New York State In-depth

As more Syracuse residents die in vehicle accidents, Mayor Walsh is making safer roads a priority

Syracuse, NY – It’s not just guns wreaking havoc on the streets of Syracuse. Cars also kill and maim people, and the numbers are rising.

According to data from the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, deaths from vehicle accidents on Syracuse’s streets have increased by more than 70% over the past five years. In the five years to 2021, the city experienced an average of nine deaths per year, up from five in 2016. Accidents resulting in serious injuries increased by 12% over the same period.

In all, nearly 1,000 people have been seriously injured and 71 died in vehicle collisions over the past decade, the Transport Council reported. 28 of the dead were pedestrians.

During his State of the City address today, one of Mayor Ben Walsh’s main themes will be his commitment to making Syracuse’s streets safer.

The Mayor will announce a long-term initiative to eliminate vehicle deaths and serious injuries on the city’s streets. It’s part of a “Next Level Growth” agenda that Walsh hopes to unveil in his speech.

Walsh said he is committed to making Syracuse a safe place to get around with or without a car. But at this point the city is going in the wrong direction, he said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors in the city over the past five years,” Walsh said. “And arguably the most consistent complaint or concern I hear from local residents is about road safety — cars speeding through neighborhoods, cars burning stop signs, cars burning red lights.”

The solution isn’t easy, and changes won’t come quickly, Walsh said. But the upcoming demolition of the Interstate 81 viaduct through Syracuse presents a unique opportunity to reshape the way the city travels.

Walsh will announce tonight that Syracuse will be partnering with “Vision Zero,” a California-based coalition of about 50 U.S. cities committed to eliminating deaths and serious injuries from vehicle accidents. Syracuse will be the second city in that state to join, after New York City.

A few small steps can start right away.

Walsh plans to push for cameras on school buses to catch mockers who don’t stop for red lights. He will urge state lawmakers to authorize the city to deploy red light cameras and speed cameras in school areas. He will continue to experiment with speed bumps to slow neighborhood traffic.

At some point in the future, Syracuse could lower its standard speed limit to 25 miles per hour.

But Walsh said efforts to make transportation safe will likely continue beyond his term as mayor, which ends in December 2025. He wants to lay the foundation for long-term change, he said.

To that end, Walsh plans to hire a transportation consultant to review the city’s vehicle safety status and make recommendations. A call for proposals will be issued shortly, said Corey Driscoll Dunham, chief operating officer. The consultant’s full report is not expected to be available before 2024.

“I’ll be in this seat for three more years. That’s it,” Walsh said. “We have increasingly thought about what investments we can make beyond my time at this chair?”

The focus on road safety is a fairness issue, Walsh said. Urban traffic fatalities are on the rise across the country, and they are disproportionately affecting people of color.

Researchers from Boston University and Harvard Schools of Public Health found that blacks are more than four times as likely as whites to die in car-bicycle collisions and more than twice as likely to die in car-pedestrian accidents. According to the study published last August in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, black people are 80% more likely to die as passengers in cars.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 43,000 people died in vehicle accidents across the country in 2021, more than in any year since 2005. Pedestrian fatalities are at a 40-year high.

Of the people who died in accidents in Syracuse in the past decade, 28 were pedestrians and six were cyclists by 2021, according to data from the Syracuse Transportation Council.

Part of the reason for the rising death toll is that cars are getting bigger, said Neil Burke, director of special projects at the Syracuse Department of Public Works. The city can’t control that. But local planners can change road designs to slow traffic, he said. That could include reducing the number of lanes, adding crosswalk signals and narrowing lanes, among other things, he said.

The Vision Zero initiative will dovetail with the city’s work to prepare Syracuse for life after the removal of the I-81 viaduct, Walsh said. The goal is to make the city easily navigable for everyone, including pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders, he said.

“A quarter of the city of Syracuse’s population does not have access to a private vehicle,” Walsh said. “So if we direct the bulk of our transportation investment and attention to cars, that’s inherently unfair.”

In addition to Vision Zero, tonight Walsh will unveil four other areas of his Next Level Growth platform: youth services; quality of life and public safety in city districts; strengthening infrastructure; and “smart” government.

Walsh will speak at 5:30 p.m. at Corcoran High School, 919 Glenwood Ave.

Do you have a news tip or a story idea? Contact reporter Tim Knauss: Email | Twitter | | 315-470-3023.

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