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City Council Passes Several Bills to Reduce Reckless Driving

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other reps before today's meeting. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/willalatriste/status/472067061028777984##@willalatriste##

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other reps before today’s meeting. Photo: @willalatriste

The City Council today passed a slate of bills and resolutions aimed at improving street safety.

The 11 bills — outlined in detail here — include Intro 238, which would make it a misdemeanor for a driver to “make contact” with a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way, punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail; and Intro 171, known as “Cooper’s Law,” which would suspend or revoke TLC licenses of cab drivers who are summonsed or convicted, respectively, of traffic violations stemming from crashes that result in critical injury or death.

Council Member Mark Weprin, of Queens, cast the lone vote against Intro 171. Weprin said the bill comes too close to creating a strict liability standard — which, according to attorney and traffic law expert Steve Vaccaro, is exactly what New York State needs to reduce deaths and injuries. Weprin said he fears the law would punish some unfairly — that a driver’s career shouldn’t end because of one incident, and that a cabbie who rolls through a stop sign and causes a crash should not necessarily be subject to the same penalties as one who crashes while speeding. (The cab driver who killed Cooper Stock failed to yield and had an otherwise clean record.) “This is the livelihood of these drivers,” said Weprin. Council Members Vincent Gentile and Jumaane Williams abstained from voting on the bill.

Other bills would combine points issued by the state DMV and the TLC against hack licenses and set new TLC license suspension and revocation standards; require the TLC to review and report on cab driver crashes and subsequent disciplinary actions; codify the number of Slow Zones DOT implements each year; codify DOT work zone safety standards; require DOT to study the safety of arterial streets, study safety issues pertaining to left turns by motorists, and inspect and/or repair broken traffic signals within 24 hours; and prohibit “stunt behavior” by motorcyclists.

The bill to require the TLC to institute a one-year pilot program for “black box” technology to record and report taxi driver behavior was not on today’s agenda. TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi told the transportation committee in April that the agency has issued RFIs for the program, but she made no mention of the pilot in budget testimony before the council earlier this month.

One bill in the transportation committee hopper not taken up today would mandate side guards for trucks to help prevent people from being swept beneath them. DOT asked that the council hold off on legislating truck guards in lieu of a pending study already underway within the department.

The council approved resolutions asking Albany to grant the city control over speed and red light cameras, increase the penalty for driving on a sidewalk to $250 and three license points, make it a misdemeanor to violate the state’s vulnerable user law, increase the penalty for reckless driving that results in death or serious injury, and pass extant bills to increase penalties for leaving the scene of a crash.

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TLC Won’t Renew Hack License of Cab Driver Who Killed Cooper Stock

The cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock won’t be prosecuted by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, but he won’t have a hack license much longer.

Koffi Komlani has not driven a cab since he struck Cooper and his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk in January, according to Allan Fromberg, spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Being a new driver, Komlani has a one-year probationary license, and the TLC will not renew it when it expires on July 5, Fromberg said.

“Obviously, while we are seeking to address issues of getting drivers that we believe are risky off the road more easily through legislative means via Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, in the meantime, at least, we can take this action,” Fromberg told Capital New York.

The TLC says it is hamstrung by rules that make it difficult to take dangerous cab drivers off the streets. Komlani stopped driving voluntarily. The cabbies who killed 5-year-old Timothy Keith and severed the leg of tourist Sian Green, for example, also retained their hack licenses.

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan includes a number of taxi safety initiatives, including “black box” tech to monitor cab driver behavior. However, TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi did not mention that program when she outlined the TLC’s FY 15 budget for the City Council. Joshi has said the TLC and NYPD will form an enforcement squad that will focus exclusively on TLC-licensed vehicles.

After the news broke that Komlani would not be charged criminally, Council Member Helen Rosenthal again called for the passage of “Cooper’s Law,” her bill to suspend or revoke the hack licenses of cab drivers who are summonsed or convicted, respectively, of traffic violations stemming from crashes that result in critical injury or death. 

“Current laws are clearly inadequate, and this news affirms the need for Cooper’s Law,” said Rosenthal in a press release. “The City legislates the TLC, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that those laws are sound.”

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No Mention of Cab Safety Tech as TLC Commish Outlines Vision Zero Budget

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan contains a number of initiatives to improve cab driver safety, including “black box” technology to monitor cabbie behavior. TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi told the City Council in early May that the agency has issued RFIs for a telematics pilot program, but she didn’t mention the program during testimony at Thursday’s council budget hearing.

