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Why Does Rory Lancman Want to Save Drivers From “Scofflaw Pedestrians”?

Paramedics work to save John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

Paramedics work on John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. NYPD said Torson was “outside the crosswalk” when he was fatally struck by the driver of the white SUV. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

City Council Member Rory Lancman wants to make it more difficult for NYPD to charge drivers who injure and kill people when, in his words, “accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.” But if anything, NYPD has been exceedingly cautious in applying the Right of Way Law when there’s a chance the victim was not in a crosswalk.

If there’s even a speck of doubt about whether the victim had the right of way, NYPD isn’t filing charges against the driver.

The above photo was taken by a reader after an SUV driver fatally struck 89-year-old John Torson as he was walking across E. 61st Street at First Avenue. As we reported last Friday, the day after the crash, an NYPD spokesperson told Streetsblog that, according to the Collision Investigation Squad, Torson was “outside of the marked crosswalk” when he was hit. You can see from the photo that, if Torson was not in the crosswalk, he was at most no more than one car length away. You can’t rule out the possibility that Torson was struck in the crosswalk and propelled forward by the force of impact.

As of today, police had filed no charges against the driver.

The Right of Way Law took effect last August. Between last September and March 2015, the latest month for which NYPD crash data is available, city motorists injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists. As of April, NYPD had applied the Right of Way Law just 22 times. NYPD is training beat cops to use the law, but as of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges are investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad — a small unit of detectives who are trained to process crash scenes, and whose work is relied upon to convict motorists on serious charges, like homicide.

With an application rate of one-quarter of one percent, and investigators declining to prosecute drivers whose victims were said to be just outside the crosswalk, it’s clear that NYPD is being very conservative with the Right of Way Law. Lancman’s proposed Right of Way Law amendment — which would absolve drivers who harm people when the weather is bad — would lead police to apply the law even less frequently.

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Rory Lancman Will Introduce Bill to Hamstring NYPD Crash Investigators

City Council Member Rory Lancman thinks NYPD is playing fast and loose with the Right of Way Law, and he’ll soon introduce a bill that would make it more difficult for police to apply it.

Rory Lancman

A key facet of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, the Right of Way Law allows NYPD to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who harm people who are walking and biking with the right of way. Lancman voted for the law, but has complained that NYPD uses it too often.

Motorists have injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists since the Right of Way Law took effect last August. As of April, NYPD had applied the law 22 times. As of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges were worked by the Collision Investigation Squad, which is trained to investigate serious traffic crashes.

In an email to fellow council members today, Lancman called on them to sponsor a Right of Way Law amendment that would place additional burdens on NYPD crash investigators, and create loopholes for motorists who harm people who are following traffic rules.

Wrote Lancman:

[I]t is unclear whether the police department is conducting a “due care” analysis before deciding to arrest and charge drivers with a misdemeanor, or what factors are incorporated into such a “due care” analysis. Indeed, the Transport Workers Union has filed a lawsuit to declare the law unconstitutional and unenforceable in part because of this ambiguity.

This amendment clarifies the meaning of “failure to use due care” by requiring the police department to consider visibility, illumination, weather conditions, roadway conditions, and roadway design as well as whether the pedestrian was in violation of any vehicle and traffic laws at the time of the accident.

Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalize drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has explained publicly that the department files charges under the Right of Way Law only when probable cause can be determined based on evidence. Given the number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths since the law was adopted, if anything it seems NYPD is exercising excessive restraint in applying the law.

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CB 7 Chair Says Its Street Safety Task Force Isn’t About Street Safety

At the beginning of 2014, drivers killed three people — Cooper Stock, Alexander Shear, and Samantha Lee — on the Upper West Side in a matter of days. Neighbors turned out by the hundreds at vigils for the victims, and came out again to pack meetings demanding action. In response, Community Board 7 formed a street safety task force. More than a year later, there’s little to show for it, and now CB 7 chair Elizabeth Caputo says the task force wasn’t created to tackle street safety issues in the first place.

"." Photo: LinkedIn

“The intent was never to be a street safety task force,” says CB 7 chair Elizabeth Caputo. Photo: LinkedIn

The task force was created a month after Mayor de Blasio unveiled his Vision Zero agenda at an Upper West Side school near where Stock, Shear, and Lee were killed. Led by board member and city planner Ethel Sheffer, it was formed to address “street safety, design, and livability,” according to minutes from March 2014 [PDF]. Sheffer said the group would meet monthly or bi-monthly, reported DNAinfo.

“We want to make it clear that we are working hard on this,” Caputo said at the time.

More than a year later, the task force has stalled, and Caputo says it was never meant to be a street safety task force.

“It was never designed to meet more than a couple times a year,” she told Streetsblog on Tuesday. “It was not, and it was never intended to be, a way to remove safety issues out of [the transportation] committee and onto another committee.”

