After 10 years of Vision Zero, NYC has a new ‘Boulevard of Death’

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By Dan Sears

Two busy streets have come to symbolize the successes and failures of New York City’s Vision Zero program, which launched 10 years ago this month with the goal of eliminating fatal car crashes across the five boroughs.

Thanks to Vision Zero, Queens Boulevard no longer lives up to its nickname, “the Boulevard of Death.” In 1997, 18 pedestrians were killed by drivers on the street. But since Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the initiative in 2014, a total of 10 traffic deaths have occurred along the 7.5-mile roadway — as well as three calendar years without any car crash deaths at all.

But another major thoroughfare hasn’t received nearly as much attention from the city. In fact, Jon Orcutt, the director of advocacy at Bike New York, says Atlantic Avenue is so dangerous that it’s more deserving of Queens Boulevard’s grim nickname.

“Atlantic Avenue is one of the last boulevards of death,” said Orcutt, who worked for the city’s Department of Transportation under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Over the last decade, 40 traffic deaths have occurred on Atlantic Avenue — four times as many as Queens Boulevard. Yet projects to improve safety along the roadway over the last decade have been limited to improvements to the median in East New York. Atlantic Avenue is 10 miles long and stretches from Jamaica, Queens, to the edge of New York Harbor in Brooklyn.

The differing realities demonstrate how the Vision Zero program saves lives — as well as how far the city must go to accomplish its stated goal of eliminating traffic deaths altogether.

A tale of two streets

Between 2009 and 2014, when Vision Zero launched, 42 people died or suffered serious injuries on Queens Boulevard. De Blasio singled it out as the city’s most dangerous roadway. Some sections of Queens Boulevard had 12 lanes of traffic, forcing pedestrians to sprint across the street.

“We all got used to the name, ‘Boulevard of Death,’” de Blasio said in a recent interview with WNYC’s “Morning Edition.” “That had become commonplace. And it kind of dawned on me that that was a profoundly unacceptable way to think… We were becoming used to – or had somehow become used to – the idea we were going to lose a certain number of people.

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“The more I understood it, the more I said, you know, if we’re going to fight murder, if we’re going to devote massive resources to protecting people from being shot and killed, why are we not making a similar effort to protect people?” de Blasio added.

In 2013 and 2014, a total of 10 people died on Atlantic Avenue, while 10 people died on Queens Boulevard.

Over the next few years the de Blasio administration made road safety improvements on Queens Boulevard – and got results.

The timing of pedestrian signals was adjusted to give people on foot a head start on crossing the street. Islands were widened to give pedestrians a place to stand and slow turning traffic. Bike lanes were also installed along the road, reducing the space for drivers to speed.

“I think the impact of the safety countermeasures done on Queens Boulevard is really a testament to the fact that this stuff works,” said Corey Hannigan, an advocate with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “This is safety infrastructure. It’s proven. We know it works and that’s kind of what Vision Zero is all about.”

Middle school history teacher Brian Roth said cycling to work on Queens Boulevard is is a breeze.

Stephen Nessen

In an email to Gothamist, Anna Correa, a spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, claimed success on Queens Boulevard, but didn’t answer questions about why the agency hasn’t taken a similar approach on Atlantic Avenue.

“NYC DOT’s redesign of Queens Boulevard has dramatically reduced traffic fatalities along the corridor. Through engineering, education and enforcement, we have curbed reckless driving and better protected the most vulnerable people on our streets: pedestrians and cyclists,” Correa said in a statement. “NYC DOT has also completed a number of street redesign projects along Atlantic Avenue and continues to explore future upgrades.”

Correa noted that 2023 was the second-safest year for pedestrians since the city began keeping records 113 years ago, with 99 deaths. While 29 cyclists were killed – the highest number in one year since 1999 – 22 of those incidents involved e-bikes. Seven of those e-bike deaths did not involve another vehicle.

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Overall, there were 257 traffic deaths in the city in 2023, according to the transportation department. That marks progress from 2013, the year before Vision Zero launched, when 299 people died in car crashes. But the numbers have also increased since the pandemic. In 2019, the city counted 220 people killed by drivers.

A treacherous avenue

And in the meantime, pedestrians and cyclists who spoke to Gothamist all agreed: Atlantic Avenue is a death trap.

“The streets around Atlantic Avenue are, I think, treacherous,” East New York resident Mayelly Moreno, 47, said on a recent afternoon. “There definitely could be more done to make them safer.”

Luis Taveras, 48, who bikes daily to his job in East New York, has been hit twice on the roadway. He said he needed surgery on his neck, back and shoulder after one crash.

“I prefer to ride on the sidewalk sometimes because I’m afraid of getting hit, with cars zooming past,” Taveras said.

He spoke at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Logan Avenue, where the city widened a median fitted with concrete planters. The upgrade is meant to force drivers to slow down and give pedestrians a refuge as they cross the avenue. But Taveras saw little benefit.

“I don’t know how that slows down traffic. I haven’t seen it,” Taveras said, shrugging.

Mayelly Moreno, 47, of East New York, said 10 years into Vision Zero, Atlantic Avenue feels like an afterthought.

Stephen Nessen

Correa, the DOT spokesperson, said injuries to pedestrians and cyclists have gone down by 39% and 14% respectively since a median was installed along a 1-mile stretch of Atlantic Avenue in East New York in 2020.

She said the city has begun a second phase of improvements, which will include a mile-long upgrade to the median as well as redesigns to a few especially dangerous intersections. Planning for those improvements began nearly 10 years ago. The city didn’t say when it expects they’ll be complete.

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A proposed rezoning of Atlantic Avenue in parts of Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant could come with some street redesigns similar to ones implemented on Queens Boulevard.

But that project is in the early planning phase.

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso said the city needed to completely redesign all 10 miles of Atlantic Avenue, but was unsure if Adams is up to the task.

“You’re talking about a project that’s going to take … more than a dozen elected officials, a ton of community boards, a ton of public pressure, you need to be ready for that and willing to take those hits for the greater good,” he said. “I just really feel that its completion is going to come down to whether or not Mayor Eric Adams cares about this.”

Reynoso noted several recent examples of Adams buckling to pressure to oppose street safety projects. The Adams administration canceled plans for a dedicated bus lane on Fordham Road in the Bronx, dramatically scaled back a bike lane on McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint, and shortened another bike lane on Ashland Place in Fort Greene after pushback from developers.

Meanwhile, more money is coming to protect pedestrians and cyclists on Queens Boulevard.

Last month, the city announced $30 million in federal “Safe Streets and Roads for All” money will go toward a redesign of Queens Boulevard from Roosevelt Avenue to 73rd Street. The upgrades will include a bike path separated from traffic, a protected pedestrian walkway in the center of the road and reconfigured lanes meant to encourage predictable driving.

Construction is expected to start next fall and take three years to complete.

The city’s announcement made no mention of Atlantic Avenue.

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