City leaders have a vision of ending traffic deaths once and for all. Here’s what that might look like.

Tyler Horst Features, Issue 5 2 Comments

Last December, Mayor Jim Kenney addressed a crowd of city planners, policymakers and transportation advocates during a last-minute speech at a conference at Jefferson University. The topic: Vision Zero, a burgeoning concept that city governments can reduce or eliminate traffic deaths through changes in street design and enforcement. Organizers put the entire program on hold to let the mayor speak.

“I’m pretty much a converted person — I call myself Paul of Tarsus — when it comes to bikes and public space,” said Kenney, who by his own admission didn’t care much for bicycling and pedestrian issues earlier in his career.

His reference to the apostle’s miraculous change of faith shows just how quickly the political pendulum has swung toward support for traffic safety. Kenney endorsed Vision Zero while still campaigning for mayor, and since taking office he has given signs that he plans to follow through with the strategy. But Vision Zero isn’t a definitive policy. Rather, it’s a menu of policy suggestions from which cities can pick and choose based on their particular needs.

According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, 97 people, including 38 pedestrians and three bicyclists, died on Philadelphia roads in 2014. That’s down from 107 total deaths in 2012 but up from 89 in 2013. The same year, Pennsylvania as a whole saw 1,195 traffic deaths, the lowest since the state started keeping records in 1928.  

Philadelphia joins a growing number of U.S. cities embracing Vision Zero, which originated across the Atlantic in Sweden. What lessons might Philly learn from cities that have already gone through this process, and what unique challenges will it have to face on its own?

“We’re trying to stretch a dollar as far as we can get.”

One nearby city, New York, is entering its third year of implementing Vision Zero. Kim Wiley-Schwartz, assistant commissioner of education and outreach at the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), says the first major victory was reducing the citywide speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour. New York completed 75 street improvement projects last year alone, including curb extensions and buffered bike lanes. On streets with bike lanes, according to a 2010 study by NYCDOT, pedestrians are 40 percent less likely to be killed.

Other cities have taken similar steps. To the south, Washington, D.C. aims to fill in sidewalk gaps across the city and add five miles of protected bike lanes. Meanwhile, San Francisco is looking to install more protected left turns for bikes and add pedestrian islands in the medians of busy streets.

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Taken together, these projects offer an array of possibilities for cities trying to make their roads safer. But for Richard Montanez, chief traffic engineer at the Philadelphia Streets Department, it’s all about starting with what the budget will allow. “We’ve concentrated a lot on low-cost improvements right now,” Montanez says. “We’re trying to stretch a dollar as far as we can get.”

Those low-cost improvements include restriping pavement markings, posting proper signage, and upgrading bike lanes. Kenney pledged during his campaign to install 30 miles of protected bike lanes — those with a physical barrier between bicyclists and car traffic — within five years. In April, the City landed a $300,000 federal grant to start work on up to a dozen protected lanes in Center City, West Philly, South Philly and the Northeast. Officials expect a $200,000 state grant later this year to install more, including one on Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philly.

It’s still unclear where further surface improvements might happen. Montanez says the Streets Department has begun by determining which intersections see the most crashes, with studies underway at obvious problem roads like Roosevelt Boulevard.

As for enforcement, Philadelphia has 26 red light cameras in place right now, and the Streets Department says it’s studying where to put more. But even the existing cameras might not stick around for long. In 2012, Philadelphia became the only city in Pennsylvania authorized to use red light cameras, thanks to a state law that expires in July 2017. Local advocates are lobbying to extend the law so the cameras can continue to operate.

Michael Zaccagni, chief of staff at the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, says his department is also seriously considering speed cameras. Much like red light cameras, these would require authorization from Harrisburg. In addition to discouraging reckless driving, Zaccagni says, fines issued to drivers caught speeding could be used to fund further changes in line with Vision Zero.

Before hitting drivers with tickets, Montanez says, it’s important to first check whether the street itself is the problem. “Adding red light cameras is the last thing we do,” he says. “We first look at the intersection to see if we have to re-engineer it.” Advocacy groups have long called for street improvements to better protect pedestrians and bicyclists. Now that the City’s top policymakers are paying attention, advocates have started to push for more intensive actions — things like “road diets,” which reduce the number and width of traffic lanes with the intention of slowing cars down.

“Consistently what we see is a culture of indifference and complacency.”

“You can have the right policies, but if you don’t have the mindset that this is a problem that needs to be fixed, we won’t get anywhere,” says David Curtis, co-founder of 5th Square, a local political action committee focused on urban policy issues. “We need rapid intervention.”

For starters, Curtis suggests narrower traffic lanes. Right now the standard lane width is 10.5 feet, which Curtis says encourages speeding. Meanwhile, curb extensions would increase pedestrian visibility and motivate drivers to slow down around turns. (University City has already added quite a few of these, notably along Baltimore Avenue.) Widening crosswalks and moving the stop bar back several feet would also help reduce crashes, as many drivers don’t fully hit the brakes until their wheels roll into the intersection.

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But any design or enforcement changes would really be in service of the bigger project at the heart of Vision Zero: an ideological overhaul of the way we think about roads. Peter J. Kissinger, president of the Washington, D.C.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, stresses that reducing traffic deaths requires a fundamental change in people’s attitudes.

“Consistently what we see is a culture of indifference and complacency,” Kissinger says. In a 2013 study conducted by the foundation, more than 95 percent of respondents said that texting while driving is dangerous, yet more than 35 percent admitted to tapping out messages on the road. More than 65 percent admitted to driving over the speed limit.

Public education, therefore, has to play a role alongside engineering and enforcement. To that end, the Streets Department has received grants to station police officers at high-risk intersections. Rather than hand out citations, these officers will provide safety education, reminding drivers of the rules of the road and instructing them to be conscientious of all modes of transportation.

For Vision Zero to work, Zaccagni says, all of these actors — policymakers, planners, engineers, police and schools — have to work in harmony toward the same goal. “What we’re trying to do is look at this from a holistic standpoint,” he says.

Graphics by Elliott Lamborn and Ann Dinh

Comments 2

  1. The MOST effective way to reduce red light violations is to add one second to the yellow intervals. Philly refuses to do this because it kills the profitability of the red light cameras when the through movement violations drop by 70% to 80% and STAY down permanently.

    Red light cameras are a government run money grab racket that should be illegal in every state as they are in many states already.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. Lost in all this is the respect for drivers that came out of traditional traffic engineering. It taught us that most people don’t speed. While fast roads in cities may, as Vision Zero experts claim, send the wrong signals, Vision Zero proponents are stuck on too narrow a focus on speed as the cause of crashes and the idea that “everybody is speeding.” Chances are experienced, emotionally stable, safety conscious drivers who drive down city streets regularly do not speed. In fact, statistics show that speed is far from the largest cause of most accidents. Vision Zero proponents need to broaden their focus away from road diets–narrower lanes and lane elimination–and start focusing on infrastructure improvements that won’t substantially interfere with drivability, but will indeed protect pedestrians and bike riders. Vision Zero comes from and is most popular in European countries that are far less democratic and auto-oriented than the US. We need a democratized version of Vision Zero with a wider focus that has the goal of serving all three modes effectively and equally, rather than focusing entirely on “protecting our most vulnerable.” Vision Zero proponents want speed cameras, yet we don’t even have good statistics on the actual causes of most car-bike crashes and good data on the threshold of safety in terms of speed on most types of streets. It’s time for Vision Zero proponents to lighten up and create a safety ethic that serves us all better instead of just blaming all those who drive for all the dangers.

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