Talking with Juan Martinez, Senior Advisor for State Legislative Affairs in New York City

by Jenn Fox November 4, 2020 in News, People Behind the Progress

Juan Martinez has been part of groundbreaking campaigns to adopt Vision Zero, pass state legislation to lower speed limits and use automated speed enforcement (ASE). We’re fortunate to have him as a member of our Vision Zero Network Advisory Committee. We asked Juan what lessons he learned as an early Vision Zero champion, and what he thinks we need to focus on to make lasting change.
Vision Zero Network: Let’s start a decade ago, when you were the General Counsel and Legislative Director at Transportation Alternatives, the tremendously successful advocacy group based in New York City. Can you tell us more about what it took to help NYC officially adopt Vision Zero, becoming the first Vision Zero city in the U.S.?

Juan Martinez: I think it is important to know what NYC was like before Vision Zero. Our Mayor, Department of Transportation (DOT) and Police Department  (NYPD) were all saying the right things — “safety is our top priority” etc. — but the power of the Vision Zero commitment is that it really compels these agencies to do so much more, and to do it in a coordinated way.  DOT under [Mayor] Bloomberg built about five miles of protected bike lanes per year, and that grew to 20 each year under [Mayor] de Blasio. NYPD issued twice as many speeding tickets each year under de Blasio as under Bloomberg.

But more than doing more, they were doing it smarter – for example, holding regular meetings to plan and problem-solve across agencies, which was not happening before. Setting goals and making them public – that just wasn’t happening before. And that’s because the agencies were accountable to the Mayor, who made it clear that this [Vision Zero] commitment was a meaningful one.

VZN: Was there a critical moment when you recall Vision Zero moving from idea-stage to gaining real political traction? And what can you share with other advocates and public sector staff who are working to start – or improve – their commitments to Vision Zero?

JM: I realized that Vision Zero was going to be a real thing when Mayor de Blasio announced the goal two weeks after he was inaugurated. It was a big deal that he stood with family members who had lost loved ones, and committed the City’s energy and resources to battling the problem, and talked about traffic deaths as a resolvable problem that the government was responsible for. He hit all the right notes, but I was an advocate at that point and frankly was skeptical that the follow-through was going to be there. However, a few months later I started working for the DOT and started to meet all of these talented people in government in that agency and in other lead Vision Zero agencies, including the Police Department, Taxi and Limousine Commission, City Fleet agency, Health Department,  and I realized “these guys are actually dedicated to saving lives, this thing is actually real, we are going to do a lot of good.” Frankly, it was exhilarating.

VZN: One of the earliest and most significant wins for NYC’s Vision Zero commitment was passing State legislation allowing the City to set and encourage appropriate speed limits. Working together, the Mayor and other City leaders worked with advocates to successfully lower speed limits from 30mph to 25mph citywide and to expand the use of safety cameras, or automated speed enforcement. Why were these deemed high priorities early in your Vision Zero work? And what advice would you give others considering whether to focus on managing speed for safety in their communities?

JM: If your city or town is serious about preventing fatal crashes, your city or town needs a strategy to combat speeding.

In NYC, drivers had no idea what the default speed limit was. We actually did a poll and it was clear that drivers were just guessing. And on our arterial streets, which are the high-crash streets, you could see it in their behavior – drivers regularly exceeding the speed limit by 15 or even 20 MPH.

As part of lowering the speed limit, the City embarked on a massive public education campaign – including press events, radio ads, newspaper ads, distributing a million palm cards in eight languages – and we were able to double awareness of what the legal speed limit is.

Educating people about speed limits is part of the work to manage speed.

But I don’t think that would have worked as well without the speed camera program, because unless you have consistent and predictable enforcement of the speed limit, why would you change your behavior? If you were ignoring the 30 MPH speed limit it is easy to ignore the 25 MPH speed limit. But with the speed cameras what’s great is that it gives the opportunity to say “the speed limit is 25, and we mean it” – and we got much better compliance as a result.

VZN: We know that speed cameras can be tremendously effective in modifying dangerous behavior and preventing deadly crashes, as shown in NYC’s relatively young ASE program. Despite having a relatively low fine ($50), the overwhelming majority of people who get a ticket don’t get a second one.  And, the installation of speed cameras has reduced speeding in the areas where they’re situated by more than 60%. In addition, when set up and monitored effectively, automated enforcement can significantly reduce opportunities for racial bias in traffic stops. (And, we urge communities to combine diversion programs and  tiered fines  along with camera programs in order to lessen income inequities.)
Given the benefits of automated enforcement, is now the time to be advocating for switching from police-led enforcement of speeding and some other dangerous behaviors to automation? How do you think automated safety cameras fit into the future of advancing effective and equitable mobility in the U.S.?

JM: The goal of traffic enforcement has to be to deter drivers from causing fatal crashes. But when you think about the scale of the police response that you would need to achieve that goal, you realize it’s impractical. We ask the police to do a lot of things, and to be in a lot of places. As a result, we have inconsistent police enforcement, which means that people are inconsistent about following the law. The cop who is radar gunning on 1st Ave. is missing all the cars speeding down 2nd Ave.

And here is the other thing – we have seen in cities across the country that the black drivers are pulled over at higher rates than white drivers, and that black drivers are more likely to have their cars searched than white drivers. In fact, one way that police departments in non Vision Zero cities justify traffic enforcement is that it leads to contacts with motorists that can result in a search for contraband, which is what they are actually concerned about in the first place. A lot of these police departments don’t view their goal as deterring illegal and reckless driving, their objective is confiscating illegal guns, drugs, etc. And officers have biases about who is more likely to have illegal drugs or guns, which is why you see these racist outcomes.

So, what if we instead used cameras to do traffic enforcement, which they do very effectively because they can be “everywhere” and because they don’t care about whether the driver is white, black, another cop or friend of the Mayor. It would be a more equitable and effective approach, that’s for certain.

VZN: Are there any things you wish NYC had done differently in its early days of Vision Zero planning and actions? And what do you think other communities can learn the most from NYC’s commitment and implementation of Vision Zero?
Juan’s daughter Charlotte in her first Halloween Costume

JM: The rollout of Vision Zero was very strong in NYC for a few reasons. A lot of that success is attributable to the fact the Mayor got the agencies to work right away. He announced the commitment to Vision Zero on January 14th and said he wanted a report by February 14th. And that got the agencies moving aggressively and set a tone that established that there wasn’t a lot of time to waste because lives are at stake. After the report came out the City did a huge amount of public engagement with dozens of town halls hosted by council members and workshops and a website for people to provide feedback and more. And that is the right way to sequence things, I think, because then the feedback could be focused on aspects of the plan that needed to be polished, instead of “what should the plan be.”


Thank you, Juan, for sharing your perspectives. And, thank you for serving on the Vision Zero Network Advisory Committee. Note to readers: check out our interview with Kim Wiley Schwartz for more about the NYC speed camera program and Vision Zero work.

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