Since 2014, Vision Zero has become one of the core initiatives of Mayor de Blasio’s agenda for New York City. The Department of Transportation is implementing lower speed limits throughout the boroughs and redesigning streets at dangerous intersections to slow down vehicular traffic. We talked to NYC DOT’s Ryan Russo, Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Planning & Management, and Scott Gastel, Assistant Commissioner for Press, about Vision Zero’s effects on cycling, the design of its dedicated lanes, and the possibility of higher-speed bicycle infrastructure.
Tell us a little bit about how Vision Zero has developed since it was implemented by Mayor de Blasio when he took office in 2014.
The two pillars of Vision Zero stand on excess speed and failure to yield. The Mayor had us do an action plan half a month into his administration and it was released within 45 days. There were 63 initiatives but it’s really built around these two core issues. The Year One action plan was to get the reduction in speed limit through the State Legislature — to reduce the default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph for the unsigned streets. We carried that through in terms of bending our planning to specific areas where crash rates were the highest. Most of those streets were signed at 30 mph and above, and since then, we’ve gone and posted the 25 mph speed limit.
The thing that gets talked about in terms of speed is the physics of it. If there’s a collision, the damage will be less at a slower speed than at a higher speed. What gets talked about less is preventing the collision in the first place. Lowering speed provides more reaction time. We are just a whole bunch of human beings who are fallible. Someone makes a mistake, does something unpredictable, and then two or three things happen as a consequence of that. By lowering the speed limit, there’s more time to prevent that. We’re talking about sight stopping distance: How far away do you have to see the ball bouncing into the street and the girl chasing after the ball for you to stop your car before a crash occurs?
We also retimed the traffic signal patterns in off-peak periods. There are bands of green waves, and off-peak overnight hours may provide opportunities for speeding. When we started, one in five traffic fatalities was taking place between midnight and 5 a.m., when only four percent of walking happens. If all lights are green at once, then the faster you go, the more lights you make. Whereas if there are progressions, that takes away the reward of excessive speeding.
We love the reward. If we’re in a taxi, for example, we can get from 50th to 90thStreet up Third Avenue in a single light!
They aren’t incompatible. You can drive fast and get stopped by a light, or you can go slower but since the light-progression is timed better you can arrive sooner.
For cities and dense urban places, it just works better if people have the ability to make eye contact and acknowledge each other. We have a foundational urbanity to build off of in New York. It’s less about building pedestrian bridges and fences. There’s a speed threshold you get to where the situation may look chaotic, but it will be safer statistically because people can make eye contact and adjust. That’s different from most places you’ll find in the country and the suburbs.
How is DOT redesigning intersections, and which ones get priority? We’ve noticed that some corners are worse than others. For example, three pedestrian fatalities occurred within nine days of each other, in January 2014, near Broadway and 96th Street.
The Broadway and West 96th Street intersection is a real illustration of our approach to Vision Zero. In 2010 the subway entrance was redesigned and put in the center of the Broadway Boulevard. We put so many pedestrians on the median. In addition, there were a lot of turning lanes. New Yorkers are used to getting to a corner and being able to either to cross the avenue or cross the street. Because of so many signal phases, there were so many pedestrians getting out of the subway, with long waits to cross the street. That caused a lot of impatience, and delay. A senior citizen decided to cross the street without the light and a turning bus driver didn’t see him.
In the past, we would have said, “He’s walking with no signal or crosswalk,” and then moved on. Instead, we said, “We’re delaying pedestrians.” We asked ourselves, “Do we really need the left turn?” So we widened the median and took the left turn away. We jackhammered the concrete median wall and added the crosswalk. The signal phasing is simpler. When you come out from the subway you either have a walk signal for Broadway or for 96th Street and it works much better.
You’re describing the optimum speed of a pedestrian. We don’t always talk about that, which is interesting. We’re always talking about the speed of a car.
We bike over the Queensboro Bridge daily. We noticed that the First Avenue bike lane falls away at 56th Street immediately before the bridge access, right in the location where the most fatalities occur. Also, vehicles queuing to turn in the dark often end up encroaching onto the bike lane — and it seems like it’s not just happening by accident. Is there a plan for a next-generation bike lane that addresses these issues?
