The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) speed camera rollout has been a runaway success – that is, if you count the enormous revenue it’s netted city coffers.
If you care about traffic safety, government transparency, or improving the quality of life in New York City, well, then… not so much.
The camera expansion, which was launched in response to a much-hyped but apparently non-existent risk of traffic accidents in school zones, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inane “Vision Zero” initiative, has done little to nothing to curb the rate of traffic injuries and fatalities in school zones or citywide. Meanwhile, rates of gun violence, anti-Semitic hate violence, construction-related deaths – as well as petty crime and homelessness – have skyrocketed under Mayor de Blasio’s bumbling and emasculated stewardship.
On Thursday, July 11, the DOT launched a campaign to expand the network of speed cameras in school zones citywide, installing thousands of new cameras and repairing hundreds of preexisting, non-functioning cameras across all five boroughs. It’s a dramatic expansion of five-year pilot program, launched in 2013, purporting to cover the city’s most dangerous school zones – according to New York City. This current rollout boosts coverage from the “most dangerous” 140 school zones to all 750 school zones by June 2020, with many zones due to receive as many as three cameras.
The expansion also doubles the hours of operation on these cameras: While earlier, the cameras only issued violations during school hours on weekdays when school was in session, the new regulations expand the ticketing hours to all weekdays, and from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., year-round - regardless of whether school is in session.
In a related effort, additional cameras have been installed along bus routes, like the M15 in Manhattan, to catch drivers who block the bus lanes – and even more are being planned for installation on buses themselves, including one on the Q58 bus along Fresh Pond Road in Queens.
Drivers caught on camera going more than ten miles an hour above the speed limit in a school zone are mailed a $50 ticket – mailed to the registered owner of the car.
Those $50 tickets add up. Fast.
In just three months since the program ramped up in July, the city has issued more than $1 million in speeding violations. According to “NYC Open Data,” the city’s public database, during the 43-day period of July 11 through August 22, the most recent information available at the time of publication, the city had issued 563,221 school-zone speed camera violations.
That number equals, on average, approximately 13,098.2 violations per day, 545.8 violations per hour, or 9.1 violations per minute.
At $50 per violation, the city issued/netted $28,161,050 in fines over those first 43 days. That figure breaks down to around $654,908.14 per day, $27,287.84 per hour, $454.80 per minute, or $7.58 per second.
That’s right: In the time it will have taken you to read this article, the city will have netted around $3,200 in speeding violations in school zones. And school may not even have been in session when those citations were issued.
Queens residents have received the second highest number of citations so far, with just over 35 percent of the total violations issued – that’s nearly 109,000 in the first 43 days. The school zone issuing the most camera-generated tickets in the entire city from July 11 through October 11 was Seagirt Boulevard at Crest Road in Far Rockaway, with 28,368 violations for that three-month period. Other popular ticketing zones were Main Street and 82nd Drive in Jamaica, with 6,910 violations; Horace Harding Expressway at Peck Avenue in Fresh Meadows, with 13,724 violations; and Springfield Boulevard at 133rd Street in Jamaica, with 12,124 violations.
Data from more recent weeks indicates a slight drop in ticketing rates as drivers learn where the cameras are located, but violations still hover over 10,000 per day citywide, and the revenue continues to pour in.
Even at a cost of $62 million dollars, the program is likely to pay for itself before year’s end. The city’s old network of just 140 cameras brought in over $44 million in revenue last year alone; the expansion should multiply that figure many times over by the end of this calendar year.
So what’s the problem?
What’s a few pennies when it comes to public safety?
Who cares if motorists in Queens pick up a couple of $50 speeding tickets here and there – if we’re saving lives?
De Blasio’s “Vision” is saving the lives of children. Think of the innocent children! Oh, the humanity of it all.
Except that the speed camera expansion – and Vision Zero itself – aren’t saving many lives, if any – not as far as I can tell.
