Deadly Traffic in Suburbia Points to Deep-Seated Structural Problems

New Yorkers have long asserted their rights over cars on the city’s streets, identifying with Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy” who barks, “I’m walkin’ here!” at a cab that nearly hits him as he tries to cross the street.

Recent changes in street width, curb size, crosswalks, bike lanes and speed limits that were made as part of the city’s adoption of Vision Zero in 2014, a program intended to eliminate traffic deaths, are a natural extension of this pedestrian-first mind-set.

The street life of the suburbs, however, is built around a landscape that was designed from the beginning to give automobiles priority.

Sunrise Highway, for example, once a sleepy street connecting the communities along the southern end of Long Island, has become one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in all of New York State, where there were 62 deaths between 2016 and 2020. In Connecticut, highway entrance ramps dating back more than half a century may be contributing to an alarming increase of head-on collisions. And while several New Jersey communities seem eager to align with Vision Zero, the state Legislature remains hostile to implementing traffic enforcement technology.

The safety hazards in the suburbs are often literally built-in.

“Since the ’30s, we have as a country been pursuing safety by making it safer to be in a vehicle while making life more dangerous for people outside of the vehicle,” said Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of the book “Fighting Traffic.”

It is the presence of high-speed, highly trafficked arterial roads that connect dozens of communities to each other and to the commercial districts, office parks and retail centers they share.

Protesters stand outside holding photos of loved ones and signs that pushed for Governor Kathy Hochul to sign a bill that would increase funding for safe streets.
Families for Safe Streets protested outside Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office in New York in December 2022, before she signed a bill that increases funding for safe streets initiatives.

Because they are both streets and roads, they are referred to by traffic safety advocates as “stroads.”

When suburbs were new, stroads were considered efficient solutions, not problems. They moved traffic efficiently across sprawling distances. In 1929, The New York Times wrote of the benefit that a “magnificent artery of traffic” in wide, straight roads would provide in speeding traffic through Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Now, safe-street advocates say stroads are inhospitable to anything other than motor vehicles.

“We’re stuck with a status quo that is dysfunctional, and it is a question of whether people are willing to blame the essential principals behind it,” Mr. Norton said. “I think you have to change the fundamentals.”

Transportation in New York City

“The starting point has always been, how do I get this vehicle from A to B in the fastest, most efficient possible way?” said Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “It’s not, how do I get this vehicle from point A to point B in the safest way.”

According to Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a regional planning nonprofit, suburbanites who were spending their days close to home during the pandemic were suddenly exposed to vehicles thundering through residential communities on roads as wide as highways.

“You can’t have people speeding their way through,” Mr. Alexander said, “hurtling their way through neighborhoods where people are trying to shop and walk and ride a bike, go to an event, go to church or go to school.”

Mr. Alexander has pushed to do as New York City has done to slow traffic, which includes removing lanes and installing medians and roundabouts.

In Connecticut, a different kind of legacy infrastructure is the problem: highway entrance ramps constructed more than 50 years ago.

In January, Quentin Williams, 39, a three-term state lawmaker, was killed on his way home from a swearing-in ceremony and celebration in Hartford. Mr. Williams was driving south on State Route 9 when, shortly before reaching his exit in Middletown, his car was struck head on by a sedan driven by a 27-year-old woman who, driving in the wrong direction, entered the highway via the exit ramp. Both drivers were killed.

Quentin Williams, a Connecticut state representative, applauds during Governor Ned Lamont’s state of the state address.
Quentin Williams, a Connecticut state representative, was killed in a wrong-way highway crash in January. Both he and the driver, who was also killed, were over the legal limit for alcohol.

There has been at least one fatal wrong-way collision in Connecticut every month since 2022.

Nearly a decade earlier, the federal fatal crash reporting system showed Connecticut’s wrong-way death rate was the fourth highest in the country. Transportation engineers looked at what other states were doing to make changes.

“After 2013, we started looking at the signage,” said Josh Morgan, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation. The agency made one-way signs larger and placed them lower to the ground. It also pinpointed the conditions that led to wrong-way crashes; 85 percent of the trouble spots had adjacent entrance and exit ramps.

“I can see how it happens,” said Amy Watkins, program specialist of Watch for Me CT, an organization that educates the public about road safety under a grant from the transportation department. “I live near one that I use frequently, and there is three feet of grass that separates the on from the off. I have to really stop and think, which one is the right one?”

Ms. Watkins said ramp design is not the only factor to consider.

