Monday 14 March 2016

A blizzard-blanketed morning, a Red Hook tragedy - and why road safety is part of tackling racism

On January 24, the day after New York City disappeared under a near-record blanket of snow, I managed to make the mile-long journey to morning worship at my church, All Saints’ Episcopal in Park Slope. But, when I looked round the markedly sparser-than-normal congregation, I recognised something unusual. While around half the faces looking back at me would normally be black or brown, that morning nearly everyone was white.
Park Slope the day after the blizzard: the streets weren't
the only thing that got whiter.
The change reflected the city’s demographics. The black – particularly African-Caribbean – families that once lived in Park Slope have been steadily shifted into outer bits of Brooklyn and Queens, with poor public transit. They were marooned at home. Far more of the white, mostly better-off members of the congregation were able to get to worship on foot or on the functioning bits of the subway.

The sudden shift was a particular regret for me that Sunday because I was due after the service to give a talk, together with Transportation Alternatives’ Tom DeVito, on the moral imperatives for making the city’s streets safer. In preparing for the talk, I’d unearthed a trove of material about the disproportionate dangers facing black people and other minorities on streets across the US. Some of the people with the most urgent stake in what I had to say wouldn’t get to hear it.

Yet much of the commentary I’ve seen on the effects of racism on black people’s transport choices focuses on the far narrower issue of black people’s disproportionate chances of being stopped by the police while driving. It’s an important issue – and one of the many reasons why I’m keen for the US to start using more colourblind traffic cameras for roads policing. However, the focus on that issue – and the squeamishness it sometimes induces about tightening up enforcement of road rules – often obscures the pervasive effects of racism on how black people get about, and how safely.

Black people often live in areas with more than their fair share of traffic deaths - but they are disproportionately unlikely to own their own vehicle. They suffer more than other groups from the bad consequences of the US’s auto culture while gaining fewer than others of its benefits. Making cities’ roads safer – and, in particular, making the streets of black people’s neighbourhoods safer – is far more than an environmentally-friendly nice-to-have. It’s an integral part of overcoming centuries of racism in the United States.
Hicks and Lorraine Streets in Red Hook: near my house
in distance, but a world away in experience.
It’s not hard, after all, to discover how racism leads to road deaths. On the morning of June 2, 2014, only a short distance from where I live my privileged white existence, Nicholas Soto, a 14-year-old black boy, crossed the street from the Red Hook Houses, a public housing project, to get to his school bus. As he crossed – at an intersection that if the law were properly applied would count as an unmarked crosswalk – the white driver of a BMW that seems to have been comfortably exceeding the speed limit – sent him flying up into the air, killing him.

The Red Hook Houses are among the many drab housing projects built around New York as part of the “slum clearance” programme by Robert Moses, for many decades the city’s most powerful man. Moses’s decision to place the housing in often out-of-the way places – the Red Hook Houses are deeply inconvenient for the subway, particularly because of the barrier formed by Moses’s Brooklyn-QueensExpressway – puts residents at a permanent disadvantage.

The projects were developed, meanwhile, in ways that Jane Jacobs, the pioneering urbanist, convincingly argues serve to make the spaces hostile to residents’ needs. The streets outside such projects lack the bustle they would have had if the houses had opened directly onto them. Drivers consequently tend to treat the roads – including the one where Nicholas was killed – as urban freeways, to be navigated far too fast.
The road past the General Grant Houses,
in northern Manhattan, in case you
wondered why more people died on the streets
in such areas.
Yet the residents of such projects – who are overwhelmingly black or from other minority communities – have little choice but to get about such streets under their own power or by public transport. In 2006, Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution and Elizabeth Deakin and Steven Raphael of the University of California Berkeley published research showing that 19 per cent of black households in the US had no access to a car, compared with 7.8 per cent of households as a whole. Even among non-poor black households, 9.9 per cent had no access to a car, compared with 4 per cent for the US as a whole. The figures for New York – which has much the lowest rate of vehicle ownership in the US – must be far higher.

The disparity probably reflects the same reluctance to extend credit to black people that left so many exposed in the first place to Moses’ mass demolitions of rental properties. The results, meanwhile, are unambiguous. Children and adults from well-off families do, tragically, die in well-off areas such as Park Slope or the Upper West Side. But people like Nicholas Soto are over-represented in the death toll.

