‘Always scared’: Traffic chaos outside NYC schools threatens children

May 25, 2022 Jesse Coburn, Chalkbeat
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Two years ago, a boy crossing a street in Queens on his way to school was run over and killed by a man driving a 20-ton truck. Seven weeks later, a girl walking to school with her brother in Brooklyn died under the wheels of a school bus. Two days after that, in the same neighborhood, a woman driving with a suspended license struck and killed a boy in a crosswalk. He was also heading to school.

After each death, city leaders expressed indignation and sorrow, and vowed to make streets safer.

On the streets where the children were killed, few changes were made.

Their deaths were not aberrations, but part of a steady drumbeat of violent encounters between drivers and children walking to and from school in New York City. This drumbeat is not simply part of the larger rhythm of traffic injuries and deaths on city streets. A six-month Streetsblog investigation found that streets near schools are uniquely dangerous, with rates of crashes and injuries that exceed city averages — particularly near schools where most students are poor or children of color. The city’s efforts to reduce these dangers have proven inadequate, leaving some of the city’s most vulnerable residents exposed to risk in places where they have no choice but to be.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Streetsblog studied data on nearly one million car crashes in New York City from July 2015 through November 2021 and built a database of every collision that occurred within 250 feet of a city-run public school. This analysis revealed:

  • On school days, streets near schools are more dangerous on average than other city streets. During the 8 a.m. hour, when hundreds of thousands of children stream into 1,600 city-run public schools, there are 57% more crashes and 25% more injuries per mile on streets near schools than on the city’s other streets. This disparity largely disappears on days when schools are closed.
  • Streets are especially dangerous outside schools where most students are poor or children of color. In the 2019 school year, for example, the rate of people injured by cars on school days was 43% higher outside school buildings where a majority of students were brown or Black than outside school buildings with majority-white students. Crashes are more common too. These disparities have existed for years.
  • Drivers crash nearly 50 times and injure a dozen people near city public schools during the average day when schools are open. That’s a crash every 29 minutes and an injury every two hours. The chaos peaks during the hours when children arrive at school in the morning and leave in the afternoon. At those times, there is a crash every 17 minutes and an injury every 72 minutes.

Streetsblog also found that drivers have killed at least 24 children heading to or from school on foot or bike in New York City in the past decade, according to news reports.

The latest was May 4.

The elevated danger around schools exists despite the tens of millions of dollars the city spends annually to make school streets safe. This money has bought thousands of school-zone speed cameras, teams dedicated to school safety at the city Department of Transportation and an army of crossing guards. Yet school streets remain far more dangerous than the average city street on school days.

Current and former city officials blamed these dangers on the modest scale of the changes the city typically makes to the design of school streets. Exacerbating the problem, the city has left its ranks of school crossing guards chronically understaffed, union leaders said, and the guards that are employed face dangerous work conditions for rock-bottom pay.

“The city needs to do something about it,” said Charles T. Brown, an urban planner and professor at Rutgers University. “It needs to start investing more resources in and around schools in Black, brown and low-income communities. How many more children of color have to die before that’s done?”

60 feet

Daunte Tate used to ride the Bx38 bus home from his Bronx high school. Now he rides the Bx30. It takes twice as long, but it has one advantage: he doesn’t have to cross the street in front of his school to catch it.

Daunte, a ninth grader at Bronx Health Sciences High School, remembers the afternoon in September when an SUV driver rammed into four teenagers and two adults on Baychester Avenue in front of the school. It was a freak crash, set in motion by a stabbing. But another crash hurt a pedestrian there seven weeks later, this time when kids were arriving in the morning. Another pedestrian was injured in a crash the next day. So Daunte switched buses. Baychester Avenue is only 60 feet wide, but he’d rather not chance it.

“The risk is still there,” he said one afternoon while waiting for his slow bus home, standing far back from the curb.

His mom feels the same.

“I’d rather him getting home late than not getting home at all,” she said later.

Like other school streets in the city, that portion of Baychester Avenue is most dangerous precisely at the times when kids are present, Streetsblog found.

As Daunte waited for his bus, kids poured out of the drab, hulking buildings behind him. Bronx Health Sciences is one of eight city-run public schools in the complex. Thousands of students study there — overwhelmingly poor children of color, city data show.

Some walked past shoulder-high grilles of illegally parked SUVs to board school buses in the street. Others ascended a long ramp to a trash-strewn pedestrian walkway that crosses the six-lane highway running parallel to Baychester Avenue.

The situation outside Daunte’s school is typical of many neighborhoods of color, researchers said. Often they are riven by large, dangerous roads built for drivers passing through, not for people who live there and travel on foot.

This partially explains why streets are more dangerous around city schools where most students are brown or Black; the neighborhoods where those schools are located have more dangerous streets, too. Analyzing city data, Streetsblog found that there were more pedestrian injuries per capita in neighborhoods with majority non-white school buildings than in neighborhoods with majority white buildings.

