Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
Privatization done right can be a great boon. Done poorly, it can harm the public for decades. We see another example of the latter ongoing in North Carolina (h/t @mihirpshah). The Charlotte Observer reports:
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract with a private developer to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 includes a controversial noncompete clause that could hinder plans to build new free lanes on the highway for 50 years.
The clause has long been part of the proposed contract. But it was changed in late 2013 or early 2014 to also include two new free lanes around Lake Norman – an important $431 million project supported by local transportation planners.
Some area officials were surprised that under the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer would likely collect damages if the state added two new general-purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36 at the lake.
Many of these long term privatization contracts are loaded with “submarine” clauses like non-competes that lurk underwater ready to rise up torpedo the public without warning. Did the people of North Carolina know that they were signing away their right to make public policy for the next 50 years when they did this deal?
What raises serious a red flag is that the clause that incorporated the I-77 added lanes project was added late in the game, which suggests that the current impact were not an accident:
Bill Coxe, a transportation planner with Huntersville, said he doesn’t know who lobbied for the revision. The new language wasn’t part of the draft contract from 2013, but it was added before the final deal was signed in June. “We saw that late in the game,” he said. “We aren’t sure who modified that.”
Mooresville’s representative on an advisory committee that helps make transportation recommendations said she didn’t know about the change to the contract with the developer. Neither did Andrew Grant, a Cornelius assistant town manager who helps shape regional transportation policy.
So many of these deals have less to do with bringing in private capital to finance infrastructure improvements than they do contractually creating a decades long stream of monopoly rents for the contractor.
Chicago got burned when an arbitrator ruled it owed $58 million to the group that leased the city’s lakefront parking garages. The city had promised it would not allow anyone else to build a garage open to the public to compete with the lessee. But it did anyway and they had to pay damages.
Contra the claim in the article that these clauses are necessary to attract investment, simply look around and see that businesses take huge investment risks every single day in markets with no barriers to entry for competitors. You don’t see Walgreens going to city governments and telling them they won’t open a store unless the city promises not to approve a CVS within a two mile radius, for example. We often see retail competitors right across the street from each other
But why invest in the actual marketplace when you can sign a sweetheart deal that grants you a five decade monopoly?
In this case, it appears to be free lanes and toll lanes side by side on the same facility. So there’s some justification for some sort of agreement on the state’s plans for the free lanes. But given that the free lane expansion was already on the books and supported by transportation planners, to have the project de facto killed through a clause slipped into a private contract in a way that does not appear to have been vetted by the public is dubious. If the residents of the area had known the free lane project they were banking on would be basically taken off the table for 50 years, it might have created protests that could potentially derail the contract. So by simply adding a non-compete clause, the state and contractor could do the same thing without stirring up the public until it was too late. It’s all the more reason why there needs to be much, much more scrutiny on the terms of these deals.
Thursday, April 30th, 2015
My latest piece is online over at the Guardian. It’s called “Have we actually reached peak car?”
My piece is quite different from the typical US consumer preference change story. Rather, it draws on research from the UK that’s not widely publicized here in which traffic experts going back as far as the 50s and 60s predicted a saturation in demand for driving. In short, while total driving levels may grow with increasing population, individual (per capita) demand for driving may be at or close to its peak.
Here’s an excerpt:
What’s frequently lost in the debate is that traffic experts themselves predicted a driving peak long ago. Models developed as far back as the 1950s and 60s anticipated that at some point the demand for driving would reach saturation point. A 1974 report in the UK predicted that point would be reached in 2010, a remarkably prescient view. As Goodwin points out: “In fact, the 1970s predictions were official government forecasts by its own research laboratory … The institutional memory collapsed and the generation who remembered or were involved in those forecasts is now only a few elderly specialists, like me. I was as surprised as anybody when I re-examined the old reports: I had no idea that the forecasts were turning out so accurate 30 to 40 years later. Mind you, that does not prove the method is right, of course, but it is food for thought and certainly demonstrates that the idea of eventual saturation is not alien.”
UCL’s David Metz, formerly chief scientist of the UK Department for Transport and author of Peak Car: The Future of Travel, has taken up the saturation theme. “Saturation of daily travel demand is to be expected and is a likely explanation for the observed cessation of per capita growth of personal travel.”
There’s a lot in this piece, so click through to read the whole thing.
Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
My latest column is out in the May issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “The Other Digital Divide” and talks about the potential gap between how larger cities can be better positioned to take advantage of civic technology than smaller ones. It’s an emerging area I think we should keep an eye on. Here’s an excerpt:
Harvard professor Stephen Goldsmith co-wrote a book titled The Responsive City to highlight the promise of data- and tech-enabled innovation to improve government service delivery and citizen engagement. He sees the potential for new tech to actually reduce the large-small city digital divide. “There definitely was a danger just a few years ago where cities with resources could buy expensive technology and then use their scale to rationalize the purchase,” he says. “I think in the next few years that will shift dramatically. Cloud computing allows mid-sized and small cities to purchase the best computing with a new pricing system.”
Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer of the mid-sized city of South Bend, Ind. (population around 100,000), agrees on the potential of cloud computing. “Tech is being commoditized,” he says. With today’s cloud offerings, there’s less need for cities to roll out their own in many areas. What he worries about, however, is talent. “It’s a ‘who,’ not a ‘what’ issue,” Garces says. Small cities have to work hard to ensure they get access to the talent to implement this technology.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
My latest post is online over at The Guardian. It’s called “What’s the perfect size for a city?” It is an expanded look at the right scale of regional governance – small box cities, large regional governments, etc. This goes beyond the United States to take a more expanded global view, incorporating some recent findings from the OECD and World Bank. Here’s an excerpt:
“Often, administrative boundaries between municipalities are based on centuries-old borders that do not correspond to contemporary patterns of human settlement and economic activity,” the OECD observed in a recent report. The thinktank argued that governance structures failed to reflect modern realities of metropolitan life into account.
Behind the report’s dry prose lies a real problem. Fragmentation affects a whole range of things, including the economy. The OECD estimates that for regions of equal population, doubling the number of governments reduces productivity by 6%. It recommends reducing this effect with a regional coordinating body, which can also reduce sprawl, increase public transport satisfaction (by 14 percentage points, apparently) and improve air quality.
The World Bank, meanwhile, is worried about the way rapid growth in developing cities has created fragmentation there, too. Metropolises often sprawl well beyond government boundaries: Jakarta, for example, has spread into three separate provinces. The World Bank calls fragmentation “a significant challenge in the East Asia region”.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Friday, April 10th, 2015
Awareness of Chicago’s massive financial hole seems to dawned on the public fairly recently. Crain’s did a story on the debt 2010. The Tribune did a big series on Chicago’s recently. There’s been a ton of national analysis of it. But a hole this big didn’t get dug overnight. Were there any events or signs along the way that could have tipped off Chicagoans that something was fundamentally awry?
I believe there was.
Years back I remember reading an article talking about a Taubman mall that was going to open without a Gap in it. Google pulled up this one from 2001, so this may be it. At the time, Gap was a juggernaut. They could basically dictate terms to mall owners, so important was a Gap to any mall’s success. Here’s what the linked article has to say:
The two largest mall developers–Simon Property Group Inc. and General Growth Properties Inc.–have already capitulated to some of the retailer’s [Gap’s] demands…Taubman could have more to lose by not having Gap stores in its malls than Gap would lose by not being there, said Steven Greenberg, head of Greenberg Group, a real estate consultant to retailers. “It is extremely difficult to have a successful retail center today without a Gap,” he said.
The article is illuminating and I recommend reading the whole thing. Because as it turns out, this event was really signalling that the end was nigh for Gap. The retailer ended up going into a tailspin from which it never recovered its position. Had a shrewd investor seeing how this lease dispute played out shorted Gap, he would have made a mint.
I believe a similar signalling event occurred in Chicago on the night of March 30, 2003. That was the night that Mayor Daley sent in the bulldozers to dig big X’s into the runway at Meig’s Field airport, to make happen its closure via fait accompli when he could not get it through the political process.
While some were outraged at the time, few appreciated the significance of the event. It was a big signal that something had gone seriously wrong with Daley and Chicago. While some dubious tactics such as using long term bonds to pay for litigation settlements began a bit earlier, 2003 is where the wheels started to come off the city. It just took another 5-7 years before people realized it.
Kristi Culpepper recently posted an eye-opening look at Chicago’s disturbing finances. (Don’t let the fact that this is on Tumblr deceive you – she’s legit). She notes that: “There has been a structural gap in Chicago’s Corporate Fund budget since at least 2003.”
For pensions, Chicago had underfunding by 2003 but wasn’t in a terrible position in terms of making its annual required contribution. But the contribution gap soared after that year 2003, creating a crisis. Here’s a chart out of a Nuveen report showing this.
