Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Fort Greene tragedy, London's missing road dead - and why New York's mayoral election matters

The Saturday before last, facing a day of boring but necessary chores, I persuaded my family that we could alleviate the tedium by going for lunch in Fort Greene, one of my favourite bits of Brooklyn. After I’d cycled there and everyone else had taken the G Train, we settled on eating in Black Iris, a middle eastern restaurant at the corner of DeKalb and Clermont Avenues. We ate looking out on the mixture of brownstone houses and fashionable businesses that makes Fort Greene such a likeable part of the city.
A bikeshare station near the site of Saturday's tragedy:
shamefully, where to position these stations has generated
far more debate in Fort Greene than the threat posed
by deadly drivers

I found myself looking at some of the same scenes again this past Saturday, in far less happy circumstances. Returning home from a bike ride with the children, I spotted on Twitter pictures of a pharmacy that I realised was diagonally opposite Black Iris. Next to it was a Ford sports utility vehicle on the sidewalk, with sheets covering a body and police tape cordoning off the scene.

Some poking around revealed that, around 12.45pm, a driver had crashed his SUV through the front of Black Iris – no doubt as diners like us tucked into the grilled meats and Mediterranean pizzas that our family had enjoyed a week before. After hitting the restaurant, the driver, Anthony Byrd, reversed at speed, made a U-Turn, swerved, hit some cars on the other side of the street by the pharmacy, mounted the sidewalk and hit a mother and her two boys. The sheet was covering the body of Lucian Merryweather, a nine-year-old, crushed on the sidewalk by the pharmacy. His five-year-old brother is in hospital. Byrd also hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
 
The Invisible Visible Family's bikes visit the Brooklyn
Academy of Music on a previous Fort Greene trip
It’s the kind of incident that ought – as multiple-victim public shootings once were – to be shocking, garner exceptional media attention and be fully investigated for lessons. But it’s actually depressingly routine. A Streetsblog post from September suggests that cars mounting sidewalks have already killed at least nine pedestrians so far this year in the city. Those figures don’t include Sian Green, the British tourist whose leg was severed in August when a taxi driver mounted the sidewalk while trying to ram a cyclist. Nor do they include Michael Gomez, who died of an asthma attack a few days after he was one of several children hit in Queens when a driver mounted a sidewalk.

Much coverage of these events has focused on their individual, exceptional circumstances and the culpability or otherwise of the drivers – and sometimes even the victims – involved. The attitude of New York's police has been reminiscent of the fatalism of some Hungarians when I lived in Budapest about the country's shortcomings. “Hat, mindenhol a vilagban (Well, everywhere in the world)” they would say over problems that were objectively, verifiably much worse in Hungary than elsewhere.

The folly of that complacency was exposed on Friday from the other side of the Atlantic when Transport for London published its annual health, safety and the environment report. The report – which was given a rough reception because it suggested safety for some categories of road user was falling - showed that 134 people died on London’s roads in 2012. That’s less than half the 271 who died on New York’s streets the same year, in a city with roughly the same population and traffic flows. New York killed more pedestrians in 2012 – 135 – than died on all modes of transport on London’s streets.
 
The Invisible Visible Girl's bike with its
Vote deBlasio spoke card. If any of us had
a US vote, we'd choose him, we promise.
Although it’s tragically too late for Lucian, New York this week has a chance of making a new start on road safety issues. The day after our visit to Fort Greene, our family emerged from church to find our bikes had been festooned with spoke cards suggesting we vote in the mayoral election – this Tuesday, November 5 – for Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate. During the Democratic primary, de Blasio loudly proclaimed his support for Vision Zero, a policy that targets eliminating city road deaths entirely.

If deBlasio does go for the systematic casualty-reduction technique of Vision Zero, it should, I think, prove far easier than anyone expects to bring down New York’s deaths to levels far closer to London’s. London’s figures, after all, are achieved in a city where some vehicles still speed, where the police response to many road incidents is grossly inadequate and where the poor design of parts of the mayor’s hurriedly-introduced cycling network has led to a series of appalling deaths. On the most basic levels in London, I suspect the superiority of its road safety record is down to drivers’ reasonable expectation that a speed camera will catch them if they speed, to the calming effect on traffic of the central London congestion charge and a total ban on vehicles’ turning through crosswalks when pedestrians have a green light.

There is also, I suspect, an effect of the reduced politicisation of policy-making compared with the US. The UK’s independent civil service tradition ensures that many of the senior officials grappling with road safety issues in London are the same people who have dealt with them for many years. There is less need to make the big policy splash that mayors in big North American cities crave when introducing an initiative. That civil service’s tradition is to work by producing dull, practical reports and recommending policy solutions mainly on a practical basis, often by formal cost-benefit analyses. A small group of officials, I suspect, will have had charge of producing TfL’s health, safety and the environment report. Their job prospects, I suspect, are closely tied to the health of the city’s road culture. It’s probably no coincidence that introduction of the poorly-designed Cycle Superhighways - one of London's worst-designed policies - is among those most closely associated with an individual politician.

