On Monday in Jackson Heights, over the sounds of boos and at least one scornful cowbell, city officials including Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez announced more than 100 car-free “Trick-or-Streets” zones would be in effect from 4 to 8 p.m. on Halloween. Hissing residents aside, the news was likely a relief to parents anticipating one of the most stressful nights of the year when it comes to dodging speeding cars with sugared-up toddlers. It was also a tacit admission of how deadly our streets can be for children every day of the year and how little cities do about it.
Sharing the gruesome statistics about Halloween has become an annual tradition among safe-streets advocates: It’s the deadliest night for children in the United States in terms of traffic deaths. And looking at recent reckless-driving trends, it’s possible that 2022 could be worse than usual. While pedestrian deaths have increased nationwide during the last decade due to larger and more powerful vehicles, Halloween has remained consistently deadly for the four decades that federal traffic-fatality data has been tracked; one analysis showed that children are three times more likely to be killed by drivers on October 31. What these numbers highlight is the fact that higher volumes of pedestrian activity — something cities should be aspiring to — is actually deadlier for kids. You can see this play out in places, like schools, where kids are more likely to congregate. According to reporting from Streetsblog, New York City school zones are more likely to see crashes than other city streets on days when school is in session: “During the 8 a.m. hour, when hundreds of thousands of children stream into 1,600 city-run public schools, there are 57 percent more crashes and 25 percent more injuries per mile on streets near schools than on the city’s other streets.” As the story goes on to note, the increase virtually disappears on days when schools are closed.
So while every year people throw out ideas to make trick-or-treating safer — there are always petitions to move Halloween to a Saturday, when traffic volumes, and therefore crashes, go down slightly — the only real fix is the one that would keep kids safer all the time: redesign the streets.
Which is exactly what New York’s Department of Transportation has done here. The press conference was held on the 34th Avenue open street in Jackson Heights, which has been mostly converted into a car-free space. (It’s being called an “American superblock,” a nod to Barcelona’s movement to transform streets into plazas.) The street, which is adjacent to seven schools, now allows students and their families to walk safely to campus while also giving the community a linear park in a neighborhood deprived of public space. Even more importantly, it works: Making this stretch of 34th Avenue car free has resulted in a 41.7 percent drop in crashes involving pedestrians, according to DOT.
That’s an incredible reversal. Why wouldn’t the city want to build on it? The street closures around schools should be open streets year-round — something Paris and London did during the pandemic. No more crushing dirt bikes or designing sensational billboards. The city has the power to direct those resources toward saving kids’ lives every day of the year. Or are they really that scared of being booed by angry drivers?