The neighborhoods with majority non-white schools also have greater population density, Census data show. But school buildings with majority non-white students have only slightly larger enrollments on average, and many children do not attend schools in their neighborhoods.

Another factor: Census figures show that fewer households have access to vehicles in the neighborhoods with schools of color. That finding also resonates with nationwide disparities. With fewer cars available, Black children are more likely to walk to school than white children, according to Seth LaJeunesse, assistant director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

Where roads are more dangerous, and children less shielded from those dangers, the results are predictable.

Cara Hamann, a University of Iowa injury epidemiologist, found that pedestrians of color are hospitalized at higher rates than white pedestrians. She also found that a larger share of hospitalized pedestrians of color are children.

“It’s an exposure thing,” Hamann said in an interview. Kids driven to school are “not exposed at the same way as a kid walking or biking.”

In 2019, motor vehicle collisions were a leading cause of death for children ages 14 and under in New York City, according to the city Health Department.

‘A Deep dive’

In January, nearly two years after two children were killed walking to school in East New York, a DOT staffer attended a community board meeting there to present the agency’s efforts to make school streets safer.

Perhaps no other neighborhood had more traffic violence around schools recently than East New York, a predominantly Black community in Brooklyn. Between September 2015 and November 2021, drivers killed four people and injured another 190 near East New York schools on school days when students were arriving or departing. No other city neighborhood had more than one such death.

“We want to do what we would call a deep dive within East New York and Brownsville, because we knew that addressing these concerns with a quick fix wouldn’t suffice,” Jeffrey McDuffie, the DOT staffer, told the community board members.

The results of that “deep dive”: extra painted lines and small speed bumps at the intersections where the children were killed, re-timed traffic signals at some intersections, and lowered speed limits on what appeared to be six blocks (the neighborhood is five square miles). New stop signs or lights, plus a few larger speed humps, were also “under study,” according to McDuffie’s presentation.

Two months later, at another community board meeting, McDuffie unveiled what appeared to be the centerpiece of DOT’s effort: a new crosswalk, painted pedestrian space, one redesigned intersection and possibly additional stop signs or lights outside two school buildings. There are at least 25 other school buildings in East New York.

The proposed changes left Wilfredo Florentino underwhelmed.

“The Department of Transportation and other city agencies just remain absolutely impotent at addressing just basic transportation issues in our community,” said Florentino, co-chair of the East New York community board’s transportation committee. “The fact that our streets are not safe for our kids is something that is absolutely unacceptable.”

The modest scale of the city’s intervention is not unique to East New York. Streetsblog studied conditions outside nine school buildings with many nearby crashes and injuries, or where kids were killed, and found chaotic streets tempered by few significant safety features. Most lacked design elements to slow turning drivers. Only half were on streets with speed humps or reduced speed limits. Some lacked traffic signal timing that gives pedestrians a head start. Some had no crossing guards. Only one was on a street closed to car traffic—a method of keeping kids safe outside schools employed throughout the world, but rarely in New York.

At almost every school visited by Streetsblog, curbside space reserved for drivers to safely load and unload kids was blocked by illegally parked cars. None had parking tickets.

Nowhere were the consequences of such conditions more apparent than outside five city-run high schools on the Erasmus Hall campus in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Nearly 2,000 children studied there last year, more than three quarters of them poor and nearly all of them brown or Black. On one recent afternoon, masses of kids spilled out onto Flatbush Avenue after class, some walking in the street to avoid the crowded sidewalk. They walked next to drivers fighting through a thicket of cars at the intersection of Flatbush and Church avenues. Some drivers swerved into oncoming traffic to cut ahead. Others sat parked in bus stops staring at their phones.

City data show there were 481 crashes and 224 injuries outside the campus in the period studied. More than 40 of those injuries were on school days from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. — the most outside any school building in the city. Yet no major street safety improvements were apparent along Flatbush Avenue.

The DOT said it has installed right-turn-only lanes at the intersection, banned left turns from Church Avenue onto Flatbush Avenue and re-timed signals to give pedestrians a head start.

During Streetsblog’s recent visit, it seemed like every student had a story about near-misses with drivers around the campus.

“I had a few cars try to run me over,” said Ameirah Lewis, an 11th grader at Science, Technology and Research Early College High School. “You just used to it.”

Ameirah had little hope the city would intervene.

“You can fix it, but who’s going to fix it?” she asked. “It’s just one of those things that won’t change.”

Department of Education spokesman Nathaniel Styer declined to make Chancellor David Banks or other DOE officials available for interviews. He did not comment on Streetsblog’s findings or answer detailed questions, referring them to DOT.

DOT spokesman Vin Barone declined to make Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez or School Safety Director Nina Haiman available for interviews. Asked to comment on Streetsblog’s findings, Barone said:

“DOT has completed hundreds of street redesigns near schools across the city in recent years and we are focused on continuing to deliver these projects where they are needed the most. This administration is placing equity at the forefront of its work; guided by a new equity formula, the DOT will determine future project locations based on crash history as well as neighborhood demographics, density, and history of prior investments.”

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