In New York's case, it’s hard to imagine a man capable of running a slick election campaign can’t – if he’s willing – introduce fairly quickly policies to bring the city's road safety practices closer to London’s. Ideally, he'll choose somewhere still more safe.

It's a comparison of which I know the presumed mayor is aware. I saw him one morning campaigning outside my son’s school and forcefully told him about it. “I moved in August last year from London,” I said. “It has 100 fewer road deaths annually, with around the same population.”
Me and Bill deBlasio: I hope he remembers what I said
and wasn't too busy thinking, "Why is this strange man
shouting at me and gesticulating so hard?"

A picture that another parent took shows the candidate and his staff looking a little taken aback at the vehemence of my point-making. De Blasio’s body language looks a little defensive. There have been signs – including some remarks about pedestrian plazas in a debate that suggest an only partially-digested sense of his policy’s implications. The candidate nevertheless mentioned his support for Vision Zero when I spoke to him and trumpeted his Streetspac endorsement.

I remain nervous, nevertheless. I can only hope in light of the Merryweather family's appalling grief over a young life wasted that my parting shot to the future mayor will prove prophetic.

“You can fix this,” I said, jabbing my hand towards his chest. “You can do it.”

17 comments:

  1. I pray that the NY election MIGHT make a difference and that the campaign isn't simply the same old tired rhetoric.

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    1. Steve A,

      I pray that too. DeBlasio seemed genuinely fired up about Vision Zero during the Democratic primary (the point when I buttonholed him) but has lost some ardour on the subject since. A cynic might fear that he needed people like StreetsPac to win the primary but now, facing a hopeless Republican in the general election, doesn't need them as much. I hope that's not what's going on.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  2. Hey, we have the same bike! Surly LHT FTW!

    Great article - thanks! I certainly hope that someone somewhere can lead the way forward on reducing road deaths. Bill de Blasio has his work cut out for him though, even if he knows what to do about the problem - after all, motorists aren't going to take kindly to any program that cuts into their sense of entitlement.

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    1. Ian,

      Thank you. It's true that there's a wider problem across the US with road deaths - there are 33,000 deaths annually compared with fewer than 2,000 a year now in Great Britain. The US population is less than six times that of GB. It would be great if New York City could be a leader.

      As you say, though, motorists think they're allowed to drive anywhere they want at whatever speed they want with no-one else in the way.

      As for the bike, we are a Surly family. The Invisible Visible Woman rides a very nice racing green Cross Check with flat bars. They really are superb bicycles.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  3. This is rather amusing: The Englishman rides an American bike, and I ride a Pashley Roadster Sovereign - made in Stratford-on-Avon, England.

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    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for the comment. There is always something appealing about the exotic, isn't there? I think that often when I see Raleigh bikes in the US. In the UK, where nearly everyone my age had a bad Raleigh as his/her first bike, they have zero cachet. It's quite the opposite.

      But I have to bridle a little at Englishman. British is fine - but, when it comes to rugby's Six Nations championship, I cheer very fervently for my fellow Scots.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    2. Sincere apologies! My Celtic ancestors are scolding me. They arrived on this side of the pond at bayonet point in that little bit of unpleasantness known as "The Clearing of the Highlands." Sounds like they were clearing brush, not people.

      And to further punish me I've got that little bit of G&S running through my mind:

      "For in spite of all temptations
      To belong to other nations,
      He remains an Englishman!
      He remains an Englishman!"

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    3. Kevin,

      I apologise for putting Gilbert & Sullivan in your head. Nothing deserves that.

      Invisible.

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  4. Off topic, but hopefully not horribly so. I'm probably coming to NYC for the Youth Bike Summit in February. After reading about biking in NY I'm halfway interested in trying it and halfway terrified. I would be going from Fort Hamilton to the north end of Brooklyn each day (a Friday through Sun)...if it was Mrs. Invisible, say in DC, what would you advise her?

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    1. SouthLakes,

      I'd say to give it a go - and I think I'd tell the Invisible Visible Woman to do the same in DC.

      It looks from the programme as if the summit's at the New School in lower Manhattan. From Fort Hamilton, the first section would be along the Shore Greenway, so that's easy. There's then an on-street section through Sunset Park. A neighbour was telling me the other day how quiet those streets (which go by port facilities) are, especially at weekends. After that, you're into more or less my commute, heading along Clinton St to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges, from which you can approach the New School either from east or west.

      Some of it might feel challenging at first, but it's definitely doable.

      Invisible.

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    2. SouthLakes,

      It's worth adding that, feeling curious as a result of your post, I tried riding down to the Shore Parkway Greenway last weekend (all part of the service from this blog, readers).

      I'd say as a result that the section through Sunset Park needs careful planning. On the way, I went along 3rd avenue from 14th street to 29th street and it was fairly scary. I then went along 2nd avenue from 29th to 68th street and there were parts that weren't great along there either.

