Battle for the Streets

Packed neighborhoods mean peril for pedestrians

by Rebecca Harris

pedestrian safetyQueens Councilman Costa Constantinides became an activist for safer streets after seeing the dangers pedestrians face at first hand. “I was walking down the street and saw a guy walking to get milk who was struck and killed by a cab,” Constantinides, a Democrat who represents Astoria and Jackson Heights, told a town hall meeting in Queens last month.“The numbers of traffic deaths are sobering and we need to do something about it.”

At the meeting, political officials, NYPD officers and representatives from the Department of Transportation and the Taxi and Limousine Commission met to listen to residents who described being hit by cars or witnessing other pedestrians’ injuries. It was one of five town halls held around the city as part of the launch of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian deaths.

Since the mayor launched his plan in January, 40 pedestrians have been killed. In January, a 9-year-old boy was struck and killed by a taxi on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In March, a 5-year-old boy was fatally hit by a car in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On April 26, a 54-year-old man died crossing the street in Richmond Hill, Queens.

The number of traffic deaths has actually dropped in the last 25 years, from 701 in 1990 to 286 in 2013. The mayor has said that number is still unacceptable, and as his administration plans to increase affordable housing in already packed neighborhoods, residents worry about the safety of already crowded streets.

There are more accidents in more densely populated neighborhoods: In Manhattan, four times as many pedestrians are killed or severely injured as the other four boroughs. “I am the father of a kid who has to cross Queens Boulevard for school, a street more commonly known these days as ‘Death Boulevard,’” said Peter Beelan, an activist with Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian activist organization. “It desperately needs a redesign.” It’s not just pedestrians who are in danger.

Nancy Silverman, an Astoria resident who has been biking to and from work for 20 years, said cyclists in the city lead risky lives. “We need more protected bike lanes, I think we should look at cities like San Francisco who have done an incredible job with their urban planning,” she said.

Much of the responsibility for making streets safer in New York falls on the police department, which has ramped up its efforts recently to crack down on erratic drivers. “We’ve already seen some of the police department’s tactics start to bear fruit,” said Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives. “The NYPD has redone their enforcement priorities and we are already seeing the results.”

Still, many communities feel the NYPD is too lenient on drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and who speed on local streets. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer reminded the crowd at the town meeting that getting caught up in the blame game is not going to help.  “Finding a scapegoat for this issue is not going to help us solve it,” he said.

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Population Density (per acre) in NYC