When a Walkable City Becomes a Death Trap
"Vision Zero, the initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities, seems to have stalled, if the reoccurring tragedies on a single Brooklyn avenue are any proof.
Although violent crime has declined in New York City this year, the month of April has been brutal in another sense. Fifteen traffic deaths were logged in the first 24 days, one of them having occurred on a notorious stretch of Atlantic Avenue that divides Brooklyn Heights from Cobble Hill, where several other lives have also been lost. On April 16, a 31-year-old woman, Katherine Harris, was crossing Atlantic at Clinton Street, where she had the right of way, when she was struck and killed by a speeding 27-year-old driver, who was charged with vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, driving while impaired and refusing to take a breathalyzer.
This was the same intersection where Martha Atwater, a 48-year-old writer, producer and mother, was killed as she was leaving a bakery 10 years ago and a Honda S.U.V. jumped the curb. Two years after that, in 2015, Muyassar Moustapha, the 66-year-old owner of a beloved Middle Eastern grocery on Atlantic, was struck and killed by a Mercedes in the same spot, right near his store.
“These big streets running two lanes in both directions,” said Jon Orcutt, a consultant who served as policy director for the Department of Transportation during the Bloomberg administration, “are really the killing fields of the city.”
Mr. Orcutt was instrumental in drafting the Vision Zero Action Plan, one of Bill de Blasio’s first major initiatives, a plan set in motion in 2014 that sought to eliminate traffic fatalities entirely within 10 years. The goal was established after an especially tragic period; the city counted 299 deaths in 2013, and one in particular left an enduringly chilling imprint. Sammy Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old boy weeks away from his bar mitzvah, was retrieving a ball that had rolled onto Prospect Park West one fall afternoon when he was struck and killed by a Chevy van.
Toward the end of 2014, as part of the mayor’s agenda, the speed limit on most city streets was reduced to 25 miles an hour. During its first five years, Vision Zero brought the installation of more than 360 speed bumps and major bike lane and pedestrian plaza projects; it also increased by more than sevenfold the number of intersections in which pedestrians were now given a head start to cross, in advance of turning cars. Despite the implementation of these and many other measures, over the long term the raw numbers have not been encouraging. Last year saw 257 traffic fatalities in the city; just one fewer than there had been nine years ago, when Vision Zero began.
The pandemic managed both to confirm and undermine New York’s reputation as the most walkable city in the country. We walked to go places, to achieve equilibrium, to escape, to commune, to protest. The writer David Sedaris sometimes found himself walking 20 miles a day. In a dangerous convergence of trends, persistent fears of public transportation pushed car ownership upward while the stresses of Covid life were causing people to drink more. Speeding and reckless driving were the leading causes of traffic deaths, and in 2021 they reached their highest point in the Vision Zero era. Nationally, there were more pedestrian deaths in 2021 than there had been in 40 years. Covid has receded but some of the dangerous habits it produced obviously have not. A proposed law in the New York State Legislature would lower the permissible level of alcohol in the bloodstream, a measure that some studies have shown acts as an effective deterrent against driving drunk.
Under Vision Zero, the Department of Transportation was tasked with identifying “priority corridors” — those stretches where pedestrian deaths and serious injuries are most concentrated. One of them was Atlantic Avenue: not merely a few blocks but the whole 10 miles of it, from the western end at Brooklyn Bridge Park to Jamaica, Queens. Since 2020, there have been four deaths on the westernmost mile alone. So far this year, traffic injuries have increased on Atlantic between Fourth and Bedford Avenues by roughly a third over the same period in 2022.
Recently, I asked Mr. Orcutt to walk part of the western tip of Atlantic with me, explain the root of the problems and what might be done to solve them. Atlantic is Brooklyn’s primary east-west artery, functionally a highway that runs through a series of increasingly dense residential neighborhoods, where construction during the past several years has been more and more active.
We began our analysis on the southwest corner of Atlantic and Hicks Street at the beginning of rush hour, when a steady stream of cars and trucks were aggressively turning left from Hicks, sometimes cramming into three lanes, to make their way onto Atlantic’s one-lane entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway typically swerving into the crosswalk. Mr. Orcutt pointed out a proliferation of trucks that were so big they were not legally allowed to pass through many streets in the city, especially in the midst of so many dining sheds that worked to obscure drivers and pedestrians from one another.
Curb extensions that position those crossing the street to be more visible to drivers, while also shortening their distance on the street, were needed, he said. The blocks on Atlantic are long, and he recommended the installation of additional crosswalks in the middle of the blocks. One possible means of mitigating congestion, he continued, was to contain retail deliveries to a night shift and leave one lane closed, reserving it only for parking during the designated period. “At night you would have only one lane in each direction,” Mr. Orcutt said, “which would curb your ability to drive like a jerk.”
There was also an urgent need for more stringent enforcement. Walking eastward, we saw a cop jaywalking and the driver of an S.U.V. backing into the middle of Atlantic Avenue to make a three-point turn as if he were in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Three days after Katherine Harris was killed, a group of elected officials and community leaders sent a letter to the transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguez, calling for these and other changes.
American car culture breeds certain kinds of entitlement that are not easily subject to regulation. Rates of roadway death are lower in Canada, France and Finland than they are in the United States, where individualism is the reigning religion and aggression is the natural order. In 1924, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover organized a conference to deal with what officials were calling the “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.” One idea was to form “cooperative organizations,” otherwise known as “vigilance committees” that could work with police departments to promote road safety. Maybe now, in the age of social media and its addiction to public shaming, it’s an idea whose time has finally come."