In retrospect, Daley’s bulldozing of Meig’s Field was telling us (in line with the Cockroach Theory) that something was up. Had the media and public started connecting the dots back then, things might have been different. Unfortunately, Daley had just been re-elected to his fourth term, so the city would have had to wait another four years to change course. But if residents had done so in 2007, some of the terrible decisions like the parking meter lease could have potentially been avoided and maybe things would have been different.
It can be hard to tell which events are signal and which are noise, but when disaster strikes, it can be useful to go back and take a look at what might have been missed. In retrospect, Meig’s Field was a sign that Daley had lost his mojo and there were troubled waters ahead for the city.
Thursday, April 9th, 2015
As you know by now, Rahm Emanuel won his re-election bid. I’ve got an article up with some thoughts over at City Journal called “Rahm’s Reprieve” that looks beyond the importance of the mayor to Chicago’s condition and future, and suggests the community’s broader leadership, not just Rahm, need to change their ways. Here’s an excerpt:
And yet, the focus on Emanuel, in keeping with Chicago’s “great man” political tradition, obscures the role of other players in the current mess. Chicago’s vaunted business community has fallen in line with Emanuel, rarely if ever challenging him. It was equally supine before Daley, even as he signed bad union deals, foolishly pursued the Olympics, and racked up huge debts. What were the Commercial Club and the rest of the city’s business elite doing while this was going on? Feting Daley, the same way they now sing Emanuel’s praises.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
Resiliency is a hot topic in urban circles, but hasn’t gotten a lot of traction on the right. After reading The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a recent book on personal resilience by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, I decided to write a pitch to conservatives to consider engaging in the resiliency discussion. The resulting piece is posted over at City Journal and is called “Strong People, Strong Cities: The conservative case for resilience.” Here’s an excerpt:
Disasters do strike cities, and disaster preparedness is a core function of government. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, ably led the city through the aftermath of 9/11, for example. Giuliani believed in less government, but he also believed that Republicans should govern effectively. Republicans, particularly at the state and local level, should take heed. Risk management and resilience planning are not betrayals of conservative principles, and ignoring them cedes the good-government high ground to the Left.
Rodin’s book also makes some conservative points about resilience. She devotes a section to underinsurance, pointing to a SwissRe study finding that only about 30 percent of global economic losses from disasters have been insured. If government picks up much of the shortfall—which, in the U.S., it invariably does—serious moral hazard results. Requiring that communities insure themselves more robustly will boost resilience and motivate developers to avoid building in environmentally sensitive areas.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Monday, April 6th, 2015
My latest is in today’s New York Daily News. It’s called “In NYC, throwing good infrastructure money after bad” and it’s about the grotesque costs of transport projects in the NYC area, compounded by terrible decision making. Here’s an excerpt:
Ten billion dollars — for a bus station. And if other projects are any guide, this price tag for a Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement is only going up from there.
That’s after we’ve committed: $4.2 billion at the PATH World Trade Center station; $1.4 billion for the Fulton St. subway station; $11 billion for the East Side Access project; $4.5 billion for just two miles of the Second Ave. Subway, and $2.3 billion for a single station extension of the 7-train.
Having grown numb to multi-billion price tags for building almost anything, New Yorkers might not know just how messed up all this is. In any other American city, even just one of these fiascoes might well have sunk the entire town.
For example, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley attempted to construct an underground “superstation” in the middle of downtown for an express train he hoped to build to O’Hare Airport. Mothballed when the shell was complete after blowing the budget, this was one of his biggest boondoggles. But it still only cost his city $200 million — lemonade-stand money by New York standards.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Friday, March 27th, 2015
Update: Apparently you can browse the report online for free, you just can’t down load the PDF. So check it out.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organization of developed world countries, recently released a report called “The Metropolitan Century.” I read it while researching an article, but it’s full of interesting information. In fact, I think it even makes a good introductory primer to trends in urbanism.
First, they noted that productivity increases 2-5% when you double the size of a city. This is basically Geoffrey West’s finding, or something close to it. But what they also say is that if the population (weighted by distance) within 300km of a city (~185mi) doubles, productivity grows by 1-2%. So the population of the extended hinterland also plays a role in urban productivity. A city surrounded by a hinterland that is shriveling up might thus have some modest drag on its economy.
In the US, the OECD says that San Francisco and Washington, DC outperform economically relative to their size. Los Angeles and Chicago underperform. Among the top global cities, London outperformed relative to its size whereas New York was right at its expected value.
