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.

According to attorney Steve Vaccaro, who began attending the meetings in 2008, Zweig and Albert have used "their procedural prerogatives to stifle debate and thwart progress that was being consistently supported" by the majority of those present at meetings. The co-chairs would identify some small issue or concern, says Vaccaro, and "seize on those as a reason to put the brakes on, or to reverse any changes."

A request for study that would typically require one to three months took up to two years at Community Board 7, the attorney says.

Adds Mark Gorton, the Wall Street trader and longtime safe-streets advocate who bankrolled Streetsblog, "At every turn we have been rebuffed, ignored, or had our work sabotaged" by the co-chairs of Community Board 7's transportation committee. The co-chairs, Gorton says, have refused to meet or speak with advocates, to correspond with them, or engage outside of meetings.

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

"Now, after a slew of deaths, CB7 and DOT are paying attention. But it should not require people to die for CB7 and DOT to recognize these safety problems," Gorton adds.

In 2012, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer received at least three letters complaining about Zweig and Albert, each more urgent than the last.

In February: "Not once have we seen a proactive safety measure come out of the leaders on this committee. Sadly, the opposite usually happens."

In April: "The committee leadership regularly employs stall tactics or other avoidance behaviors to community groups presenting before them."

And in December: "It is now clear that when it comes to safety for walkers and bikers, the two chairs of this committee will do almost anything to block progress. They ignore the will of their community and tie up life-saving proposals with their common refrain, 'we need more information.'"

Lisa Sladkus wrote the first two letters. She wrote the third one as well, and it was co-signed by 11 fellow Upper West Side residents.

In April 2013, Stringer reappointed Zweig to the community board. Albert's appointment is up for consideration this year. Both turned down repeated requests for comment on this story.

Says Stringer, who in November was elected city comptroller: "As borough president, my office selected community board members through an extensive, merit-based process" that included an independent screening panel and mandatory interview.

Sladkus does have some results to show for her efforts. Following years of activism, she was able to help get crosswalk lines repainted and a "Wait for Walk Symbol" sign installed at 96th Street and West End Avenue. A request to eliminate parking spaces too close to street corners — a move known as "daylighting" for its effect on visibility — was recently approved by the transportation department as well.

A daylighting request at 97th and West End, where Cooper Stock was killed, has not yet gone through.

"If we had removed parked cars and had daylighting at that intersection, there is a chance that the taxi driver could have seen Cooper," Sladkus says.

Hindsight conversations like this aren't unique to the Upper West Side.

In February 2013, after six-year-old Amar Diarrassouba was crushed under an 18-wheeler on his way to school, Community Board 11 came under fire for rescinding its support for a bike lane with pedestrian safety measures in response to complaints from local business owners.

If the next death falls within the boundaries of Community Board 10, residents will be asking why, months after the transportation department crafted a plan to improve safety on Morningside Avenue, the board has not acted on the suggestions.

This past summer, five years after Upper West Side Streets Renaissance published its "Blueprint," Community Board 7 commissioned Nelson\Nygaard to study the same streets and intersections the firm looked at in 2008.

Nelson\Nygaard submitted its report in November. Its recommendations were posted on the Community Board 7 website, where they remain — and where they were on January 10, when Cooper Stock and Alexander Shear were killed.

A few days after the vigil, Elizabeth Caputo, chair of Community Board 7, emphasized Zweig's and Albert's years of service to the community. "Obviously, we've spent the last week mourning, like everyone else," she told the Voice. "This has been a top priority of ours for years."

Caputo said she hopes the Department of Transportation will implement some of the Nelson\Nygaard study's recommendations. "We are hopeful that DOT, when it was sent to them in November, and especially now that it has even more urgency, that they'll actually take a good look. A lot of those recommendations are structural, long-term things, but there were a number of them that were short-term, that are immediate, actionable items that we feel would hopefully prevent these types of pedestrian fatalities or even injuries from ever happening again."

On January 17, Community Board 7 sent a letter to the transportation department requesting changes to Broadway and 96th Street and, West End and 97th Street. Two days after the letter was written, Samantha Lee, a 26-year-old resident in the anesthesiology department at Columbia University Hospital, died crossing 96th Street mid-block between West End Avenue and Broadway. Lee was clipped by an ambulance and thrown into the opposite lane, under the wheels of a Dodge Charger. Neither driver was cited. Later that day, police appeared at the same corner to ticket jaywalkers.

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