Meera Joshi

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi

She did explain the TLC’s current disciplinary process. Responding to a question from council member and transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez, Joshi said TLC inspectors do field enforcement and issue summonses based on observed cab driver activity. A second group within TLC prosecutes offenses in an administrative court, Joshi said. The court falls under the auspices of the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, a city agency that is independent of the TLC.

Rodriguez, himself a former livery driver, told Joshi that the council wants to see the TLC emphasize safety and ramp up enforcement against reckless cab drivers, while making sure drivers are treated fairly.

Rodriguez asked that the TLC hold a Vision Zero town hall for cabbies. “I think it’s an excellent idea,” Joshi said.

Joshi testified after representatives from the MTA. Here are more highlights:

  • The FY 15 TLC budget includes $1.1 million in new funding for Vision Zero, Joshi said. Funds will be allocated for what Joshi called a “safety squad” — presumably the joint TLC/NYPD enforcement effort she mentioned at a council hearing earlier this month — PSAs for passengers, and educational materials for drivers.
  • Joshi said removing unlicensed cabs is “the most effective way to keep our streets safe.” She told the council again that the TLC now has unlimited capacity to tow and impound such vehicles.
  • The TLC won’t be issuing any more boro cab permits, Joshi said, until the agency has “a good understanding about how the program has worked so far.” There are currently 5,000 cabs that pick up street hails outside the Manhattan core, and 1,000 more permits were issued for cabs that are not yet on the street, Joshi said. Mayor de Blasio, whose campaign was partially funded by yellow cab owners, criticized the Bloomberg initiative as a candidate. Dana Rubinstein of Capital New York has a good analysis of where the program stands as of Thursday.

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DOT Breaks Down Street Safety Spending for City Council

At a City Council budget hearing today, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg outlined in detail how DOT plans to allocate funds for street safety over the next year.

DOT will spend $23 million to acquire the 120 additional speed cameras that were authorized by the state legislature this session, Trottenberg said, and will begin the procurement process when Governor Cuomo signs the bill into law. In her opening statement Trottenberg thanked the council for passing a home rule message in support of legislation to lower the default city speed limit to 25 miles per hour, which she said would be “invaluable” to DOT’s street safety program.

On the subject of speed cameras, Trottenberg said placements will be data-driven. “We’re looking at creative ways to enhance the value of cameras,” she said, possibly including dummy signs that indicate an area “may be monitored.”

For FY 15, Trottenberg said, DOT has allocated $13 million to redesign streets and intersections; $2 million for speed humps, including those in Slow Zones; $3 million for Vision Zero educational materials; $8 million for wayfinding signs and the City Bench program; and $19 million for public plazas. To put these numbers in perspective, DOT’s total “controllable expenses” are budgeted at $493 million in FY 2015 [PDF, page 46]. The speed cameras, speed humps, and Vision Zero educational materials seem to account for the $28.8 million in DOT Vision Zero funds earmarked in Mayor de Blasio’s executive budget.

The city will build the West Street and Flushing Avenue segments of the Brooklyn Greenway next year, Trottenberg said, and will complete a streetscape project on 185th Street in Washington Heights.

Other news from the hearing:

  • Trottenberg said the city is negotiating with Alta as the company attempts to improve bike-share operations and attract investors. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to have some good news to announce,” she said. As they have at prior hearings, several council members, including Steve Levin, Brad Lander, and Jimmy Van Bramer, said that they would like to see city funds devoted to bike-share.
  • Responding to a question from Council Member Julissa Ferreras, Trottenberg said DOT will try to work with existing non-profits to help maintain public plazas in areas where there are no business improvement districts.

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Council Members Rally With StreetsPAC (and Bicycles) on City Hall Steps

Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, and Carlos Menchaca raise their bicycles outside outside of City Hall this morning. Photo: Stephen Miller

Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, and Carlos Menchaca raise their bicycles outside City Hall this morning. (Kallos rode Citi Bike to the event.) Photo: Stephen Miller

This morning, five City Council members joined StreetsPAC and dozens of bike commuters on the steps of City Hall to celebrate Bike to Work Week and push for Vision Zero traffic safety policies before today’s transportation budget hearing.

