Change Maker: Families For Safe Streets


Photo: Judy Kottick with her daughter, Ella Bandes

In a congested city filled with buses and cars, pedestrians and bikers in New York are left vulnerable.

When crashes happen, lives are irrevocably altered or ended. Families are left to pick up the pieces.

The statistics are sobering:

  • Vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours
  • Approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes
  • Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors (Mayor’s Vision Zero Action Plan, 2016)

The epidemic of traffic crashes on NYC streets is one Mayor de Blasio took on with his Vision Zero plan in 2014. Some progress has been made; in 2014 the speed limit was reduced from 30 m.p.h. to 25 m.p.h. on city streets and a Right of Way law was passed, making it a misdemeanor offense for vehicles to come in contact with pedestrians or bicyclists when they have the right of way.

But more needs to be done. At the center of the movement to effect improved safety for pedestrians and bikers is Families for Safe Streets (FSS), a program of NYC’s Transportation Alternatives (an advocate of bicycling, walking, and public transit in NYC). FSS’ founding member, Judy Kottick, is a parent who lost her daughter to a crash. The group brings together both victims of traffic crashes and families who have either lost someone to a traffic crashes or who are responsible for taking care of someone seriously injured in one. FSS provides emotional support through their Peer Network, but also advocates for policy changes critical to the safety of the city.

Recent advocacy efforts include:

  • Redesigning Queens Boulevard, which is a wide, multi-lane road in Queens, coined the “Boulevard of Death,” by The Daily News because of the many traffic fatalities that have occurred on it.
  • Installing the 140 speed cameras, approved by the NYS legislature in 2014. To date, no action has been taken to install these cameras which will help with apprehending those who violate the speed limit.

The Equality Indicators spoke with Judy Kottick about FSS and the challenges of people and vehicles co-existing safely in a city like New York.

Your group provides emotional support to victims and families involved with vehicular crashes. But you also do a great deal of advocacy and policy work. How do you manage that balancing act?

When you lose a family member or become seriously injured in such a sudden, violent way, you are left with a sense of loss and injustice that changes your worldview. For some people, having an opportunity to make changes toward safer streets that might have saved our loved ones, or prevented injuries, is the most meaningful way to channel our grief and honor our family members. Coming together as a group, we inspire each other to advocate for the changes that will have the most consequential impact because we want to spare others from our pain and we know that only our voices can provide the personal toll behind the statistics. At the same time, we gain strength from the emotional support we share from each other’s shared experience. I think it is the combination of advocacy and support that allows us to keep fighting.

Speeding kills more New Yorkers than drunk driving and cell phone use at the wheel put together. But to change people’s behaviors, requires a culture shift. Where does that start and how can it be sustained?

One big thing we can do is something that at first seems small. We can get policy makers, journalists and the general public to stop referring to traffic crashes as “accidents.” We launched our Crash Not Accident campaign to drive home the point that traffic violence is preventable, that the crashes that kill and maim too many people in our city and in this country are not inevitable, like bad weather, but often come down to dangerous choices people make at the wheel, like the decision to drive too fast on a residential street, or react impatiently and make a turn at high speed into a crosswalk that’s full of pedestrians. If we can get people to think about the fact that crashes are preventable, that will change the driving culture, and it will also make law enforcement and elected officials less likely to throw up their hands and accept the carnage on our streets as something we can’t do anything about.

The Vision Zero initiatives we have in New York and in an increasing number of cities are an important way to promote and sustain the goal of greater traffic safety, because they don’t just raise awareness by putting a brand on the effort to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. More importantly, an effective Vision Zero policy will focus on design, on transforming dangerous streets, to make traffic fatalities and injuries less likely, even when people make mistakes.

There is a role for law enforcement to play to deter the most dangerous driving violations, but designing our streets so that they’re safer and more forgiving is the central element. Of course, it’s hard work. We have worked hard to mobilize our government officials to fix our streets, lower the citywide speed limit to a safer 25 mph, improve driver safety education, and target the most dangerous driver behaviors, speeding and failure to yield. The key is to keep watchdogging the Vision Zero effort to make sure the city is on track to meet its goal of zero deaths and serious injuries by 2024.

