Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sense of Perspective

Boardwalk, Asbury Park.
At the end of September, a New Jersey Transit train crashed in the Hoboken Terminal, killing one person and injuring more than a hundred.

This was a terrible thing. The governors of New York and New Jersey held a joint press conference, and soon thereafter Governor Christie of New Jersey finally agreed to raise the gasoline tax. (Revenue from this tax in New Jersey supports mass transit as well as roads and bridges.) The institutions of government actually responded to the event and changed their behavior.

But guess what? The streets of New York City kill and maim the same numbers, on average, every two days. Government officials occasionally express measured concern over the violence on our roads, but there is hardly a sense of urgency.

I have some ideas about why the responses to train wrecks and car wrecks are so different, but first let's look at some numbers. Actually, let's take a little detour first.

Oh, That Can't Be Trew!
South Philadelphia housewives - at least some, of a certain generation - love to say this: Oh, that can't be trew! For full effect it should be accompanied by a sideways movement of one hand, something like half of the safe signal that an umpire would use in baseball, but meaning the opposite. If you're ever on the receiving end of this expostulation, as I have been, it's important to bear in mind that your interlocutor has no facts; she just doesn't like yours.

This is a basic flaw in the political discourse of Philadelphia, and perhaps many other jurisdictions. I suspect that it is related to Alberto Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, which states that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it. In the present case, it's easy to deny someone else's proposition, especially if you don't feel the need to bring any facts with you.

Still, as a believer in the rational development of policy based on data, I feel the need to engage in this asymmetric warfare, even though I know that it may well be futile.

A Festival of Automotive Carnage
The five boroughs of New York City play host to a year-long festival of automotive carnage that, in 2015, killed 232 and injured 54,821. That works out to 1.27 deaths every two days, and 291 injuries every two days. In contrast, as the New York Times reports, "The accident in Hoboken was New Jersey Transit's first fatal crash involving a commuter in 20 years."

The national numbers are similarly lopsided. In 2014, the latest year for which comprehensive figures are available, 32,675 people died in crashes on the nation's roads. The death toll for passenger trains was 3; for rail transit it was 135.

In the passenger train data, if you include people killed in rail crossing crashes and also trespassers - people who wander onto the tracks - and 8 people categorized as "other," you get to 217 dead. Versus 232 dead on the streets of New York alone.

The national data here are from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The New York City data are from something called the Bicycle Crash Data Reports, put out by the New York City DOT.

The bike crash reports got their start in 2011, with something called Local Law 13. Every year a new report pulls together data on crashes involving motor vehicles, and also on bike crashes that do not involve motor vehicles. Both kinds of data are aggregated from police department crash reports, which are written on a form called MV-104. The numbers are broken down by borough and police precinct.

So Many Dead Pedestrians in the City
I'd like to point out an interesting difference between the national data and the NYC data (at least I find it interesting). Pedestrians are the largest category among the dead in New York; nationally, the overwhelming majority of deaths are among the occupants of motor vehicles. People who pay attention only to the national data are missing a big story in New York and, I expect, other cities.

Nationally, pedestrians were 14.9 percent of total motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2014. In New York City pedestrians were 59 percent of total motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2015.

Bicyclists and pedestrians together were 65 percent of deaths in New York and 17.1 percent in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Bucolic Central Park
I'm afraid we've gotten to the point where these statistics are more mind-numbing than useful. So let's take a break and talk about Central Park for a while.

Something bad happened in Central Park in 2014. Two pedestrians were struck and killed by bicyclists.

On Sunday, August 3, 75-year-old Irving Schachter, jogging on the east park loop near 72nd Street, was hit by a 17-year-old cyclist around 4:52 p.m. Schachter died of head trauma on August 5. He had been an active cyclist as well as runner. He was a long-time member of the New York Cycle Club, and he had been training for the 2014 New York City Marathon.

On Thursday, September 17, 58-year-old Jill Tarlov of Fairfield, Conn., was struck by a 31-year-old cyclist while walking across West Drive near West 63rd Street, about 4:30 p.m. Tarlov died on September 20. She was married to Mike Wittman, an executive for CBS Television Stations, and was reportedly in town shopping for a present for her daughter.

"My wife was beautiful in every way imaginable," said Mr. Wittman in a statement. "Jill was the most amazing mother to Matthew and Anna, who taught them above all that kindness, compassion, and a spirit for life were the right morals to live by."

You may have noticed yourself paying more attention to these two very sad stories than you did to the previous eight paragraphs of statistics. There's an old line in newspapering: If it bleeds, it leads. Statistics don't bleed. People do.

