Here in New York, there are many things happening as 2014 comes to a close. For the last few weeks the streets have been full of demonstrators marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The terrible and tragic shooting of two policeman may have ended that, but if so, something else will rise up. Like the Occupy Wall Street marches, Black Lives Matter is a call for change and a call to be heard. It brings back a turn of phrase by President Obama that resonated with many but that still awaits full expression: We are the change we have been waiting for.
The people are coming together on streets that are changing too. Vision Zero, the call for zero traffic deaths in New York City, is just part of a change in how we see what urban designers call the public realm. For more than half a century, Departments of Transportation have taken most of the public realm for the use of machines rather than people. But there is a growing consensus that it should be reclaimed for city living. Vision Zero enabled our new city-wide 25 mile per hour speed limit, but that is probably just a step on the road to 20 miles per hour (and even slower in some places). Slower is both safer and better for city life.
When cars go 20 miles per hour or less on city streets, traffic deaths plummet and public life soars. No longer do we have to shape the streets for the safety of cars, a process that includes getting people out of the way of the automobiles. Instead, we can make them places where people want to be. Design public spaces where pedestrians are safe and comfortable, and you have streets that can be safely used by cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. They are also streets where drivers will want to get out of their cars and walk.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City DOT accomplished groundbreaking and important work that began a transformation of our city streets. Under Mayor De Blasio, we will go to the next step. Here’s to 2015 and change we can believe in.