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STOP AND GO Charting a path to traffic safety in New Haven. Isaac Yu reports.

1/14: Arthur Bastek, 50 (Ella T. Grasso Boulevard)

1/22: Kevin Anthony Cunningham, 55 (Whalley Avenue)

2/12: Maurice Messier, 57 (Dixwell Avenue)

2/17: Gilberto Molina, 45 (Columbus Avenue)

2/23: Govinda Kandel, 68 (Middletown Avenue)

3/8: Amber Neal, 38 (Frontage Road)

4/4: Anthony Little, 31 (Ella T. Grasso Boulevard)

5/21: Julio Ruiz, 79 (Grand Avenue)

7/12: Milton Williams, 53 (Temple Street)

8/31: Eric J. Pechalonis, 52 (Ella T. Grasso Boulevard)

9/18: David Toles, 54 (Dixwell Avenue)

9/27: Celeste Staten, 68 (Whalley Avenue)

10/6: Keon Ho Lim, 25 (South Frontage Road)

12/29: Unidentified victim (Ella T. Grasso Boulevard)

In 2020, 12 people were struck and killed by cars on New Haven streets. A 13th victim, a New Haven resident, was struck right outside of city limits, while a 14th unidentified individual died on Dec. 29. The victims included a crossing guard, a baker and a law student — lifelong residents and recent additions to the community alike.

Though some credit the pandemic with decreasing road usage and increasingly hazardous driving, nearly half of this year’s pedestrian and cyclist deaths occurred before New Haven implemented shutdowns in March. Traffic fatalities in Connecticut, and in the nation at large, have been rising for several years. New Haven has continued to lead the state in total driver, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, with the New Haven Register reporting 11 deaths in 2019 and 18 the year before.

The continual rise of traffic collisions and fatalities may come as a surprise, especially in New Haven. After all, the city’s 2008 Complete Streets Ordinance and accompanying Complete Streets Design Manual, which promised to facilitate community participation in the city’s street redesign processes, was one of the first of its kind in the nation and lauded as particularly forward-thinking after its 2010 adoption. The protocol was even used as a model by the state’s Department of Transportation.

Today, however, the ordinance’s ultimate goal of making New Haven a Vision Zero city, or one free of traffic fatalities, seems further from reality than ever — residents’ frustrations with the city’s apparent lack of action have steadily increased over the years. Such vexations burst into the open at a mayor’s event at East Rock Park last month. The Safe Streets Coalition of New Haven, an advocacy group formed in 2019 following a decade of traffic safety efforts, handed a list of demands to Mayor Elicker, including a call to recommit the city to Vision Zero. The group requested a “radical overhaul” of the city’s most dangerous streets, a citywide greenway network, greater transparency in bureaucratic processes and more local control of traffic decisions. Elicker, a former cyclist safety advocate himself, promised to consider their demands. Meanwhile, the Safe Streets Coalition and other advocates continue to drive local discussion in the New Haven community during the pandemic, creating memorials and organizing events to raise awareness and cooperation.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Why have traffic fatalities become so prevalent in a city that, on paper, is committed to ending them? The challenges the city has faced in the last decade won’t disappear overnight; careful consideration of what’s worked and what hasn’t will be crucial as New Haven moves forward.

The five intersections in this review were chosen from across New Haven’s many neighborhoods, each bringing in the voices of traffic safety activists, residents and officials who have been part of the city’s history of traffic safety and who believe, above all, that all traffic deaths are preventable. Activists and officials alike carefully avoid the term “accident” — in their view, every tragedy is preventable and should be a reminder of the steps New Haven needs to take toward achieving Vision Zero and a network of safe, equitable city streets. Ultimately, the names above must not only be memorialized by the New Haven community but taken as inspiration to continue the fight towards a traffic fatality-free New Haven.

#1 Ella T. Grasso Blvd: Funding a City

Graphic: Anasthasia Shilov

Talk to local residents about pedestrian safety and they’ll likely point you to Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, also known as Connecticut Route 10, which is notorious for traffic fatalities. In this year alone, four pedestrians — Arthur Bastek, Anthony Little, Eric Joseph Pechalonis and a fourth unidentified victim — have been killed at or near Route 10’s intersection with U.S Route 1, also known as Orange and Columbus Streets.