Longtime transportation committee co-chairs Andrew Albert and Dan Zweig have stood in the way of street safety improvements in the neighborhood since the 1990s.

“The intent was never to be a street safety task force,” Caputo continued. “CB 7 is committed to safety on every committee, and in particular on this one, on transportation.” Next month’s transportation committee meeting, she said, will be devoted to a broad range of bicycle safety and education issues.

One task force member had a very different take on the current situation. “It just sort of disappeared,” he said. “I understood that the goal was supposed to be traffic safety and then I was told it wasn’t traffic safety, but that it was some sort of amorphous design of the community. I don’t know what that means.”

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Why Is Queens BP Melinda Katz Refusing to Divulge 2015 CB Appointments?

Streetsblog has filed a freedom of information request after Queens Borough President Melinda Katz refused to provide us a list of 2015 community board appointments.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz thinks parking mandates are more important than Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter

Community boards play an outsized role in determining how safe New York City streets are for walking, biking, and driving. Though their votes are supposed to be advisory, DOT rarely implements a project without the blessing of the local board. This holds true even for proposals that are intended to keep people from being injured and killed by motorists.

In Queens, community boards have skirted voting rules to renounce livable streets projects, rejected a request from a small business for a bike corral, declared that secure bike parking has “no purpose,” and prioritized auto traffic lanes over safety at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

On the upside, Queens CBs endorsed safety measures for Northern Boulevard, Broadway, and Queens Boulevard, three of the borough’s most dangerous streets for walking and biking. With DOT poised to make improvements prescribed by the agency’s pedestrian safety action plan, including the long-awaited redesign of Queens Boulevard, community boards will help shape the borough’s streetscape, for better or worse, for the foreseeable future.

Community board members are nominated by council members and borough presidents, though beeps ultimately decide who is appointed. For some idea of how fossilized boards can become, safe streets opponents Vinicio Donato and Lucille Hartmann made news recently by stepping down from Queens CB 1 after 40 years. As a candidate for borough president, Katz said she supported term limits for community board members, but she now opposes them.

Given the power wielded by community boards, borough presidents should release appointee lists publicly as a matter of course, with each person’s professional affiliations, length of tenure, and the elected official who recommended them. Of the five current borough presidents, Manhattan’s Gale Brewer comes closest to the ideal — though it remains a mystery why Brewer continues to reappoint people who are obstacles to safer streets and better transit.

The appointment process is normally completed by early April of each year. Katz, who took office in 2014, released the names of her first round of new appointees last June, but not a list of every appointee.

After Streetsblog submitted multiple inquiries to Katz’s office requesting a list of 2015 community board appointees, press coordinator Michael Scholl declined to send one and recommended filing a freedom of information request instead.

Why would Katz’s office withhold information that other borough presidents make public via press release? That’s an open question. Meanwhile, I filed a FOIL for 2015 and 2014 Queens community board appointees.

We’ll have updates on this story as it develops.

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Trottenberg: DOT Skipped Its Legally-Required Data Report Last Year

DOT is almost six months past due on a report card required by city law that measures whether the city is meeting its goals of reducing car use, improving safety, and shifting trips to walking, bicycling, and transit. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says her department is skipping a year and will instead issue a report covering two years of data in the fall.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Photo: NYC DOT

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Photo: NYC DOT

A city law passed in 2008, known as Local Law 23, requires DOT to issue an annual report measuring citywide data on car and truck volumes, traffic speed, bus ridership, bicycle and pedestrian crashes, and more. The report is due each November, covering data from the previous calendar year. After years of issuing the report later and later (but still on time) as the “Sustainable Streets Index,” DOT is now almost six months past due in releasing the numbers from 2013. The latest available information is from 2012.

The de Blasio administration has issued other transportation-related reports, including a summary of the first year of Vision Zero. But the report didn’t include many of the metrics required by Local Law 23, and failed to analyze the safety impacts of city programs like speed cameras or improved tracking of city-owned vehicles.

DOT will release an updated version of the Sustainable Streets Index “towards the end of this year,” probably in the next six months, Trottenberg said this morning, after an event hosted by the General Contractors Association of New York.

“We’ve come in and taken a fresh look at it,” Trottenberg said. “It’s going to be two years of data. [We’re going to] try and get ourselves caught back up and retool it and look at some fresh indicators… We’re going to keep some of the indicators, but we’re going to add some of the things that are now more of a focus of this administration.”

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New Families For Safe Streets Campaign Defends Right of Way Law

fss1Families For Safe Streets released videos and posters this morning defending the Right of Way Law, in response to a campaign by Transport Workers Union Local 100, which wants MTA bus drivers exempted from the law.

