New York’s transportation reform and traffic safety movement notched huge wins when mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio adopted Vision Zero as part of his platform in 2013, and again this year when the new mayor put the policy into action within days of taking office. Vision Zero created a policy rubric for the de Blasio administration to develop its own legacy of transformative street programs after the strong progress of the Bloomberg years, and has galvanized unprecedented interest and support across New York’s political establishment for physical and regulatory changes on city streets. This expanded policy space has generated progress on difficult issues like expanded camera enforcement and speed limit reduction.
The policy has also afforded Mayor de Blasio opportunities to show his leadership mettle and political touch. Anyone who wondered about the new mayor’s style was given an impressive demonstration when de Blasio took the unforgettable, emotionally wrenching step of appearing publicly with family members of victims of recent fatal traffic crashes during the first week of his administration, and demanded rapid action on Vision Zero by city agencies.
Now, with the policy well-established and recognized, and key milestones like the recent change in city speed limits enacted, the mayor and his senior managers need to make a clear assessment of the city’s Vision Zero performance and buckle down in several key areas to ensure that the policy generates tangible street safety improvements for New Yorkers.
That’s because New York’s street safety performance in 2014 will be good, but not great. It will be more in the vein of a return to levels seen over the past five to six years after 2013′s major spike in fatalities. It will not represent a marked improvement befitting a city with tremendous expertise in delivering safer streets, operating under one of the world’s most aggressive street safety policies.
If NYC traffic deaths in November and December (often one of the worst periods of the year) are close to those in recent years, the city could close 2014 with 260 or 265 total traffic fatalities. Where 2013 was the city’s deadliest in seven years, a 2014 with 265 fatalities would rank as the third safest year in NYC history. It’s also possible the city is on track to record one of its lowest-ever pedestrian death totals. The lowest total number of fatalities was in 2011, at 249. The lowest number of pedestrian fatalities was 140 in 2007.
Expectations have been raised substantially as Mayor de Blasio and the wider public policy community have embraced Vision Zero. At the end of the year, New Yorkers will ask what city government intends to do not only to match the safety performance of recent years, but to dramatically exceed it.
Everyone from traffic safety advocates to City Hall should resist any notion of falling back on a “wait and see what happens with the lower speed limit” stance regarding Vision Zero in 2015. For one thing, NYC DOT should already know how safety performance has changed on the group of 25 mph arterial slow zones such as Atlantic Avenue, the Grand Concourse, and McGuinness Boulevard, which were inaugurated six months ago. The broader speed limit change will likely have similar or lower impact absent much greater NYPD engagement and/or much broader application of enforcement cameras.