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Pedestrian and bicyclist safety in New York City (NYC) has been in the news lately. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has raised the ire of NYC residents by increasing the fine for jaywalking from $2 to $50, plus making a court appearance mandatory for paying fines for this offence. In addition, the mayor has recently announced that pedestrian barriers which separate pedestrians and vehicles at certain intersections will be kept up “indefinitely”. Anyone who has walked or driven the streets of New York know that its pedestrians are among the most aggressive in the world. The scene from the Midnight Cowboy in which Dustin Hoffman screams to an incensed driver, “I'm walking here!” exaggerates the attitude of the New York pedestrian, but only a little.
Pedestrian and bicyclist injuries are a serious and sizeable problem in NYC city. There was a 23% increase in the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes in NYC last year, from 249 in 1996 to 302 according to preliminary police statistics for 1997, 3700 hospitalizations annually, and an estimated 10 000 pedestrians struck by motor vehicles but not hospitalized. Between 1994 and 1996 pedestrian deaths due to motor vehicles declined slightly from 223 to 213. In this same period motor vehicle occupant deaths decreased more substantially from 207 to 169. Despite the preponderance of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, a study by Transportation Alternatives, a NYC watchdog group, found that most of the $400 million of New York State and NYC funds earmarked for transportation safety in the next five years will go to improve the safety of vehicle occupants rather than the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.
From a public health perspective, enforcement of laws as well as use of physical barriers to separate pedestrians and vehicles are perfectly respectable counter measures against pedestrian injuries. Some of the uproar is because the least lethal players in the urban drama, the pedestrians and bicyclists, feel they are being unfairly and illogically singled out. And, of course, other measures could and should be taken, including enforcement of speed limits, use of speed bumps, creation of walking streets in heavily congested areas, and stricter licensing of taxi drivers. But the public ridicule that has been heaped on the Mayor is a reminder of the critical role played by the social context in which environmental and behavioral interventions are launched.