State law says New York City can lower speeds on streets within a 1/4 mile of school. That's 55% of city's streets -- including 3/4 of those in Manhattan and more than 2/3 of those in Brooklyn and The Bronx. WNYC/Transportation Nation mapped the streets, as momentum builds for a law to restrict driving speeds to 20 mph in parts of the city.
Speed camera legislation has languished in Albany for years, due in part to the steadfast opposition of Rochester democrat David Gantt, who chairs the Assembly's transportation committee. Most recently, in 2012, the state legislature failed to bring a speed camera bill to the floor for a vote, earning the ire of New York's mayor.
But advocates say it looks like there's more hope this time around: the Assembly bill has over 30 co-sponsors, it's got strong support in the City Council -- which council speaker (and mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn says stands ready to deliver a home rule message to Albany -- and, perhaps most tellingly, the state assembly has included the pilot program in its 2013-2014 budget proposal.
"Speeding is, tragically, the number-one cause of fatal crashes in New York City," said Quinn. "This is a really significant problem. Anywhere in America, but (especially) in the biggest most congested city in the world, where we have such a pedestrian city -- to lack this type of enforcement...puts people at risk."
"We just need these cameras to help keep New Yorkers safe," she said.
According to city data, in 2011 70 deaths and 4,700 injuries were attributable to speed-related crashes. The New York City Department of Transportation has not released 2012 data yet.
Quinn was joined at a City Hall press conference by fellow council members James Vacca, Jimmy Van Bramer, Steve Levin and Gale Brewer.
The bill is co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Deborah Glick. Under the terms of the legislation, up to 40 speed cameras would be placed at high-risk intersections in New York for a five-year pilot program. Council members said the cameras would not photograph drivers, fines would not exceed $100, and insurance companies would not be notified of violations.
Those provisions may be necessary to sweeten the deal for opponents who say speed cameras are privacy-invading revenue generators. Because for New York City to get the cameras, the capital has to sign off -- and so far it hasn't proven eager to do so.
"This is a classic example where we are in the hands of Albany," said Jimmy Vacca. "I wish this was something we could do at a city level. If we could, we would." He added: "This is not something I view as a revenue-raiser. This is something I view as a lifesaver."
(Side note: New York City does have red light traffic cameras, although they are currently being litigated.)
The bill could also be riding a tide of renewed energy to combat traffic deaths. Recently, the New York Police Department announced it was reforming how it investigates traffic crashes -- which it now refers to as collisions, not accidents. NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly told a City Council budget hearing Tuesday that the department will add up to 10 new investigators to its collision squad. "One of the challenges we had in setting up this squad is handling the number of accidents that can be handled by the number of people that we have," said Kelly.
That squad currently has 19 investigators.
Listen to the audio from Thursday's press conference:
"In 2011, I authored a law called TrafficStat," said Jessica Lappin, who represents the Upper East Side. "The goal was to shine a light on the most dangerous intersections in the city." She and Bronx council member Jimmy Vacca recently sent a letter to DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. It reads, in part: "Although the DOT has been legally required to provide the information noted above to Council Members and Community Boards since June 2011, to our understanding it has yet to do so. The Council has requested copies of traffic safety reports in recent months without success."
The law requires the DOT to identify the city's twenty highest crash locations and then come up with a plan to make them safer. In addition, it requires the DOT to inspect the locations where fatal traffic crashes occur within ninety days.
A clearly frustrated Lappin said it wasn't clear whether the DOT is inspecting the locations of fatal crashes. "How would we know?" she said "They haven't told us that they have. If they have, they should tell us."
A representative for the DOT, reached after the press conference, took issue with the council member's characterization. Spokesman Seth Solomonow said when it comes to traffic safety, "the last five years have been the safest in city history."
The press conference comes a day after the NYPD posted data on traffic crashes online, but then acknowledged that data was raw and contained "overcounts."
Lappin said the council has been asking for the information for five months. "And they keep saying 'oh, it's coming, it's coming, it's coming,' and we're just sick of waiting."
She said given the DOT's emphasis on safety, she was surprised by the agency's lack of compliance. "This is an administration that we know takes safety very seriously, so I don't understand why they are not complying with this law. We have been asking for months now for them to release this information, and they keep telling us it's on the way. But we don't want to wait when there are lives on the line."