This intersection presents numerous challenges to both pedestrians and motorists. Dangling traffic lights suspended across the intersection often swing around in the wind and are difficult to see from eye level while standing at the intersections. Although there is a lone pedestrian crossing signal for those traversing Grasso, it is hard to see from across the crosswalk.

Ella T. Grasso Boulevard has been a pain point in the city’s traffic history, but may finally see updates in the coming year. (Photos: Jessie Cheung)

In 2018, the Connecticut Department of Transportation, or CTDOT, granted New Haven $317,085 as part of its $12.4 million “Community Connectivity Grant Program,” a program designed to support pedestrian and bicycle safety. In an emailed statement to the News, CTDOT spokesperson Kevin Nursick said that Route 10 is under a current comprehensive review that is “anticipated to be completed this coming spring.” According to Doug Hausladen, director of New Haven’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department, sidewalk construction is slated to begin in 2021.

For many, however, Ella Grasso Boulevard and the city’s other projects move far too slowly; the Safe Streets Coalition describes progress on the Complete Streets Ordinance’s protocols as “slow and piecemeal.” Rob Rocke, a board member of long-time advocacy group Elm Street Cycling and a member of the Safe Streets Coalition, points to the incomplete Edgewood Avenue Cycling Track — a nearby project to build a separated bike lane along one of the city’s busiest streets — as an example of the city’s slow movement.

“The Edgewood Avenue Cycling Track, which was supposed to be a test case for the Complete Streets legislation, is so delayed that among us in the ‘safe streets’ community, it’s become a joke,” Rocke said. “It’s somehow a process issue, with problems between our local and state officials — but years are going by and it’s not getting done.”

The bureaucratic tensions between local and state officials in Hartford can certainly be seen along Grasso Boulevard. Hausladen noted that while the city has jurisdiction over the construction of sidewalks and curbs, most stoplights, pedestrian signals and other infrastructure are owned by the state of Connecticut.

The city’s main problem, however, remains a limited budget. As City Engineer Giovanni Zinn noted at the mayor’s event last month, the city is slated to spend less than one million dollars on infrastructure this year. Mayor Elicker cited lack of funding as a primary roadblock for traffic safety improvements.

“Ultimately, almost every problem that we are dealing with as a city comes down to money,” Elicker said. “It comes down to our ability to fund traffic timing infrastructure and to fund enough police officers to ensure there’s enforcement.”

The general fund budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year reduced the budgets for the Engineering and Transportation departments by more than 7 percent each compared to the previous fiscal year, despite an overall budget increase of 2.04 percent.

However, a lack of resources isn’t an excuse for inaction, according to Safe Streets members. Max Chaoulideer GRD ’21, who spoke of a friend’s traffic-related passing at a Safe Streets memorial in November, called the mayor’s response “disappointing.”

“There’s a need to light a bit of a fire under him and make it clear that what’s going on right now — an unbelievable slow, glacial trickle of projects built every 10 years — is not okay,” said Chaoulideer. “We need to re-prioritize and re-conceive the process.”

Rocke added that he’d hoped that Elicker, who earlier in his own career had been part of the movement that resulted in the Complete Streets Ordinance, would bring traffic safety into the forefront of his administration. In Rocke’s mind, Elicker was “the guy who biked to work on his first day on the job as mayor.”

Since the memorial, Elicker has engaged with the Safe Streets Coalition members, discussing a renewed commitment to traffic safety through a new “Safe Routes for All” plan, which would include a “study of the city’s major arteries” and a public-facing interactive map about ongoing projects and requests.

“It’s clear that the mayor and Giovanni Zinn and Doug Hausladen and all of these figures are really committed to approving transportation infrastructure, and they’re putting vulnerable users as the priority, at least in these plans,” Chaoulideer said. He added that Hausladen has been a steady fixture at Safe Streets organizing meetings, calling him a great “liaison”.

Hausladen noted that the city has increased its budget for sidewalk and other above-ground transit construction projects significantly in the past decade. The decrease in his department’s budget, as well as others, is in part a result of lower state funding and federal grants over the last four years, resulting in “pain and suffering” for local initiatives, he said.