One group rode from Brooklyn Borough Hall and another from Union Square, meeting up just before 9 a.m. for a rare City Hall photo op involving bikes, which required coordination with police and City Council staff. Council members Brad Lander, Ben Kallos, Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, and Helen Rosenthal were on hand.

“It was a short ride from Borough Hall to City Hall, but it has been a long ride to move the city forward on issues of safe streets and a more livable city, and we have a long way to go,” Lander said. “Every week, somebody is killed on our streets, and that means every week, we’ve got to be doing more to make everybody safer.”

After concluding his remarks, Lander spotted two members of Mayor de Blasio’s staff, deputy press secretary Wiley Norvell and policy analyst Ben Furnas, walking into City Hall. Lander called out to them and introduced them to the group. “The mayor is the author of the Vision Zero plan, but he may have had a little help,” he said to cheers from the advocates.

The event also offered an opportunity for council members to talk up various policy initiatives.

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Council and Advocates Unite Behind 25 MPH Limit to Pass Bill in Albany

In an effort to pass a bill in the state legislature this session to reduce the city’s default speed limit, the City Council and street safety advocates are uniting behind the de Blasio administration’s call for a 25 mph limit. In a unanimous 9-0 vote this morning, the City Council Transportation Committee passed a resolution supporting a 25 mph limit. It is expected to pass at the City Council’s stated meeting this afternoon.

Rodriguez at this morning's committee vote in favor of supporting a 25 mph speed limit. Image: NYC Council

Rodriguez at this morning’s committee vote in favor of supporting a 25 mph speed limit. Image: NYC Council

Advocates, led by the families of traffic violence victims, had been supporting bills in Albany to lower the limit to 20 mph. ”My decision to change my stance from a 20 to 25 mph speed limit was not taken lightly,” Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez said at this morning’s hearing. “In order for meaningful action to be taken, we must unite as a city.”

“The political will is not there as it would be if we were arguing with a unified voice,” Rodriguez spokesperson Russell Murphy said before the vote. The focus, he said, is on ensuring that a bill “gets passed this session instead of getting put off any further.” Murphy said that the 20 mph bills from Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell and State Senator Martin Malave Dilan would be amended to reflect the new consensus behind 25 mph.

Advocates aren’t giving up on securing 20 mph speed limits for some streets. “There will be strong 20 mph options in the 25 mph bill, I understand,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White said in an email. TA staff added that the bills could allow the city to lower speed limits to 20 mph without additional traffic calming measures, in much the same way current law allows 25 mph speed limits like those in the arterial slow zone program.

Streetsblog has reached out to O’Donnell and Dilan for more information about amendments to their bills and will have more on this story as it develops.

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After Quick Work by CB 7 and DOT, Safety Fixes Debut at 96th and Broadway

Press gathers this morning on an expanded pedestrian island at 96th Street and Broadway that, until recently, had been a left turn lane. Photo: Stephen Miller

Press gathers this morning at a sidewalk extension at 96th Street and Broadway that, until recently, had been a left turn lane. Photo: Stephen Miller

After the deaths of Cooper StockAlexander Shear, and Samantha Lee at or near the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway shook Upper West Siders in January, DOT promised fixes to an intersection that locals complained had become even more dangerous to cross after a reconstruction project just a few years before. This morning, the city debuted those changes, including an expanded pedestrian island and new crosswalk.

“By restricting that left turn onto 96th Street, this island is twice as big as it used to be,” DOT Assistant Commissioner Ryan Russo told the assembled press on the brick-pattern sidewalk. ”You’re standing in former road space.”

While northbound drivers can still turn left from Broadway to westbound 96th Street, drivers heading downtown on Broadway must either continue straight or make a right onto the cross street, resulting in less complex signal timing. Drivers are also now prohibited from turning left from westbound 96th Street to southbound Broadway. The design features a new crosswalk in the Broadway median leading across 96th Street to the subway entrance, as well as curb extensions on Broadway at six intersections between 93rd and 100th Streets.

Borough President Gale Brewer said the city was able to act quickly after the fatalities because Community Board 7 had already worked with consultants on a plan to improve pedestrian safety in the area. ”We had a head start,” she said, adding that her office has worked with all 12 Manhattan community boards to compile a list of dangerous streets and intersections [PDF]. ”DOT really is investigating each and every hot spot and will work on a plan for each and every one,” Brewer said.

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Takeaways From This Week’s City Council Vision Zero Hearing

The office of Ydanis Rodriguez says he is aiming to get several traffic safety bills passed in the near future, while others that were taken up by his transportation committee at a Wednesday Vision Zero hearing may be held up.