      My route on future occasions will be 2nd avenue 9th to 14th streets, 5th avenue 14th to 30th streets, 2nd avenue 29th to 43rd, 1st avenue 43rd to 58th and 2nd avenue from 58th to 68th. It makes more sense on the ground than written down but isn't entirely straightforward.

      I hope this helps.

      Invisible.

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  5. This is one of your best posts. It speaks an uncomfortable truth about a city that often professes to be the best int he world. Obviously we have a lot to do to live up to that boast.

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    1. Doug,

      You're very kind.

      The city is one of the best in the world - but future generations will look back baffled at how we put up with this scale of bloodshed.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  6. You might want to look at the question of Victims' rights, or rather the lack of them, As it stands, victims and victims familiesof motorists' Traffic Violence and Traffic Injustice have no rights. As we discovered, victims cannot claim any rights, no financial compensation, no counseling, no recognition of a wrongful act, nothing. Why? Simply because we are not Victims of a Crime. When the police announces almost immediately after a collision “No Criminality Suspected”, without having done a thorough investigation, they are doing a disservice to victims and their families who have already suffered the worst “nightmare” in their lives. Families are doubly punished and betrayed by the police, which refuses to seriously gather evidence at the scene of the crash and inform victims’ families, by elected city officials (DA, mayor) and by justice system, who turn a blind eye to victims and their families, who accept the inhuman, indecent and disrespectful treatment victims are given.
    In a democratic society, it is not only our right as victims but our responsibility to speak out against injustice, against immoral, indecent and inhuman treatment by the authorities we respect and trust to help us in the most dire of circumstances. We do not deserve to be ignored, belittled, misinformed, lied to, treated as if we were criminals. All we ask is to be told the truth. Is that too much to ask?

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    1. Anonymous,

      I'm really sorry to hear of your painful experience. It sounds like you've been through a dreadful experience.

      I wrote a few weeks ago (http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-crash-on-brixton-road-backsliding-on.html) about the problems of inadequate police investigations. But that was looking at the circumstances of a (relatively trivial) crash in which I was involved myself. The police in that case (in London) at least accepted there was some criminality involved and I was able to sue the driver involved for compensation and the cost of repairing my bike. You're quite right that it's appalling how victims and their relatives suffer from the NYPD's negligence on this issue.

      I'm afraid the NYPD's ideas about this area are so messed up that they do effectively end up treating victims and their relatives as if they were criminals. It's why a comprehensive rethinking of the NYPD's approach - and the dismissal or demotion of those responsible for the current strategy - are urgently necessary.

      In the meantime, if you haven't already done so, may I suggest you contact Steve Vaccaro of Vaccaro & White, the attorneys, to see if he can help at all? He has an excellent record, I'm told, of getting results for victims of traffic violence.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    2. Thanks. Mathieu Lefevre was run over and killed in Williamsburg two years ago. Our case has become a high profile case for victims of Traffic Injustice. We believe it is important to speak out and stand up for victims, not only for ourselves but also for families of other victims killed in NYC on almost a daily basis. When the devastated families ask for information about how their family member was killed, the NYPD treat the victims like criminals, stonewalling and withholding even basic information from the victim’s family, while the reckless driver who broke the law and killed their loved one gets away scot-free. The way the NYPD treats victims is scandalous. Do victims not have Human Rights? Do they not have the right to be treated with respect and dignity, especially given the circumstances? What is wrong with the authorities, the elected officials of such a city, that they acquiesce and tacitly agree with the shameful conduct of the police towards families whose children, parents, loved ones, have been killed in the streets? If the media in America has any power at all, this should be on the front page of every media outlet. How can a so-called civil society accept such indecent, disrespectful, inhuman behavior towards victims and their families, those who have suffered the worst tragedy of their lives? There should be a public outcry against this inhumanity! Where is the media, especially the mainstream media, on this?

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    3. Anonymous,

      I've read about Mathieu's case and I am so sorry for both your loss about the appalling trouble you as his family have experienced since.

      I've taken a while to reply because I feel that, as a member of the mainstream media (I'm a reporter for the Financial Times in my day job) I ought to be able to offer you some kind of sensible advice.

      What I'd say first of all is that it can be tough persuading news editors that things are news. There's a lot of cynicism particularly about road safety issues - precisely because there are so many deaths. It can be hard to persuade news editors that an individual case is exceptional enough to warrant reporting. By the same token, some stories can be hard to place precisely because they seem exceptional and not indicative of wider trends. I fear that Mathieu's case might have ended up falling between those two stools - the police have treated you so exceptionally badly that some editors might have felt it didn't indicate the police's general attitude towards road death victims.

      All that said, I think there is an opportunity now to get some more publicity. I think it could be a good idea now for you to go to some of the New York publications and say you'd like to know whether the new mayor will ensure future victims like yourselves get better treatment. An organisation like Transportation Alternatives might be able to help. You might also try asking why you've been treated so much worse than victims of crashes would be in other places (like London). I hope some of these ideas might help.

      Unfortunately, my publication doesn't really cover these kinds of stories. I do assuredly think your treatment is newsworthy, however, and I hope you can find a way of presenting the facts anew that might get something done at last.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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