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Jay Walljasper: Safer Streets

American cities confront the fact that 4500 Americans die every year crossing the street.

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Image: Flickr user Jerolek

By Jay Walljasper
By arrangement with On the Commons

More than 4500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America—more than those who died in the horror of 9/11.

A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition studying ten years of data found that sixteen times more people were killed crossing the street than in natural disasters over the that same period. Another 68,000 walkers on average are injured every year. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors and people of color, according to the report.

Streets are unsafe for pedestrians all over the world. More than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year—22 percent of a total 1.24 million traffic fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed,” notes Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. “We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency.”

“Where’s the moral outrage?” asks Katherine Kraft, America Walks’ National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of citizens, businesses and organizations across many fields convened by the health care non-profit Kaiser Permanente.

Destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.

Unfortunately, pedestrian deaths (and all traffic fatalities) are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life. “People accept this as normal, just as one hundred years ago most people accepted that women could not vote,” observes Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization working to make streets safe for people of all ages.

Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer. A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature. But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have shown remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.

Sweden Paves the Way for Zero Traffic Deaths

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country from Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon.

This new safety strategy, called Vision Zero, is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden, where overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000—making Swedish streets the safest in the world according to a front page story in the New York Times. Pedestrian deaths in the country have also plunged 50 percent since 2009.

The Economist magazine reports that Sweden accomplished all this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design. The influential conservative newsweekly cites improved crosswalks, lowered urban speed limits, pedestrian zones, barriers separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, and narrowing streets for the impressive drop in traffic deaths.

Swedish policy by contrast believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist and walker errors.

Sweden takes a far different approach than the conventional transportation planning approach, in which “road users are held responsible for their own safety,” according to the website Vision Zero Initiative. Swedish policy by contrast believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist and walker errors, “based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes.” This is similar to the Netherlands’ policy of Forgiving Roads, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s, compared to less than a 20 percent reduction in the US over the same period.

Three US states that adopted aggressive measures to cut traffic deaths similar to Vision Zero—Utah, Minnesota and Washington—all have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent or more, 25 percent better than the national average.

Streets of New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average.

“The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable,” he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers…“They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians—especially our children and seniors.” Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under fourteen in New York, and the second highest source of fatal injuries for people over sixty-five.

In May New York’s City Council passed eleven bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments, including:

-Increased police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians and dangerous driving;

-A campaign in the state legislature to allow the city to lower speed limits to 25 mph (and 20 mph on some streets), which passed in June;

-Safety improvements such as traffic calming, speed cameras, and “slow zones” on streets;

-Stricter scrutiny of taxi drivers’ safety records;

-Street safety curriculum in schools; and

-Creation of a permanent Vision Zero Task Force at City Hall.

One of New York’s biggest problems, according to walking and bike advocates, is that the police department focuses far more resources on street crime than on street safety, even though 356 people were killed in traffic accidents last year (half of them pedestrians and bicyclists), compared to 333 murders. Advocates were glad when de Blasio chose as his police chief William Bratton, who has spoken out about the need to curb traffic injuries and deaths.

“It’s really impressive what Mayor de Blasio has done,” explains Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “He has put his money where his mouth is” by finding funding for street safety projects and increased police enforcement in an era of tight budgets.

Streets of San Francisco & Beyond

After New York, Vision Zero planning in the US is most advanced in San Francisco, which last year saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities. Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition recently launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District and more than two dozen community organizations. Their mission is to encourage city officials to:

-Fix dangerous intersections and streets;

-Ensure “full and fair enforcement of traffic laws,” with an emphasis on curbing dangerous behavior;

-Invest in training and education for all road users, focusing on helping frequent drivers share the road with walkers and bicyclists;

-Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous street…” Nicole Schneider of Walk San Francisco and Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicyle Coalition wrote recently. “Vision Zero is also about empowering historically underrepresented communities that are disproportionately burdened by traffic injuries and chronic disease.”

The plan has been already been endorsed by the San Francisco Police Department.

America is on the verge of a walking revolution.

A number of local advocacy organizations around the country (New York’s Transportation Alternatives, Walk San Francisco, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Bike Pittsburgh, Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Oregon Walks) are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative to push for these policies across the nation.

America’s Emerging Walking Revolution

America is on the verge of a walking revolution. After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and recreation, there’s growing interest across many fields about restoring walking as a way of life. A diverse network of organizations came together at the first-ever walking summit last year to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases), as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security), as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions) and as a boost for the economy (by lowering health care costs and stimulating local business districts).

Katherine Kraft warns, “We won’t increase walkability—which is good for people’s and communities’ health—until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking.” Vision Zero, she says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.

“Everyone wants to live in a community that they can enjoy.” agrees Scott Bricker. “Where their children can grow up safely. Where we can all live, work and play without fear at any age. We have the public will to do this.”

Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org, created OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. A speaker, communications strategist and writer and editor, he chronicles stories from around the world that point us toward a more equitable, sustainable and enjoyable future. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and a senior associate at the urban affairs consortium Citiscope. Walljasper also writes a column about city life for Shareable.net and is a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces and Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning.

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