Lisa Sladkus wants New Yorkers to slow down. As director of Upper West Side Streets Renaissance, a nonprofit street safety advocacy group, she has begun campaigning for a neighborhood-wide speed limit reduction. Her proposal: cut down the Upper West Side’s current 30 mph limit to 20 mph.
“We know that speeding is the primary cause of fatal accidents [in New York City],” she said. “If we know this, though, why aren’t we working to change it?”
Upper West Siders are particularly susceptible to injury from speeding vehicles, Sladkus believes. With large numbers of children and elderly residents living around cars and trucks that, as she says, use neighborhood avenues as their own personal highways, residents frequently find themselves in danger of being hit.
“Under 30 miles per hour, you have a much better chance of surviving a collision,” she explained, citing statistics from a UK Department of Transportation study that found pedestrians’ chance of survival in getting hit by vehicles moving at 20, 30 or 40 mph to be 98, 80 and 30 percent, respectively. Slow cars by 10 mph, Sladkus contended, and the city would save numerous lives.
Based on recent accident reports, there are still plenty of lives in New York to be saved. The State Department of Motor Vehicles noted that 143 pedestrians were killed in NYC crashes last year. While this number reflects recognized progress in the city’s pedestrian safety in the past decade (traffic fatalities dropped 35 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to the city’s Department of Transportation), it also underscores work that remains to be done: In 2009, DOT reported Manhattan has four times as many pedestrians killed or severely injured per square mile than New York’s other boroughs. Pedestrians accounted for over half of the city’s total traffic fatalities.
To combat speeding, the DOT recently approved 13 “neighborhood slow zones” that reduce speeds in small residential areas to 20 mph. The department launched a pilot slow zone in the Claremont section of the Bronx last November, and following its success, designated 13 new zones around the city in June after receiving over 100 applications for designation from communities. In addition to lowered speed limit signs, the program installs on-street markers and speed bumps in the zones to ensure drivers get the message.
Originally, Sladkus says, the UWSSR thought about submitting an area or two on the Upper West Side for designation in the slow-zone initiative. As she scoped out different neighborhoods, however, she realized that wasn’t enough. “I felt really ethically wrong to say, ‘I want this one five-by-five-block area rezoned, but leave everything else alone,’ ” so she sent a proposal to DOT for a slow zone that encompasses the entire Upper West Side.
DOT has already rejected the request. According to Sladkus, the department said they were interested in opening a few slow zones around local schools, but could not pursue a neighborhood-wide reduction. (West Side Spirit contacted DOT for comments on the rejection, but they did not provide any statements as of press time on Tuesday.)
Sladkus is undaunted. “It’s a traffic engineering challenge,” she said of the proposal, recognizing that it will not win DOT’s approval unless she can demonstrate significant support from the community. Currently she is sending fliers to local schools and senior centers to gauge interest in speed reduction, and seeking endorsements from politicians, community groups and local leaders.
One supporter, Coalition for a Livable West Side President Batya Lewton, has hired a traffic consultant to review the criteria the DOE used to reject UWSSR’s proposal. “We need to analyze the rationale that DOT has used to exclude the Upper West Side,” she said. “There is no excuse for not reducing speed limits here. Is truck traffic more important than people’s lives?”
Sladkus mentioned that she doesn’t think reduced speed limits are the be-all, end-all solution to ensuring pedestrian safety, nor that the limits could be enforced by the NYPD’s current lax approach. She asserted, though, that better use of technology like speed cameras and red light cameras could reduce violations without further burdening cops.
As for a final solution, she admitted, “I envision a city that’s very, very different and not car-centric at all.” But she sees progress as incremental. “Let’s deal with the safety crisis that we have right now,” she said.
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