We’re trying to unleash a “virtuous cycle.” We approach a location and design the bike lane; as we enhance the network more people start cycling there. There are challenging moments initially, but as more people begin to bike there’s an effect on the balance, the contact between cyclists and motorists. With the First and Second Avenue bike lanes, the introduction of Citi Bike, and the M15 Select Bus, there is a virtuous cycle overcoming the vicious cycle. As bikes and buses begin to outdistance cars, there will be more opportunities to close the cracks in the cycling infrastructure. The gap in the bike lane on First Avenue extended to 49th Street ten years ago, and we’ve essentially been filling in these gaps as we go.
Topography seems to exacerbate crashes. With Cooper Stock, a nine-year-old boy who was hit by a turning taxi at 97th Street and West End Avenue while he was crossing the street with the light with his father, there was a precipitous downhill. It’s also the end of the bus line, limiting travel lanes when buses park. Cars can’t stop as easily because they’re going downhill with a lot of speed. It’s the same on Second Avenue through Murray Hill. People are flying — cars, bikes — it’s so easy to keep speed going that crashes seem to happen more easily. Does topography figure into crash data?
That’s definitely a matter for consideration. I’m not sure topography is shown to be a major contributing factor in driving. You don’t perceive change in level as much as in cycling. With Queens Boulevard, it snuck up on us. Our signature development, the protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard, runs past the “Big Six” tower apartments. There are these housing cooperatives as well as a supermarket. We didn’t notice the change in grade, but it just so happens that there is a long and gentle downslope that stops right before a pedestrian crossing in front of the senior housing. The first thing we heard from the community was that cyclists were scaring them because they would come barreling down the hill. These are considerations we have to take into account.
We’ve been speaking with officials in the Ruhr Valley in Germany about the Radschnellweg, a high-speed bicycle-only highway that will interconnect ten towns from Hamm to Duisberg. Do you see a long-distance bicycle highway as a possibility for the greater New York City area? What do you think it would take to make something like that happen?
The first thing you think about in transportation is that it is too often separated from the built form. Transportation and land use need to go together. Google has made that easier. New York City is a megacity. In the European context you’ll have a compact city, then an open space, then another compact city, with a need for links. To do things like that here would be a right-of-way challenge, But the Hudson River Greenway is in essence a feeder route for other bicycle paths; Ocean Parkway could also function like a bicycle speedway, but it doesn’t have grade separation.
Something like the Old Vanderbilt Motor Parkway captures the imagination. In Eastern Queens we’ve converted it into a bicycle-way. I grew up in Nassau County and used to go explore the old motor parkway by “highway spelunking.” It would be wonderful if Nassau County got excited about putting it together. But you have to be cognizant of the distance. It’s a lot of miles from Nassau County into the city.
In Germany, they are promoting e-bikes, or power-assisted bikes, as the way to use cycling as a daily commuter tool. In Holland too, the e-bike is popular and there are bands of traffic to allow e-bikes and bicycles to have space away from runners and pedestrians. What about e-bikes here in New York? Are they illegal? We see them on the Queensboro Bridge shared-use path all the time but they don’t really work when grouped with runners and pedestrians because they are going so much faster.
In theory e-bikes could work in New York. Basically, I would say that they’re in legal limbo. According to the VTL (NY Vehicle and Traffic Law Code), there’s no definition of what category to put them in. In essence you have a motor that propels you — it makes you a motorcycle, but you don’t have the features. You can’t go through the registration process. That’s a dialogue the State has to have to take the e-bike out of legal limbo.
We have a rule that if you can’t register it with state DMV, we don’t recognize it as a vehicle. There’s no enforcement on them.
If you can’t register the e-bike with DMV because it’s not a motorcycle, nor is it accepted as a bicycle, then what precisely is an electric bike and where can one ride it? Even non-motorized bicycles are legally considered roadway vehicles.