"I don't care how cold it is," said Vacca. (Reporter's note: the temperature at 10am was 14 degrees.) "I think that we in the city of New York have been in the deep freeze too damn long at the Department of Transportation."
It wasn't clear exactly how the council planned for force the DOT's hand. Lappin said, "we're going to keep pushing them." A member of Vacca's staff said that the councilman would explore the possibility of an oversight hearing if DOT doesn’t comply "soon."
In his statement, the DOT's Solomonow said: "From the landmark pedestrian safety report to annual traffic fatality numbers to street-specific studies, there’s never been more safety data available for New Yorkers. This particular law requires not simply reporting statistics but then identifying locations and taking steps to make each even safer. In practice, this report goes above and beyond the law, documenting the engineering, designing, community outreach, scheduling and implementation efforts that have already brought community-supported safety redesigns to these locations. DOT continues to work overtime on safety, and not a single project has been delayed by this report, which we expect to be complete in a matter of weeks."
The New York City Council Transportation Committee met Wednesday to discuss a slate of bills designed to make life easier for New Yorkers who park.
Three bills are under consideration: Int. 762 would make it easier for vehicles to stand near a school or day care center; Int. 527 would require the DOT to post notice of permanent street sign changes that affect parking, and Int. 824 would make it expressly legal for homeowners to park in front of their own driveways -- something committee chair Jimmy Vacca called "a simple bill -- quite frankly, it should be a no-brainer."
That last idea didn't fly with Kate Slevin, the New York City Department of Transportation Assistant Commissioner testifying on behalf of the NYC DOT.
"It's unclear what issue the bill attempts to address," she said, adding it was "particularly troubling" that the bill, as written, could effectively provide 'blanket forgiveness" for a variety of parking violations.
Slevin also said the DOT wouldn't support the other two bills. The no-standing regulations near schools, she said, are necessary to protect children. And as for posting advance notice for permanent parking sign changes: Slevin said the DOT maintains over 1.3 million signs -- of which 20 percent are devoted to parking. Providing advance notice, she said, would "essentially double the workload" of staff people who change signage, which would result in increased costs.
Rather than debate if people should read signs, or signs about signs, the hearing first focused on a topic not on the agenda: prices, specifically an already-rescinded rate increase notice the DOT had sent out to people who use municipal parking facilities.
Jimmy Vacca, reading from the letter, said "Effective January 1st, the City Council has approved rate increases for all New York City DOT municipal parking facilities."
"This City Council never approved any rate increase," Vacca said, adding that the same letter had been sent out last year. "This is two years in a row that this is a mistake."
He took the occasion to argue for more Council control over parking regulations, and said he wanted the City Council to be brought in as a partner when it comes to parking rate increases -- not an afterthought. "I don't appreciate agencies telling me what they're going to do, after they've decided what they're going to do."
The often-tense hearing did deliver some choice exchanges that reveal a persistent tension in city transportation planning.
"What do people do who have cars in this city?" Vacca wanted to know.
"Well, luckily for us, we have a wonderful transportation system," said Slevin, "and less than 50 percent of the households in New York City own cars, so there's a lot of other options people use to get around town."
This did not placate Vacca.
"Some people who live in boroughs outside Manhattan do need a car," snapped Vacca. "I hate to break that to DOT. Some people who do not live in Manhattan, especially, need a car. We do not have mass transit options that you think we have, or that we should have."
Slevin told him the new municipal parking lot rates were going into effect in February 2013.
Let's go back in time to December 2010. The city's tabloid editorial pages are just beginning to sink their teeth into the transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, for -- among other things -- her avid support of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. In Brooklyn, well-connected residents are preparing to sue to remove a bike lane.
On December 9, New York's City Council holds a standing-room-only, overflow-room-inducing, five hour-plus hearing on bikes and bike lanes in New York City. Bronx councilman James Vacca, who chairs the council's Transportation Committee, kicks things off first by warning the crowd to be polite, then sets the stage by pointing out "few issues today prompt more heated discussion than bike policy in New York City."
In the hours that followed, he was proven correct: Sadik-Khan was grilled, interrupted, and accused of ignoring the will of the public, prevaricating, and acting by fiat.
And she was put on the defensive, repeatedly exclaiming "That's what we do!" when yet another council member excoriated her for not soliciting sufficient community input.
At one point, Lewis Fidler, a council member from Brooklyn, told Sadik-Khan her answer was "kind of half true. I don't say that to be snooty. I say it because I think maybe you're not aware."
