On a recent evening in November, 3-year-old Quintas Chen was crossing College Point Boulevard in Queens with his father when a parked car veered off the curb and struck and killed the toddler. (The driver, who left the scene and abandoned his vehicle, was later found and charged with manslaughter.) The scene was painfully familiar to Hsi-Pei Liao and his wife, Amy Tam, who lost their 3-year-old daughter, Alison, just behind corner in 2013. She was also crossing the street while holding her grandmother’s hand when the SUV driver hit and killed her. A year later, Allison’s parents co-founded Families for Safe Streets, an advocacy organization made up of people who have lost family members to traffic violence, the same year that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Vision Zero, a plan aimed at towards eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries. However, they live out their nightmare every time stories like Chen’s hit the news. “This happens constantly and regularly,” Liao said. “Somewhat expected and not acceptable.”
Almost a decade after the launch of Vision Zero, the numbers appear to have plateaued. According to the city’s Department of Transportation, 245 people have died in traffic accidents this year, whether on foot, bicycle or in a vehicle, as of Dec. 7. In 2014, the number de Blasio called unacceptable wasn’t much higher, at 250. But it’s not all bad news: While the rest of America — already lagging behind the world in street safety — is reversing years of progress in reducing traffic deaths, New York is likely to end 2023 with one of the lowest pedestrian fatality rates in 114 years, or as long as the city has been keeping records. Yet for cyclists and other riders on two wheels, the exact opposite is true: this year has seen one of the highest death rates in 20 years. It’s an extremely uneven scorecard for Vision Zero that’s worth checking out. What works to protect pedestrians and cyclists from traffic fatalities, and what doesn’t?
The year started off on a low note: The first few months of 2023 were the deadliest since the city began tracking cyclist deaths more closely in 2011. Fortunately, that rate slowed in the second half. So far, the total number of road traffic deaths for cyclists and e-bike riders is up to 27, rising to 48 if riders of electric scooters and mopeds are included, who also compete for space in bike lanes and face the same problems with visibility in shared roadways with cars. The uptick isn’t entirely due to the pandemic “bike boom,” when more New Yorkers started cycling. It’s more of a throwback to the past, as this year’s number connects to 2018, a time of constant ghost bike dedications and “dying” protests that prompted de Blasio to declare the situation an “emergency” and propose an ambitious plan to cycling infrastructure.
Data provided by the New York City Department of Transportation through December 6, 2023. The bicycle total also includes riders of electric bicycles, mopeds and electric scooters.
Looking at trends in the data is more revealing. City officials indicated that nearly three-quarters of bicycle fatalities this year involved e-bike users, or 20 out of 27. Last year, that number was less than half, just nine out of 20. That jump may be related with the higher speeds these vehicles often travel, contributing to more deadly collisions. This coincides with a record number of trips; according to the latest figures, 610,000 bicycle trips per day were made in 2022, which seems like a low estimate.
For bike advocates, riding high should bring safety in numbers, which clearly doesn’t. That would require a bigger paradigm shift, said Sarah Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans, an advocacy organization for livable streets. That would mean creating a transit landscape that would “reduce driving and rebalance the way our streets are used. These decisions need to be based on data and strategy, not just checking the “more bike lanes” box.
On that front, the DOT says it’s on track to hit its all-time high in protected bike lane installations in a single year, with a record number in the historically lacking Bronx. Also, as we reported last week, New York City has made some progress in improving the design of bike lanes, with wider lanes, “bike boulevards,” new poles, and calming traffic around curves, a common crash culprit.
This physical infrastructure obviously matters, but unfortunately it is not ubiquitous. About 94 percent of cyclist deaths this year and last occurred on streets with very little or no bicycle infrastructure, according to Transportation Alternatives. Even when such an infrastructure exists, there is the problem of human intervention and the deployment of parts; the new Grand Concourse bike lane is often blocked by parked cars, and Upper West Side cyclists report finding themselves on incomplete lanes that suddenly merge with traffic, a citywide problem. Mayor Eric Adams, who has promised to be cyclists’ best friend, is scuttling projects at the last minute through a powerful chief of staff who blocks community-approved street improvements in favor of the well-connected opposition.
The number is certainly not zero, and recent stories about pedestrian deaths point to many problems that persist: reckless driving, speeding, bigger cars. 2021 and 2022 were particularly bad years in New York. But barring 2020 (a deviation due to COVID-19 lockdowns and more people staying home), it looks like 2023 pedestrian deaths will fall below 100 for the first time in recorded history. The streets haven’t been this safe for people on two legs since Vision Zero began, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
“The numbers are definitely encouraging,” said Eric McClure, executive director of StreetsPAC, which supports political candidates on their street safety records. But he was also taken aback by the decline in pedestrian numbers, while motorcyclist deaths rose in the opposite direction.
First, what’s good for bikes is often good for everyone else. The data shows that streets with protected bike lanes reduce the risk of injury for all road users by 34 percent. So amid a spike in cyclist crashes, the city’s steady clip of installing bike lanes appears to be having a knock-on effect for pedestrians.
It was also the year Albany allowed New York speed cameras to operate 24/7 near school zones. In August, NYCDOT reported reductions in speeding, injuries and deaths where speed cameras remain on all night. “When people get one or two speeding tickets, they tend not to get more. So clearly they’re slowing down a little bit to avoid these repeat violations,” McClure said.
Intersections where most crashes occur may also hold some answers. City Hall’s promise to “redesign” 1,000 a year may pay off, even if most of the improvements there are simply leading pedestrian intervals that give people a head start to cross the street before cars can. Other treatments include raised walkways and daylighting, the design intervention that makes it easier for drivers to see pedestrians and cyclists on the corner through curb extensions, stones, flowers and paint. It has been credited as the not-so-secret weapon that brought traffic deaths to zero in Hoboken and Jersey City for several years in a row.
Last month, the mayor and the Department of Transportation said they would increase intersection redesigns from 1,000 to 2,000 a year, half of which would be daylighted. To go further, experts say the city should end its own exception to state law prohibiting parking within 20 feet of a crosswalk and be less hesitant about removing parking spaces — which in practice will illuminate most intersections.
For those who have lost loved ones to traffic fatalities, the city is still not doing enough. “Maybe some numbers are going down, and that’s great news, but for me and my wife, it always feels like a lot of things are just being piecemeal,” said Liao, the father of 3-year-old Alison. For one thing, he thinks the city is reactive rather than proactive, often putting safety measures in place only after someone is killed. After Allison was killed on Main Street, a leading crosswalk was installed at the intersection, even though residents had been telling the city the intersection was unsafe for years.
One particular change they want to see is slower speeds across the city. Liao and Tam, as part of Families for Safe Streets, will lobby for Sammy’s Law in Albany for the fourth year in a row. This law, named after a 12-year-old Brooklyn boy killed by a driver while playing on his own block, would allow New York to set its own speed limits. (It’s currently set at 25 mph.) Just lowering it to 20 would cut traffic deaths by nearly a quarter, research shows. But even with the governor’s backing and broad public support, the bill failed to reach the state legislature last year.
“We want to see a more holistic change on a larger scale,” Liao said. “If we know it works, let’s just put it in place.”