is Plenty” campaign to reduce the city’s speed limit. In May, they and other concerned citizens participated in a Vision Zero lobbying day in Albany.
- In March, after Kumar Ragunath was killed in Long Island City, Van Bramer and Gianaris called for hit and run drivers to be brought to justice. In September, Van Bramer won passage of the Justice for Hit and Run Victims Act, which imposes civil penalties of up to $10,000 on drivers who leave the scene of a crash.
- In April, the city council began holding hearings on Vision Zero implementation.
- In July, Transportation Alternatives, Make the Road New York, Make Queens Safer and other groups held a Vision Zero Workshop in Corona, in an event sponsored by Councilmemeber Julissa Ferreras and Daniel Dromm. This bilingual event reached communities that were not well represented in the city’s outreach efforts. This forum led to a new effort to bring safer pedestrian and bicycle access into Flushing Meadows Corona Park and along 111th Street.
- In September, Make Queens Safer, Bike New York, NYCDOT, NYPD, and other groups held a Safer Greener Streets Fair in Jackson Heights, including a bike swap, helmet giveaway, bike repair, short film festival, and bike safety rodeo, as well as a Kid Engineers Traffic Study that examined speeding and other safety issues on 34th Avenue.
- In October, after years of advocacy and coalition building by Transportation Alternatives and others, NYCDOT signaled that it is willing to consider major design changes to Queens Boulevard, a longstanding priority in many neighborhoods along its length.
Over the course of 2014, NYCDOT expanded its Neighborhood Slow Zones program to Jackson Heights, Sunnyside and Woodside, thanks to the leadership of councilmembers Danny Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer. NYCDOT also rolled out a new Arterial Slow Zones program with lower speed limits and targeted enforcement on Rockaway Blvd., Jamaica Av., Queens Blvd., Roosevelt Av., and Northern Blvd. It also implemented important pedestrian safety improvements on College Point Avenue in Flushing; Hillside & Homelawn in Jamaica; Greenpoint & 48th in Sunnyside; Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City; BQE, 37th & Broadway in Woodside; Myrtle & Wyckoff in Ridgewood; and Northern Boulevard in Western Queens.
Throughout the year, we also saw leadership by elected officials at all levels of government:
- In the city council, virtually the entire Queens delegation contributed to making our streets safer, either leading the drive for legislation or by advocating for safety improvements in their districts. Particular champions this year have included Jimmy Van Bramer, Daniel Dromm, and Julissa Ferreras. The City Council passed Van Bramer’s hit-and-run law, a citywide 25 mph speed limit, bills to suspend licenses of unsafe taxi drivers, and make it a misdemeanor to hit a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right-of-way.
- In Albany, the state legislature authorized New York City to reduce its speed limit to 25 mph and to install more speed cameras in school zones. Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblywoman Marge Markey fought unsuccessfully for legislation that would make it a felony to drive with a suspended license when someone is killed or seriously injured in the process. Senator José Peralta advocated on behalf of constituents trying to improve school access safety. Other strong voices this year included Toby Ann Stavisky, Nily Rozic, and Francisco Moya.
- And in Washington, Congressman Joseph Crowley and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand promoted federal pedestrian safety legislation.
What did not happen in 2014?
- While NYCDOT worked admirably hard throughout 2014 to collect data and input on Vision Zero needs, we did not see a clear strategy emerge or very many new projects that were not already in the pipeline. We understand that these things take time, and are hopeful that a strategic plan will be released in 2015.
- NYPD did not appear to significantly change their procedures concerning when to charge drivers who strike pedestrians and cyclists; the city’s District Attorneys did not appear interested at all in enforcing the law as it concerns criminal recklessness and negligence by drivers; and the DMV continued to fail to live up to its responsibility to delicense dangerous drivers.
By the end of the year, the grim tally of traffic fatalities on the city’s streets and highways stood at 250, nearly matching the low achieved in 2011. There are several efforts underway to compile the names of these victims of traffic violence so that they can be remembered and their stories told (see memorial pages by WNYC, Streetsblog, and Make Queens Safer). This total included 154 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, a record low. In Queens, there were 88 fatalities (47 pedestrians and cyclists). While it is a tremendous relief that the growing carnage of the past two years has been reversed, there is still a long way to go. See our statistical review of 2014 progress here.
The collective action and attention of community groups and elected officials brought a level of understanding and commitment that certainly helped raise awareness and push through important legislation. It also helped bring about change locally as citizens and community boards learned more and grew more comfortable with the “toolkit” of strategies the city is using to improve dangerous streets and intersections. In 2015, as Queens continues to rise as a popular destination for living and visiting, we will continue to look to our local elected officials, our community boards, and Borough President Melinda Katz for energetic leadership on these issues. A commitment to seeking justice for traffic victims, attendance at key planning sessions and public awareness events, and constructive engagement with DOT to advance much-needed street redesigns, will all aid in making our streets and arterial roadways safer for everyone.