Landmark Vision Zero Court Decision Sets a New Path to Safe Streets

This blog post was authored by research advisor Tiffany Lam.

We’ve all experienced dangerous streets before. With traffic lights that don’t allow enough time to cross the street, crumbling sidewalks or none at all, and wide lanes that propel fast-moving vehicles, they make people who are walking or biking feel unwelcome and unsafe. Gerritsen Avenue in Brooklyn, New York is one of these notoriously dangerous roads with frequent speeding and related injuries. Despite residents’ recurrent complaints to the New York City Department of Transportation about the safety of this road, the department failed to implement traffic calming measures and other road safety enhancements. Even after a 2004 crash, in which a speeding driver struck a 12-year old boy riding his bicycle and left him in a coma, the department continued its hands off approach.  But in December 2016, New York State’s highest court ruled in a landmark decision that New York City was liable for failing to redesign Gerritsen Avenue to reduce chronic speeding and make it safer for people.

The court’s game-changing ruling creates another reason for cities to embrace Vision Zero, the new policy approach aimed at recognizing and acting upon the fact that road traffic deaths and injuries are preventable by better engineering and street design. The ruling sets a precedent that cities can be held legally accountable for unsafe street design and acknowledges the pivotal role of infrastructure and the built environment in enhancing people’s safety and wellbeing—which are designed for people, by people, and therefore are within our power to change. After all, we have a knowledge reservoir of how to engineer our roads to be safer.  Too often, we just lack the political will to make necessary changes. This landmark decision provides an impetus to exercise political will and leverage that knowledge to optimize public health, safety, and environmental benefits.

If local governments can be found negligent and penalized for failing to redesign dangerous streets, will this court decision pave the way for litigation to become an increasingly powerful tool to address transportation disparities? There is mounting evidence that people of color and low-income communities of are disproportionately negatively impacted by many transportation planning decisions. For instance, residents of low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to walk or bike, but they face greater danger when doing so due to poor infrastructure and threats of crime and violence. People of color are overrepresented in pedestrian deaths in 42 out of 49 states and the District of Columbia.[i] If cities can be held liable for unsafe streets, and if there are disproportionately more unsafe streets in communities of color and lower-income communities, then this should be an impetus for cities to start redesigning streets and roads in the places that need them the most.

While litigation has been a strong avenue to justice to rectify discrimination based on race, gender/gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, and socioeconomic class in housing, employment, and education, it hasn’t been as widely employed in transportation. Perhaps that's because transportation has largely been relegated to the domain of economics, engineering, and technology. When transportation is framed predominantly as a quantitative or technical issue revolving around how to move large quantities of people or goods most efficiently, or when public excitement revolves around the promise of futuristic, sci-fi-esque technological innovations, like self-driving cars, it can be difficult to insert civil rights and equity issues in a way that seems relevant.

Fortunately, this is changing as more researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are thinking and talking more about transportation equity. And, in order to make our commitment to equity more accessible, data driven, and actionable, the Safe Routes Partnership recently launched an Equity research section to shed more light on the importance of equity in active and sustainable transportation. Equity is not an independent, isolated entity but rather, it is a core, integral component of our work. Going forward, this new research section will be a helpful resource to keep track of developments in transportation equity research as this area continues to gain more steam.   

[i] Pennsylvania is excluded from this count since over 90 percent of road fatalities lack race/ethnicity data.