First, there was never a pressing need for across-the-board traffic reforms in school zones. Sure, maybe there are a few dangerous zones here and there that could do with some speed bumps and extra crossing guards. But in introducing the camera initiative – both at the inception back in 2013 and at the beginning of the rollout in June – DOT officials and de Blasio reps failed to provide a shred of evidence supporting their claims that school zones were experiencing any unusual rate of traffic-related injuries. In fact, their sound bites from these periods make no mention of statistics at all; instead they burnished lofty, feel-good truisms apropos of nothing. In December, DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg was quoted as saying, “It is the fundamental principle of roadway safety all over the country and all over the world, speed management is a key ingredient. If you’re driving slower, you’re less likely to do damage, it’s just basics.” Thank goodness these stringent and oppressive new traffic regulations are backed up by the “basics.” That, right there, is good lawmaking.
When asked about the paucity of data informing many of the DOT’s initiatives, Trottenberg added, “Despite what our critics have said, we have tried really hard to run the program in a data-driven and fair way. We have really tried to focus on those corridors and around schools where we see the most crashes, where we see the most speeding and where we see the most injuries and fatalities.” In other words, she claimed to be data-driven but then fails to provide any of that data for review.
I myself was unable to turn up any independent research that suggested a problem with school-zone traffic patterns before de Blasio declared war on them.
Perhaps the reason we had never understood the terrible dangers of New York City school zones is because they simply weren’t that dangerous until the de Blasio administration decided to rebrand them as such. The absence of any data to support their claims raises the possibility that they conjured up this essentially bogus “child safety” issue. The claim that they’re working to protect “New York City’s most vulnerable pedestrians” is a two-for-one combo of virtue-signaling and heart-string tugging.
So there was never much of a problem to begin with. Okay.
Perhaps they still could do some good by installing speed cameras in the city’s most dangerous thoroughfares, drags, and intersections.
What makes the whole situation even more bogus is that the camera rollout doesn’t even accomplish the fake goal it set for itself. By all accounts from ticked-off residents on Facebook message boards and traffic reports, the cameras are all installed in high traffic areas likely to generate the most income rather than some of the most dangerous but less-trafficked areas, many on quiet, residential streets, and some of which have experienced multiple fatal car accidents.
Dismissing the gripes of beleaguered motorists, representatives for the DOT and the de Blasio administration have heralded the camera program as a major win for safety on New York City’s streets. “Speed cameras work. Period. They change driver behavior and cause people to slow down, protecting New Yorkers from injury and death in traffic collisions,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes in an earlier article.
The cameras are just the latest and most aggressive move in de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, “a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all,” according to the mayor’s website.
Public safety is a noble goal, but statistics supporting the effectiveness of the campaign have been murky at best. In 2015 and 2016, Vision Zero’s inaugural years, New York City saw a rise in auto accidents, up 8.5 percent and 4.3 percent from the previous years, respectively. A reading of longitudinal data since de Blasio took office (from his Vision Zero launch, to the camera pilot launch in 2013, to the rollout on July 11, to the present) reveals a spotty, often statistically insignificant scattering of data, few if any positive trends (and a number of negative trends, particular in recent years). There may be a little “win” here in 2013 or a 20 percent drop in such and such a problem in 2017, but overall, no major or lasting changes to report.
In other words, even among the “triumphant” success data supplied by the de Blasio administration itself, I was not able to find any concrete evidence of progress achieved by his gargantuan bureaucratic efforts.
When it comes to the expansion of speed cameras, DOT officials are quick to cite the massive spike in speeding violations as evidence of increased safety; but they fail to show any direct link between a rise in violations and a fall in auto accidents. Crashes do appear to have decreased from 2017 to 2018, but there was no change to the speed camera program in that time, so there’s no reason to conclude that the cameras caused the drop.
Advocates also cite a drop in crashes for this July 2019, when the cameras were being rolled out, down ten percent from the same period in July 2018. But again, these stats fail to take into account other factors, like potential decreases in overall auto traffic or traffic patterns due to confounding factors like the city’s increase in bike lanes and regulations.
