Shining a light on transportation issues, to put it one way, is a large part of Gothamist's mission. We follow the trials and tribulations of Citi Bike; we pay close attention to drivers' ability to get away with murder. We castigate cops parked in bike lanes and the city's uneven efforts to make the streets safer.
We work hard to relay facts and statistics about the leading causes of cyclist, pedestrian and driver crashes and deaths. Why not, we thought, take a camera out to three of the city's most notorious intersections, and attempt to capture some of the behavior that makes these places so treacherous?
Based on recommendations from advocacy groups, we selected three intersections: Myrtle and Wyckoff avenues in Brooklyn, 40th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, and Delancey Street where it meets the Williamsburg Bridge.
We didn't witness anything catastrophic—no horrific crashes or cars flying the wrong way down the streets. Nor were the cameras able to capture every incident that likely occurred during filming. Speeding cars are the primary cause of fatal crashes, and without a radar gun, we assuredly missed a great deal of these.
Still, we documented several near-misses, all caused by the sorts of tiny errors we all commit every day: Many pedestrians jaywalked, many cars blocked intersections after the light, and many cyclists crept just outside their lanes. It is relevant, however, that a pedestrian committing a tiny error is significantly less detrimental than a car committing a tiny error. Two pedestrians colliding equates to little more than an annoyed exchange of words; two vehicles colliding—with each other, or anything else—often results in death.
"Our basic sense is that 20 percent of every street user is kind of acting like a jerk at any given time," said Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternative's Senior Director of Campaigns and Organizing. "That is a part of NYC transportation street culture that we hope will change, with a policy like Vision Zero, that we all will look to one another and acknowledge that we all need to make some small changes."
But, she said, "the stakes are much higher when you're doing something wrong and you’re in a car."
A look at the video reveals that there are altogether too many people—pedestrians and motorists alike—attempting to mingle in the intersections, with cars technically allowed to make turns while pedestrians are still allowed to cross.
"The way NYC works is that people can cross and people can turn at the same time, so if you're seeing cars turning into the crosswalk, that’s because both the drivers turning and the people walking still have the light, even though the orange hand is up," she said. "To me that points out the fact that maybe what we need is a hard stop for people driving and a hard stop for people walking so that these two things aren’t constantly at odds."
The truth is, overtly sinister behavior is rarely the cause of traffic fatalities. Driver inattention accounts for 36 percent of crashes, according to data from DOT [PDF]. The second most common factor is pedestrian error/confusion and the third is failure to yield right of way. While the high-speed chase down neighborhood streets certainly isn't unheard of, the primary cause of most crashes are considerably more mundane.
We caught plenty of instances of these things—it's merely by chance we didn't watch one of them cause injury. Be careful out there.
Gothamist Films is our semi-regular original video series; check out our other work here.