They also put some meat on the bones of real estate prices. They estimate that building regulations increase prices by two to eight times in central London and New York. Even in smaller city centers they estimate a 50% increase in prices. (This wasn’t specifically housing cost related, but overall real estate prices it would appear). They say:
Land-use regulation that limits new construction benefits home owners at the expense of renters and prospective residents. Home owners tend to benefit in several ways. First, they can enjoy the amenity value of attractive protected neighbourhoods. Second, they benefit from the house price increases that regulation causes. Land-use regulation can also be used to prevent people with lower social status from moving into a neighbourhood (for example by prohibiting multiple dwelling units). In contrast, renters will suffer because they have to pay higher prices. Similarly, prospective residents lose out because they have to pay more to move to the city. It also limits labour force mobility and can have detrimental effects on the entire economy of a country.
As home owners are often the most vocal group of the three, local governments might be tempted to pay particular attention to their wishes and restrict construction strongly. This might have positive effects on the current residents of a city, but will have negative effects on the rest of the country. If every local government pursues such a policy, it leads to a situation in which the negative effects outweigh the positive effects and most residents will be worse off.
There’s also some interesting info on whether it’s better to have one big city that dominates, or a collection of smaller cities. Here’s what they say on that:
It is not only the size of cities, but their spatial distribution as well that matters. Countries with more polycentric systems, i.e. systems of large cities instead of a small number of megacities, are found to have higher per capita GDP. The reason for this could be that, with a larger number of metropolitan areas, a bigger part of the territory benefits from being close to at least one of these metropolitan areas compared to, for example, a situation where one megacity combines the population of all those metropolitan areas.
In contrast, within a region of a given country, a more dispersed structure of cities appears to be associated with lower per capita GDP than if one larger city were to combine the population of those cities. In this case, with spillovers from small cities being fairly minor – both geographically and in size – having one large city in a region rather than a network of small cities may be economically more beneficial. This may also apply to small countries.
These are just a couple small samples. The full report is very readable, full of interesting insights. I believe it would even make a good introductory textbook on urbanism. Grab a copy if you can.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2015
[ As part of highlighting some of what you’ll find in City Journal, where I’m a contributing editor, I’m presenting this piece from last spring’s issue by Nicole Gelinas, in which she argues that De Blasio’s Vision Zero is nothing less than a new public safety revolution – Aaron. ]
Belkys Rivera wept as her English translator conveyed her words to the New York City Council in February. “I remember my heart breaking when hearing the news. The last day I saw my son alive was December 25, 2011.” Josbel was 23, starting a new store-management job. Belkys worried when he didn’t come home. “Nunca,” she responded when asked if she had expected to see two detectives on her doorstep at dawn. “The police asked me to get my other children nearby, and that’s when I began to realize that something had happened. The detectives were heartbroken as well, and they were explaining through [my] younger children what happened.” Josbel was dead—killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway. “The driver . . . left the scene and burned the car,” she said. “I did my job as a mother,” she added, but “because of an atrocity committed by a man who should not have been driving”—the driver’s license had been suspended—“the world will be denied Josbel’s contribution.”
Amy Tam’s story was just as wrenching. She told the council about her three-year-old daughter, Allison Liao, who sang “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” as she rode the Q44 bus and who loved “using upside-down laundry baskets as drums”—and who died last fall, “holding Grandma’s hand,” after “a huge SUV” abruptly turned into a Main Street crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, and struck her. “We are never going to see her start kindergarten,” Tam lamented.
Too many New Yorkers die every year because of reckless drivers. Thankfully, new New York mayor Bill de Blasio has shown leadership in this area, unveiling an ambitious and workable plan to make traffic safer. Backed strongly by New York Police Department chief William Bratton and the city council, the mayor’s multiagency initiative, called Vision Zero, will seek to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero, just as the police try to cut murders to zero. The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.
Nobody favors road deaths, but Vision Zero won’t be an easy sell. Implementing it will require working out complex power issues between city hall and Albany, as well as transforming public attitudes. Even in New York, teeming with pedestrians and traffic, many still view speedy driving as an entitlement. Drivers will need to realize—and here, better engineering, law enforcement, and education will be crucial—that getting behind the wheel in a dense urban environment is very different from seizing liberty on the open road.
