New measures supported by victims’ families and enacted by Mayor de Blasio aim to change cultural attitudes that accept traffic violence as an unavoidable fact of modern life. Photo: Stephen Miller
This is the first post in a two-part piece about how Vision Zero will have to change attitudes toward streets and driving in order to succeed.
City Council Member Mark Weprin’s Vision Zero moment came after watching video footage of the collision that killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Flushing, Queens, last October.
The driver of an SUV struck and killed Liao while she was crossing the street with her grandmother. They had the walk signal. Allison was dutifully holding her grandmother’s hand. Then the driver, making a left turn, knocked her grandmother down and dragged Allison under the vehicle’s wheel well.
“It was so graphic,” Weprin said, “It could happen to anyone. Some driver not paying attention can just snuff out a life just like that.”
Weprin admits that until recently he thought livable streets advocates were “crazy.” But after meeting with the families of victims of traffic crashes and hearing firsthand the devastating impact of acts of carelessness on the city’s streets, the eastern Queens representative became a supporter of Vision Zero.
“Pedestrians have the right of way, you don’t need to beat them,” Weprin said, “We all need to be calmer, we need to get you there safely.”
This is the central message of Vision Zero, that the human suffering caused by traffic crashes should not be accepted as part of daily life in the city. We as a city have a moral obligation to eliminate traffic fatalities.
“A life lost is a life lost,” goes Mayor de Blasio’s introduction to the Vision Zero Action Plan. “And it is our collective responsibility to save every life we can, be it a life taken in a violent crime or in a crash with a motor vehicle.”
To realize its Vision Zero goal — to eliminate traffic deaths in 10 years — the de Blasio administration will have to reengineer streets and step up enforcement. More than that, it will have to foster culture change.
“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,’” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”
In New York, a city defined by its hectic pace and pervasive impatience, the biggest obstacle to preventing traffic deaths will be changing a system of values that prioritizes automobile traffic, accepts traffic crashes, and condones aggressive driving.
Laying the Groundwork
Mayor de Blasio set his Vision Zero agenda into motion just two weeks after his inauguration. “This will be a top-to-bottom effort to take on dangerous streets and dangerous driving,” de Blasio said at the time.
Pushing Vision Zero so high up the agenda was not without political risk. “When I first heard of Vision Zero, I have to admit I was skeptical,” said Howard Wolfson, a former deputy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “I think the ground had been laid for it by many years of policy changes and policy success. But still, given the context this was a very ambitious program and an ambitious goal. Sometimes you have to shoot big, in order to capture people’s attention and make it clear what the stakes are.”