Young Kwon was a petite lady with impeccable manners and quiet stamina. She took tiny steps, almost as if to avoid harming any microscopic creatures in her path. She took a lot of them, though: During the Northeast blackout of 2003, she and my dog and I marched up 30-odd flights of stairs in the dark, an adventure she remembered with fondness and reminded me of often. Two decades later, she was 84, her step had slowed to a shuffle but her smile remained undimmed, and I saw her making near-daily expeditions in the neighborhood. She paid regular visits to another 80-something Korean woman who is my next-door neighbor.
On the morning of January 15, Kwon was crossing Amsterdam Avenue at West 96th Street, a block from our apartment building, when a driver in the center lane slammed into her with his Mercedes. The impact did enough damage that she died in the hospital a few hours later. Drivers often complain about the reckless, distracted pedestrians who put them at risk of committing unintentional violence, but if Kwon owned a phone, I never saw it, and she certainly wasn’t up to dashing into traffic. I’d say she was killed for being too small and walking too slowly.
She was far from the only victim of the neighborhood’s out-of-control traffic, which is riled up by a truck route (Amsterdam Avenue), a double-wide east-west artery (96th Street), a convergence of steepish slopes that coax drivers into nudging the gas pedal, and cross streets that lead to and from the Henry Hudson Parkway. That road’s proximity alone seems to incite drivers to gun through lights, career through turns, and attempt to swerve around sluggish amblers. Traffic cops posted at especially gnarled nodes often make things worse by waving cars into crosswalks, where they get stuck.
I have lived long enough in this Bermuda Triangle of pedestrian death to remember some of its other victims. I recall with especially venomous intensity the mid-January week in 2014 when a 73-year-old antiquarian, Alexander Shear, was killed by a tour bus on 96th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Half an hour later and two blocks away, a third-grader named Cooper Stock was crossing West End Avenue at 97th Street (yes, yes, with the light and in the crosswalk), holding his father’s hand, when a cab driver whipped around the corner and crushed him to death. A few days after that, Samantha Lee, a 26-year-old anesthesiology resident at Columbia Medical School, also a neighbor of mine, was crossing West 96th Street in front of our building when an ambulance knocked her into the path of another car. That summer, Jean Chambers, an artist whose Scottish terrier had befriended my dog in Riverside Park, was killed when a serially reckless driver, Roberto Mercado, mowed her down on West End Avenue at 95th Street.
It turns out I have forgotten more of these horrors than I remember. According to the NYC Crash Mapper website, 11 pedestrians and one cyclist have been killed in the surrounding blocks since 2011. And that doesn’t account for the hundreds more who survived the impact of a 4,000-pound hunk of rolling steel at the cost of lost limbs, battered organs, or brain injury. Or the man in his 60s whom I came across lying in the rain in a crosswalk on Riverside Drive at West 95th Street. The woman who had hit him with her car couldn’t help him much because she was busy sobbing that she hadn’t seen him as she made the turn. Helpful bystanders showed up quickly. None said what we must all have been thinking: You should have seen him because he was there.
The data also don’t record near misses, like the time when I was walking in the Open Street section of West End Avenue at 96th Street and a box truck came flying down the hill at me, splintering a wooden police barrier. Or the time when I crossed the same corner with the light and an oblivious traffic cop started waving cars through the red signal. Statistics don’t tell us about all the older New Yorkers who minimize their time outdoors or avoid crossing an avenue because they worry about meeting a fate like Young Kwon’s. According to a report the Department of Transportation released last year, “seniors make up less than 15 percent of our population but represent over 45 percent of New York City’s annual pedestrian fatalities,” a disproportion the department is tackling by focusing on especially menacing areas.
This part of the Upper West Side isn’t the city’s worst danger zone. Areas that are laced with highways, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, are even more lethal. The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has just issued its annual report listing the names of all 255 pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists killed on the city’s streets in 2022. Nearly half were on foot. The Department of Transportation boasts of having “driven” — its word — “traffic deaths to historic lows,” which is true if by “history” you mean since last year. If you compare it to the actual historic low of 2018, when the carnage was limited to “only” 202 people, the stats look less rosy. Nine years into the Vision Zero era, we should really be calling it Vision 125: the average number of pedestrians killed each year in New York since 2014. One every three days.
