Vision Zero in America’s Most Walkable City


CITING AN INNOVATIVE NEW MOVEMENT known as Vision Zero, Mayor DeBlasio and NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg have pledged to reduce traffic fatalities in New York City to zero in ten years. In response, the NYPD last week arrested six jaywalkers in the two-block area where three pedestrians were killed this month on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A jaywalker who mainly speaks Mandarin Chinese was apparently knocked down and roughed up by the police. New Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the arrests were necessary because 66% of pedestrian fatalities in New York last year were “directly related to the actions of pedestrians.”

Commissioner Bratton’s view and solution are the opposite of what the city should be saying and doing. New York City’s real problem is that like every other city in America, New York has a long history of making the car the king of our streets. This attitude goes back 100 years, when America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods all had naturally walkable streets. The police began then to view our streets in light of the ideas of a new and influential movement of that time, known as Organized Motordom. A coalition of car companies, oil companies, auto clubs, and the like, Organized Motordom was born because pesky pedestrians were crossing city streets, getting in the way of cars, and slowing them down—and also slowing car sales.

These two photos of Lexington Avenue at 89th Street show that one-hundred years ago the sidewalks of Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were two to three times as wide they are now. The photo on the bottom was taken to document the construction of the East Side IRT subway under the avenue (the sidewalks have wooden planks because the construction wasn’t finished when the photo was taken). I took the photo on the top just last year—which shows that the buildings lost their stoops and large light wells when more and wider traffic lanes were added to Lexington Avenue in the 1950s.

The houses (designed by Henry Hardenbergh, the architect of many important New York buildings, including the Plaza Hotel and The Dakota apartment house) undoubtedly lost value when they lost their stoops and light. Perhaps the owners of the houses got in their cars and drove out to find new homes in the suburbs. That’s what many New Yorkers did when the city converted Manhattan’s wide, numbered avenues like Third Avenue into one-way arterials. Urban designers call these “auto sewers,” because they make it easier for traffic to flow in and out of the city—until all the suburbanites driving in clog the roads with what is known as “induced” traffic. And no one wants to live on a clogged auto sewer.

That’s ironic for Manhattan, where 80% of the residents don’t own cars. Manhattanites are not the ones causing the traffic jams, but they’re the ones suffering through the degradation of public life, even though many New Yorkers pay outrageous sums for small apartments because they want public life on the streets of the city. Lexington Avenue has lots of restaurants, and should have lots of sidewalk cafés. But the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate tables, and the cars rushing by are noisy and belch noxious fumes. Children living along New York’s auto-sewer avenues suffer from many health problems caused by automobile pollution.

It’s worth pointing out that New York is the last place that should suffer from this. Not only do most New Yorkers not own cars, we also have trains, subways, buses, and taxis for everyone else. Underneath the narrow sidewalks pictured above is a subway line that by itself carries more people every day than the combined transit systems of San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, traveling all the way from the Atlantic Ocean almost to Westchester County. Only a block away, under Park Avenue, run the tracks for Metro North, which is second in ridership in the US only to the Long Island Railroad. The fact that we still consider it a good idea to drive in every day despite the economic and environmental costs shows how far Organized Motordom has come.

Happily, our new Mayor and our new DOT Commissioner have pledged their allegiance to Vision Zero, which means changing the way we use our roads. If we do that the right way, we will not only save lives, we will also improve public life and public health. “The right way” means making a walkable, bikeable city where traffic is reduced and cars move slowly.

When cars and pedestrians come in close contact—as they do on streets all over New York City—nothing reduces pedestrian fatalities like slowing traffic down. That’s not only because cars do less damage to people they hit if the car is going under 20 miles per hour. Drivers going slowly literally see twice as much as speeding drivers, and they have more time to react, as well. A side benefit is that when cars go slowly we can remove all the traffic engineering detritus that enables drivers to go speed: all the bold striping and highway-scale markings that also make pedestrians subliminally conscious that the street is not a place for them.

In New York City, streets should be for everyone. As the great Danish traffic reformer Jan Gehl says, the public life of cities takes place in the spaces between the buildings. So why are we simultaneously giving 80% of that space to cars from outside the city and kicking city residents to narrow walks by the side of the road? With Vision Zero, we can stop designing our streets like suburban arterials: one-way, with left-turn lanes, lots of ugly white plastic sticks, and big signs and striping everywhere. Those are suburban-style solutions for places where people don’t walk much. They are ugly and anti-urban. We need city streets for people, beautiful streets where people want to get our of their cars and walk.