Accident rates aside, the real question is whether this massive speed camera system – and the financial tolls it reeks on drivers – has had any impact on public safety. The mayor’s office has conspicuously failed to offer evidence linking the camera rollout – or indeed, the astronomical number of violations issued – with any decrease in traffic injuries or fatalities. On the contrary, traffic deaths have actually surged in the first half of 2019, and injuries also rose in preceding years, despite de Blasio positioning Vision Zero as his cornerstone legislation. NYPD data showed that, from 2014 to 2018, collisions resulting in injuries increased by 18 percent. And in the first half of 2019, traffic fatalities were up nearly 40 percent from the same period last year. A high percentage of accidents involve bicycle traffic, which de Blasio has aggressively encouraged with an increase in devoted bike lanes.
It’s a testament to the total incompetence and executive impotence of de Blasio that his own cause célèbre, which was so banally middling a cause to begin with, should fail so utterly.
At best, this camera rollout is a greedy cash grab by an administration too lazy and corrupt to bother justifying it with evidence of its effectiveness. It’s a de facto living tax against outer-borough residents (with Brooklyn and Queens commuters hit the hardest), and yet another in a long series of hits in his war against motorists. This “taxation by citation” or “policing for profit,” as it has been called by drivers’ advocates, is just another cynical cash-grab parading as a public safety campaign and too lazy to back up their claims with evidence.
That’s the optimistic view. It lets de Blasio off easy.
The real issue here is that the mayor chose to devote such massive resources to a program so limited in scope and vision – even if it had managed to achieve what it set out to achieve – when there are so many other issues in New York City in dire need of solutions, and so many untapped opportunities ripe for picking. “Vision Zero” is aptly named, as it reveals a willing ignorance by our mayor to tackle the issues that could actually make life better for New Yorkers.
Take, for example, the issue of illegal immigration in New York. In January, ICE apprehended 118 illegal immigrants in New York, 107 of whom were convicted criminals or had been charged with crimes. Among those arrested was a 44-year-old Ecuadorian man who had previously been convicted of the abuse of two girls under eight years of age; and a 23-year-old Dominican national who had been charged with the rape of a child under 17 years of age. Statistical significance aside, even one single crime committed by an illegal immigrant is a crime that could have been avoided, and statistics of violent crimes committed by illegals, though largely surprised by the city, are on the rise. Long Island would benefit more dramatically from an effort to root out MS-13 influences in its public schools and back alleys than from de Blasio’s laughable initiative to change the color of seatbelt latches in taxicabs from black to red and yellow circa 2016. These days, New York City’s legal residents are facing more restrictions than illegal immigrants themselves: The city banned the use of the term “illegal alien” in most contexts, while promising to welcome and harbor the aliens themselves.
Likewise, as de Blasio has set his sights on reducing traffic speeds by ten miles an hour, New York City has experienced a dramatic rise in rates of graffiti, petty crime, and loitering, and the homeless population have been allowed to erect camps on public sidewalks. Construction-related deaths and injuries have skyrocketed in the last couple of years, too – as has the rate of anti-Semitic hate crimes. But don’t get me started.
Cutting crime, curbing illegal immigration, stimulating the economy, and stemming the flow of business out of New York: Any one of these goals would be tremendously more effective at improving the quality of life in New York than traffic reform.
But Bill de Blasio isn’t up to that. He’s an insufferable excuse for a man-child with the leadership skills of stucco.
So he’ll continue to plug away at his inane and visionless Vision Zero – oh, and at his bygone presidential ambitions – until he’s voted out, or until he runs New York City straight into the ground.
At the very least, if de Blasio insists on pursuing Vision Zero, he should consider implementing change where it will have an effect: on dangerous corners in quiet residential neighborhoods in Queens – not on highway exit ramps and four-lane speedways.
Or he should do New Yorkers a favor and move to northern Norway where his zero-vision Vision Zero will be well-matched to the 24 hours of darkness that they see all winter. At least there won’t be any traffic to worry about.