How Large Trucks Became Vision Zero's 'Worst Offenders'

The truck in question
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The truck that fatally struck bike messenger Robyn Hightman in June Adwait Patil / Gothamist

On Monday afternoon, 30-year-old artist Em Samolewicz was biking through Sunset Park on 3rd Avenue when police say she swerved to avoid an open car door, and was struck and killed by the driver of a 2019 Freightliner tractor trailer. Large trucks, which include anything from delivery trucks to waste disposal vehicles, only make up about 3.6 percent of vehicle traffic on New York City streets. But of the 18 cyclists killed in 2019 so far, 10 were struck by truck drivers, according to the DOT, and 30 percent of cyclist fatalities since 2014 involved trucks.

"Trucks cause a disproportionate amount of carnage on our streets," explained Joe Cutrufo, Communications Director of Transportation Alternatives.

At first glance, the problem with trucks in New York City is obvious. They are not built to have a great deal of visibility on streets filled with pedestrians and cyclists, and they are compelled to drive on roads which were never built to handle such large vehicles.

"The biggest issue that you have is the counter movement of that truck," said Daniel Flanzig, a personal injury lawyer who represents pedestrians and cyclists struck by large vehicles. "That truck is going to move left before it moves right in order to negotiate that intersection, and that's going to mean no warning for that cyclist on the left side of the truck… that that truck is actually going to turn right."

The frustration between cyclists and truck drivers boiled over at a vigil for 28-year-old Devra Freelander, a cyclist who was killed by a cement truck driver in Bushwick.

"Trucking companies have not been partners. They have been some of the worst offenders of Vision Zero," Cutrufo said.

Many truck drivers on the road are not required to get a Commercial's Driver License (CDL) since they drive trucks smaller than 26,000 pounds and do not have air brakes.

Michael Devereaux, a professional truck driver and member of Teamsters Local 817 explained how those drivers with CDLs are much more prepared to drive large motor vehicles than other drivers. "I would rather be driving next to a tractor trailer than a U-haul truck," Devereaux said. "That U-haul driver, that's probably the largest vehicle they have ever driven."

The reality is that this problem is caused by a complicated amalgamation of increased e-commerce, a history of poor policy choices, and slow urban planning to address these growing issues. Within this, cyclist fatalities are a terrible by-product, but a not too unpredictable one in this recipe for disaster.

At the same time, New Yorkers' demand for goods delivered directly to their doorstep is fueling a system that requires more and more trucks to stream into the city.

"The number of e-commerce deliveries is more than commercial deliveries, and that has increased rapidly over the last few years," said Jose Holguín-Vera, director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "I would bet that this increase in deaths is related to increase in freight activity."

In 2017, that meant 365 million tons of cargo entered, left, or passed through New York City, and at the current rate of e-commerce growth, that number is on track to balloon to 540 million by 2045. The vast majority of those goods are carried into the city by large motor vehicles rather than ships, planes, or trains.

Holguín-Vera pointed to a history of policy choices that has created an unregulated and inefficient freight sector: "In order to explain the deregulation, I need to go back a hundred years."

According to Holguín-Vera, the federal government helped the nascent trucking industry flourish at the beginning of the 20th century by permitting powerful truck associations to take over the industry and, essentially, set prices for all those attempting to receive goods.

"In the 1970s and 80s, it happened that shippers, receivers, and the government, because the carriers had too much power and they were strangling the economy, decided to deregulate as a means to reset this power," explained Holguin-Vera.

They did this through the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which allowed a proliferation of newcomers and a rapid drop in shipping prices as the market became more competitive. Unfortunately, competition also lead to declining prices, decreased wages, and falling labor standards.

Today, this problem is most apparent in the private sanitation industry, where a series of Pro Publica articles last year revealed rampant abuse and deadly conditions, including one worker being run-over and killed by his own truck and the death of a pedestrian in a six month period.

Mayor de Blasio's "Green Wave" cycling plan, released after the 17th cyclist was killed this year, calls for the NYPD to "target enforcement" on oversized trucks and trucks driving off of truck routes (48 percent of fatal cycling crashes involving trucks occurred off of the designated routes).

The plan also pledges to create a "Truck Safety Task Force to leverage partnerships between public and private sector stakeholders," and expand the city's off hours delivery program.

The off-hours program encourages businesses to receive deliveries at night. There are currently 119 businesses involved and the city says they are working to enroll more.

But the initiative is a long way from successful strategies like the one employed in London's Regent Street, which involved businesses collectively coordinating deliveries and lead to an 80 percent reduction of trucks in the retail district.

In the meantime, Anthony Smith, a van driver who makes deliveries, put it this way: "We need to look out for each other."

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