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Home rule explained as Vision Zero initiatives roadblocked by state control

Anyone who's ridden the subway recently may have noticed advertisements urging New Yorkers to get out of the city and experience the rest of the state. One ad urges strap-hangers to catch a show in Buffalo, while another touts the beauty of upstate hiking trails. "There's more to NY than NY," read the ads.

That connection extends to more than just tourist destinations or a weekend jaunt for some fresh air.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian fatalities has the support of the city council, agency heads, and local state legislators. But one significant impediment lies in the way of some of Vision Zero's more powerful ideas, like lowering the city's speed limit and installing more red light cameras; under state law, the city must first get permission from Albany before implementing either of those initiatives.

Upstate Control

At the heart of this issue is the concept of "home rule," or rather, the absence of it. Home rule is a political doctrine that grants municipalities the freedom to govern themselves in areas that would traditionally fall under the state's purview.

New York City actually has a considerable amount of home rule control over traffic laws not enjoyed by other large municipalities in the state. However, in these areas ? speed limits and red light cameras ? the city must be granted home rule before making any changes.

In the State Senate, two Democrats have introduced bills that are a key piece of implementing Vision Zero. The bills were announced at a recent town hall forum on Vision Zero hosted by Senator Brad Hoylman (D-27), one of many such hearings to come in the next several months as city leaders make a concerted effort to make the mayor's initiative a reality.

Hoylman is sponsoring a home rule bill that would allow the city to set a speed limit as low as 25 miles per hour. Senator Adriano Espaillat (D-31) has introduced a bill that would grant the city control over the placement and number of red light cameras. The city would also need to be granted home rule on the placement and number of speed cameras, but such a bill has not yet been authored. Hoylman is also sponsoring a bill mandating trucks that weigh in excess of 13 tons and operate in the city be equipped with plastic side guards designed to prevent cyclists and pedestrians from sliding underneath them.

Politics at Play

In the Republican controlled Senate, however, there's little motivation to grant home rule on these issues as the majority party has no incentive to cede power to a Democrat-dominated city like New York.

"New York City should not have to go to Albany like a precocious child asking permission to change its traffic laws," said Hoylman. "Those who have power don't want to give it up, it's as simple as that."

Hoylman cited Vision Zero statistics that being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14 years old and the second most common cause for those over 15. On average, he said, a vehicle in New York seriously injures or kills a pedestrian every two hours.

But Hoylman is hopeful that given the motivation that exists right now to change traffic safety laws in the city ? and considering that lives are at stake ? the Republicans will come around. Also, said Hoylman, another possibility is that a negotiation could take place among Senate lawmakers that grants the city home rule on these issues in exchange for something the Republicans want. He's also confident in the work Mayor de Blasio has done in convincing lawmakers to let the city implement Vision Zero.

"I think the mayor has done a tremendous job in articulating the need for home rule in his Vision Zero report," said Hoylman. "I think it's resonating with members."

Other bills that were announced at the town hall meeting by a wide range of legislators who support Vision Zero include strengthening existing laws to punish careless drivers and those who leave the scene of an accident or drive with a suspended or revoked license.

In the State Assembly, Daniel O'Donnell (D-69) is sponsoring a bill that would lower the city's speed limit to 20 miles per hour through state legislative authority, bypassing the home rule issue altogether. However, the City Council would need to send what's called a "home rule message" to the Assembly telling legislators that's what they want.

"At the current rate, pedestrian deaths in New York City are on pace to surpass homicides this year," said Hoylman.

Steps by the City

At the city level, agency heads have been told that implementing Vision Zero is a budgetary priority, said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg at the town hall meeting. When asked how the DOT is prioritizing the many initiatives in Vision Zero, Trottenberg said input from residents is important.

"Our priorities, to some degree, they come from the community," said Trottenberg. One area of concern she's hearing a lot about from residents, she said, come from safety concerns around the city's arterial roads, which were not designed with pedestrians in mind. The DOT plans to implement safety engineering improvements at 50 intersections and create 25 new arterial slow zones.

In addition to the DOT, City Hall, the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the NYPD have outlined specific actions they're planning to take in connection with Vision Zero.

The mayor's office is establishing a permanent task force focused on implementing the plan and will make crash and safety data available online for residents. The TLC plans to create a safety enforcement squad equipped with speed guns to enforce regulations. They also plan to pursue technology that will alert cabbies ? and possibly reduce fares ? when a taxi travels over the speed limit.

The NYPD will increase enforcement on moving violations and beef up their highway unit in addition to expanding their recruiting efforts for crossing guards.

For more information, including how to download the Vision Zero report and offer feedback in your community, visit

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