At a press conference announcing the Broadway arterial slow zone Thursday, Rodriguez said of the 26 bills and eight resolutions: “Many of those bills already had the support of the administration. And other bills, there was some concern and issues, but we will continue having conversations.”

A spokesperson for Rodriguez said his office could not say which bills may go forward and which may not, due to legal issues.

“We are looking to move quickly on a package of six to seven bills that were discussed [Wednesday] as they need only little to no adjustments,” said Rodriguez spokesperson Russell Murphy. “While I won’t put a definitive timeline on it, we’d like to see these bills aged in the next few months.”

“We want to ensure the bills are comprehensive and complete and that we can pass through a number at the same time to bring about immediate action.”

Testimony submitted by city officials Wednesday gives some idea as to which bills the de Blasio administration may, and may not, be ready to act on. Here’s a summary.

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Traffic Violence Victims’ Families Tell Their Stories at City Hall

The family of Kelly Gordon, killed on York Avenue three weeks ago, joined council members and other victims' families outside City Hall today. Photo: Stephen Miller

The family of Kelly Gordon, killed on York Avenue three weeks ago, joined other victims’ families and City Council members outside City Hall today. Photo: Stephen Miller

Before the big City Council hearing on street safety legislation this afternoon, elected officials joined families of traffic violence victims outside City Hall to push for speed camera and speed limit bills in Albany, along with more traffic enforcement and better street designs from the de Blasio administration.

Three weeks ago, 22-year-old Kelly Gordon was struck and killed on York Avenue. She was going to graduate from Boston College in May. Today, her family came to City Hall to tell her story.

“To clear up the record, it was reported in the press that Kelly was jaywalking. She was not. The police report reflects that. Witnesses reflect that. Kelly was not jaywalking,” said Gordon’s aunt, Lori Centerella. “She was standing just off the curb when a driver sped through the yellow light, struck her, and sent her into the path of another driver.”

Both drivers were operating yellow cabs. ”These two taxi drivers left that scene with not even a single summons,” said her father, Donald Gordon. “For all we know, they could’ve picked up another passenger a block away.”

Centerella was overwhelmed by the number of families at City Hall this afternoon who had also lost loved ones to traffic violence. “When we came here today, we thought we would be the only ones,” she said. “Look at all the families that have walked this road before us.”

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City Council Reso Calls for Community Board Term Limits and Transparency

A resolution brewing in the City Council recommends major reform for community boards.

Ben Kallos. Photo: NYC Council

Ben Kallos. Photo: NYC Council

Introduced by freshman City Council Member Ben Kallos, the reso calls for board members to serve a maximum of five consecutive two-year terms, and for unspecified term limits for board and committee chairs. It also recommends a transparent appointment process and highly publicized, multi-pronged recruitment efforts.

This would mark a dramatic shift from current practices, where board members can be appointed for life and borough presidents often refuse to discuss how they are chosen.

Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and served on Manhattan Community Board 8, based the resolution on his policy report, “Improving Community Boards in New York City.” The report recommends a standardized application process that would require reappointment applications and put an end to “automatic reappointment.” Employees of elected officials and executive committee members of political parties would be excluded from board membership.

The resolution calls for an “independent screening panel” for all boroughs, modeled on an existing Manhattan panel put in place by Scott Stringer. Stringer’s successor Gale Brewer enlisted community groups to screen some 600 applicants, including long-time board members, for her first round of appointments this year.

Though community board votes are technically advisory, DOT will generally not implement significant street redesigns without their endorsement. Community boards have a mixed record on street safety, and some board members appear to be reflexively resistant to life-saving street designs, regardless of public support or DOT data. An infusion of members whose priorities go beyond maintaining free on-street parking would be a refreshing change for many boards across the boroughs. More broadly, these reforms would ideally result in boards that more accurately reflect evolving demographics.

Of course, some are content with the status quo. “Our office will not be supporting this resolution,” said a spokesperson for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “In fact, our office feels that this resolution is not necessary.”

“At this point, I’d like reform to be voluntary,” Kallos told the Queens Chronicle. At this writing the resolution is sponsored by an array of council newcomers and heavy-hitters: Brad Lander, Jimmy Vacca, Mark Levine, Danny Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, Ydanis Rodriguez, Debi Rose, Ritchie Torres, and Peter Koo.