“Our lack of funding is not for a lack of effort,” said Hausladen. “Over the last four years, our funding as a federal government was re-prioritized — the value of urban centers depreciated. This is why we keep applying for grants, more and more.”

In the coming years, with a new presidential administration taking the reins of federal departments, funding chances for new safety projects could increase, Hausladen noted.

Safe streets activists continue to advocate for greater transparency and community involvement in the policymaking process moving forward, but say they are “encouraged” by the talks with city officials.

“We’ve had a lot of frustrations over the past years over this disconnect between what the city knew and what residents knew,” Chaoulideer said. “Now, there’s definitely hope, and definitely a need for more specificity and flesh on this larger skeleton.”

#2 Blake and Valley: Community Engagement

The Blake and Valley intersection recently had a new “No Turn on Red” sign, but some say further action can be taken. (Photos: Courtesy of Carolyn Lusch)

Not all traffic safety policies have to be expensive. Carolyn Lusch, a transportation planner and member of the Safe Streets Coalition, is an advocate for changes at the intersection of Blake and Valley streets in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven. Lusch first noticed the potential for danger while walking her son to the Friends Center for Children located at the intersection.

“I immediately realized as I was walking him there every day that this intersection is particularly treacherous, mainly because there is a very wide right turn going for Blake onto Valley. Cars tend to speed around, sometimes without even stopping.”

Graphic: Anasthasia Shilov

Besides the child care center, the area hosts a Montessori school and senior living facilities, making it a particularly high-traffic zone for families. Lusch and other members of Westville’s community management team, one of 12 in the city, have pressured officials for years to make changes at intersections like Blake and Valley.

Hausladen told the News that the city recently installed a flashing LED “no turn on red” sign (seen above) to reduce motorist speeds. Lusch said that this has probably had some impact on driver behavior, but that more work needs to be done.

“It has been a constant worry of mine,” Lusch said. “We have had some success in getting some changes, but it’s certainly still a very dangerous situation.”

Using either concrete or temporary planter installments to bring the curb further into the street, as seen in the third graphic, has been shown to slow drivers down. (Graphic: Courtesy of Michele Weisbart)

Curb radius reduction is one possible solution to the intersection’s wide right turn, which currently allows drivers to navigate across the intersection while maintaining high travel speeds. Studies by the National Association of City Transportation Officials show that radii of street corners and vehicle turning speeds are directly correlated. They recommend reducing corner radii to a maximum of 15 feet, which not only forces drivers to slow down before turning, but also reduces the length of crosswalks, minimizing pedestrian exposure to traffic.

Though permanent changes like extending the concrete curb would be expensive, Lusch has been advocating for temporary installations, such as planters or street paint placed along the curb, as interim solutions.

The Westville community management team had approved the use of some Neighborhood Public Improvement Program (NPIP) funds to purchase materials for a temporary curb extension project, Lusch said. The initiative was ultimately delayed by the city based on hopes that developers of a nearby apartment building at 500 Blake would be able to fund traffic-calming initiatives in the area instead.

This doesn’t mean, however, that community-based organizing for traffic solutions is ineffective. Both Lusch and Hausladen noted that traffic-calming infrastructure, including the use of NPIP funds for asphalt art installations, had been successfully implemented on the other side of town by the Quinnipiac East community management team. Hausladen’s department also worked with residents last summer to create six street-art installations, including a Black Lives Matter mural along Temple Street. Such community-based partnerships are a priority for his department, Hausladen said.

The community-oriented work that Lusch and many others have carried out can and must continue on a wider scale. As part of the 2020 Multimodal Transit Summit organized by the Center for Latino Progress last month, city officials and traffic safety activists gathered for a walk audit training, teaching community members to identify and report potential safety improvements within their own neighborhoods. Kai Addae and other Safe Streets Coalition organizers gave a talk at the same event, emphasizing the importance of transparency and including community stakeholders in a “Vision Zero Task Force.”

Tony Cherolis, who coordinated the summit and training, pointed out that city residents, armed with intimate knowledge of their communities, are the “best people to determine the changes needed to improve safety in their neighborhoods.” Though the responsibility for safer streets will continue to rest on the shoulders of policymakers, a high level of street-by-street and neighborhood-by-neighborhood engagement in this issue will remain crucial.

