What Does the Future Hold for NYC’s Vision Zero Plan?
Tuesday, July 9, more than 1,000 cyclists laid on the ground of Washington Square Park during a “die-in” to protest the dangerous conditions of riding a bicycle on New York City streets. Among the prone protestors, a smattering stood with signs reading names of the 15 cyclists killed in the first seven months of the year. The crowd was mostly quiet, except for a trumpet player and chant of each name.
In the weeks since the die-in, there have been more, albeit smaller, vigils. One for Alex Cordero, a 17-year-old bicyclist struck and killed by a tow truck on Staten Island. Just a few hours after that crash, a box truck hit and killed a 58-year-old on his bike in Brooklyn. (His name has not been released.) In late July, around 50 cycling advocates gathered in Sunset Park to mourn Em Samolewicz, killed by a truck driver the prior day. And this month, 52-year-old Jose Alzorriz was killed on his bike in Brooklyn after a car ran a red light. Alzorriz is the 19th New Yorker killed while biking this year.
There have been comparisons of the Washington Square Park die-in to the Stop de Kindermoord (“stop child murder”) movement that emerged in 1970s Netherlands in response to rising traffic fatalities. There is, however, a glaring difference: Stop de Kindermoord was subsidized by the Dutch government, established a formal headquarters, and went on to develop ideas for safer urban planning that helped change Dutch street design for good.
In New York, there is Vision Zero, created by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Transportation to eradicate traffic deaths in New York City by 2024. But five years after the program was established, safe streets activists are burnt out, frustrated, and emotionally drained. The bold promise of Vision Zero was not, in their minds, followed by a bold commitment to transform the streets. Cycling and transportation advocates ultimately know that achieving zero traffic deaths requires a radical change to how we regulate, design for, and talk about cars and driving—but there’s a wearying uncertainty as to when that day will come.
Now, many of those activists are asking one simple question: What does the future hold for Vision Zero in New York City?
While a DOT spokesperson provided information on the agency’s priorities moving forward—outlined in the recent Green Wave safety plan—they did not provide an interview with a Department of Transportation representative after multiple requests. The suggestion was that the Green Wave, introduced by the mayor after the die-in to “confront the rise in cycling fatalities in 2019,” speaks for itself.
While the plan proposes important solutions—increased bike lane implementation, traffic and truck enforcement, street design updates, new policies and legislation—there’s a hole that’s hard to ignore. As Streetsblog points out, “There’s nothing in de Blasio’s ‘bicycle safety plan’ that truly imagines a city without those drivers or their 3,000-pound machines, which more and more mayors across the globe are realizing are anathema to urban life.”
Vision Zero was founded in Sweden in 1996 on the belief that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for car mobility. De Blasio introduced it to New York City in 2014 as a broad, data-driven mandate to tackle traffic fatalities. In the past five years, the city has utilized crash data to identify priority streets and intersections for redesigns, resulting in important successes. Compared to 2013, the year before Vision Zero began, New York City’s overall traffic deaths have fallen by one-third, according to the five-year report. The city has also installed more than 82 miles of bike lanes since the start of Vision Zero.
But there remain reasons why this approach hasn’t fully worked for bicyclists. Until the Green Wave came along, Vision Zero’s priorities for cyclists have been bike lane implementation and improved intersection design. But addressing high-risk intersections and streets hasn’t been aggressively coupled with policies to replace cars with safer, better-connected street networks benefitting bicyclists who travel large swaths of the city on a single trip.