New York City has already come a long way in reducing traffic fatalities, it’s important to recognize. Last year, New York suffered 288 crash deaths, including 170 pedestrians. That sounds bad, and it is, but in 1990, New York had 701 traffic deaths, with 366 pedestrians killed. And 20 years before that, the city saw nearly 1,000 traffic deaths in a single year; it wasn’t unusual to lose 500 pedestrians annually. New York’s current traffic-fatality numbers compare favorably with other American big cities. An Atlanta resident is more than three times more likely to die in a traffic crash (adjusted for population); a Los Angeleno faces twice the risk. But New York remains behind—in some cases, far behind—other global cities in this area of public safety: Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all less dangerous. A citizen of Stockholm—the gold-standard metropolis for traffic safety—faces just a third of a New Yorker’s risk in dying by vehicle. Last year, the Swedish city, with a population of 900,000, suffered only six traffic deaths. The Gotham equivalent would be 60 such fatalities—not nearly five times that number.
New York City’s improved numbers have resulted in part from state-level policy reforms. New York was the first state to get a seat-belt law, in 1984, a controversial measure at the time—the governor of Maine vetoed a similar bill, saying that it “crosse[d] the line between public interest and personal choice”—but a major lifesaver. New York was also a pioneer in fighting drunk driving. More than half a century ago, everyone, including most public officials, thought it was perfectly okay for people to drink and drive. The legal limit for blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice today’s limit, and enforcement was nonexistent. A handful of New York State leaders—above all, health chief William Haddon, Jr.—sought to change this blasé attitude. As Barron Lerner, author of One for the Road, a history of drunk driving, recounts, Haddon headed the first state health department driver-research center, in 1954, and it soon found that half the drivers involved in single-car crashes in New York’s Westchester County had blood-alcohol levels above the 0.15 limit, and another 20 percent had levels of at least 0.05 percent. By 1960, thanks in part to Haddon’s visionary work, New York lowered the legal limit to 0.10 percent (it’s now 0.08). During this same period, New York also became the first state to enact an “implied consent law,” which revoked the licenses of drivers who refused to submit to alcohol tests. And police stepped up enforcement while numerous public campaigns targeted drunk driving.
Countless lives have been saved. In Mississippi or Louisiana, you’re two and a half to three and a half times more likely to die in a car crash than in New York State, in part because it’s still more culturally acceptable in those Southern states to get plastered and hit the road. Nationwide, 13 percent of drivers are drunk when they kill a pedestrian. In New York City, 8 percent of vehicular killers are inebriated.
Haddon, it’s worth noting, was one of the first public-health researchers to think of auto crashes as predictable and preventable rather than as random tragedies. “Haddon had come to deplore the use of the word accident, which he believed made automobile crashes sound inevitable, and, by implication, not preventable,” writes Lerner. His approach was to figure out who—and what—was causing deaths on the road, and then work to prevent the fatalities.
Over the past half-decade, New York City has pursued that vision aggressively, seeking to determine who and what continues to kill on the road. Despite media focus on taxi crashes, the city found, 79 percent of New York’s killer drivers are behind the wheel of their own private car or truck, not a commercial vehicle. Most of the drivers are male. In pedestrian deaths, vehicle speed and driver inattention are major culprits. As a recent analysis of five years’ worth of crashes by the city’s department of transportation concludes, “in 53 percent of pedestrian fatalities . . . dangerous driver choices—such as inattention, speeding, failure to yield—are the main causes of the crash. The pedestrians in these cases were following the law.” Three-year-old Allison Liao’s grandmother was following the law when the SUV killed the little girl. The MTA bus driver who hit and killed 23-year-old Ella Bandes on January 31 “was looking in the mirror to try to avoid a taxi at this complicated, pedestrian-unfriendly intersection,” her father, Kenneth Bandes, told the city council; his daughter wasn’t “texting or talking on her phone,” as some people often assume of crash victims. In another 17 percent of pedestrian deaths, a driver error—often excessive speed—made a pedestrian’s mistake a death sentence.
Make no mistake: speed is lethal. Someone hit by a car going 20 mph will live, 90 percent of the time; someone hit at 40 mph has only a 30 percent chance of surviving. Speeding distorts the judgment of both driver and potential victim. “Drivers overestimate their own ability to stop” and “underestimate the impact” of a crash, says Rune Elvik, a civil-engineering professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University. Drivers wrongly think that they’ll save a lot of time by speeding on free stretches of otherwise clogged roads (lights or traffic eventually slow them down). And a child crossing the street has difficulty judging a fast-moving vehicle’s distance. A 2010 paper by the University of London’s John P. Wann and colleagues found that “children . . . could not reliably detect a vehicle approaching at speeds higher than approximately 25 mph.”
Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, used her authority over street design to try to reduce speeds and sharpen driver attention. Times Square’s now famous pedestrian island, filled with tables and chairs, and similar islands and protected bike lanes that Sadik-Khan set up across the city give drivers something to notice, reminding them that people live and work where they’re zooming along. Streetscape changes like these often narrow traffic lanes, as well, which tends to make drivers more careful and makes it less likely that pedestrians will get stuck in oncoming traffic as they rush to cross a street—they can now can take refuge on the islands. Other Sadik-Khan changes included “countdown clocks,” which show crossing pedestrians how many seconds they have before a light turns green, and “split-phase” green lights, which let pedestrians cross before cars and trucks get to turn—a response to the fact that left-turning drivers disproportionately kill.
The numbers show the effectiveness of the design changes. At modified intersections, fatalities have fallen by a third since 2005, twice the city rate. Redesigning Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens—a very dangerous road—by extending medians, painting new crosswalks, and delaying turns cut crashes with injuries by 63 percent. Building a pedestrian island and adding crosswalks on Macombs Road in the Bronx reduced deadly crashes by 41 percent. “Pedestrian-oriented designs save lives,” says Polly Trottenberg, de Blasio’s transportation commissioner.
De Blasio’s Vision Zero project will keep up the Bloomberg-era engineering efforts to change driver behavior, focusing on 25 key “arterial” streets, wide avenues like Queens Boulevard (long called the “Boulevard of Death” for its many traffic fatalities) and the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway, where Josbel Rivera died. These roadways make up just 15 percent of Gotham’s streets—but 60 percent of the city’s traffic-related fatalities occur on them. The arteries “were designed for the fast movement of cars and trucks,” says Trottenberg, and making them look less like highways will slow drivers. To get the job done, though, de Blasio must be willing to take the heat, as Bloomberg did, for imposing changes that a vocal minority will strongly resist. It’s not a good sign that the mayor, in his February press conference on Vision Zero, wouldn’t say whether he thought that redesigning Times Square had been a good idea.
The smart use of data is a second crucial component of Vision Zero. De Blasio is directing his taxi regulators to explore outfitting taxis with “black boxes,” which can record data and sound warnings when drivers go too fast. The devices could not only deter drivers from breaking the law but could also give the city more data on who speeds, and where. The police could use the information to deploy manpower and the transportation department to redesign dangerous intersections. And Commissioner Bratton says that improved data collection and presentation in all areas of NYPD activity, including traffic enforcement, will be a major goal of his second term as the city’s top cop. That Bratton’s NYPD takes traffic safety seriously was evident in its recent flyers warning drivers that illegal double parking, by reducing visibility and forcing bicyclists into traffic lanes, put innocent people in harm’s way. In March, police officers were out in force ticketing drivers who had parked in bike lanes, pleasing street-safety advocates who had long complained of lax enforcement.
In addition to road design and data crunching, the de Blasio administration will take a more traditional approach to combating speeding: reducing city speed limits. Lowering limits was “the most important” step that Sweden took two decades ago in its traffic-safety turnaround, says Stockholm mayor Sten Nordin, whose city helped pioneer Vision Zero. New York will ask Albany, which controls many of the city’s laws, to let it cut the city’s default speed limit—the maximum speed that drivers can move when they’re not on a highway—from 30 mph to 25 mph. And the city wants to set up more “slow zones,” where 20 mph is the top speed. “The standard in densely populated cities where Vision Zero has been implemented around the world” is 20 mph, Amy Cohen, whose son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, died on Prospect Park West last year, reminded the city council.
The real challenge will be enforcement. “His memorial is still up,” says Cohen of the site where her son died, yet people still speed there. Deterring such lawbreaking will mean ticketing speeders more aggressively, as well as revoking recidivist speeders’ licenses. After a series of high-profile traffic deaths this winter, the NYPD has been nabbing more speeders and other reckless drivers. The police wrote 7,648 speeding tickets in January, up 20 percent from last year.
An NYPD-led traffic-ticketing blitz runs into problems as a permanent strategy, though. As City Council Member James Vacca notes, “Since 2001, the highway division has been cut by 50 percent. Local resources are stretched.” De Blasio is adding some officers but not nearly enough to make up for past cuts. Moreover, enforcement is inconsistent and incomplete. Thus, Elvik argues, “there are advantages in using automated enforcement”: speed cameras. “There is a much higher risk of detection” with cameras, he adds, and they make for “a fairer system. Speed cameras treat all drivers equally”—even drivers with public-sector union stickers on their cars, for example, whom police tend to treat leniently. The unpredictability of “ticket blitzes” also angers the public. Over time, people appreciate consistency and predictability. If you know that you will always pay a price for driving 10 miles over the speed limit, you probably won’t speed.