Oops. Here Come Those Pesky Numbers Again
The unhappiness over these deaths was intense, so much so that the New York Times published an editorial about "the bicycle menace," urging that "A little perspective would help here." The editorial continued: "The real threat, as ever, is cars. Bicyclists have killed three pedestrians since 2009. Drivers killed 178 pedestrians and cyclists in 2013 alone."

This data set can be extended. In fact, the NYC DOT has already done so. From 2000 through 2014, bicyclists killed 11 pedestrians. In more than half of those years, bicyclists didn't kill any pedestrians. Meanwhile, from 2000 through 2014, drivers killed 2,434 pedestrians. The smallest number that drivers killed in one year was 136, in 2014.

Still, people were right to be upset about those two deaths in Central Park. Something was going on in the park in 2014 - a real surge, not just in deaths, but in crashes. Bicycle-pedestrian crashes went from 20 in 2013 to 34 in 2014 (there were no fatalities in 2013). Bike-on-bike crashes held pretty steady, increasing from 26 to 29. And single-bike crashes leapt from 78 to 114.

These numbers are in the Bicycle Crash Data Reports that I mentioned a while ago. Central Park and the 22nd Precinct in Manhattan are coterminous.

I'm a bit intrigued by the solo bike crashes. I was surprised that there were so many of them. After all, the pavement on the Central Park loop is quite good - not a lot of potholes to fall into. I toyed with the idea that solo bike crashes might be a marker for excessive speed, while bike-bike and bike-ped crashes might be a marker for excessive congestion. But then it's possible that solo crashes come from successfully avoiding a crash with someone else. So, I don't know how to explain solo bike crashes.

A Place Where Death Is Rare
Here's my main takeaway from these Bike Crash Data Reports: Death in the absence of motor vehicles is extremely rare. Citywide, if you take the years 2012-2015, bike-ped crashes killed four pedestrians and two bicyclists. Bike-on-bike and solo bike crashes killed four cyclists.

This is a far cry from the profligate slaughter that we see with cars. And I would argue that it is a cause for hope. If we can establish some oases without cars, perhaps we can figure out how to get deaths all the way down to zero. And perhaps we can use these lessons profitably with cars. Or perhaps not.

Making Central Park an Oasis
After the 2014 crashes, the City moved pretty quickly to improve conditions in Central Park. In November it announced major upgrades to four important crosswalks in the park; it also lowered the speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph - for both cars and bicycles. And then, effective June 29, 2015, it banned cars from the parts of the loop road system north of 72nd Street.

So here we may have one of the first of our oases. How's it going?

We can call 2015 a transition year, with some changes in effect on January 1 and the major road closing coming halfway through the year. Ped-bike crashes declined from 34 in 2014 to 14 in 2015; bike-on-bike crashes declined from 29 to 17; and solo bike crashes declined from 114 to 100. Nobody died in any of the 2015 crashes.

And so far in 2016, things are also looking pretty good in Central Park. The Bicycle Crash Data Reports are only issued annually, but New York City's Vision Zero program has a nifty map that shows the number and location of both fatalities and injuries, with 2016 data currently available through September.

(The history of closing Central Park to cars dates back to 1966. The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has a timeline and a story on the struggles of the last half century.)

(Why are the park drives from 72nd south still available to cars? This report from NYC DOT offers a detailed rationale with supporting data. It is an elegant version of the basic argument that was used to keep all the park drives open to cars for so many years.)

I Paid a Visit
I visited Central Park recently, along with my wife and son. It was a beautiful fall Sunday. We got sandwiches at the Whole Foods on Columbus Circle and then walked into the park. Things were quite busy, but, unlike Columbus Circle, there were no cars in the park. I managed to walk on a part of the roadway where I wasn't supposed to walk, but with some gentle guidance from my son I soon learned the ropes. We walked and talked and sat on a bench and ate lunch and talked some more, and all the time I was watching the battalions of runners, the squadrons of bicyclists, the many, many people just strolling along enjoying the afternoon. And the pedicabs and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.

It struck me that I was looking at a modern version of the old, pre-car park. Back in the 1890's there was no asphalt; there was gravel. And I doubt there were many runners. Of bicycles there were plenty, back in the 1890s.

And one more thing, as we sat together on our bench in the sun. We talked and occasionally just sat together quietly, and I almost fell asleep once or twice. And here is the one more thing. There was no roar of traffic. You could easily hear people's voices; they didn't need to shout to be heard.

The park was crowded with people - tourists, locals, just about everybody having a good time. And it was quiet. Quiet, and peaceful.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, and Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?

1 comment:

  1. Bill, I just read your piece "A sense of perspective" and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for bringing sensibility and humor to the conversation on the daily stress, menace, and tragic human toll wrought by (way, way too much) motoring in NYC.