To address the national epidemic of traffic deaths, cities across the U.S. have implemented Vision Zero programs that consider even one death too many. These programs have faced criticism, however, for featuring more talk than action while cyclist and pedestrian fatalities rise.
But Alexandria, Va. Complete Streets Program Manager Christine Mayeur sees Vision Zero as a moral obligation, not just a publicity stunt.
Infrastructure improvements stemming from her city’s complete streets policy, which predates its Vision Zero pledge, have had positive results. For example, the King Street Complete Streets project – which lowered speed limits by 10 mph, added bike lanes, and removed excess road capacity – helped reduce reported crashes along the corridor from seven in Fiscal Year 2016 to zero in FY 2017, even as the number of people using the road remained the same.
Nevertheless, mobility in Alexandria remains far too dangerous. 34 percent of people who die or are seriously injured due to crashes in the city are on foot or a bike, and cyclists and pedestrians involved in crashes are killed or maimed at four to six times the rate of car occupants, respectively.
Alexandria’s Vision Zero plan is intended to change this. The ambitious goal: to eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2028.
The Vision Zero program has yet to have an impact on transportation safety – in 2018, its first year, Alexandria saw two additional fatalities over 2017. Still, the program – which is data-driven, community-oriented, and focused on rethinking how people move through intersections – has plenty of strong components that give it substantial potential.
However, Alexandria has limited jurisdiction over its streets. The resulting challenges re-emphasize the primary obstacle to safer transportation: our deep-rooted car culture.
Data helps Alexandria officials identify where fixes are most needed
To identify where people on foot or bike face the most danger, Alexandria has drawn upon two primary information sources. Firstly, the city used state crash reports to identify its High Injury Network, where cyclists and pedestrians are at greatest risk of injury or death. Then, using an interactive map on its Vision Zero website, people reported the locations where they perceive the most risk.
This approach allowed officials to identify dangerous streets where cyclists and pedestrians think they are relatively safe – and, accordingly, may be less vigilant. Officials found that the western part of the county contained several such deceptively unsafe corridors, including Braddock Road and Russell Road, and prioritized improvements in these areas.
Community outreach gives people a seat at the table, helping sustain support
As mentioned earlier, noisy opposition to traffic safety improvements frequently leads to setbacks that leave everyone worse off. Notable recent examples include Baltimore, where protected bike lanes have been torn out due to residents angry about changes to street space they feel should be theirs to drive and park on, and Seattle, where officials swapped proposed bike lanes on a neighborhood street for a car turning lane at the last moment.
But in Alexandria, local leaders have taken a more confident approach to dealing with drivers worried that safety-oriented changes will make life more difficult for them. Mayeur explained that, in carrying out Vision Zero, officials are simply doing what they were elected to do – prioritizing constituents’ safety. The people who benefit the most often don’t have time to attend community meetings – they may have jobs to be at or families to care for – but they still can express their approval at the voting booth.
With this in mind, the city surveyed over 1,000 residents and visitors, who identified distracted driving, speeding, and red-light running as the three biggest threats to their transportation safety. When drivers push back against safety fixes, city officials simply explain to them that addressing these problems reduces pedestrian deaths – a tactic that they’ve found helps soften opposition. They’ve also taken a constructive approach to educating drivers – of all ages – about the importance of staying alert and focused on the road ahead of them, and encouraged residents to sign a pledge committing to Vision Zero.
Intersections must keep people safe, not just move cars
Roads and intersections are typically designed to optimize performance.
In the U.S., the primary metric used to measure road performance is level of service (LOS), a formula that factors in car travel speeds, car capacity, car travel time reliability, and car maneuverability. In order to maximize projected LOS, the design of our transportation infrastructure often sacrifices the safety of modes not factored into the formula – in other words, safety for every form of mobility that is not car-based. As a result, missing crosswalks shorten drivers’ waits at red lights by a few seconds, bike lanes are excluded to make room for more car lanes and on-street parking, and slip lanes are constructed to allow automobiles to turn at higher speeds.
Alexandria, however, is broadening the scope of how it measures road performance to account for more people’s safety, relaxing LOS standards in exchange for reducing the threat of people being hit by drivers. The city’s two biggest steps so far: banning right turns on red and giving pedestrians three to seven second head starts at ten historically dangerous intersections, most often implementing the measures in conjunction.
An end to letting right-turning drivers legally run through red signals – a relic of the same culture that gave rise to the LOS formula – is a major milestone.
In the 1970s, a series of Middle East oil shortages led to concerns about gasoline consumption. With policies that would reduce driving out of the question, permitting right turns on red was seen as a way to reduce vehicle idling, in hopes that this would improve gas mileage. However, this policy didn’t account for the fact that turning drivers trying to take advantage of a gap in car traffic occasionally make errors that threaten people in crosswalks. Such safety threats discourage people from walking or biking at all, and the resulting increase in car trips plays into the flip side of automobile-focused LOS: induced traffic and, accordingly, more demand for gas.
As for the pedestrian head starts at intersections, Mayeur has received something that’s quite rare in the often-negative transportation industry: compliments from the public.
Transportation behavior in places far from Alexandria impacts traffic safety in the city
Alexandria officials want to take additional steps to improve traffic safety, such as increasing penalties for using handheld items while driving, as well as for other reckless and distracted driver behavior.
However, the legal tools that could help address these issues fall under the jurisdiction of the state, not the city. Alexandria’s Year 1 Progress Report lists numerous pieces of legislation introduced by delegates representing the city that would increase the penalties for these violations, but have all stalled in Virginia House committees.
Many of the delegates who’ve hesitated to embrace the traffic safety legislation represent districts much more auto-dependent than Alexandria and likely fear backlash from constituents accustomed to driving everywhere. Accordingly, if it were easier for people in those districts to get where they need to go using other modes, resistance to such legislation may weaken.
Thus, though mobility in Alexandria could serve as a model for other parts of the state today, transportation policy elsewhere in Virginia could decide the future safety of the city’s streets.
Recent developments, such as redesign-catalyzed increases in Richmond bus ridership and investments in statewide intercity rail and bus systems, are promising. But for more wholesale change to happen, a focus on mobility – rather than just automobiles – will be necessary, from our smallest towns to our biggest cities. Mountaineer and environmental icon John Muir emphasized this type of connection more than a hundred years ago:
Photo by Ken Lund, cropped for layout purposes by Mobility Lab. Available under public license at Creative Commons, some rights reserved.