Speed cameras are common in cities with better safety records than New York’s. A decade ago, London was only 29 percent safer than New York for pedestrians, relative to population size; now, with lots of cameras in place, it’s twice as safe. “London has a pretty decent network of speed cameras,” says Bruce McVean of Movement for Liveable London. “It makes it a lot easier for local authorities.” London’s transport authority estimates that the cameras help save 500 people annually from death or severe injury. And after New York City started ticketing red-light runners two decades ago, serious injuries at the targeted intersections fell 25 percent; more red-light cameras would improve on those safety gains.
New York politics have made speed-camera use tricky, though. Albany, not city hall, controls the number and placement of the city’s speed cameras, just as it controls the speed limit. Last year, the city won the right to install 20 speed cameras only after a protracted campaign, which benefited from then-mayor Bloomberg’s support, including his shaming of three state senators who had stalled legislation. “Maybe you want to give [their] phone numbers to the parents of the child when a child is killed . . . so that the parents can know exactly who’s to blame,” the mayor said. This year, Mayor de Blasio secured Albany approval for an additional 120 cameras. The power the mayors won is limited, though. The city can only use the cameras to enforce the law on roads that run past schools, and during school hours, though drivers have the most opportunity to speed at night, when there is less traffic congestion. The fine for exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph isn’t high: $50. And speed-camera tickets don’t result in penalty “points” on a lawbreaker’s driver’s license—a significant omission, since drivers with too many points for violations can temporarily lose their licenses. As part of Vision Zero, de Blasio wants Albany to relinquish its right to dictate the number, placement, and use of cameras.
Albany will probably resist. First, police unions hate cameras, fearing that they will make human officers redundant. “Ridiculous,” says Paul Steely White of the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group. There would still be plenty for cops to do in traffic enforcement—stopping drivers and levying fines and points for failing to yield to a pedestrian, say, or for texting behind the wheel. Another, more reasonable, charge is that cameras will just become another way for the government to shake people down for revenue. The city and state must combat this perception. “The sole purpose of traffic law should be to prevent harm,” says Leonard Evans, a research veteran of the auto industry and author of the book Traffic Safety. As a way of easing concerns, the city and state could announce that they would split camera-ticket money equally among all New Yorkers via a rebate on their tax return. Expanded camera use should actually shrink revenue over time, as drivers learn to obey the rules. Privacy is a third concern. As Evans notes, though, driving is a public activity, monitored by police for a century now, and traffic cameras “record only people who are breaking the law.” Anyone who uses an E-ZPass already has his movements tracked. A fourth obstacle is the state’s dislike of “home rule.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo isn’t known for giving up power, and de Blasio is pushing for home rule on multiple fronts, from the minimum wage to rent regulation. De Blasio would be wise not to take an all-or-nothing approach, as he did for a time in his battle with Cuomo over a proposed city income-tax surcharge to fund a prekindergarten program.
When a cabdriver runs over a little boy in a crosswalk, or an SUV driver mounts a sidewalk and plows into someone, the public reaction is: the driver should be behind bars. But he’s not. As Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s office, says: “It can be difficult for people to understand why a crash is not always a crime.” For one thing, in 1990, the state’s appeals court ruled that, as Agnifilo puts it, “an unexplained failure to perceive” on the part of a driver—absent some outrageous conduct—“is not a crime.” In other words, a driver really can say “I didn’t see him” and walk free under the law, even if he had been driving irresponsibly.
New York law currently limits vehicular homicide or assault charges to drunk-driving cases. Several states, though, including Illinois and Florida, now make it possible to charge sober drivers with homicide if they kill. New York does let prosecutors charge for criminal recklessness. Vance is willing to use this law aggressively, as he did in charging Adam Tang, who allegedly videotaped himself trying to break the speed record for motoring around Manhattan. The question is whether juries will accept that driving dangerously is similar to driving drunk.