Apparently, all this is fine, the unfortunate, acceptable by-product of a city where people in cars and people without them mix. That, at any rate, is the signal we all send when we shake our heads, shrug, and move on. When drivers who kill rarely suffer any punishment more severe than a ticket and then get right back on the road. When city officials mumble pieties and let lifesaving street designs get bogged down in endless studies. When the Department of Transportation has only a sparse staff and limited budget to cope with 6,000 miles of streets and an endless supply of fractious New Yorkers eager to tweak, delay, and even block the lifesaving street redesigns.
Maybe in the scheme of things, the death toll from driving through New York City isn’t worth fussing over. More than three times as many New Yorkers were murdered last year as died under the wheels. Several thousand overdosed. Many froze to death on the streets. If we’re going to accept those ratios, let’s at least be honest about it and admit that, yes, some people are going to get hit by cars and die, and we don’t care, or don’t care enough.
We should, though, because fatalism is self-fulfilling. Crime, drugs, and homelessness are symptoms of immensely complex, possibly intractable social problems. Traffic deaths are different. The whole philosophy of Vision Zero rests on the belief that they can almost always be prevented using a well-understood set of tools. Some large cities, like Stockholm, have made them virtually obsolete. The DOT’s own data show that traffic-slowing street design works. So do lower speed limits, plentiful speed cameras, and consistent enforcement. I know this not just by reading the research or taking the pedestrians’ side in a transportation showdown; I know which conditions help me stay cautious and alert as a driver. Making streets safer doesn’t require some mystical process or cultural transformation, just political will and a sense of urgency. Not every step needs to be carried out by slow-moving democratic consensus.
In 2014, when the concept of Vision Zero was new to this country, the Times reported on its track record in Sweden: “The result [of Sweden’s street-safety campaign] has been a sort of social contract between state and citizen: If residents follow the most basic traffic laws, engineers can design roads to guard against all fatalities.” The article went on to quote a senior Swedish transportation official as saying, “You should be able to make mistakes without being punished by death.” Or without killing somebody else. Adopting Vision Zero yielded immediate results: Pedestrian fatalities dropped and never climbed back to 2013 levels. (Deaths of cyclists, motorcyclists, and motorists have oscillated with no clear trend.) Yet all the growing mounds of evidence and ever more refined expertise can’t make up for a stubborn disjunction separating design, courtesy, and compliance.
The DOT performs its analyses, prioritizes projects, and evaluates the results, a deliberate process that can’t keep pace with the rising number of drivers who choose bigger, heavier, clumsier vehicles and operate them more recklessly. The department points out that New York has gotten slightly safer even as other cities are faring worse. Since the carnage of 2014, the West Side near 96th Street has acquired a whole menu of new traffic patterns, protected bike lanes, shorter crossings, better-timed street lights, and so on. But follow-through is crucial and coordination (especially with the NYPD) a must; in classic New York City government fashion, both are obviously missing. Thousands of lane miles get repaved each year, mostly refreshing the same badly designed roads. Like virtually every form of public work in New York, street redesigns are laborious and expensive. Even when finished, they can be undone. The intersection where Cooper Stock was killed got a DOT rehab: a mixture of paint and granite blocks narrowed 97th Street to a single lane. A concrete median on West End Avenue prevented cars from shortening the turn. Last year, workers moved the granite blocks onto the sidewalk to repave the street and left them there. My wife and I have called 311 and our city councilmember’s office, filled out online complaint forms, and contacted the DOT. A new set of bike racks materialized, yet those three big rocks, each the size of a love seat, are still cluttering the sidewalk and mocking the whole reason they were placed in the street that has been renamed Cooper Stock Way. I can’t help seeing their continued presence there as a symbol of a city living by the words What are you gonna do?