I think the fact that the members of Families for Safe Streets bring our personal stories to these traffic safety statistics has had a significant impact on the way New Yorkers look at these issues. For years, people who lost loved ones or were injured in crashes had to go through their pain alone. When we came together in 2013, we found that we were able to turn our grief into action and get elected officials to make changes, and we were also able to start moving the needle in terms of changing the culture of accepting traffic violence.

The Mayor’s Vision Zero campaign reports that at locations where NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) has made major engineering changes, fatalities have decreased by 34%. Redesigning streets clearly works. Do you make recommendations to DOT for street redesigns?  In addition to Queens Boulevard, what are some other NYC streets you would like to see redesigned?

We have many active campaigns for street redesigns across the city, from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to Hylan Boulevard, which we unfortunately refer to as “the New Boulevard of Death,” because injury and fatality statistics on that corridor are not going down in spite of the City’s Vision Zero effort, even as we have seen improvement on Queens Boulevard and other corridors where the city’s Department of Transportation has installed lifesaving street safety improvements like pedestrian safety islands and curb extensions to shorten crossing distances, and protected bike lanes to keep cyclists away from motorists and create a sense of predictability on the streets.

NYC has encouraged bicycling as a transportation alternative, but not every street has adequate bike lanes. Do you foresee a day when some NYC streets will be designated for bicycle use only at certain times of the day?

Protected bike lanes have proven to reduce fatalities and injuries, not just for cyclists, but for drivers who use streets that have these treatments, because protected bike lanes make big streets more narrow, which slows traffic down. There are some cities around the world that have built shared streets, where pedestrians and bicyclists can mix with motorists and very slow speeds, and New York  City recently experimented with that during this year’s Summer Streets program.

These are worthy ideas, but what’s most important for New York City at this state is to create a network of connected and protected bike lanes, without the kinds of dangerous gaps we see now, so people on bikes can be secure in the knowledge that they can get where they need to go without being suddenly thrown into hazardous traffic.

For you, what city serves as a “best-in-class” example for pedestrian and bicycle safety?

Street safety advocates often point to Copenhagen as an example of a city where cycling is so safe and accepted that we see large numbers of women and children biking, and motorists have learned to take their time to avoid making dangerous turns until cyclists have passed.

Barcelona is serving as an inspiration currently because of its initiative to create “superblocks” that calm traffic to make things safer for people biking and walking. But while we should look to other countries to get good ideas, there are all kinds of great things happening here in New York City that just need to be replicated equitably in communities around the five boroughs. For example, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of pedestrian plazas — not just in Times Square, but in smaller locations all over town. The latest plan for a pedestrian plaza is at the Myrtle-Wyckoff station on the Brooklyn-Queens border, the complex and dangerous intersection where our daughter Ella Bandes was killed. These plazas not only improve quality of life by bringing neighbors together for events, or just to take a seat. They also make communities safer by giving people refuge from dangerous traffic.

NYC has so many public transportation opportunities. Do you think people use public transportation as often as they should to get around? What can be done to encourage more use of subways/trains which have been proven to be safer than driving?

One thing that needs to happen is that communities across the city that have little or no subway service need Bus Rapid Transit lines to get them where they need to go faster. People who live in these areas, who are often low-income, have the longest commutes in the city. Mayor de Blasio needs to make good on his pledge to build a network of BRT lines. Right now, bus ridership is plummeting because the buses are slow and unreliable, and those commuters are going to already overcrowded subways. The system is bursting at the seams, but it is also crumbling in many locations and generally needs maintenance. I think the best way to generate more funding to fix the subways and improve bus service is the Move NY fair tolling plan now before state lawmakers. It would create a mechanism that would allow local communities to decide which transit projects in their communities should be funded by tolls from our region’s bridges and tunnels.