getting around

Hoboken Hasn’t Had a Traffic Death in Four Years. What’s It Doing Right?

Photo: Chris Robbins

It’s not quite the prairie, but Hoboken feels downright roomy. Wander down the wide, busy sidewalks of Washington Street, the city’s main strip, past the poke joints and (so-so) bagel shops, or through the unusually narrow side streets that run east and west, and one thing becomes clear. Specifically, oncoming traffic. A pedestrian doesn’t have to play the same perilous game of New York City crosswalk chicken, where you squint through the windows of a massive metal box to catch a glimpse of another speeding metal box whose driver doesn’t see you. Or you edge out into the street, making yourself visible and vulnerable to whatever impatient soul is behind the wheel, hoping one of you has enough time to make the right decision.

Few drivers park next to crosswalks in Hoboken, because they can’t. Those spots are blocked off with bike racks or planters or storm drains or extra sidewalk space for pedestrians or vertical plastic pylons that deter all but the boldest delivery-truck drivers. Stand at a corner, and you can see what is coming toward you, and drivers can see you too, and you don’t have to step out into the road and risk your life to do it.

This is a simple piece of street planning called “daylighting,” and according to Hoboken’s transportation-and-parking director, Ryan Sharp, it’s been among the most popular requests from residents. It’s also one of the major tools that Hoboken has used to make its streets less deadly. The city of 60,000 hasn’t had a single traffic fatality since 2018 and has consistently cut the number of crashes and injuries while — and by — aggressively installing the things that are proven to make cities safer and more efficient for everyone: bike lanes, curb extensions, bus lanes, high-visibility crosswalks, and raised intersections.

As Hoboken’s streets get safer, New York City, like the rest of America, is moving in the opposite direction. Traffic fatalities in the five boroughs were up 44 percent in the first quarter of 2022 and are currently higher than they have been since 2015, the year after New York committed to its Vision Zero program that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths. New York traffic is now the worst in the country, and MTA ridership continues to stall as major Midtown office buildings remain mostly empty and passengers become increasingly exasperated with crummy service or concerned about safety. Congestion pricing, our best hope of getting things moving, has been deferred yet again.

Sharp, who has spent 12 years working for Hoboken’s DOT and nearly five of them as director, is giving me a tour of traffic infrastructure on the kind of gorgeous spring day that shows the city at its best. When I point out the backlash that he’d receive if he tried to take away four parking spots from each of New York City’s 39,000 intersections (that’s 156,000 spots altogether, more than enough to start several wars), Sharp cracks a little smile. “That’s the thing. It’s not technically a parking spot.” New Jersey law prohibits any driver from parking within 25 feet of a crosswalk anyway, so all he’s really doing is enforcing the rules. “That’s a really important law that we’ve kind of weaponized,” Sharp explained. “Because it’s dead space, right? So what can we do with that space? Get more utility in an urban environment, where every square inch, every square foot, of space is so valuable.”

New York State has an almost identical law on the books, but New York City has decided to use its “home rule” authority to override it and create more on-street parking — and much less visibility. New York City’s DOT declined to comment on the record about why the city chooses to ignore the state’s daylighting law and its proven safety benefits, but insisted that it has tested the practice here and found that it doesn’t work at some intersections.

“If it’s not something that is currently being enforced, that’s incredible, low-hanging fruit that’s not being taken advantage of,” Sharp told me. “New York has a lot of fantastic stuff. So in no way I am trying to put New York down. But on the parking side, there’s probably some room for improvement there.”

If you cut New York into Hoboken-size chunks, our traffic safety stats are both sobering and embarrassing. Over the first three quarters of 2021, Hoboken had zero deaths and 20 pedestrians, 18 cyclists, and 51 motorists injured. The 11213 Zip Code, which contains parts of Brownsville and Crown Heights and has roughly the same population as Hoboken, saw three people killed in that time frame — two pedestrians and a motorist — and 41 cyclists, 85 pedestrians, and 305 motorists were injured in crashes. That’s 384 percent more injuries than Hoboken.

Even the more upscale streets of the East Village, Zip Code 10009 — which also has roughly the same population as Hoboken — had 76 percent more injuries over that same time period: one cyclist killed and 157 injuries from crashes, including 41 pedestrians, 53 cyclists, and 63 motorists.

Daylighting in action. Photo: Chris Robbins

Perhaps it’s a little unfair to compare the triumphs of a small town, insulated from gobs of through traffic by the Hudson River, to the struggles of an astoundingly diverse city of 8.8 million; Hoboken’s median income, after all, is nearly double New York City’s. It’s also logistically simpler to manage pavement in “the mile-square city” (it’s actually closer to 1.3 square miles) on a $19 million annual budget than it is to deal with the 6,300 miles of streets, 12,000 miles of sidewalk, and more than 800 bridges that are under NYC DOT’s $1.1 billion ambit.