In New York City, the Vision Zero solution is not to ticket pedestrians for “jaywalking,” a word and concept invented by a Organized Motordom in the early 20th century. One hundred years later, it is easy to see that city streets should be destinations, not Transportation Corridors, and that the car should not be the king of New York’s avenues. “Streets for people” means we should ticket speeding cars, not jaywalking residents and visitors enjoying the life of the city.

11 thoughts on “Vision Zero in America’s Most Walkable City

  1. Michael Waterman

    Thx for your lecture in San Antonio!

    Suggest for VISION-ZERO-NYC subway street re-engineering: instead either (1) close the street to vehicle traffic , or (2) instead place a two-way road in the center between buildings to allow for sidewalk cafes; playground areas.. WITHOUT NEED FOR PEDESTRIANS/WAITERS TO CROSS STREET to get to pedestrian areas [thereby greatly increasing safety and providing for VISION-ZERO.….0…1ac.1.32.img..4.17.1620.8RieBGl_TXA

    Also suggest: re-paint street lamp mast structures from silver to: dark brown, or black, or dark green.. psychologically will be perceived as a tree trunk or vegetation (“out of sight out of mind” — more pleasing to the visual senses).…7382.12116.0.12921.….0…1ac.1.32.img..14.9.1057.tAEtS7QUh_o

    All street signage for drivers should be at standard height.. saw some signs 20 feet up on the street lamp mast.

    Also suggest: it is best to move pedestrian crosswalks AWAY from corners (that is why UK had railings).. check statistics.. most fatalities at crosswalks or corners where pedestrians are struck by car or from cars spinning off from car collisions; drivers concentrating on cross-traffic or on turning into proper lane and not paying attention nor looking out for pedestrians at corner crosswalks; pedestrians many times caught by surprise by turning drivers. Conversely, a pedestrian cross-walk at mid-block (with stop signal for vehicle traffic) allows pedestrian to see vehicles coming from a distance.. drivers are focused on pedestrian crossing in front of them. [ Railings at corners to prevent pedestrians from crossing at corners. ]…7382.12116.0.12921.….0…1ac.1.32.img..14.9.1057.tAEtS7QUh_o#hl=en&q=pedestrian+crosswalk+midblock&tbm=isch

    Bicycles should NEVER be mixed with auto traffic. A fender bender among cars can be repaired.. a fender bender from a 3000 pound car on a bicyclist will usually result in a fatality. Bicycles become TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY every time a car comes near them; on a busy multi-lane street that could be thousands of times.. or on a dedicated bicycle only path.. that is ZERO times. Bicycle paths should be completely separated from vehicle traffic; if at all possible.. an entire street should be dedicated to bicycle path / pedestrian sidewalks ONLY [ no motor vehicle traffic ].…7382.12116.0.12921.….0…1ac.1.32.img..14.9.1057.tAEtS7QUh_o#hl=en&q=bicycle+path+garda&tbm=isch

  2. Michael Waterman

    TRIESTE, Italy = some streets closed to motor vehicle traffic!

    Piazza Unita, TRIESTE, Italy (closed to motor vehicle traffic)

  3. Michael Waterman

    TRIESTE, Italy = some streets closed to motor vehicle traffic!

    Piazza Unita, TRIESTE, Italy (closed to motor vehicle traffic)×454.jpg

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  5. Luciana

    Thank you very much for this post. A similar effect is happening right now – we are actually about to collapse in my city -, in growing cities of Brazil. Speaking from my own city, Natal, on the northeast, our difference is that, unfortunately, and for many other reasons such as lack of landscaping work, criminality, etc., not many people have the habit to walk. Not even mentioning our very poor public transportation, we are facing right now probably one of our worst moments in the city. As the world cup would approach, one of the first things that are arranged in a city is its facilities for pedestrians – or at least that is how it is supposed to be. As opposed, we are now investing in old tools to make the life of a driver better and faster – let’s say for the next 5-8 years -, eliminating walkers from the plan and also forgetting to include collective transport to the people that need it so much. I hope, for the sake of our next living years, that better politians will be on charge of our community and allow better professionals to be on charge on these sort of impacting urban designs.
    I didn’t know about the Vision Zero solution, but I’ll surely take a look at it to see what is going on over there.

  6. holly

    The most common cause for a crash, according to the DOT, is “driver inattention,” which was cited in 36 percent of collisions. You can’t get arrested in New York for not paying attention. You can’t even get a ticket for it.

  7. Street Design Post author

    As a group, the NYPD is not going to suggest that speed limits are too high. Many NYC police officers have long daily drives to work from the distant, cheaper suburbs.

    You will find many individual officers who are unofficially supportive—like the mounted cop who told me to watch out for the hidden police ticketing cyclists on Broadway.

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