A traffic island, more pavement markings and signage (top image) were added to this intersection to ensure safe interactions between vehicles and pedestrians as part of NYC’s Vision Zero plan.
In New York City, the efforts of the New York Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), in partnership with other city agencies including the Office of the Mayor and the New York Police Department (NYPD), to enact a Vision Zero Action Plan rest firmly on a single idea: No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.
Director of Safety Policy and Planning Rob Viola recently told Roads & Bridges, “It’s not about getting to zero, not really. It’s about reframing how you think about transportation planning so that your design goal is zero.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 53,000 pedestrians throughout the U.S. were killed in vehicle-related incidents in 2015, a staggering figure that represents a 7.2% increase over 2014. In New York alone, 4,000 people are seriously injured and more than 250 killed in traffic incidents each year. According to NYCDOT’s data, 53% of incidents are caused by dangerous driver choices, 30% by dangerous pedestrian choices and 17% by a combination of the two.
Our densest urban and metropolitan regions are uniformly struggling with increasingly enriched population density, and the public agencies in these regions are more or less hamstrung from increasing roadway capacity, or, in many cases, bolstering the advent of transit systems due to factors ranging from lack of right-of-way access, a dearth of political will, an inability to expand present transit offerings, and good old-fashioned lack of money. Consequently, many departments of transportation have begun the process of shifting—both practically and philosophically—from a predominantly operations and service-oriented priority mindset to one of proactive, safety-first results.
The prevalence of Vision Zero has been, in the case of New York City, a catalyst and surge extender, boosting efforts that predate its application and opening the door to bigger gains than were previously achievable.
Lane-delination markings to distinguish traffic lanes from bus-only lanes (lower image) were added to this street to make interactions safer among all vehicles.
“The city had been doing safety-oriented, data-driven analysis and crash avoidance work long before Vision Zero,” Viola said. “Beginning in the Bloomberg administration, 10 years ago, things were really getting started. That really set the stage and provided capacity to roll out projects. It also put us in a safety mindset in advance.”
Vision Zero launched in New York City in 2014, after a request from the mayor’s office for a rapid plan to be drafted. The Vision Zero Action Plan was drafted in a matter of months. Organized by action and which agency would be responsible for that action, the plan identified 63 accountable initiatives, primary of which was the creation of Borough Action Plans, which would be tailored to the needs of each of the city’s five boroughs and also would drive all engineering, enforcement and education efforts, as well as create priority locations to pump effort and resources into.
“Every time we do any kind of major change to a street—a bike lane, a bus lane, changing the capacity of the road—the most basic thing we do is go out to the community and present the projects and solicit feedback,” Viola said. “It is very unusual for us to overrule their objections, if they have any. We really want their buy-in. Then we do what we need to do to improve things. From larger, complex projects, we do a workshop approach, where we hold a series of workshops with the public a year in advance to help shape the project so when it’s time to work we can get right down to it.”
This community-centric approach yielded, among other action items, open crash-data sharing; an expansion of the city’s speed- and red-light camera initiative; electronic crash-data capture; staff expansion; arterial and neighborhood “slow zones”; and a shift on the part of the NYPD towards safety-focused, targeted violation ticketing. To wit: Rather than eyeballing for busted taillights or tinted windows, officers began to focus hard on what Viola called “The Big Five”:
- Failure to yield;
- Improper turns;
- Texting/phoning while driving; and
- Signal violations.
“In the Vision Zero era,” Viola said, “there have been 2.5 million tickets written against the Big 5, which is more tickets than there are registered vehicles in the city.”
This aspect of the NYCDOT/NYPD collaboration is not merely a question of meeting a quota, or generating funds for Vision Zero programming in the forms of fines, but rather a response by the city to the demands of various advocacy groups and a fundamental shift in operating philosophy.
“One major advocacy group we work with is Families for Safe Streets,” Viola said. “It is comprised of families and family members who have lost someone due to traffic violence. It and other groups have had a strong voice in how we make decisions.
“As for funding,” Viola went on, “that’s a big issue everywhere, but we are very lucky in NYC. The city in general is very well funded, because our tax base is robust and healthy. We were able to hire a lot of new people throughout the agency, such as planners, engineers and construction workers. We were able to get more dollars allocated to capital projects. We are largely self-sufficient in being able to propel our projects. We’re definitely spending a lot of money, but we’re lucky to have it.”
While the implementation of Vision Zero did have groundwork in place in terms of developed safety actions, generating “buy-in” both within and outside the NYCDOT nonetheless required a new perspective on what the agency means to the city and what its culture is meant to reflect through the actions it undertakes.
A shift from an operational/maintenance philosophy to one of proactive safety and redesign planning is typically a challenge, because duties were fragmented among various agencies. In the case of the NYCDOT, Viola said, the wins achieved ahead of Vision Zero made for a smooth road to acceptance. “You’ll see difficulty in some cities, where public works does some stuff and the mayor’s office does other stuff, and then other agencies also come into play. But at NYCDOT everything is centralized, so the shift in mindset wasn’t hard for us because we already fought those battles during the Bloomberg administration, when we became more of an activist agency during that time period, starting around 2006. At that time, there was a huge injection of planning capacity and culture change within the agency. In fact, one of the best things about Vision Zero has been pulling everyone together, all the agencies, strategizing together, holding everyone accountable. New relationships have been established that weren’t there before and now we share info all the time. The agencies share the same goals, and now we’ve got a structure to work together. Now, people in the city have gotten used to seeing the streets changing, to seeing a lot of experimentation, new treatments and a different pace.”
Stop signs, lane markings and pedestrian walkways (lower image) were added to this intersection to improve safety.
What’s been gained
In 2014, the city officially lowered the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph, and began to expand its safety efforts in the wake of its Action Plan. In the intervening years, many gains have been made.
“We really expanded our pedestrian signal priority work,” Viola said. In specific intersections, pedestrians are automatically given a 7- to 12-second head start before vehicular traffic gets the green. “This is a cheap and easy improvement with big results; it’s basically, ‘Hey, can we steal a bit of time?’”
The department performed approximately 15 such priority shifts per year up to 2016, when it performed 776 of them throughout the city.
“We’ve now mainstreamed it,” Viola said. “We also ran a study, and have seen a 40% reduction in severe pedestrian and bike injuries at locations these have gone in. Also, our study has shown that red-light cameras have reduced pedestrian injuries by 31% citywide. Overall, at locations where NYCDOT has performed major engineering changes since 2005, fatalities have decreased 34%, a rate twice that of improvements at other locations. Everything really comes down to speed, so whatever you can do to reduce speed is going to impact things the most. Our main metric is always fatalities: Are we reducing fatalities?”
The answer is yes. Each year since Vision Zero began, the city has been down in reported injuries and fatalities, the first three-year decline they have seen in more than 20 years.
“When you look at our priority geographies,” Viola said, “the places we’ve done the most work, 10-25% of the city, fatalities are down 25-30%. Where we’re working the hardest, we’re getting the most results. So we want to just keep doing what we’re doing, and expand that effort to as many roadways in the city as we can.”