There used to be a rule that the customer is always right, and given that most people who take transit are pedestrians, it seems odd to call them a menace. But that’s what Pete Donohue of the Transit Workers Union of New York does in a recent article, that has Twitter abuzz, which is not surprising. He writes:
Pedestrian behavior is most problematic in Manhattan where sidewalks and streets are more crowded. It’s the primary cause in 43% of pedestrian fatalities in the borough and a contributing cause in another 16% - more than half of the accidents, 56%. Those statistics, which were tucked inside the Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plan that Mayor de Blasio’s administration released last year, are striking. Yet, you never hear about them. Some safety crusaders only want to talk about the city not redesigning streets fast enough and cops not cracking down hard enough on drivers. In their eyes, anyone with a set of car keys is a Mad Max maniac.
The DOT gives pedestrian safety talks in public schools and senior centers, according to its website. But I’ve never heard a city official speaking harshly or at length about pedestrians carelessly and recklessly putting themselves in harms' way. The role of pedestrians certainly hasn’t been given equal weight to other aspects of the problem. If anything, the city report at times manipulates figures to keep the focus on drivers.
I boldface that line about equal weight, because of course, they are not equal at all. 16 pedestrians in New York were killed last year while walking on the sidewalk, and I don't know of many drivers who were killed by pedestrians while driving on the road. He goes on to note that nobody wants to talk about this, about “distracted walking” and that advocacy groups go on about how this is all “blaming the victim” He concludes:
It’s nonsense, of course. It’s a fact that people are constantly darting or sauntering through intersections against the signal, crossing mid block far from the relative safety of a crosswalk, texting with their heads down. We all do it. Only tourists from the Midwest, or from countries with a more obedient populace, seem to wait patiently on the curb. The city’s statistics quantify the dangerousness of our impatience and inattention. It would be reckless to ignore them.
It’s odd, having a union of public employees coming out with statements like this, but a little background is in order; last year the city government, under its Vision Zero plan, passed a right of way misdemeanour law that finally made it an offence to kill pedestrians, whether you were a driver of a car or a bus. Last February a certain New York Daily News columnist wrote this story:
Francisco de Jesus, 58, was led into the 90th Precinct station house in Brooklyn last week in handcuffs. He was placed in a jail cell that previously confined accused killers and drug dealers and rapists.
Now we covered this particular event on TreeHugger earlier, quoting Ben Fried of Streetsblog:
The question raised by the arrest of Francisco de Jesus is not whether he’s a decent person. Good people make mistakes with harmful consequences every day — and in general the law recognizes that carelessness can rise to the level of a crime. And this isn’t a debate about whether bus drivers have a hard job. There’s no doubt that driving a bus in New York is demanding, stressful, and deserving of respect. The question is: Do our laws protect people walking with the right of way, or not?
If it didn't make an impression on Ben Fried, it certainly did on the Transport Worker's Union. In May, Pete Donahue started working for them. The head of the union notes:
“He always gave the workers a fair shake, and never failed to reach out to the union to allow our voice to be heard,” Transport Workers Union president John Samuelson said in a statement. “Pete had other opportunities available to him, but he chose us, and we’re happy to have him aboard.”
So that’s his job, to aggressively promote the union’s interest, which is to fight the Right of Way law and to blame everybody else except the Union members. As a City Hall spokesperson noted in the New York Post,
The TWU’s leadership should spend less time concocting ways to blame the children and grandparents who are the victims of these horrible crashes, and more time working to protect the people it’s supposed to serve.”
This is not just a New York problem, nor is it a new one. It is all a function of the fact that as far as many people are concerned, "Death and serious injury, it seems, are the cost of doing business in the big city." Traffic apologists are in every city where pedestrians are regularly killed in "accidents" and where the person behind the wheel is not blamed.
In June, Margaret wrote about how NYC bus drivers don’t want to be responsible for killing pedestrians, protest by driving carefully? in which she noted that the Union wanted to be exempted from the legislation that had police charging bus drivers for hitting pedestrians. There are forty comments, half of which are blaming irresponsible pedestrians.
The Union is clearly not alone in this. And given the author of the Union's piece, it should come as no surprise. But it is still incendiary, and it is still wrong.
UPDATE: Doug Gordon AKA @brooklynSpoke just storified a response to "The role of pedestrians certainly hasn’t been given equal weight":