With e-bikes, there’s a spectrum. There are different kinds. With some you can still be using physical exertion, others not. There’s a lot of limbo — it’s a gray area at a minimum.
The reason we bring up the e-bike is this: The Otis safety elevator made skyscrapers possible. You said we have to imagine these long distances from Nassau County to the city. But, with an e-bike, that could be the future of the 30-mile bikeway, and that’s where we can plant the seed of the idea of the bike speedway. The e-bike is truly a bicycle that assists you over the longer distances.
In the shorter term, that’s playing out on Queens Boulevard, for example, with the new demarcated bike lane. From Forest Hills it can be a pretty convoluted subway ride into Manhattan, even though you are pretty close to Midtown. Now that we have the Queens Boulevard Phase 2 under construction, which will extend the bike lane from 74th Street to Eliot Avenue, if someone wants to commute from Elmhurst to Manhattan, the ease is transformative. Those eight to nine miles: that’s the long-distance-biking potential that we are working on facilitating.
Also, the subway does a good job getting into Manhattan. But within Brooklyn, neighborhood-to-neighborhood biking can be much more convenient. It used to be, in the New York lifecycle of a cyclist, that bike-riding was something you did in your twenties, and then you put your bike away. Now it’s the reverse. For twenty-somethings, the subway works. Then you start having kids and those kids get into a school two neighborhoods away. The subway won’t take them to their charter school in Park Slope, so you ride the kids there. Friends who I bike with on weekends who never biked on weekdays are now using the bicycle for everyday school drop-off.
There are complaints that Vision Zero isn’t fairly enforced — first, that it’s the cyclists and pedestrians who are being ticketed by the NYPD, rather than car drivers, and second, that enforcement is racially biased. Some bicycle activists see Vision Zero as just another way to prosecute or ticket people in certain neighborhoods for infractions such as bike riding on the sidewalk, and this ends up sabotaging efforts for New Yorkers to unite around safer streets.
The NYPD is a separate agency from DOT, though we are well coordinated through City Hall. We started with excessive speed and failure to yield. People might not recognize that the police department has their ear to the ground. They might be meeting with an old lady in one neighborhood who will tell them: “That Chinese food delivery guy with the e-bike almost killed me.” We communicate and talk with PD. They analyze data; we analyze data. And we are always trying to say this where we see the crashes are most prominent. If we’re going to do red-light enforcement, let’s go to Bergen and Flatbush because, if you cross there with the red, a bus or truck might flatten you.
Do you find that certain groups get ticketed more? Like delivery people?
We dedicate hours to educating business owners on how educate their delivery people to use lights and map their trips. “Operation Safe Passage” is what it’s called. The numbers are impressive.
I find that it’s the little infractions: for example, SUVs or Ubers parked right in the bike lane that force bikers to go around them with no sight-lines into traffic, and then either hit pedestrians or get hit by other cars. These infractions can set off a domino effect. This “Operation Safe Passage” that you mention sounds like a great idea.
One final question: At one recent community board meeting, on the Upper East Side, people were fighting about crosstown bike lanes. They even had kids stand up and say they didn’t feel safe with bike lanes. What would lead a neighborhood to say a bike lane is a bad thing? What’s the real difference between an explicit marking of a lane or having bikes riding there legally as vehicles on the road anyway?
We need to have our ear to ground and have empathy for everything we hear. That doesn’t mean we share the perspective. Change is difficult. In the example of the Upper East Side, that area is the densest residential neighborhood in North America. There are lots of people living on top of one another. Our streets need to perform many tasks simultaneously, like distributing the mail and collecting the garbage. The bike lane is a visible symbol of another performance element. Citi Bike — a bike-share network — isn’t something many people have thought about yet as a true aspect of urban life. At DOT, we have a broad perspective and think of the city as a whole, but it’s amazing how parochial your life can be as a resident. You could live in Manhattan for years and never know a neighborhood in the Bronx or Staten Island. Your experience is your home and your work, and the way between them. It’s been so hard to move around the city, that everyone’s personal map is very limited. Changes at a macro level might not be affecting you and then, when it comes to your front door, there’s shock.