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Death by Car

European cities cracked down on speeding cars—bringing the speed limit down to 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, per hour, and down even further in some areas to something called “walking speed.” Many of those cities also worked to maintain a balance between cars on the one hand and pedestrians and cyclists on the other, in terms of who dominated the roads.

But in America, where the car is king, such measures have been adopted only reluctantly. For years, efficiency trumped safety in New York: “Vehicle level of service” was practically the sole metric by which the city measured the success of its streets, and one of the greatest enemies of that metric was “pedestrian interference.” Quickly and without much opposition, cars came to rule our streets. In the sixties, a New York traffic commissioner named Henry Barnes introduced what became known as the Barnes Dance—intersections where the traffic was brought to a standstill in all four directions to give groups of pedestrians the chance to cross at once, sometimes even at diagonals (elsewhere, the arrangement is known as a scramble). But such innovations were short-lived here. While crashes and injuries plummeted as a result of the Barnes Dance, gridlock shot up. Today just one Barnes Dance seems to be left here: where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street in lower Manhattan.

In the seventies and eighties, engineers in New York and elsewhere began focusing on new ways to improve traffic safety without stifling the flow of cars. They separated pedestrians from cars, either physically—with barriers like wide tree-lined sidewalks such as the ones along the West Side Highway—or temporally, with new pedestrian-crossing signals. Over the years, myriad ­signal systems have been introduced, including the “leading pedestrian interval” that gives walkers a head start in crossing the street against turning cars (an innovation of the Koch years) and “split phasing,” in which a light that once was a solid green signal now alternates between a green forward arrow and a green left or right arrow.

During the Giuliani administration, seemingly every major quality-of-life measure in New York was tackled by police—broken windows, squeegee men, public drinking. But traffic-safety management remained largely about accommodating as many cars as possible, the faster the better. What steps Giuliani took—setting up pedestrian barricades in midtown and enforcing the ban on jaywalking—were mainly directed at managing walkers, not vehicles.

Mike Bloomberg’s technocratic management style seemed ideally suited to improving traffic safety. During Bloomberg’s first several years in office, he worked to ease gridlock by limiting turns on most streets in midtown (which has largely been viewed as a success) and pushed for congestion-pricing tolls on the East River bridges (which famously failed). In 2007, Bloomberg released his “PlaNYC,” an ambitious blueprint for remaking New York as an ecofriendly, ­quality-of-life mecca. Traffic improvement was a significant part of the plan, and that same year Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan, a progressive-minded former city and federal transportation official, as transportation commissioner.

Sadik-Khan immediately embarked on an ambitious program of reforms, implementing expansive pedestrian plazas in traffic-choked spots like Times Square and Herald Square; new “Select” express-bus lanes in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island; and some 200 miles of new on-street bike lanes. To a greater degree than at any time since before World War II, the city’s streets were being shared equitably by cars, walkers, and cyclists. In large measure, the changes have worked. New York’s traffic-fatality rate is far better than many other big cities’—less than two thirds of Chicago’s and half of Los Angeles’s, while San Antonio has over triple our rate. New York still lags internationally, compared to cities with similar densities such as London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and Berlin, although that gap has been closing. In the past ten years, Sadik-Khan says, “traffic fatalities are down 40 percent. Pedestrian fatalities are down a full quarter. And last year we had the lowest fatalities in New York City since we started keeping records. What’s happening on our streets today is nothing short of historic.”

What are we to make, then, of the September mayor’s report showing an almost 25 percent leap in the fatality rate? Sadik-Khan says the number may be a fluke. She notes that New York’s downward trend in deaths has never been consistent year-to-year. “In fact, every other year since 2005 has seen a slight uptick in fatalities—2006, 2008, and 2010—compared to the record lows in the intervening years when the number nose-dived.” She remains a believer in the overall decline in the traffic-fatalities rate, noting that the mayoral report’s number was for the fiscal, not calendar, year. “You should put significant caveats on this, but 2012 could still be one of the five safest years in New York City history,” she says.