Memo to DOH Commish: Don’t Be Afraid to Bike, or Push for Safer Biking

farley.jpgTo promote biking and walking, new health commish Tom Farley could send DOH representatives to CB meetings about street safety improvements. Photo: Tulane University.

For two days running, the Daily News has reported that recently appointed Health Commissioner Tom Farley feels, let’s say, hesitant to ride his bike in Manhattan. Coming on the heels of this week’s DOH report on child fatalities — which downplayed the risks of traffic — it got us wondering how the agency might influence street safety under the new boss.

First, some words of encouragement for Farley, who biked to work every day at his previous job in New Orleans. Riding in Midtown is a lot less intimidating than it was just a short while ago, with a new bike route running from Columbus Circle down to Madison Square nearing completion. Once Farley’s bike gets shipped and he takes a few practice runs on the Hudson River Greenway, a tour of Manhattan’s burgeoning bike network is highly recommended.

Second, no one needs to remind Farley that safe streets pay enormous public health dividends. As co-author of "Prescription for a Healthy Nation," he helped coin the term "healthscaping" to express the idea that physical environments can be shaped to encourage healthier habits. In public talks, he’s been known to sing the praises of walking and biking as transportation. When it comes to the transportation-health connection, the commish knows what’s up.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the Health Department has been an influential pulpit from which to launch high-profile policy initiatives. Witness the trans-fats and smoking bans that helped catapult our last commissioner, Tom Frieden, to the top job at the Centers for Disease Control. Street safety could be the next frontier for a major DOH campaign — reducing injuries and fatalities while making streets more appealing for active transportation.

Traditionally, the Health Department has played a marginal role in enhancing street safety, so I asked Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White how Farley might go about this. He suggested that DOH start by analyzing traffic injuries and deaths with epidemiological rigor. Safety trends in New York City are positive — annual traffic deaths have declined about 30 percent this decade — but if we want to keep moving in the right direction, we’ll need to understand a lot more about why this is happening. Currently, no one really knows.

"The DOT points to improvements they made on a handful of dangerous streets like Queens Boulevard; the NYPD points to TrafficStat and more targeted enforcement; hospitals and emergency responders point to advances they’ve made in urgent emergency care," White said. "But there’s no science to bolster agency claims that they’re responsible for the drop in deaths."

The fact that we’re still guessing about causes is itself troubling. "You’d be hard-pressed to find another example of such a precipitous decline in preventable deaths where there wasn’t an accompanying study figuring out how this happened," he said. "The city could achieve a much greater reduction through such a study and the more systematic application of best design and enforcement practices."

DOH could also marshal support for safer streets on the city’s front lines: community board meetings. DOT often cites health rationales to make the case for bike and pedestrian improvements, but on that score an engineer or planner’s word doesn’t carry as much weight as that of a health expert. "If Commissioner Farley is really interested in making New York City safer for cycling and pedestrians, injecting a compelling health perspective into that debate would help enormously," said White. "Bike lanes and traffic calming aren’t just window dressing; it’s necessary for the health and safety of New Yorkers. To date, the DOH has been absent from that discussion on the community level."