It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York City

Pedestrian deaths in New York City are on pace to eclipse homicides in 2014.

It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York City
Liz Patek/Right of Way
A memorial for Alex Shear stenciled by Right of Way

Five days after two Upper West Side residents were struck and killed by moving vehicles, their deaths separated by two blocks and 30 minutes, the sidewalk at 97th Street and West End Avenue is so thick with mourners that they spill onto the street. The crowd eventually swells so large that it becomes impossible for a crosstown bus to make its turn onto West End from 97th. For a moment, the bus sits paralyzed, mid-intersection, as a line of cars stacks up behind it, honking.

“The fact that plans drawn up by citizen activists in 2008 and 2010 to fix the traffic problems in this area were not acted on makes us sick.”

A candlelight vigil for two dead: That is what it takes to stop traffic on the Upper West Side.

Alex Shear was killed first. Seventy-three years old and a well-known collector of pop-culture trinkets (the New Yorker dubbed him "The Sultan of Stuff" in a 1999 profile), he was struck by a tour bus at 96th and Broadway at 8:15 p.m. on January 10. The bus dragged him nearly a block before a witness flagged down its driver.

Illustration by Tom Carlson
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.
Anna Zivarts
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.

A half-hour later, Cooper Stock, age nine, was holding his father's hand in the crosswalk, beneath the walk signal, outside their home at the intersection of West End and 97th. A taxi making a left turn killed him.

No charges have been filed against the driver of the bus that hit Shear. The driver of the cab that killed Stock received a traffic citation for "failure to yield to a pedestrian." If it's his first offense, he'll pay a small fine.

At the vigil, as the bus inches forward on to 97th, Julie Dermer addresses the throng through a megaphone. Dermer lives in the same building as the Stocks. She has a son Cooper's age.

"They hung out in the lobby, giggling," Dermer tells the crowd. "They always returned safely into our beloved home, right here on that corner, until Friday night, when our worst fear became reality and we lost — as Pablo, our doorman, said — we lost one of our kids right outside of our front door.

"Shock and sadness, which has really taken over the building and the neighborhood, has now turned to rage," Dermer says, her voice rising as she relates her own close call just weeks before and her subsequent discovery that the intersection had prompted "letters and reports that have been sent to our local officials since as early as 2008."

Adds Dermer: "The response has been, quote: 'We'll study it.'"

See also: New York's Deadliest Roads for Pedestrians, Borough by Borough

Last year, 335 people were murdered in New York City. Homicide is on the decline in New York, down 21 percent from 2012, 35 percent from 2011. Last year saw the fewest number of murders in a single year since the New York Police Department started keeping count back in 1963.

Also in 2013, cars in New York City killed 286 people. Traffic fatalities are up 5 percent from 2012, 15 percent from 2011.

If these trends continue on their trajectories, there is a good chance more people will be killed by cars in New York City this year than will be murdered.

That fact says a lot about the NYPD's success in driving down crime, but it says as much about the fact that the city has failed to apply the same determination to reducing traffic deaths.

It's not that cars kill more people in New York than in other major American cities. You're actually less likely to be killed by a car here: A study of data collected in 2009, published in 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that New York had the lowest rate of motor-vehicle deaths of any of the nation's 50 most populous metropolitan areas: 3.9 per 100,000 residents. (The highest: Orlando, Florida, at 19.4.)

But from a different angle, New York's numbers are more troubling. Here, pedestrians, as a share of motor-vehicle fatalities, are killed at a rate far higher than the national average. In New York, pedestrian deaths comprise 52 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the city's Department of Transportation; the national average is a mere 13 percent. (New York, of course, also boasts the nation's highest rate of commuters who walk or use public transit to get to work: 67 percent.)

The death rate is staggering, but it's not for a lack of effort on the part of pedestrian and cyclist rights groups like Transportation Alternatives, Right of Way, and a newly formed political action committee, StreetsPAC, which helped push the issue to the top of Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign agenda last year.

It is a testament to their work when, hours before the January 15 vigil on the Upper West Side, de Blasio stands in a Queens schoolyard to make good on his campaign promises. He is here to announce an ambitious new initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities in 10 years. The effort, called Vision Zero, takes its name from a similar campaign begun more than a decade and a half ago in Sweden. There, the government aimed for a 50 percent reduction in traffic deaths over 10 years; after 15 years, the country has achieved a 48 percent drop.

Among those present at today's event are the parents of Noshat Nahian, an eight-year-old boy who was run over by a semitruck in December while crossing Northern Boulevard, a few blocks from here. Two months prior, a two-year-old was fatally struck on the same street; a year earlier, an 11-year-old suffered a similar fate. Over the past four years, nine pedestrians have been killed along Northern Boulevard's 11 miles of pavement.

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