‘I love it’ – Streetsblog New York City


Few New Yorkers are more qualified to weigh in on Streetsblog’s recent investigation into dangerous school streets than Brooklyn councilwoman Rita Joseph — a vocal advocate for safe streets and a former teacher. Before joining the Council, she spent 22 years at PS 6 in Flatbush, which is surrounded by what Streetsblog has found to be some of the most dangerous school streets in the city. And Joseph lost two former students to violent traffic. Now, the first-term lawmaker is uniquely positioned to make a difference on the issue. Joseph holds the powerful position of chair of the council’s education committee, where she could push forward legislation to make school streets safer. Streetsblog spoke to Joseph about the streets at school last week; a transcript of the conversation is below, condensed and edited for clarity.

Rita Joseph
Board Member Rita Joseph

STREETSBLOG: Streetsblog analyzed city data on nearly one million car crashes and created a database of crashes that occurred near public schools in the city. We found that rates of car crashes and injuries are higher near schools than on other city streets on school days, and that school streets are even more dangerous when those school buildings are mostly home to students of color or mostly poor students. We also found that drivers have killed at least 24 children walking or biking to school in New York City over the past decade. What do you think of these discoveries?

RITA JOSEPH: As a parent — I still have an 11-year-old in school — it’s alarming. As a former educator, this is even more alarming. 24 students killed – that’s 24 groups of parents across town every night who don’t say good night to their child. So it bothers me. As Chair of the Education Committee, I need to speak to my team to find out what we can do to bring these numbers down so that no parent is without their child at night. I am extremely, extremely disturbed.

STREETSBLOG: Could you tell us about your personal connection to this problem?

JOSEPH: In 2009, it was through a school that I lost Kyle Francois, who was one of my students, in whom I had invested so much. He was hit right next to his school. He still stays with me today. And then we just lost another one of my former students, Isaiah Benloss. He was in a Lyft on his way home, but he never made it home. We still have no idea who hit him – the driver who hit him got away with it. Isaiah was in a coma for nine months until his death last year. These events break my heart again and again. I want to know, now that I’m in a leadership position, what can I do on the board to make sure those numbers don’t exist anymore.

STREETSBLOG: How has the death of your students changed your perspective on how we design our streets and public spaces, especially around schools?

JOSEPH: We’ve been designing streets all these years for cars – we have to start designing them with people in mind. If we have reliable public transport and good streets, I’m sure people will use their cars less. I completely agree. That’s why we in Council voted to keep speed cameras in school zones on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to make sure these things don’t happen. These numbers don’t work for me. There are a lot of moms on this Council, and I’m sure my colleagues would agree.

STREETSBLOG: A city school building that we found had particularly dangerous streets nearby is in your neighborhood: Erasmus Hall on Flatbush Avenue. There have been more injuries from car crashes outdoors during student drop-off and pick-up hours in recent years than outside any other school building in the city. We spoke to a number of students there, and nearly all of them said they were almost hit by cars on their way to or from school. A student told me that she had little hope that the city would do anything to fix the problem. What is your reaction to all of this?

JOSEPH: PS 6, where I taught, is next to Erasmus Hall. Many of my former students go there. Now I have to go meet with the student body and let them know that they have a champion and an ally in me. I want to make sure they have a street where they can feel safe when they come to school and come home.

The crossing guards can't do much at the intersection of Church Avenue and Flatbush Avenue near Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.  Photo: Bess Adler
The crossing guards can’t do much at the intersection of Church Avenue and Flatbush Avenue near Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Photo: Bess Adler

STREETSBLOG: We also found that there are approximately 800 fewer school crossing guards in the city today than three years ago. The guards we spoke to said no one wanted the work because it was dangerous and they were paid close to minimum wage.

JOSEPH: There’s a huge vacancy for school crossing guards, and I’m sure it’s our communities, black and brown communities, that the city doesn’t prioritize the assignment of guards to locations. When I visited the Bronx as chairman of the education committee, I had principals say to me, “Council member, at three o’clock, I a m the brigadier. It’s dangerous, and a lot of women do this work. At a Public Safety Committee hearing, I told an NYPD official, “Maybe if you paid these people a living wage, you would have filled the vacancies.” Paying them a living wage is one way, and making sure they feel safe is another.

STREETSBLOG: Safe streets advocates call for making school streets car-free on school days, at least during drop-off and pick-up times. What do you think of this idea?

JOSEPH: I love it. I will do it.

STREETSBLOG: Do you think the Council should pass new legislation to keep children safe outside of school? Do you plan to introduce legislation on this issue?

JOSEPH: I certainly would. It will definitely be something I will discuss with my colleagues.

After the interview, Streetsblog asked the council member what that legislation might be and whether the city should be doing more to keep children safe outside of schools. She says:

JOSEPH: The city should absolutely do more to protect children from traffic violence outside of schools, and everywhere else for that matter. Even one accident is one too many. There are so many steps we can and should take. We need street redesigns. We need speed bumps. We need to hold hit and run drivers accountable. Last but not least, we need to improve public transport services so that commuters get out of their cars and take buses and the metro.

Before talking about a potential future bill, I want to discuss two much-needed bills that have already been introduced. My bill, Int. 401, would mandate the installation of speed bumps on roads adjacent to any park equal to or larger than one acre. Exceeding it would make our streets much safer for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and lanyard wearers. Int. 329, introduced by Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, would establish a reward for people who provide information leading to the arrest, prosecution or conviction of a person who seriously injures or kills another person in a hit-and-run accident. A former student of mine was killed in a hit-and-run, so this is personal to me. Passing these two bills would help protect our young people in real and meaningful ways.

Brooks-Powers, who chairs the transportation committee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on dangerous school streets.


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