The Right of Way Law, passed unanimously by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last June, allows for low-level misdemeanor charges against drivers who injure or kill people who are walking or biking with the right of way. If found guilty, the driver can be punished with a fine or jail time, though in practice, unclassified misdemeanors are often pled down to a traffic violation.

A bill from Council Member I. Daneek Miller to amend the law and exempt MTA bus operators has support from 25 of the City Council’s 51 members. There is also a bill in Albany that would prevent police from detaining bus operators, though other drivers could still be arrested.

Before the Right of Way Law, with a tiny number of exceptions, drivers who were sober and stayed on the scene did not receive as much as a careless driving ticket for injuring or killing someone. When drivers were cited, the state Department of Motor Vehicles sometimes dismissed the tickets.

The Right of Way Law addresses this problem by allowing police to file charges against drivers who break the law and run people over. MTA bus drivers struck and killed nine pedestrians last year. In eight of those cases, the pedestrian had the right of way.

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Vision Zero Progress Report Fails to Measure Impact of Vision Zero Policies

Earlier this week, City Hall released an update on the first year of Vision Zero [PDF]. With 90 pages of charts, stats, maps, and graphs, it’s impressively long. But how well does it measure the impact of the city’s street safety policies?

There were a slate of changes to speed limits and traffic enforcement priorities in 2014, and it looks like these policies had an effect: Pedestrian fatalities reached an historic low last year. There should be enough data by now to draw some conclusions about what’s working and what’s not — conclusions that can help guide Vision Zero policy going forward. But the report is mostly an exercise in checking off boxes.

Shouldn't New York City's analysis of Vision Zero be more than just a checklist?

New York City’s analysis of Vision Zero policies should be more than just a checklist. Image: Mayor’s Office [PDF]

Here are five key questions left unanswered by the report:

  • Do Arterial Slow Zones work? Before securing state approval to lower NYC’s default speed limit, the city established 27 “Arterial Slow Zones” — major corridors that received 25 mph speed limits and focused enforcement from NYPD. Some of these changes have been in place for a year, but we still don’t know the effect on key metrics like injury rates, crash severity, and the prevalence of speeding.
  • How are speed cams affecting crashes and injuries? There are 63 school zone speed cameras on the ground right now, according to DOT, with 42 at fixed locations and 21 mobile units. The full 140 allowed by Albany will be installed by the end of this year. Studies from other cities have proven that speed cams work to slow drivers and reduce crashes, so what is the effect in New York City, where state legislation limits where and when cameras can operate? The Vision Zero update notes that speeding has declined 59 percent at 19 camera locations but provides no analysis of the impact on crashes or injuries. In February, WNYC put together a deeper look at the effect of speed cams than the city’s own report.
  • Are TLC-licensed drivers causing fewer injuries and deaths? The report says the de Blasio administration will seek a state law requiring seat belt use for front-seat passengers and children in taxis, but it doesn’t have much data about actual taxi crashes. The Taxi and Limousine Commission fact book once included an entire section on crashes, analyzing everything from seatbelt use to the number of pedestrians and cyclists injured. An update more than a year ago neglected to mention crash data, and the Vision Zero update doesn’t talk about the safety record of TLC-licensed drivers either.
  • What about the rest of the city fleet? The Department of Citywide Administrative Services has a nifty new database tracking crashes across the city fleet, but that information is missing in the Vision Zero update. Has the city improved the safety record of its fleet under Vision Zero? We don’t know, and this latest report didn’t tell us.
  • Where is NYPD concentrating its enforcement? Enforcement of dangerous violations like failure to yield and speeding increased last year. But are those tickets going to drivers at dangerous locations, and can we discern the impact of NYPD enforcement on crash and injury rates? There’s no way to tell, because the city doesn’t publish geographic data on traffic enforcement more detailed than the the precinct level.

There is some new information in the Vision Zero update, though it’s more like factoids than analysis:

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Pedestrian Injuries Down 61% on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope After Road Diet

DOT text. Image: DOT [PDF]

DOT will cast the Fourth Avenue road diet in concrete after impressive street safety gains. Image: DOT [PDF]

As in Sunset Park, the Fourth Avenue road diet has yielded impressive street safety dividends for Park Slope, including a 61 percent drop in pedestrian injuries. Now, DOT is moving forward with plans to cast its changes in concrete.

Between Atlantic Avenue and 15th Street, the road diet widened medians, shortened crossing distances, and trimmed the number of car lanes from three in each direction to two along most of the street (the northernmost blocks retained the same number of lanes). The changes were implemented using paint and flexible bollards.

After the redesign, pedestrian injuries on this stretch of Fourth Avenue fell 61 percent, total crashes dropped 20 percent, and crashes with injuries were reduced by 16 percent, according to DOT, which compared one year of post-implementation crash data to the prior three-year average [PDF]. The improvements were especially dramatic at 3rd Street, where crashes fell 41 percent, and at 9th Street, where they fell 59 percent.