Cars drive on a highway toward a series of signs that prohibit pedestrians and cars from entering the same area.
Ten years ago, traffic signage was added along stroads and highways in Connecticut, such as larger and more reflective wrong-way signs that tell drivers not to enter exit ramps.

“The roads have been the same for a long time,” she said. “What is the extra piece that is driving it to be so bad now? I think that missing piece is impairment.”

Studies show that impairment, such as the consumption of alcohol, is a factor in 80 percent of wrong-way crashes. This also applies to recreational marijuana, which was decriminalized in Connecticut in 2021.

In 2020, alcohol was a factor in 40 percent of crash-related deaths in Connecticut, well above the national rate of 30 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last week, the Connecticut State Police reported that both Mr. Williams and the driver who killed him had THC in their systems as well as blood alcohol levels over the legal limit.

Even before the recent surge, Connecticut had begun installing cameras and warning lights at some of the 236 exit ramps that were identified as problems. But this solution is too far down the chain of events, said Beth Osborne, director of the nonprofit Transportation for America.

“They’re saying, ‘We’ll enforce, we’ll add technology — we won’t consider that our design is confusing and it needs to be fixed,’” she said.

All of the highways in Connecticut were designed half a century ago, Mr. Morgan said, and relocating ramps would “involve major reconstruction and taking of private property.” But beyond the hardened infrastructure of the suburbs, it has been difficult to deal with speeding traffic.

New York City is the nation’s largest user of traffic enforcement cameras, according to the Governors’ Highway Safety Program. Speed cameras can be found in 750 zones in the five boroughs, and since they were turned on for 24 hours a day in August 2022, more than $100 million in fines have assessed. Though the revenue has declined in each successive month, these cameras have reduced speeding by more than 70 percent, according to Julia Kite-Laidlaw, director of strategic initiatives at New York City Department of Transportation.

Following New York’s example, Connecticut’s newly formed Vision Zero Council recommended enforcement cameras. But in New Jersey, speed cameras are a tough sell. In fact, the New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill that would withhold New Jersey driver identification information from other states trying to enforce their speed camera laws. In practice, this would mean that a car registered in Hoboken could speed in Brooklyn with little fear of receiving a fine by mail.

And so without the benefit of enforcement cameras, the transportation engineers of Jersey City have turned to engineering and design techniques to slow drivers. Compared with the rest of the state, Jersey City has low car ownership, good access to public transit and city leaders with an evangelical passion for safe streets. Jersey City’s turning point, according to Mayor Steven Fulop, came in 2018, after a decade averaging nine traffic fatalities every year.

These were not accidents, said Mayor Fulop, because with appropriate planning, he added, “traffic deaths can be avoided.”

That year, Jersey City adopted the Vision Zero program and started planning, as New York City had, to change streets, curbs, sidewalks and bike paths.

A pedestrian crossing the street, with a car stopped at a traffic light beside her, approaches a protruding curb extension.
West Side Avenue, a major transit corridor in Jersey City, was given permanent curb extensions that protrude into the roadway in order to slow cars that are making turns, shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians and improve visibility.

It was a departure from “decades and decades” of how city planners and engineers worked, said Barkha Patel, the city’s director of the Department of Infrastructure.

Recognizing that “people will never behave perfectly,” Ms. Patel said, Jersey City focused on a plan “designed in a way that it is forgiving. So even if there is a crash, we can design a street in a way that a crash won’t lead to someone losing their life.”

Grove Street, in the city’s center, was one of the first to see changes. To slow autos where foot and bike traffic is heavy, it was converted from a two-lane street to a one-way street with a protected bike lane on one side and a parking lane on the other. In the high-density residential neighborhood on Fairmont Avenue, the city removed a cut-through street and built a park and playground. On busy West Side Avenue, new bump-out curbs at intersections give priority to pedestrians and force drivers who are making turns to slow down.

But not everyone is enthusiastic. Bus drivers in particular have complained that the bump outs make navigating turns difficult.

Francisca Sanpablo, whose restaurant, El Sazon de las Americas, is on the newly narrowed Grove Street, said she is losing customers. “People call and ask, ‘Where can I park to get lunch?’” she said. “There are no spaces. You will get a ticket.”

Ms. Patel acknowledges this criticism. And yet, at the end of the year, Jersey City achieved its Vision Zero goal, four years ahead of schedule: The city didn’t report a single traffic death all year.

Source:  The New York Times - 5/21/23