It’s natural to look for some positive news amid the coronavirus despair. Early in the pandemic, one piece of such news for New York City seemed to be lower traffic deaths. With so few people driving, walking, and biking around, fewer crashes would take place, and thus fewer deaths. Unfortunately, after a brief lull, that’s not how things have worked out. Manhattan’s streets have fewer drivers, yes, but the ones who remain feel emboldened to act more recklessly. New York can do something about this—but Mayor Bill de Blasio has instead chosen to surrender the streets.
Over the last 30 years, New York City has made great progress reducing traffic deaths. In 1990, 701 people died on the city’s streets, including 366 pedestrians. In 2018, that figure had dropped to a record low: 205, including 116 pedestrians. Better street design and law enforcement reduced the death toll. Bike lanes, for example, protect not only cyclists but also, by slowing car traffic, keep walkers safer, too. Speed and red-light cameras (authorized by the state, at the city’s request) deter bad driving.
The most credit for lives saved goes to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who backed his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, as she began remaking the city’s streets more than a decade ago, including “pedestrianizing” much of Times Square as well as creating pedestrian islands and protected bike lanes throughout the city. Mayor de Blasio, in his 2013 campaign for mayor, promised to continue these gains and accelerate them, signing on to the Vision Zero goal of zero traffic deaths by 2023. To de Blasio’s credit, his transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, continued to expand pedestrian and cyclist space, and deaths had continued to fall.
Now, though, the pandemic has revealed how fragile New York’s progress was. Things started out well, or as well as anything can in a catastrophe: between mid-March and mid-May, as most New Yorkers remained locked down, New York went nearly two months without a pedestrian death, a modern record.
June, though, more than made up for this period of quiet, with 29 traffic fatalities, including four bicyclists and 10 pedestrians—a 32 percent jump over June 2019, which saw 22 total deaths, including three bicyclists and nine pedestrians. One bicyclist died just north of de Blasio’s Black Lives Matter street mural at Trump Tower; the mayor, in planning the mural, failed to notice that this major thoroughfare still lacks a protected bike lane. The situation did not improve in July (through the 29th), which saw 20 traffic deaths—four more than last July—including eight pedestrian deaths, up two from last July. The biggest increase in deaths was of motor-vehicle occupants, from one to eight, the sad outcome of the drag-racing and recreational speeding that has plagued New York’s streets this summer.
As some New Yorkers return to the streets to work, to shop, and to visit friends, many are still avoiding the subway. Biking, walking, and driving have all increased since May. Emptier streets give drivers more room to speed, and they may not see a lone pedestrian trying to cross a busy intersection, as opposed to 15 people who might normally cross at that spot.
It’s true that New York has taken some steps to make walking and cycling ostensibly safer, including nine miles of new bike lanes on an accelerated schedule as well as an “open streets” program, where 67 miles—eventually 100—of road will be closed to drivers and made available to everyone else. It’s also true, though, that the new bike lanes are often clogged with double-parked cars and delivery vehicles, and that “open streets” have seemed more rhetoric than reality in many cases. On Broadway in midtown, for example, drivers simply plow over or remove the flimsy blue wooden barriers marking off an “open street.” And the city has now reclosed some major “open streets,” again permitting car and truck traffic.
New York has also not done enough to give street space to diners. The city’s outdoor-eating program has helped save restaurants. But diners on Ninth Avenue, a world-renowned restaurant destination, must sit crammed on sidewalks and in bike lanes while five lanes of cars and trucks whiz past. It’s both noisy and dangerous. The city, by failing to close off entire avenues for walkers and diners, has outsourced traffic safety to the restaurants themselves, requiring them to set up expensive barriers that probably won’t prevent injury in a high-speed crash.
Compared with the rest of the world, New York is way behind. Paris has remade major thoroughfares, including a busy tunnel, into bike-only roadways; London, too, has created a more comprehensive network of “pop-up” bike lanes. Even car-centric Mexico City has reserved major new space for cyclists. In a stinging failure, the city has cancelled its “summer streets” program, a Bloomberg-era initiative to let walkers and cyclists take over Park Avenue from Central Park to downtown on three August Saturdays. Families with resources, seeing few recreation options, have one more reason to decamp to the suburbs.
The city doesn’t lack ideas. Amanda Schachter, an architect and designer at SLO Architecture, has suggested “straight-line interborough cycleways,” with Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, for example, becoming a “straight shot” to the Manhattan Bridge, and Manhattan’s Third Avenue, if it had multiple lanes reserved for cyclists, serving as a connector from the Bronx down through to Union Square. “The city’s response to cycling . . . thus far has been to promote more space for leisure” via open streets, “when what we need is safe commuter space,” she says. “We should be thinking about bicycle trajectories like subway lines, bridging boroughs and allowing commuters from the Central Bronx, to Eastern Queens and Brooklyn get to midtown Manhattan or wherever they are going in a straight line.” The West Side Highway’s bike path is now so crowded that traffic jams occur on weekends; the city should consider using jersey barriers to carve off lanes from the highway itself for cyclists.
Sadik-Khan, now at Bloomberg Associates, thinks that New York can do more. “New York used to be where other cities looked for inspiration on reclaiming and resetting roadways. Now other cities are schooling us by launching aggressive plans for hundreds of miles of open streets, bus lanes, bike lanes,” she says. “They’re also showing the kind of vision needed so that they don’t just go back to the transportation status quo that existed before the pandemic but emerge stronger, more accessible and more resilient.”
Indeed, New York’s task is no longer to get through a temporary emergency— though, as Sadik-Khan notes, “New York will always need reliable transportation options when the grid goes down, recovering from a storm, during strikes, or following terrorist attacks.” The main job is to encourage a return to the city’s dense core amid a public-health environment that may not get back to normal for years. “Commuters are understandably skittish about getting back on board subways and buses—something they’ve always taken for granted,” she says. “A lot of people will go back to transit simply because they have to travel to work and have no real alternative. But providing options for even some riders to reach jobs, shopping, or other trips without getting into transit—or cars—can make a huge difference and reduce crowding on subways.”
Noting that “more than half of trips in NYC are less than three miles,” Sadik-Khan echoes Schachter’s suggestion. “This is an opportunity for fast-implementation bike lanes mirroring transit corridors across the city, and area-wide pedestrian zones in midtown, which the city has long needed around transit hubs like Penn Station, Herald Square, the Port Authority, and Grand Central Terminal—and in dense hubs in Queens, The Bronx, and Brooklyn,” she suggests.
It’s not hard to do this. Optimally, New York would have used its boom years to put more infrastructure in place, including building retractable barriers right into streets, to permit or block traffic automatically when desired, which some European cities have had since the 1970s. Failing that, though, New York can do what Sadik-Khan made happen in Times Square: decisively transform streets essentially overnight, with orange cones and concrete and metal barriers. “New York already cracked this code on how to do this,” she says. “We know how to convert city streets into active, accessible, resilient transportation spaces. We know the script; we just need to find our voice again.”
Or, rather, we need leadership. New York’s transportation department knows how to manage streets. It needs, besides a voice, a mayor who cares enough to act.