This story is part of Gothamist/WNYC’s series, “Grading de Blasio,” which assesses the mayor’s performance during his tenure.
New York City was the first American city to adopt Vision Zero, the Swedish approach to reducing the number of people killed by drivers through changes to street design. It was an idea that Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on and launched shortly after taking office.
The program aims to reduce the number of people killed in traffic accidents to zero, but in New York City, where 230 people have been killed on average each year since 2013, this can feel like an unrealistic goal. But it’s not impossible: Helsinki recorded no traffic deaths in 2019 after starting their program in the 1960s, while Oslo, Norway went from 41 deaths in 1975 to 0 by 2019. The ambitious plan to reach zero traffic deaths by 2024, in a city of 8.5 million residents and millions more visitors, became one of the most notable pillars of de Blasio’s platform alongside his equity and universal pre-K goals.
Data and transportation experts say his Vision Zero legacy is mixed. Since the initiative launched, seven of the eight years have seen the lowest traffic-related deaths in New York City history, according to the Department of Transportation, which has street safety data going back to 1910, but it's still a long way off from de Blasio's lofty goals.
Traffic-related deaths during the de Blasio years
One way to measure de Blasio’s success with Vision Zero is examining whether there was a steady decline in the number of people killed by vehicles. So far this year, the DOT reports 255 people have been killed by drivers, the highest number of deaths since 2013, the year before de Blasio took office, when 279 people died.
On July 29th, Brandon Kay Davis, 41, became one of those casualties. His roommate Frederick Williams remembered him as a man who prided himself on his fashion and savvy when it came to getting around the city.
Davis was crossing Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, just a few doors away from his home, when he was fatally struck by a driver.
“It opened my eyes to what it means to have to have to be vigilant when you’re commuting by foot,” Williams, who had been friends with Davis since childhood, said. “Even if you can trust the stoplights and the sign that tells you to walk, you really don't know who's behind the wheel.”
The driver who struck and killed Davis was a 19-year-old charged with driving with a suspended license. Reports show he was arrested two years earlier for stealing a vehicle with a child in the backseat (he pleaded guilty and served a year in prison).
The driver’s car has over 28 driving violations associated with it since October. The violations include seven tickets for speeding in a school zone in one day alone, as well as running three red lights, according to city records, totaling over $2,000 in fines.
Critics, from street safety advocates to local elected officials, said a lack of serious charges against drivers involved in traffic collisions and reckless drivers has hampered the city’s ability to prevent crashes. The NYPD has even admitted its crack-downs after a cyclist is killed in traffic have been unfairly focused on cyclists, not drivers.
During the first year of Vision Zero, 2014, the city passed the Right of Way law that allows police to ticket drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The tickets, which were a maximum of $250 and 30 days in jail if someone was killed, were often dismissed, according to records from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH, the agency that adjudicates the tickets.
It’s harder to judge the success of Vision Zero when looking at the number of cyclists killed year over year. There were dips followed by increases over the last eight years, with a low of 10 people killed in 2018 and a high of 27 in 2019. The year before de Blasio took office in 2013, there were 13 cyclists killed; this year 18 people have died so far.
There have been notable changes to the design of streets during de Blasio’s term, aimed at reducing the number of traffic deaths. The most widespread was reducing the city speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour across the city. This 5 mph change can mean the difference between life or death if someone is struck by a vehicle, studies show.
Another major change was the expansion of school speed cameras, which ticket drivers who exceed more than 10 mph over the speed limit and automatically issue a $50 fine. Drivers don’t get any points on their license for receiving a ticket.
The first cameras, about two dozen, were installed in 2014, but the system got a major expansion in 2019 when the state legislature finally allowed the city to put them outside 750 schools. Now, there are 1,800 cameras in 750 locations, and those operate before and after the school day, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
By 2020, the city reported traffic speeds slowed an average of 72% in those zones, and the majority of drivers who received one ticket didn’t get a second.
