Cities are starting to report big declines in car crashes, but increases in speeding

Low traffic is viewed on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the busiest bridges in New York, on 14 April, 2020. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

Night is falling on pandemic-paralysed New York. From the Bronx to the Rockaways, the city’s usually thronged streets are mostly empty of pedestrians and drivers alike. But as darkness gathers, the persistent whine of car engines, running at high speeds, can be heard in the neighbourhoods that lie along the city’s Robert Moses–era highways. The noise carries for miles in the odd silence of quarantine, mixing with the distant, near-constant wail of sirens to create a nightmarish soundtrack for the age of Covid-19.

“It sounds like a f***ing nascar race is happening on the highway right now,” tweeted the Brooklyn-based account Bay Ridge Drivers.

In cities around the globe, the shutdown has led to a radical downturn in automobile traffic as drivers stay at home. On 10 April in the five counties of New York City, for example, estimated vehicle miles traveled were down between 78% and 92% from January volumes, according to Streetlight, a mobility data company. In Denver, driving is down an estimated 75%. In Houston, 66%. In Miami, 72%. In Chicago, 68%. Several major auto insurance providers have offered discounts to their customers to reflect the reduced risk, with premiums cut by as much as 20%

The empty streets of the world’s cities, however, have in many cases presented a seemingly irresistible temptation for speed-happy drivers. According to an analysis of data by Streetsblog NYC, a news and advocacy site that has been leading the way in compiling data on road use at the American epicenter of the pandemic, the number of speeding tickets triggered by city cameras in school zones went up by 57% in the first 10 weekdays after New York state implemented its “Pause” order on 22 March. Between 2 March and 9 April, six motorcyclists and drivers died on New York City streets and highways, a figure that matches the highest count for those dates since the city’s Vision Zero initiative began in 2015.

“At the same time, car collisions were down 54% between 8 March and 5 April, according to the NYPD,” Streetsblog’s Gersh Kuntzman wrote on 9 April, “meaning that a likely reason for the increase in motorist deaths during this year’s coronavirus crisis is simply that drivers are traveling at excessive speeds, which makes crashes far more likely to be fatal”.

In London, speeding is also causing concern. According to Transport for London, since 20 March, reduced traffic volumes have resulted in far fewer crashes, and a 68% drop in deaths and serious injuries. Speeding, however, is way up. In one case, a driver was recorded going 134mph in a 40mph zone. 

“All enforcement zones have seen a rise in driving speeds,” Superintendent Andy Cox of the Metopolitan Police’s Roads and Traffic Policing Command wrote in a press release. “This includes 20mph zones where many key workers are walking or cycling. Such driving behaviour is totally unacceptable and speeding increases the risk of a serious collision which will further impact on the NHS, Fire and Police services, abstracting them from working on Covid-19-related issues and potentially depriving patients of access to intensive care facilities and medical care”.

In Austin, Texas, speeding appears to be offsetting any benefits from the reduction in crashes. “While average traffic volumes appear to be down ~50% from earlier this year, overall crashes are only down ~20% and we’ve seen an increase in serious injuries by ~15%,” Susanne Harm of the city’s transportation department writes in an email. “One takeaway from this is that people who continue to drive seem to be getting into serious car crashes more frequently, which is likely tied to many drivers choosing to go at faster speeds than normal.”

To complicate matters, locked-down cities around the globe are facing the speeding issue at a time when their human and financial resources are already stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic response. “Speed kills, and is the main factor that turns a crash into a fatality,” writes Alex Engel, spokesperson for the US’s National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO. “Cities are sharing their experiences. In a fast-moving pandemic, cities are acting rapidly, too, and are collaborating like never before on urgent responses to new challenges”.

Engel cites Los Angeles, where speeding is up by 30% on some streets and officials are experimenting with retiming signals to slow drivers down, and Oakland, California, whose 74-mile “slow streets” program is opening up residential thoroughfares to pedestrians and cyclists in an effort to provide a healthy, safe place to exercise for its cooped-up citizens. Cities across the US are closely watching Oakland’s efforts, which have been implemented largely through partnerships with neighbourhood organisations, to minimise the burden on city staff.

In New York, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he won’t be adopting the Oakland model anytime soon, because New York is “profoundly different from other cities.” Meanwhile, the sound of drag racing might not let up until the virus itself loosens its grip.

Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based writer and co-host of The War on Cars podcast. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.