No Easy Answers at City Council Hearing on Trucks and Bike/Ped Safety

Trucks pose an outsize danger on New York City streets. This afternoon, elected officials, agency staff, union representatives, and advocates tackled the issue at a City Council transportation committee hearing.

Photo: jeevs sinclair/Flickr
Photo: jeevs sinclair/Flickr

DOT defines trucks as vehicles with two axles and six tires or vehicles with three or more axles. They comprise 3.6 percent of New York City’s 2 million vehicle registrations, said DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo, and account for 7 percent of the city’s traffic.

While professional truck drivers usually have a better safety record than the average driver per mile, trucks are three times more likely to be involved in a pedestrian death than any other type of vehicle, according to DOT. Last year, truck drivers struck and killed 17 people who were walking or biking, comprising 11 percent of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. That’s down slightly from the three previous years, when an average of 20 people walking or biking were killed in truck crashes annually, comprising 13 percent of pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

One of the victims last year was killed by a truck driver on Canal Street, one of the most dangerous streets in the city. Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the area, asked DOT if it would remove Canal Street’s truck route designation. Russo said that trucks will need to use some of Manhattan’s streets, including Canal, as through routes. “Do you have a street that would serve as an alternative?” he asked Chin. “We don’t think that designation or de-designation [of truck routes] is a pedestrian or bicyclist safety strategy.”

Instead, Russo said DOT is looking to make changes to Canal and Bowery, at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. Since 2009, 19 pedestrians and nine cyclists have been injured there, and one pedestrian has been killed, according to DOT data.

Chin has introduced a bill that would require DOT to study the impact of the region’s tolling system on truck traffic and related cyclist and pedestrian fatalities every five years. “What we can do is look back at the crashes a little more closely, especially the fatal ones, and look at origin and destination issues,” Russo said. “Whether there was a market incentive for them to be somewhere they otherwise wouldn’t be, would be interesting.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a market incentive,” said Council Member Mark Weprin, a supporter of the Move NY toll reform proposal.

NYPD interest in traffic enforcement, or lack thereof, came up twice at today’s hearing, although no police representative testified.

Council Member David Greenfield complained of trucks parked illegally overnight in his district, and asked DOT to install signs for the benefit of both drivers and law enforcement. “Police officers are not as aware of the regulation as you and I are,” Greenfield said. “Truck parking enforcement is not at the top of their list, unfortunately.”

A similar request came from Council Member Paul Vallone, who introduced legislation in response to constituent complaints about illegal truck traffic on local streets. NYPD incorrectly claims it can’t enforce the law unless a sign is present, Vallone said. Instead of pushing precincts to stop with the excuses, his bill would require DOT to install signs on the ten blocks in each community district that have the most illegal truck traffic. DOT objected, saying that while the agency receives complaints about illegal truck traffic, it’s nearly impossible to accurately determine the 10 blocks that actually bear the brunt of the problem — and there’s no guarantee that more signs will do anything to fix it.

DOT instead suggested adding speed humps or reversing the direction of some local streets to deter illegal truck traffic in Vallone’s district, which Council Member Antonio Reynoso said had worked well on a problematic street in his district.

Keith Kerman from DCAS, left, and Ryan Russo, Stacey Hodge, and Ed Pincar of DOT testify this afternoon. Photo: Stephen Miller
Keith Kerman from DCAS, left, and Ryan Russo, Stacey Hodge, and Ed Pincar of DOT testify this afternoon. Photo: Stephen Miller

Ultimately, reducing the number of trucks on the road can help reduce the impact of truck traffic on neighborhoods. At the hearing, the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel, the multi-billion dollar freight connection between New Jersey and Long Island, received endorsements from Weprin and Borough President Gale Brewer.

Telematics devices, which record information on speed, location, and braking patterns, have already been installed on 16,000 vehicles in the city’s 27,000-vehicle fleet, said Keith Kerman, Chief Fleet Officer at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. He added that side guards, which prevent people from being dragged under the rear wheels of large vehicles, will be installed on “at least” 240 vehicles this year as part of a pilot program. DCAS has also been in touch with companies, universities, utilities, and other levels of government that are interested in adding side guards to their trucks.

Angel Martinez, a business agent and organizer with Teamsters Local 812, which represents beverage industry drivers, said that while drivers often worry about making turns through crowded crosswalks, the Right-of-Way Law that has attracted ire from TWU Local 100 hasn’t been a concern for members of his union.

“At the end of the day, no one jumps in the truck planning to hurt someone,” Martinez said. “We care about safety too. We have families in this city, we raise children, and the Teamsters are here to support Vision Zero.”

This post has been updated with a definition of trucks from DOT in the second paragraph.