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New York City's Vision Zero program sets strong example for Toronto

City using bold ad campaign, changed laws and lower speed limits to address fatalities

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (second left) stands at Northern Boulevard and 61st Street, where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was struck and killed in the crosswalk while walking to school in 2013.

Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (second left) stands at Northern Boulevard and 61st Street, where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was struck and killed in the crosswalk while walking to school in 2013.

On Jan. 15, 2014, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stood at a street corner in Queens where an eight-year-old boy had been killed by a truck driver a month earlier.

The newly-minted mayor spoke of the “epidemic” of traffic fatalities in New York and declared “the time to start change is now.”

Since then, under de Blasio’s leadership, New York has become one of the first North American cities to truly embrace Vision Zero. Many other cities, from San Francisco to Edmonton, have adopted the policy in principle, but New York is where the Vision Zero rubber is meeting the road.

The centrepiece of New York’s Vision Zero program is a 10-year, $1.2-billion capital plan to redesign the city’s streets with safety in mind.

The city has lowered its default speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25 (40 km/h) in 2014, redesigned collision-prone intersections, added new speed cameras and made it a criminal offence for drivers to fail to yield to pedestrians.

The results were immediate. The number of pedestrian deaths dropped from 180 in 2013 – a record high – to 139 in 2014 – a record low, according to city data.

Pedestrian fatalities dropped to 134 in 2015, making it the safest year on New York City streets since record-keeping began in 1910.

“We’ve passed 15 laws addressing or directly related to Vision Zero,” boasts city Coun. Ydanis Rodriguez, who serves as chair of New York’s transportation committee. “And as a result, we’ve taken our city to the next level.”

Rodriguez says the city is in the midst of a “cultural shift,” where people are beginning to believe the road belongs to everyone, not just cars, and that the onus for safety should be placed on drivers.

The city’s graphic Vision Zero ad campaign addresses driver behaviour directly – and exclusively. One ad shows a woman’s bloody arm on the pavement and reads: “She waited for the signal. The driver didn’t.”

As part of Vision Zero, New York rolled out an impactful – and sometimes graphic – advertising campaign targeting drivers.

New York Department of Transportation

As part of Vision Zero, New York rolled out an impactful – and sometimes graphic – advertising campaign targeting drivers.

Such messaging is almost unthinkable in Toronto, where past safety campaigns from the TTC have admonished pedestrians for wearing dark clothing or listening to music while crossing the street.

“Those of us who get behind the wheel – and I’m one of them – have to understand that we’re moving objects that weigh thousands of pounds,” Rodriguez says. “When it comes to safety, we have to put our children and our pedestrians and our cyclists first.”

Even in a city where only 15 per cent of the 9 million residents own a vehicle (in Toronto, a 2011 survey suggests nearly half of residents own a car), Rodriguez said implementing Vision Zero was a challenge.

“In the beginning, it was an unpopular issue and there was a lot of resistance,” he said. “But our message to New Yorkers, and to anyone throughout the world, was that we have to be part of the solution.”

Rodriguez credits de Blasio, as well as the work of advocacy groups like Families for Safe Streets, for convincing New Yorkers that no amount of death on the road is acceptable.

And if Toronto truly wants to make its streets safer, he said our politicians will need to show similarly strong and decisive leadership.

 “We can do this. We can make our cities safer places for everyone,” Rodriguez said.

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