Research in 2010 by the New York Department of Transportation found that people from minority communities were more likely to be hit while walking or cycling. The effect reflected street designs in areas such as the Red Hook Houses. There were higher crash rates in areas with high proportions of black people. But black people and other minorities were no more likely than other people to suffer crashes in areas away from their homes.

All of this, of course, should prompt some self-reflection. For people like me, it’s a reminder that we should not only think about our own demands for better bike lanes and pedestrian crossings in comfortable, inner parts of our urban areas - but also about the needs of poorer, farther-flung parts of the city. If the street outside the Red Hook Houses had been narrowed by a well-designed bike lane, the BMW driver would almost certainly not have felt able to drive as fast as he did. Nicholas might still be alive.
8th Street in Park Slope: a safer place, statistically speaking,
 for everyone to get about.

Meanwhile, for people who insist that lower speed limits, loss of parking spaces and restrictions on car use represent the smothering of a vital form of freedom, it’s worth asking whose freedom is more important. Why are the critics of change so ready to perpetuate motor cars’ dominance of urban spaces when it so clearly entrenches the privileges of richer, whiter people at poorer, browner people’s expense?

But the issue matters to me on a personal level too. When I arrived at church for worship eight days after the blizzard, I was reminded what had been missing the previous Sunday. I was greeted again in warm accents from all around the Caribbean. There was a sense, which had been dulled the previous week, that I was a member of a community alongside this diverse group of people, even though I know most of them only in passing.

Many of the attitudes that make deaths such as Nicholas’s so common reflect an aversion to treating New York City – or the US as a whole – as a true, integrated society. Some of the failures are to do with failures of road safety policy. New York’s police department often lapses into thinking victims cause most crashes. They blamed Nicholas’s death, for example, on his wearing a hoodie, which they claimed obscured his view. The evidence and common sense show drivers cause most such crashes.
All Saints' Church: the place that gives me
a wider sense of community
But it’s also common to hear people suggest that residents of places like the Red Hook Houses could get ahead just as well as anyone if they put their minds to it. It’s an obvious obscenity to believe that people who’ve been systematically prevented over centuries from accumulating capital or getting an education are anywhere close to starting  from the same place as privileged people such as I.

I myself largely ignore the reality of living in a complex, mixed community. Although I lived close to Nicholas Soto, it’s unlikely I’d have ever met him had he  lived. I find myself jumping to lazy assumptions about drivers or people I see on the street, based on ingrained prejudices based on their appearance.

But the Sunday morning after the blizzard and the Sunday following were a reminder that I don’t live entirely in privileged isolation. I smile at, chat with and take communion alongside people whom current policy leaves unjustly exposed to unjustifiable extra risk of traffic death. It’s just as much – if not more - my moral obligation to seek better road conditions for them as it is to seek them for myself.


  1. Excellent post on an incredibly important topic!

  2. Thank you for an excellent piece of writing on the systematic racism that is built right into the fabric of the city. It is fascinating reading Robert Moses's defence of his actions. He basically states that the end justifies the means. See, for example, his statement at:

    For example, from page 4 of the above link, here is his defence of destroying neighborhoods and displacing the people who lived there:

    "Ninety-eight percent of the ghetto folks we moved were given immeasurably better living places at unprecedented cost."

    Reading the actual words of Robert Moses gives a clear and insightful look into the attitudes that built so much of our transportation infrastructure.

    1. Kevin,

      Thank you. On top of Moses' words, it's worth bearing in mind that huge numbers of his public pronouncements on these issues were simply lies. The "ghetto" people often weren't rehoused, according to The Power Broker, but left to fend for themselves, moving into overcrowded accommodation.

      On top of that, the public housing that Moses built is miserable on multiple levels. He didn't provide lids for lavatories, for example, believing it was an unwarranted luxury to offer the poor.

      All the best,


  3. More evidence of a "default" society with a "Chinatown"esque social climate.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Tal,

      Thanks for your comment. You're absolutely correct that huge numbers of people seem to think the white experience is the only valid one. A lot of people seem entirely to miss society's embedded racism. Not, of course, that I do much to correct things beyond writing things like this.

      All the best,



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