06/09/2014 09:14 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Mayor de Blasio, Traffic Safety and a Sustainable New York City

I have a picture in my office of Broadway and 116th Street when the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights, New York City was relatively new. In the center of Broadway stood a one-story brick subway station, which was eventually knocked down and replaced by an underground station in the center of the street, with entrances on both the east and west sides of Broadway. One story of why it was replaced is because Columbia students kept getting hit by street cars as they ran to catch the subway. I never fact-checked this story, but it made sense, so imagine my surprise when in 2010 the MTA replaced the underground subway station at West 96th Street and Broadway with a modern station in the center of the street. When the station opened, they closed most of the entrances on the east and west side of Broadway. Today, to enter the 96th Street station you now must cross Broadway at one of the busiest intersections in the city. One result was a more rational and organized station. Another result was injury and death as cars and people competed for the same space while they rushed to their destinations.

In response, traffic patterns have been changed, police enforcement has dramatically increased and everyone has become more aware of the dangers involved in crossing this crowded intersection. One of the early and impressive moves of the new de Blasio Administration has been its Vision Zero Plan for reducing traffic fatalities. According to the city's website:

The primary mission of government is to protect the public. New York's families deserve and expect safe streets. But today in New York, 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. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours. This status quo is unacceptable. The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere "accidents," but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed. No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable. This Vision Zero Action Plan is the City's foundation for ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets.

Recently, the New York City Council enacted a series of bills designed to support these initiatives, including requests to the state government to permit more traffic enforcement cameras at dangerous intersections. The use of speed bumps, safety-focused street design and lower speed limits, along with greater enforcement of traffic and jay-walking laws, are all part of this new push for traffic safety. The focus on traffic safety in New York is not a new one. New York City's last several mayors worked hard to improve traffic safety. As Eric Goldwyn observed on the New Yorker's website:

In 2013, two hundred and eighty-six people were killed in traffic crashes in New York City. While the number of traffic fatalities has dropped considerably since 1990, when seven hundred and one people died, the shock and senselessness of people dying while crossing the street continues to motivate advocacy groups, and now the city government, to fight to eradicate these preventable deaths.

Nevertheless, the spotlight that Mayor de Blasio has focused on the traffic safety issue has been impressive and, I think, will be effective. You can see it on the street. While many New Yorkers continue to race across streets against traffic with their eyes glued to their smart phones, you see increasing numbers waiting behind until they are signaled to walk.

All of this is part of the overall effort to make cities safer. While many Americans are permanently wedded to the car culture and will never give it up, a growing number are getting tired of sitting in traffic. As reported by David Morgan of ABC News:

...Since 1970: The U.S. population has grown by 32 percent, while The number of licensed drivers has grown by 64 percent, The number of registered vehicles has grown by 90 percent, and the vehicle miles traveled has grown by 131 percent. However, Total number of road miles has grown by only 6 percent.

There are a number of reasons for the reduced rate of highway construction. Urban planners discovered that new roads encouraged more decentralized development. The appeal of lower home costs in the exurbs ended up creating new suburbs and growing congestion. The "not in my backyard syndrome" resulted in more communities opposing road construction as did the anti-tax zeal of the conservative movement. Some communities can't even maintain their existing roads, let alone build new ones.

One reaction to the decline in suburban convenience has been the re-urbanization of some small town centers and the increased attractiveness of cities like New York and other places with viable mass transit. A small but growing group of people are looking for alternatives to suburban congestion and finding it in cities. The appeal of this approach is enhanced by increased public safety in some cities. Declining traffic fatalities and declining homicide rates are part of the same push for public safety. In New York, Mayor de Blasio has taken great pains to include it in his progressive vision for the city's future. This is a reaction to the effort made by conservatives during the mayoral campaign to link the new mayor's politics to what is seen as the "permissive mayhem" of the 1970s.

While I see the period of the city's decline in the 1970s and early 1980s as part of the city's transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city, there is little question that everyone's nightmare vision is a return to the horror of that New York. New York City's new mayor has made public safety a priority, while making incremental changes to policing and traffic safety strategies.

A sustainable city is an integrated system that pays attention to the natural resources, such as water and energy that the city consumes, as well as the waste that it produces. A key priority for all local governments is the safety of its people. Limits on smoking in public places, anti-gang enforcement, anti-terror intelligence, inspections of restaurants, and increased pedestrian safety are all elements of local public safety management. Progressive politico de Blasio and billionaire businessman Bloomberg end up in the same place: Ideology is irrelevant to local government when it comes to public safety. Tactics may differ, but outcomes are obvious, measurable and politically salient. To paraphrase Mayor LaGuardia: "There is no Republican or Democratic way to keep people from being run over while crossing the street."