DOT also tracked speeding after 9 p.m. on weekdays, with the prevalence of drivers traveling above 35 mph falling by about three-quarters, from 29 percent of southbound drivers before the road diet to just 7 percent after. (The drop in the citywide default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph took effect days after DOT finished collecting its data last year.)

Car traffic levels and travel times stayed mostly steady, with southbound evening volumes falling slightly and mixed results for northbound morning volumes. Pedestrian volumes also held steady.

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Neighborhood Residents Ask DOT to Tame Deadly Mosholu Parkway

This might look okay in the suburbs, but not in the middle of the Bronx. Local residents want DOT to tame traffic on Mosholu Parkway. Photo: Google Maps

Is this a park in the middle of the Bronx or a suburban highway? Photo: Google Maps

With its rolling curves and park-like setting, Mosholu Parkway might look pretty to people sitting behind a windshield. But for people on foot, it’s a roaring Robert Moses-era surface highway, up to eight lanes wide, running between Norwood and Bedford Park in the Bronx. The road divides the park and provides few places to safely cross. Now, residents are asking DOT to make some changes.

The street has a deadly track record. In 2011, a hit-and-run driver killed Josbel Rivera, 23, while he crossed Mosholu at Paul Avenue. The next year, Justin Bravo, 28, died after crashing his motorcycle on Mosholu beneath the Jerome Avenue overpass. In 2013, Sook-Ja Kim, 63, was killed by a driver who jumped the curb and drove across a field in the parkway median near Bainbridge Avenue.

At the time of the crash, Kim was in an area managed by the Parks Department that is often used by local residents as a recreation space, sandwiched between the parkway’s center lanes. Getting to the open space is difficult. There are stretches up to 1,300 feet — a quarter mile — without a crosswalk, and the street still has a 35 mph speed limit — 10 mph faster than the NYC default limit. Dirt paths tracked through the grass, the collective footprint of people’s walking routes, lead from adjacent neighborhoods to the parkway.

“The parkway was definitely designed for cars. It wasn’t designed for people,” said Elizabeth Quaranta, a founding member of Friends of Mosholu Parkland. “People fly down this road, and the wider the road is, the more you want to go faster.”

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Bed-Stuy CB Freaks Out Over Adding Pedestrian Space to Fulton and Utica

Giving more space to pedestrians at a busy transfer point between the bus and the subway? Brooklyn CB 3 isn't interested. Image: DOT [PDF]

Giving more space to pedestrians at a busy transfer point between the bus and the subway? Brooklyn CB 3 isn’t interested. Image: DOT [PDF]

Creating more space for pedestrians at a dangerous, crowded transfer point between bus lines and the subway — sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not at Brooklyn Community Board 3, where the default position is to reflexively reject even the smallest street safety change.

Fulton Street and Utica Avenue are both dangerous streets that the de Blasio administration has targeted at Vision Zero priority corridors in need of safety improvements. There were 58 traffic injuries at the intersection of the two streets between 2009 and 2013, according to DOT.

DOT is proposing to replace “slip lanes,” which allow drivers to make quick right turns from Fulton Street to Utica Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, with sidewalk extensions that would tighten turns and shorten crossing distances. The additional space would reduce exposure to motor vehicle traffic for people transferring between the B46, B25, and A/C trains [PDF].

Upon seeing the plan Monday night, CB 3 members recoiled, Camille Bautista of DNAinfo reports:

[C]ommunity members said it would bottleneck traffic coming from Atlantic Avenue. Other residents took issue with the elimination of turning lanes, which could add congestion on an already crowded Fulton Street.

“I know that you have your study, but your study really cannot compare to the study I have by using that intersection every day,” said board member C. Doris Pinn, who stressed the potential for more traffic jams and accidents.

The intersection tweaks complement the introduction of Select Bus Service on the B46, New York City’s second-busiest bus route, with nearly 50,000 passengers each day. Four miles of Utica Avenue would receive dedicated bus lanes in the plan, which also got panned at Monday’s CB 3 meeting. “To me it feels like you’re pushing this down the community’s throat,” one woman said, according to DNAinfo.

In the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Community District 3, more than two-thirds of households don’t own cars, according to the U.S. Census. The area is represented in the City Council by Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, and Darlene Mealy, who each appoint members to CB 3, along with Borough President Eric Adams.

Last year, CB 3 stonewalled a 20 mph Slow Zone requested by neighborhood residents. DOT eventually decided not to extend the slow zone into CB 3’s turf after board chair Tremaine Wright dismissed street safety as a real concern.

Select Bus Service is scheduled to start late this summer or this fall, with related pedestrian safety improvements to be phased in after service begins.