And then he reeled himself him. "This is not like you've got to be for the cars or you've got to be for the bikes or you've got to be for the buses. It's really not...the cowmen and the farmers can be friends."
The mood at this week's Transportation Committee hearing, held in the same hearing room as the 2010 hearing -- and with many of the same players in attendance -- was markedly different.
"I want to first off say thank you to the agency," Fidler started, before launching into an encomium. "Quite frankly I don't always get the answer I like from DOT, but we get a lot of answers from DOT. And they're very responsive, your agency, your Brooklyn office continues to be a very responsive one."
He then waxed on about major construction work going on on the Belt Parkway -- a roadway almost entirely in his council district. "I will say for a project of that size to have gone on, without my getting repeated complaints from constituents -- that says something all by itself, and the work that's been completed looks really good."
Back in 2010, Fidler's questioning of Sadik-Khan was one of that hearing's most contentious exchanges, with the two of them repeatedly interrupting each other. Fidler at that time told Sadik-Khan that her answers were "half true;" he later accused the DOT of failing to solicit community input on bike lanes -- a charge Sadik-Khan repeatedly denied.
On Tuesday, Fidler asked Sadik-Khan to look into repairing a bike lane in his district (a lane under the Parks Department jurisdiction since it's on their land. Sadik-Khan said she'd make sure her office reached out to the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe.)
So maybe the cowmen and the farmers might be friends after all.
To be fair, Tuesday's hearing was not one in which members of the public could comment (public hearings on the budget will be held next week), and biking wasn't the only topic on the agenda.
Peter Koo is the Queens councilman who represents Flushing (a neighborhood so heavily trafficked by pedestrians that the DOT said Tuesday that it's slated for a sidewalk expansion project.) At the 2010 hearing, Koo complained that bikes lanes had been implemented at the expense of motorists and pedestrians, and that they were empty. "I hardly see any people using the bike lanes," he said at the time. (Transcript here; Koo's remarks begin on page 39.)
At Tuesday's hearing, Koo had a different complaint. "I find a lot of bicycles chained to the fence, to the trees, light poles, meter poles, everywhere." He wants the NYPD to cut the chains of bikes that are illegally parked. But before that happens, he said, "we have to find a place for them to park."
Letitia James -- long a bike lane supporter, put the cherry on the Charlotte Russe. "Commissioner, I want to thank you for all the docking stations in my district. I want to thank you for the bike share program. I want to thank you for using my picture, my image, on your website, on the bike -- it's absolutely fabulous. Thank you for the plazas in my district...thank you for all the street renovations...thank you for the bike lanes, thank you for recognizing that we all have to share the space and no one is entitled to a city street."
A few minutes after James spoke, the May 29th hearing ended.
"I do think since that hearing in 2010, many actions my committee has taken, and the legislation that we have passed, has brought New York City DOT to a realization that they could do a better job when it comes to community consultation," Council transportation chair Jimmy Vacca said in a phone interview. "I think there's been more outreach, there's been more involvement, so I think that the strongly held views that existed in 2010 have somewhat been mitigated by DOT realizing that it's better to work with local neighborhoods where possible and to try to seek areas of consensus."
And is he happy with bike lanes? Yes -- even though he said the ones in his Bronx district weren't heavily used. "I do think in time, though, people will be bicycling more in neighborhoods where they are not bicycling now. And I think the groundwork that we've laid legislatively will make that reality more positive, have a more positive impact on neighborhoods throughout the city."
Vacca said the Bronx bike lanes have been successful in reducing speeding. "They've had an impact in slowing down vehicular traffic, and that's always a positive thing," he said, adding that that's a persistent issue for his constituents. "In my neighborhood there's not a block party I go to, there's not a civic association I go to, where people are not demanding speed bumps, where they're not demanding police enforcement for ticketing of people who speed in their cars."
Next up for the City Council: reigning in rogue delivery people -- a project they're collaborating with the DOT on. "We cannot have commercial bicyclists driving the wrong way on one-way streets, we cannot have them ignoring red lights, we cannot have them on sidewalks," Vacca said, adding that he's working on legislation to address this. "I think within the next several weeks we should have a consensus bill that will reflect my views as well as the views of the Department of Transportation. We're working together to come up with type of bill, and I think we're making good progress."