JERSEY CITY, N.J. — The last time Judy Gonzalez saw her 11-year-old son, George, he was running late for school.
As George began crossing busy John Fitzgerald Kennedy Boulevard, like he did every morning. Moments later while crossing the boulevard, he was struck and killed by a commuter bus, and died instantly.
The boy’s death in 2016 stunned residents, in part because in the three weeks before George was killed there were three other fatalities on Kennedy Boulevard, a major thoroughfare where drivers routinely ignore the citywide speed limit of 25 mph.
“He was an innocent victim,” Gonzalez said. “My son wasn’t hanging out; he was a child on his way to school.” And, she added, “It’s not like if it just happened once, or twice. It’s numerous times now.”
And the perils are not just relegated to one street. While across the Hudson River, New York City last year recorded its lowest number of traffic deaths since record-keeping started over a century ago, Jersey City is heading in the opposite direction. Its figure for last year doubled to 14 traffic fatalities. This year, the city has recorded six.
The surge in deaths has led Mayor Steven M. Fulop to adopt Vision Zero, the street safety initiative that Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York has made a cornerstone of his tenure. The goal is to eliminate traffic fatalities, which include deaths of pedestrians, bicyclists and people in vehicles, by 2026.
“The hope is to come up with some concrete steps that obviously lead to visible changes,” Fulop said.
The issue of street safety comes at a time of significant growth for New Jersey’s second-largest city. Its population of 264,000 has increased over 6 percent since 2010, according to census data, with thousands of new apartments either under construction or on drawing boards. A downtown revitalization has attracted scores of transplants from New York, who either take the PATH train to Manhattan, or stay in Jersey City to work.
While many factors may contribute to the rise in traffic fatalities, the demographic shift is cited as a major contributor.
For most of its modern history, Jersey City — which is roughly the size of Manhattan — has relied on the car, Fulop said. Many residential streets are narrow and wider corridors, like Christopher Columbus Drive, have long been overhauled to accommodate automobiles, originally having served trolley cars and carriages.
Residential development and construction has sent traffic onto side streets, Fulop explained, and with the number of new residents with cars decreasing, the issue of sharing street space has come to the forefront.
“I think as the city is becoming more densely populated, people have concerns as well about making sure our roads service not only cars, but also, mass transit, bikes and pedestrians, and making sure they serve everybody.”
The city’s plan includes installing more speed humps and curb extensions to slow traffic, according to the mayor’s office. Traffic enforcement and the number of crossing guards will be increased, especially on roads that are technically under the county’s jurisdiction, like Kennedy Boulevard. Gonzalez said she did not see any crossing guards along that road on the morning her son was killed.
The city will also hire consultants to redesign its most dangerous streets and develop citywide master plans for pedestrians and bikes. Jersey City, like New York, has Citi Bike, the popular bicycle-sharing program.
Cities that have embraced Vision Zero, including Philadelphia and New York, will share best practices with Jersey City, said Brian Platt, the city’s chief innovation officer. “We’re not telling people that we know best, as far as how our users want to use the roads. We want users to tell us how and where they use these streets.”
Part of that responsibility has fallen upon advocacy groups like Safe Streets JC, which was started by Kara Hrabosky and Paul Bellan-Boyer in 2013, after a neighbor, Stephen A. Clifford, who was 24, was struck and killed on Kennedy Boulevard.
“We went through the process to get speed bumps on our two blocks, but Kara and I started to notice that this is something people were really energized about, once they noticed it,” Bellan-Boyer said. “Because traffic to a city dweller is like water to a fish — we’re just in it all the time. So we’re inclined to not notice it, unless something very dramatic happens.”
Hrabosky, who is a member of a Vision Zero task force formed by the city, said pleas from Gonzalez and other victims’ family members have strengthened the push for improved street safety. The news from the city so far has been encouraging, she added, but she worries about the timeline.
“I don’t want everything to be put on hold while we study this thing, and write a plan for a year,” she said.
Patrick Conlon, president of a bicycling safety group, Bike JC, and a member of the Vision Zero task force, said the city needs to start work soon to prevent any more deaths.
Although the first one is planned for the busy Grand Street corridor, there are still no protected bike lanes in Jersey City, he said. “We’re seeing plenty of shovels to build new residential buildings all over,” he said. “But we really need to see shovels in the road.”
If it were up to Gonzalez, there would be better enforcement targeting dangerous drivers along Kennedy Boulevard. In the case of her son’s death, the driver of the bus, Raul Delatorre-Galarza, who worked for a service called Pyramids Express, had a previous record of crashes. He was charged with causing a death while driving with a suspended license and his trial is scheduled to begin this month.
“It’s not only up to the state and the city, but also, the people in society themselves. It’s something that everyone should be involved in,” she said. “Because it’s not even just kids. A lot of people are losing their lives here.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.