New York unquestionably needs tougher penalties for deadly driving. “Look at these sentences,” says Agnifilo, pointing to two 2013 vehicular-homicide cases in the city. One defendant got a maximum of four years; the other, six. “Do these sentences seem long enough to you?” Without stiffer punishments for drunk offenders like these, it’s hard to justify longer sentences for other forms of careless driving; the maximum penalty for criminal recklessness is a year. State Senator Mike Gianaris and Assemblywoman Marge Markey of Queens have introduced a bill that makes it a felony if someone with a revoked or suspended license injures or kills someone with a vehicle. Senator Joseph Addabbo, Jr., a cosponsor, observes that, over the last five years, license-less drivers have killed 181 people in New York City crashes—and largely gotten away with it. Under the bill, they could face four years in prison. The measure not only targets a particularly lethal set of drivers; it also could help change public attitudes by making it clear that operating a potentially deadly machine on roadways is a privilege. A related proposal empowers police and prosecutors to seize the plates from a car or truck operated by a driver without a license before he crashes. City hall, backed by several local lawmakers, is asking Albany for several other legal changes, including increasing the punishment for fleeing a crash—one year in prison—so that it’s equivalent to the four-year penalty, practically speaking, for inflicting a drunk-driving injury or death. As Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, explains, the driver who hit Josbel Rivera faced a more serious charge (arson) for torching his car than he did for leaving Rivera to die.
Agnifilo says that the NYPD’s “crash investigation squad” now responds to crashes that result in death or “critical” injury. That’s an improvement over two years ago, when the police investigated crashes only when victims were “likely to die.” She would like to see them respond to crashes that cause “serious” injury, the standard for criminal charges. In that case, “district attorneys would be called to more crash scenes, allowing prosecutors to make more appropriate charging decisions,” she says.
To prepare cases, the DA relies on witness testimony as well as subpoenaed cell-phone and text records and, increasingly, thanks to a new federal law, on black-box evidence from cars. Agnifilo wants some straightforward changes from Albany to give prosecutors more resources to prepare their cases. Prosecutors need the right to draw blood at the scene of a serious crash without a warrant, which can take hours to secure—while the driver detoxes. The DA’s office would like more time, under “speedy trial” requirements, to prepare vehicular-homicide cases—as it gets for other homicide cases.
Prosecution of smaller infractions can serve as another deterrent. Thanks to better police enforcement, the Manhattan DA received 2,556 drunk-driving cases last year, up 18 percent from 2009. Though the charge is only a misdemeanor, it can mean thousands of dollars in legal costs and a license suspension, as a current public-service advertisement reminds potential drunk drivers. Here, too, tighter laws could complement better police enforcement and prosecution. Currently, if you rack up two DUI convictions in five years, you lose your license for six months. Cuomo wants anyone convicted of drunk driving twice in three years to lose his license for five years. “Three strikes, and you’re out and you are off the road, period,” the governor said this winter.
The most potent factor in making Gotham traffic safer is that citizens and lawmakers are starting to demand change. “We’re reaching a point of critical mass on the pedestrian safety issue,” says Gianaris. The senator says that after two Queens deaths—eight-year-old Noshat Nahian and Angela Hurtado, an older woman on her way to play bingo—caused by drivers with suspended licenses, he grew angry. “This should be a felony.”
New York is a city made up of powerful special interests, and now a grim new lobby has organized itself: family members of crash victims. Parents, including Amy Cohen and Amy Tam, have helped create Families for Safe Streets, encouraging the public to push for speed cameras and other traffic-safety measures. Lerner, the historian of drunk driving, whose own nephew, Cooper Stock, died on the Upper West Side in January after a cabdriver struck him in a crosswalk, says that the movement is similar to the early movement against drunk driving. “Angry parents and relatives” highlighted “the absurdity of a society” that looked the other way as drunk drivers killed. Just as you now know that you shouldn’t drink and drive, texting and driving should be equally taboo. “As more and more potential distractions for drivers emerge, we should be less—not more—tolerant of a mind-set that excuses such behaviors because ‘everybody does them,’ ” says Lerner. The politically active New Yorkers who show up to community meetings to pressure city council members and Albany legislators on bread-and-butter issues are starting to view dangerous driving as one of those issues. Parents want their kids to get to school safely; elderly people perceive themselves as vulnerable.
Those demanding safer streets expect local government to use better data and smarter engineering and enforcement to achieve that end. Many observers once contended that the murder rate would never fall, but thanks largely to smart policing, it is down 85 percent since 1990—nearly twice as big a drop as traffic deaths. New Yorkers are thus likely to hold de Blasio to his stated goal: a quick and marked reduction in traffic deaths. “We are thrilled that the mayor is so supportive,” says Amy Cohen. But she and her fellow grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, and aunts will be “a public force” if “things aren’t moving along as expected.”
This post originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of City Journal.