NYC’s Mean Streets Get Sweeter

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Union Square Pedestrian Mall / Urban Omnibus

“New York City’s mean streets are getting a little sweeter,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. That sweetness takes the form of a “new ecosystem of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes.” In a wide-ranging talk, Sadik-Khan showed what NYC accomplished over her term and where the rest of the world’s cities still need to get to make streets everywhere sweeter — and, really, safer.

“New York City now has the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world. But this is not because New Yorkers are nice. It’s because global cities have a long way to go.” Worldwide, traffic deaths total around 1.25 million per year. Traffic fatalities are the 9th leading cause of death, and the number-one cause for young people. In the U.S. alone, some 33,000 people lose their lives each year in accidents. “This is a public health crisis.”

New York City has made much progress since the pedestrian-unfriendly 1920s, when official city planning documents actually included the phrase: “here, pedestrians will be removed and cars will invade.” Streets were remade by car companies and the city government to be habitats for cars, not people. For the decades that followed, “this was an issue hiding in plain sight.”

In 2010, the city created its first pedestrian safety action plan. Six years of data had been collected showing the “who, what, why, and where of traffic fatalities in the city.” For example, the research found “27 percent of accidents were caused by when drivers failed to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Another third of accidents was due to driver inattention.”

The city decided to make simple, inexpensive changes that “reversed the pyramid, putting pedestrians on top, then bicyclists and public transportation systems, with cars at the bottom.” Sadik-Khan discovered that “cities can change their streets in real time, aiming fixes at the most vulnerable — kids and seniors.” The result: between 2008 and 2012, traffic fatalities dropped 20 percent.

The plan called for hundreds of specific street-level improvements in dangerous areas. “The goal was to integrate people and transit.” With 400 miles of new bike lanes, bicycle ridership quadrupled as well.

To spread what NYC and other forward-thinking cities are doing, Sadik-Khan spearheaded the effort to create NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. Before, many cities had outmoded traffic guidelines created by traffic engineers. “We created a new standard guidance that gave cities permission to innovate.” The U.S. Department of Transportation has since adopted the principles of the Street Design Guide. And the same NACTO team is now working on a global street design guide, with real lessons from developing world cities.

For NYC, vision zero — that is zero traffic fatalities — is the new goal. NYC’s new road safety advertising campaign, which is aimed at “cutting through the noise,” uses shocking ads to change the culture. Other cities are creating equally as dramatic campaigns to “end the indifference to death on streets.”

Sadik-Khan did warn though that changing from a car-centric to a pedestrian-centric street culture isn’t for the fainthearted. “Some people will treat each parking spot like their first born child.” Sadik-Khan was indeed brutalized by some constituencies and communities for pushing forward change so rapidly. But hats off to her. If New York City can make their mean streets sweeter, any city can.

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