Sharp, who has a shaved head and does not have a city-issued vehicle (“Biking is the easiest way to get around here”), insists that Hoboken shares a crucial quality with New York City, where arguments over bike lanes at community board meetings sometimes get physical and data-driven policy frequently takes a backseat to political horse-trading. If anything, Hudson County politics may be even more intense than they are across the river. Everyone knows everyone.“There’s nine city council members, one square mile, plus the mayor. All of these people feel very vested and connected to every ounce of space. And there is no bureaucracy that at a higher level can say, ‘This is our policy, we’re just going to do it,’” Sharp explained. “If I want to take away a parking space, someone in this building is going to complain about it to their councilmember, and singular issues like that instantly rise up to major issues that are discussed at city-council meetings.”

Sharp’s partner and champion in these battles is Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who laid out an ambitious Vision Zero plan of his own after he was elected in 2017. Bhalla, a father of two young children, texts Sharp when he sees something on the street that needs addressing. When traffic plummeted during the early months of the pandemic, Bhalla continued to put in traffic-calming measures like curb extensions and high-viz crosswalks.

It’s this combination of strong political backing from the mayor on down, and Hoboken’s ability to implement changes quickly so residents immediately see and feel results, that likely accounts for Vision Zero success. “It’s kind of a laboratory here because of the scale,” Sharp said. “There are things that we can try here probably faster than over there, and we could scale up faster because of our size.”

Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said New York has many examples of innovative street infrastructure, but that scaling it up requires real commitment and courage from our elected officials. “What we have continued to lack is the political will,” he said. Whereas some leaders used the pandemic as a rare opportunity to reset their streets — Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo added 30 miles of bike lanes; earlier this year, she announced plans to ban cars from the city’s center — Bill de Blasio did not. He initially opposed the creation of Open Streets to reclaim public space for social distancing, then reluctantly allowed it, then convened a panel of experts. The group gave him a long list of action items: install 40 miles of bus lanes, add enough bike lanes to double bike ridership, and create car-free zones. De Blasio ignored them.

Harris said he was “heartened” by some of the pledges Mayor Eric Adams has made toward pulling New York back to the right side of Vision Zero, like the nearly $1 billion the new administration has promised to fund the Streets Master Plan over five years (though the City Council had asked for $3 billion). But in order for the city to actually get safer for human beings on the street, he added, New York exceptionalism must be used to justify radical, citywide changes, instead of further entrenching the dominance of personal vehicles on our streets — 75 percent of our public space is currently taken up by car storage.

“Remove the comparison to Hoboken, or Paris, or London, and just say, ‘All right, New York, what did you learn from yourself?’” Harris mused. “’What did you learn from the 14th Street busway? What have you learned from the protected bike network? Citi Bike? Brooklyn Bridge bike lane? The reimagination of Times Square? What have you learned from that and what have you done with it?’”

In Hoboken, Sharp has also learned that it’s much easier — both physically and politically — to make safety improvements to dangerous corridors when it’s time to repave a road. He’s rebranded “pavement management” into a Complete Streets outfit, so any road with lots of crashes and proximity to schools, hospitals, and parks are given wider sidewalks and medians when they get a fresh layer of asphalt. “That’s like, our not-so-secret secret sauce,” Sharp said. By comparison, NYC DOT tells me it’s focused on redesigning problematic intersections, regardless of whether they need to be repaved, but that the processes often happen in succession. According to the agency, it is more than halfway done with Mayor Adams’s promise to improve pedestrian safety at 1,000 intersections across the city; 100 of them will be daylighted.

Sharp knows his streak of zero fatalities could end at any time, and eventually will, but he’s confident that Hoboken residents fully support what he’s doing and won’t tolerate a return to a more dangerous city, enabling him to keep up the pace of change.

Strolling through Church Square Park, a few blocks from the Hoboken waterfront, I met Genevieve DeAndrea, who grew up in New York City and moved here in 2017. She was watching her 4-year-old daughter play, and I asked her about the daylighted intersections. “Hoboken parking is hard enough as it is. It is annoying when you’re driving your car,” she replied. “But from a parent’s perspective, and just the pedestrian perspective, the sight lines are important. It makes a big deal. Because you don’t have to, like, inch out, especially when you’re pushing a stroller. You’re literally sacrificing your baby to see.”

Hoboken Hasn’t Had a Traffic Death in 4 Years. How?