Designing safer streets
Another key factor in how experts measure a city getting to Vision Zero is through designing streets that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists. And the city has made thousands of small changes in the past eight years, including changing the timers at stop lights so pedestrians can get a head start and creating pedestrian islands at busy intersections that ideally force vehicles to slow down. The city has also implemented “daylighting” at many streets, which moves parked cars a few feet away from intersections so people crossing the street can see traffic coming more easily. The number of protected bike lanes around the city has also expanded under de Blasio.
Nowhere was redesign deployed to greater effect than along Queens Boulevard, once dubbed “the boulevard of death” for the nearly 200 deaths since 1990 along the 7-mile stretch between Roosevelt Avenue and Union Turnpike. It took nearly de Blasio’s entire two terms to complete its $100 million improvement plan, that included more crosswalks and expanded medians, with the last project – the bike lane – held up by local opposition, and a political fight. The DOT reported this year that there was a 24% decrease in the number of pedestrian fatalities and injuries along that route.
The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives pushed de Blasio before he was even elected to view street safety as more than an environmental or quality of life issue, but as an issue about equity and health. Executive Director Danny Harris said the big changes on Queens Boulevard and the installation of busways that helped speed up bus times should’ve been replicated across the city.
The first busway on 14th Street in Manhattan was installed in 2019, and limits the vehicles allowed on the streets to give priority to buses. The MTA reports eastbound buses on 14th Street are traveling 22% to 47% faster than before the busway was created, saving riders nearly 10 minutes if they ride from one end of 14th Street to the other. Now, there are six more busways total in the city: Three in Queens, two in Manhattan (the other in Washington Heights) and two in downtown Brooklyn.
“Where have those projects been replicated at scale? Whether it's to save lives or to scale what's working?” Harris said. “No, we have a lot of great projects, but it's hard to look citywide and see a completely transformed streetscape where the streets are really meeting the needs of New Yorkers.”
De Blasio did increase the number of bike lanes, too. By the end of the year, the city expects to have completed installation of 162 miles of on-street protected bike lanes, for a total of 198 miles, as well as installing 252 miles of “conventional” — that is paint on the ground — bike lanes, for a citywide total of 482 miles. And CitiBikes are even more ubiquitous, from 6,499 bikes in 2013 to 23,472 bikes now. While Citibike is privately funded, it must work with the DOT and neighborhoods to install new docks.
Still Harris’ group said the mayor was too car-centric and refused to eliminate parking spots that he believes could’ve been put to better use.
“No one is winning on our streets because our city continues to pit us against each other,” Harris said. “The city has us all fighting for crumbs, right? You have to decide whether you want a bike corral or a tree, or a safe place for your kids to be able to cross the street. Meanwhile, you know, cars are able to do whatever they want.”
He said he was extremely disappointed with how de Blasio handled the pandemic, when it came to street safety. In May 2020, de Blasio convened a panel of transportation experts to come up with ways to use streets better when the city reopened. Harris said the mayor didn’t take up any of the groups’ recommendations or even acknowledge receiving the report.
City Council Member and soon-to-be City Comptroller Brad Lander also said the pandemic was a wasted opportunity to make major changes to street safety. “You can see in the data, sort of elevation of various kinds of mental health disorders. I think that dangerously reckless driving is in that category and that there just is more of it at the moment,” Lander said. “And we did not have any response to that.”
Lander, who’s been a vocal advocate for street safety and using the council to hold dangerous drivers accountable through city legislation, said overall de Blasio’s eight years have been uneven.
“It's always been a mixed story,” Lander said. “Some good things got done that have saved lives. But not with a fully bold agenda for transforming our streets to make them safer.”
The city stands behind its efforts.
“Vision Zero has become a national model for addressing traffic violence,” de Blasio spokesperson Mitch Schwartz wrote in a statement. “But this administration’s most powerful legacy is that the streets of New York City, simply put, look a lot different than they used to. Massive bike lane infrastructure has nurtured a cycling boom. We’ve built almost half of the bus lanes that have ever existed. New Yorkers can play outside on an Open Street and enjoy a meal in an old parking spot. None of that was easy, and there’s plenty of work left to do. But all of it made this city safer and more livable. It’s a legacy worth building on for the next phase of this fight.”