Ultimately, Lusch’s design philosophy centers around making streets safer for all users, including pedestrians. She feels that conversations about traffic safety all too often take on a victim-blaming attitude.

“There’s this automatic bias against pedestrians in favor of cars. We need to see pedestrians as vulnerable users of the road who need priority.”

#3 Grand and Ferry: Speed Kills

The Grand and Ferry intersection, located in population-dense Fair Haven, is the home of a “ghost bike” memorial placed by the Safe Streets Coalition. (Photos: Jessie Cheung)

The year has seen increased fatalities for those on wheels as well. Julio Ruiz, 79, who lived in the Fair Haven neighborhood, was struck by a hit-and-run motorcyclist while cycling near his home at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Ferry Street on May 22. He succumbed to his injuries three days later.

The Safe Streets Coalition of New Haven placed a “ghost bike” at Grand and Ferry as a memorial to Ruiz earlier this month. The bike, which has been spray-painted white, comes with a sign listing Ruiz’s age and gender, as is tradition with other ghost bikes commemorating cyclist fatalities in New Haven. Stationed at the site of Ruiz’s collision, it serves as a chilling reminder of the dangers pedestrians and cyclists face at the hands of motorists. Given the blatant disregard for the speed limit in the area, however, drivers passing by may not even notice.

Though there are clearly marked red crosswalks, the area’s high population density and numerous small businesses make this intersection particularly deadly. Furthermore, Grand, like many of New Haven’s state owned roads, has a 25 mph speed limit, making the avenue a major high-traffic artery even as it cuts through a largely residential neighborhood. At a mayor’s event at East Rock Park in October, many residents called for a reduction of the city’s default speed limits to 20 mph.

According to literature reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, collisions involving vehicles travelling at 20 mph have a 5 percent likelihood of resulting in pedestrian fatalities. That number, however, jumps to 40 percent when vehicles travel at 30 mph, and 80 percent at 40 mph. Though this year’s collisions were influenced by many different variables, the common denominator in their severity is speed.

Why do speed limits, despite apparent support for decreases among local residents, remain so high? Legislators have previously attempted to hand control of state road speed limits over to cities like New Haven. Rep. Roland Lemar, who represents the 96th district in the Connecticut State House, co-sponsored H.B. 6590 in 2019, which would allow municipalities to lower speed limits up to 15 mph below state standards.

Traffic safety has been an important priority since Lemar’s time on the Board of Alders, where he helped to pass the Complete Streets ordinance. Since being elected as a state representative in 2011, he has continued to focus on traffic-related legislation.

“In New Haven, and Connecticut, frankly, cars blow through crosswalks all the time," Lemar said. "It’s horrifically unsafe. As the father of three young children now, I’m terrified to even let them cross the road at a crosswalk, which isn’t the case in most states.”

Though it passed the state House with a vote of 142 to three, with five members abstaining, H.B. 6590 died in the state Senate and was never taken up for a vote. Describing an attitude of “anti-urbanism,” Lemar told the News that some legislators from suburban and rural districts viewed the bill as an unnecessary restriction on the flow of traffic on state roads that run through cities. In Lemar’s view, however, the communities that host those roads must take priority, and should be given greater say in the safety of their neighborhoods.

Lemar believes that the year’s increased fatalities may broaden bipartisan support for similar traffic issues in the current legislative session, which began earlier this month. As chair of the house’s transportation committee, he is currently co-sponsoring H.B. 5429, a sweeping bill that addresses right-of-way in crosswalks and hands control of some speed limits to local traffic authorities, among other policies.

“A number of my suburban counterparts [have been starting] to see in the last few years a greater number of their constituents asking for changes to local laws,” Lemar told the News. “They are recognizing the same things that we’ve been recognizing for a decade: People are driving too fast, and all of the safety enhancements that have been made have been for the driver.”

Lusch, Chauolideer, and several other New Haveners spoke in favor of the bill at a live hearing on Jan. 27, with over 140 other city residents submitting favorable written testimonies, according to the Independent.

