Street Smarts! New York Traffic Fatalities at 100 Year Low—But Who Deserves the Credit?

Why did the mayor cross Grand Army Plaza? Because it wasn’t dangerous any more. Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

The mayor and his lieutenants do appear to be standing in the bike lane, don't they? (Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)

Why did the mayor cross Grand Army Plaza? Because it wasn’t dangerous any more.

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg gathered today with police and transportation officials at the Brooklyn landmark to announce that, at 237 traffic fatalities, the city had seen the fewest people die in the streets since an official count began in 1910. Traffic deaths are down 40 percent since the mayor office, when there were 393 deaths, and they have fallen 13 percent since last year’s 271 deaths. The year before that, there were 258 deaths.

“We’ve made progress in every area of traffic safety due to our willingness to take new, creative approaches to longstanding challenges with safety redesigns and through aggressive traffic enforcement,” Mayor Bloomberg said.

Of the fatalities, 134 involved pedestrians, more than half but also a record low. Bicycle fatalities have failed to fall over the past decade, but cycling has quadrupled over that period, so on a percentage basis, bicycle deaths would be at least one-third if what they once were.

The city credits a number of factors in the decline in fatalities at both the transportation and police departments.  There are street redesigns like the one at Grand Army Plaza and the controversial bike lane along Prospect Park West, as well as those in the heart of the city, like Broadway Boulevard, and smaller improvements farther out. Slow Zones, requiring 20 miles per hour, just began in the Bronx, as well as a number of education campaigns targeting meshugenah cyclist, obliviously poetic pedestrians and angry drivers.

Meanwhile, the police have stepped up their enforcement, handing out more D.U.I.s and no-seatbelt violations, among others. Over the past year, more than 1 million summons for moving violations in the past year.

Transit advocates applauded the city’s work on reducing incidents, though they also warned that more could be done, and all accidents are unavoidable. “The evidence shows bike lanes and pedestrian improvements have made the biggest impact on safety,” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, wrote in an email. “Streets with bike lanes and adequate pedestrian space look and feel less like highways, and motorists intuitively slow down and take more notice of people traveling by foot or by bike. But safe street designs can only go so far, and that’s why we need the NYPD to finally adopt a zero tolerance policy for dangerous driving.”

Indeed, the NYPD touts its record on drunk driving, but that is only the fourth highest cause of traffic fatalities in the city. The highest is speeding, which advocates argue is not being policed enough, and which could also be further hampered through additional engineering measures.

Driving groups likewise congratulated the city on the falling fatalities, but continue to question the efforts of the Department of Transportation to create safer streets by taking away room for cars. “In general, traffic calming involves doing things like speed bumps and curb outcroppings in residential areas,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA New York. “I’m not sure the impact is that great when installing pedestrian malls in central business districts where traffic was already very slow.”

Granted the number of fatalities did rise between 2009 and 2010, a period in which many of the traffic calming efforts were installed, so AAA may have a point. Could this all be chance on the road?

At today’s announcement, Commissioner Sadik-Khan defended the work of her civil engineers. “The reduction in traffic deaths as a result of our safety engineering means nearly 300 New Yorkers are alive today who would not have been if we had simply sustained the fatality rate of five years ago,” she said.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

Street Smarts! New York Traffic Fatalities at 100 Year Low—But Who Deserves the Credit?