Video by Jessica Leibowitz

Just a few days ago, Mayor de Blasio proclaimed 2015 to be the safest year on New York City's streets since 1910 thanks to his ambitious Vision Zero plan; despite the decrease in traffic fatalities, a report a day later soberly pointed out that Vision Zero is on track to be some three decades behind its stated goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities by 2024. Some safe streets advocates are growing impatient with the pace of Vision Zero initiatives—and for the families of the 134 pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year, the city is already moving far too slowly.

One of NYC's most passionate advocates for safe streets improvements is Doug Gordon, a TV writer/producer by day who is better known around the Internet as Brooklyn Spoke.


"With the mayor's focus on Vision Zero—which is a bigger, more holistic approach to traffic safety than just 'let's put in a bike lane' or 'let's change this one thing'—I thought... Are we moving fast enough when it comes to saving lives?" Gordon said during an interview in his Park Slope apartment one early morning in December.

Gordon, who moved to NYC in 1998, was enthusiastic about the changes he's seen in the last decade ("Biking in the city has improved by leaps and bounds"), but still felt there were practical changes within his ability to make. "And there are some great things the administration is doing, but there is so much that gets mired down in bureaucracy, community boards, and just the sort of glacial pace of change when it comes to this city."

"So I was inspired by a few different people to think of lighter, faster, quicker ways to make things safer, and found some traffic cones, and just put them up and just saw what happened."

Gordon initially placed three traffic cones on the corner of his block at 2nd Street and 5th Avenue. "It's a pretty busy intersection, a lot of drivers are making a right or a left to come down to 4th Avenue, which is a big thoroughfare," he said. According to NYPD motor vehicle records, there have been at least 13 traffic incidents at that intersection since 2013. So with two cones on one side of the street at the edge of the crosswalk, and one on the other side, he built what he calls "a bulb out, or a curb extension."

Gordon has been advised that his extra-legal activity carries some risks with it: "[A lawyer] told me, 'Look, I like what you're doing, I think it's a good idea. It's obviously showing what's possible. But, if someone gets hurt, they're going to blame you, and you could get sued.'"

That struck Gordon as particularly ironic: "If we leave things the way they are, and someone gets hurt—there are no cones and a driver just zips around a corner and hits someone—the city, the NYPD, everybody else kind of sees it like, 'Oh well, it's just an accident. Nothing we can do.' If you're hurt in that situation, you're not going to sue the city for leaving an intersection as dangerous as so many intersections are. So it does show the absurdity of it all."

"The status quo is dangerous and we ought to be thinking of really light, fast quick ways to change it so that nobody gets hurt," Gordon added.

Gordon is only the latest New Yorker to re-appropriate excess utility cones, littered along the thousands of constructions sites in the city, for guerrilla purposes. Ian Dutton moved leftover ConEd cones onto the Bergen Street bike lane in 2012 to keep drivers out of it; according to Streetsblog, the 78th Precinct embraced the idea by adding metal barriers, and the DOT made it official by adding flexible bollards last year.

Then in October, "Transformation Dept." activists started crafting and documenting pop-up bike lanes, adding the occasional sunflowers to their cones. (Similar transit groups have take advantage of cones in Philadelphia, Seattle, and other cities.)

"This is an encouraging sign," said Paul Steely White, head of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. "It shows that New Yorkers feel the urgency of Vision Zero and understand that there are many ways to humanize our streets and make them safer. People often look to Europe for examples of street safety initiatives, but let's not forget that the European traffic calming movement didn't begin as top-down government policy. It started in Holland in the 1960s, with parents putting furniture at the end of the street so their kids could play without having to worry about getting hit by cars."

"Every once in awhile, I'll be walking around and see a traffic cone that's left out. Maybe it's left out because of a construction project, maybe a pothole and someone put down a traffic one to warn drivers," Gordon says. "But the effects are exactly the same whether it's intentional or not. Drivers slow down when they see things like traffic cones in the way that they don't when they see a person."

"And I think that's another interesting result of this: why are drivers so terrified of hitting inanimate objects with their cars when they're not driving with the exact same care around people?" he added.

Ultimately, Gordon views this cones experiment as a way to show people what's possible at the local governing level. "So often when we talk about changing a street or changing a corner, it's theoretical. It's discussions between community board members and activists, or DOT engineers. It's a PDF, it's a powerpoint presentation. It exists in this other world where it can be filled with all sorts of speculation about disaster, traffic, a loss of parking," he said. "But when you actually do it and show, 'well, look if we set something up that's sort of like this, see, it made it safer, the world didn't end.'"

The Department Of Transportation didn't respond to questions about Gordon's cones project, or about safe street improvements planned for the coming year (including a pilot project at 100 NYC intersections which will test various left turn designs in an effort to slow turning speeds).