#4 Elm and Temple: Automated Enforcement

Elm and Temple is at the heart of the New Haven Green and saw one pedestrian fatality in 2020. (Photos: Jessie Cheung)

Located in front of the New Haven Public Library and just a two-minute walk from Grace Hopper College, the intersection of Elm and Temple is equipped with functional traffic signals, bike lanes and clearly marked crosswalks. Still, New Haven resident Milton Williams, 53, was struck and killed here on July 12. According to a NHPD press release, Williams was walking north on Temple when he was hit by a motorist traveling east on Elm.

Busy corners like this one, located in the heart of downtown, have often been pain points in the debate surrounding automated enforcement — the use of image capture technology for traffic enforcement. These include red-light cameras and speed enforcement cameras, which proponents argue are more effective than police departments in regulating driver behavior.

Automated enforcement is not permitted in New Haven or in Connecticut, and past attempts have been overturned with public pressure from civil rights groups. The ACLU has historically been opposed to automated enforcement, particularly red-light cameras. This technology, the group argues, could inhibit civilian privacy and right to due process, allowing the government to potentially track private citizens using license plate data, for example.

Elm Street Cycling board member Rocke explained that the privacy argument is outdated.

“With what we’re all walking and driving around with in our pockets, the privacy argument [against automated enforcement] doesn’t really hold up anymore,” Rocke said. “I don’t think that this day and age, where we are with technology, that the ‘Big Brother’ technological fears are relevant anymore.”

A “long-term card carrying member” of the ACLU, Rocke says he left the group over this issue. He has since been involved with every recent attempt at the state level to pass legislation enabling certain cities to test and use automated enforcement.

In addition to privacy concerns, the Connecticut NAACP and CT Black and Puerto Rican Caucus have also opposed automated enforcement on the grounds that cameras would unfairly target minority communities. Though it is true that past attempts to install cameras have focused on urban municipalities with large minority communities like Hartford and New Haven, both Hausladen and Lemar argued that a careful placement of cameras throughout the city and surrounding suburbs could prevent disproportionate targeting.

Furthermore, in a recent op-ed published by the CT Mirror, Westville advocate Lusch and traffic safety proponent Andrew Giering argued that automated technology could reduce traffic stops performed by armed police officers.

“In our country, traffic stops are the most common interaction that residents have with police,” Lusch and Giering write. “For Black drivers, who are almost twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers, these interactions can be stressful, traumatic and dangerous. Speed cameras can deter potentially lethal speeding without direct police engagement, and without any subjective human decision-making and the attendant risk of implicit or explicit bias.”

A pilot program for automated enforcement is included as a major part of H.B. 5429, with Lamar describing the technology as “better than stationing a cop on every other block.” Furthermore, he noted that past debates have revolved around red-light cameras, while focusing on speed enforcement cameras could be more palatable. He hopes to continue discussing the issue with stakeholders like the ACLU as the legislation progresses. Hausladen told the News that his department would support the technology if permitted by the state legislature.

#5 South Frontage and York: A School in a City

York and South Frontage has become a focus of Yale advocates after the community experienced its third death in twelve years here. (Photos: Isaac Yu)

A solitary bicycle sits chained to a pole at the corner of York and South Frontage, its stark white paint contrasting against concrete surroundings. The ghost bike was erected last year for Keon Ho Lim, a 25-year-old Yale Law School student from Medford, Massachusetts. Lim was struck tragically at this intersection while biking on Oct. 6.

Traffic safety gained University-wide attention following Lim’s death. This was the third pedestrian or cyclist fatality to occur at this intersection, located in the heart of the city, in 12 years.

Yale associate professor of urbanism Elihu Rubin called the intersection a “perfect storm” for traffic incidents, noting that South Frontage encourages higher speeds particularly where it meets the on-ramps for Interstates 91 and 95.

Graphic: Anasthasia Shilov

Though the intersection at York and South Frontage is maintained by the city, safe streets activists have pointed out that it is functionally a Yale intersection, with Yale New Haven Hospital, the School of Medicine and several Yale-owned residential properties all located nearby.

“All three fatalities have had a direct Yale connection, either student or staff. Like it or not, it touches Yale all over the place,” said Rocke.

