Viewpoints: Will Washington, D.C. Achieve Vision Zero?

Is a city with no serious accidents or fatalities from traffic collisions an achievable vision? In February 2015, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the city’s Vision Zero Initiative. Its stated objective: “By the year 2024, Washington, DC will reach zero fatalities and serious injuries to travelers of our transportation system, through more effective use of data, education, enforcement, and engineering.”

Having both lived and worked in the capital city, Editorial board members Katy Lang and Brian Vaughn discussed Vision Zero in DC.

Angles: Why are you both engaged in this topic?

BV: I took a class with planner/architect/engineer Tony Sease in the spring of 2016 that delved into the hierarchical street network (local, collector, arterial). It is now blatantly obvious to me when street networks are designed to move the greatest volume of traffic possible, and do not prioritize other goals like safety or pedestrian access. When I moved to DC in summer of 2016, I perceived that DC had progressed considerably in engineering streets that integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety, too.

Improved street design can help achieve the goal of creating a safe street for all users. Credit: Brian Vaughn

KL: I moved to the DC area in 2009 and gave up my car almost immediately. I rode the bus and took Metro to work downtown every day, which also meant that I did a ton of walking. Over the years, this became such a huge part of my life that I turned my attention more and more to the local transportation community and its initiatives. While DC is more pedestrian-friendly than, say, the New Jersey suburb where I grew up, I still see room for improvement. I’ve lost count of the number of times a car has nearly run me over while I was walking. I had to assert my right to walk on a daily basis.

Angles: Do you think Vision Zero as a goal is worth striving for? What do you think of the Vision Zero concept overall?

BV: Vision Zero originated in Sweden, and it refers to initiatives that aim to bring the number of fatalities or serious injuries in roadways to zero. Vision Zero campaigns have really taken off in the United States recently. The Vision Zero Network has 18 active campaigns, with at least a dozen cities considering it. Given that road standards are often set at the federal level, I wonder how lower levels of government that adopt Vision Zero could be effective. The state of North Carolina has chosen to launch its own initiative with a partnership of multiple departments and advocacy organizations. The first-ever Vision Zero initiative was launched by Sweden’s national government, but most American initiatives are taken on by cities.

KL: It is absolutely a worthwhile goal. Anything that draws more attention to how many pedestrians and others are killed each day on our streets has value.

Angles: What about DC’s Vision Zero makes sense to you? Where are its drawbacks?

BV: Street engineering, a fancy term for how much street space is given to drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, is a central part of DC’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Those working on the initiative have also partnered with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which could facilitate sharing of best practices of peer cities and influence street engineering with NACTO’s multiple design guides.

Washington is a national leader in bicycle infrastructure. Its downtown was rated the 7th most bikeable place in the country in 2016, largely because it built a safe network with committed and separated bike lanes and cycletracks.

Cycletrack in DC with a parking lane between cars and bicycle traffic. Source: Brian Vaughn

It is also ambitious! Aiming for no deaths or serious injuries by 2024 is a tall order, but as we’ve seen with other initiatives to make big changes in transportation infrastructure in cities, ambitious goals yield desirable results.

KL: I appreciate the published Vision Zero action plan and the coordination among 20 different DC agencies. That kind of cooperation is key for the changes that need to take place, particularly prioritizing the safety of people over the free and unimpeded movement of cars.  I see that this prioritization requires a culture change within planning and engineering professions. Interagency cooperation makes sense to me, and so does the comprehensive focus on the five Es: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning. The drawback of the plan is that this kind of culture change takes time. Unfortunately, I can think of specific places where recent road upgrades have not embraced the prioritization of people’s safety, especially pedestrians. DDOT installed new “beg buttons” on Maryland Ave. and 14th St. that lengthen the amount of time pedestrians have to wait to cross. The District also closes sidewalks without providing adequate pedestrian detours (including the 16th & I Street intersection I walked through every day in 2015 to get to my office), and fails to maintain bike lanes in snow events. The regional Street Smart campaign continues to put out pedestrian-shaming and victim-blaming ads. None of these things are aligned with a culture that puts the most vulnerable street users first.

16th and I Street NW in November 2015, a block from two Metro stations. Two closed sidewalks made crossing the intersection nearly impossible. Credit: Google Maps

Angles: What can be learned from the case of DC? If we were to apply it here in Chapel Hill, what would you want to see?

BV: A Vision Zero initiative is not merely a public relations campaign, even though North Carolina’s iteration is operating as one. We’re doing a disservice to our most vulnerable users if we’re blaming and shaming them. Asking pedestrians to wear visibility vests or look both ways before crossing the street is as condescending as it gets, and an indication to me that North Carolina’s Vision Zero Initiative is hardly more than a series of tweets and public service announcement videos. I think we need more engineering solutions, such as the adoption and meaningful incorporation of design principles championed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Failing to ignore transportation engineering in Vision Zero may prove deadly. Peer-reviewed studies suggest that engineering roads for high volumes of vehicle traffic without incorporating pedestrian-safe designs is dangerous. Studies find that arterial routes in central business districts yield comparatively high crash rates for vehicles and pedestrians. In addition, the development encouraged by particular types of roads creates unsafe conditions for all road users. One study found that urban arterials, strip commercial developments, and big box stores are associated with higher incidence of crashes and injuries than pedestrian-oriented retail development.

KL: As a news article about DC’s Vision Zero noted just this past month, “public outreach efforts at education must succeed, not only in getting reluctant commuters to accept narrowed roads, but in rolling back the assumption that at least some traffic fatalities are inevitable.” Simply changing posted speed limits and publishing a flashy document don’t go far enough. If Vision Zero was implemented in Chapel Hill, communities will have to accept that some streets will need to be re-engineered for the safe movement of all users in order to save lives.

About the Authors:

Brian Vaughn is a junior undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has studied planning and energy issues in Spain and Germany and worked for the US Department of Transportation in our nation’s capital.

Katy Lang is a masters student in the Department of City & Regional Planning. She spent seven years in the Washington, DC area and as a result, she has a love-love relationship with DC’s Metro system and all things urban and transportation. She is passionate about pedestrian safety and the pedestrian’s right to the city and the street. Prior to coming to UNC, Katy worked in change management. She likes long runs on Carrboro’s short bike trails and eating popcorn.