Several Yale Law students spoke of Lim at the hearings for H.B. 5429, and three YLS professors submitted written testimony in favor of the bill as well, citing disproportionate harms of current infrastructure to Black and Latinx individuals.

For Chaoulideer and other graduate students, the University’s silence on the incident is representative of a wider trend, where Yale has refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for its role in the city. The privately owned Yale Shuttle system, he noted as an example, is a drain on what could be a thriving city bus system, removing ridership and dollars and making public transportation more costly and difficult to maintain.

Giering, who authored the op-ed with Lusch, is a self-described “perennial townie” who grew up in New Haven. He expressed his long-time frustrations with the University’s lack of responsibility and respect for the city over traffic safety and equity issues.

“Yale thinks that they are a part of and better than New Haven, but Yale would not exist if New Haven hadn’t incubated it,” Giering said. “Yale needs to get there intellectually and accept its role in creating the situation we have now. The city is broke because of Yale.”

According to University spokesperson Karen Peart, the Yale Traffic Safety Committee, of which Rocke is a member, has made gains at this intersection by advocating for pedestrian bollards and additional signage at South Frontage and York. Formed in 2011, this committee has also worked around campus to establish traffic safety curriculums and launch several public information campaigns. The University is also in favor of a pilot program for automated enforcement and local control of speed limits, both of which are components of H.B 5429.

Still, some say that Yale can play a larger role in New Haven’s traffic safety. Giering and others described Yale’s past efforts as “pet projects” that focused on campus surroundings rather than the city as a whole.

When activists and officials gathered at East Rock Park last month, Elicker called on institutions like Yale and Yale New Haven Hospital, who collectively receive a tax break of $157 million from the city, to pay their “fair share” in property taxes. Currently, these institutions make “voluntary payments” to the city, which totaled $12.5 million during the 2020-21 fiscal year. Some 60 percent of the Elm City’s total property qualifies for some form of tax exemption status, a trend driven by the city’s two largest nonprofits, Yale and Yale New Haven Hospital.

In addition to writing about local traffic policy, Giering has worked to incorporate the nonprofit arm of Bradley Street Bike Co-op, a group dedicated to decreasing transit inequality. He and others in the “safe streets” community have found themselves increasingly concerned about the city’s traffic crisis as a result of the New Haven Independent’s consistent coverage of incidents.

This coverage had commanded attention in other parts of the state. Kerri Provost, a blogger with Real Hartford, read the Independent’s coverage and was saddened by the lack of sustained attention statewide. She decided to cover every traffic fatality she could find around the state, including those in New Haven, in a monthly column. This process involved cross-checking a wide variety of resources, including the UCONN crash repository, municipal databases, local news outlets and obituary lists. The column’s main goals were to increase sustained public awareness and change the conversation to involve traffic safety victims as people. In Provost’s view, the more people hear about traffic safety issues, the better.

“I want the general public to pay more attention to how frequently pedestrians and cyclists get hurt,” Provost said. “The bureaucrats, the people who have the top-level positions of power to set budgets — they need to get it together and show that humans have value, and that’s regardless of whether we’re poor and can’t afford private transportation, or we choose not to drive, or if someone is homeless — we should still be protected.”

For now, the ghost bike sits at York and South Frontage, a lasting reminder of the work that remains to be done.

The Road Ahead

Though the issue of traffic safety is overwhelmingly complex and multifaceted, one fact is clear: There is still a lot of work to be done. As state and local officials gear up for a new year of policymaking and community groups look to their next steps in advocacy, the relationship going forward between government and constituent remains to be seen. Do bureaucratic misgivings and a “glacial” slowness continue to strangle efforts across the board? Can 2020 serve as a wake-up call, prompting effective and meaningful change? Will New Haven finally become the city it set out to be a decade ago, providing safe transportation for each and every one of its residents?

The News, for its part, will strive to report on traffic safety, from collisions and fatalities to policy changes, shedding light on this important matter for the students and alumni who have called New Haven home.

Clarification, Feb. 2: This article has been updated to clarify that the New Haven traffic fatality statistics from 2018 and 2019 include driver, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

Credits:

Cover photo by Jessie Cheung.