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The car came out of nowhere. In just seconds, Laura Bliss was on the pavement, yelling for help.
A resident of Columbia Heights, Bliss was walking to buy groceries on a Sunday morning in March as she crossed Randolph Street NW near its intersection with Kansas Avenue. A compact car turned left and careened into her hip, leaving a bruise that would remain for about a month. The driver immediately leapt out of his vehicle and started apologizing for the collision.
“I was on the ground screaming, ‘What the hell! I’m a human being!’” Bliss remembers. “How do you not see a human being? It’s so incomprehensible to me… I assume he was on his phone.”
A nearby couple heard her cries for help and rushed to get Bliss off the road. Soon after, a cop rolled up in his cruiser and told the driver to move his car out of the middle of the street. Bliss thought about reporting the incident then and there, but says she felt fine in the moment and didn’t feel comfortable indicting the driver. “I don’t think he was intentionally trying to hit me at all,” Bliss explains. “I believe he was probably just looking at something else. If you drive a car, it’s hard to resist that urge; I don’t think of him as some inhuman, evil, totally careless person.”
The crash caused still-deeper wounds: Bliss suffered “some very real PTSD” and didn’t walk or bike to work for several weeks. At her mother’s bidding, she eventually filed an insurance claim for her injuries and got a few hundred dollars to pay for her medical bills. “It was not so scarring that it’s going to prevent me from living my life, but it definitely had some effects for a while.”
In the same month Bliss was hit, the District officially adopted Vision Zero, an ambitious and aspirational initiative to make stories like hers a thing of the past: By 2024, D.C. aims to end all traffic fatalities and serious injuries using a combination of public strategies and funding. Other major U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago, have committed to their own versions of Vision Zero, initially a Swedish concept dating to 1997.
According to police statistics, D.C. has seen 16 traffic fatalities as of Sept. 9, a decrease of 23.8 percent compared to the same period in 2014. Last year’s total of 26 fatalities was down three from 2013 but up seven from 2012. Overall, traffic deaths have gone down 58 percent during the last two decades. Roughly half of the annual fatal crashes involve drivers; the other half pedestrians, and some cyclists.
With more than 20 District agencies participating in Vision Zero, coordination presents a huge challenge. D.C.’s Department of Transportation is effectively spearheading the initiative, so much of the praise or blame will be directed at the agency. Thus far, DDOT has organized a series of publicity events for Vision Zero, launched a crowd-sourced safety map, conducted internal meetings with other agencies, and begun drafting an action plan to guide how the District is to transform a utopian idea into a lived reality. D.C. had scheduled the action plan to come out this month, but as of this week it hadn’t settled on a firm release date.
Critics say that the online safety map, which has received hundreds of comments, experiences glitches, and that the grand branding of Vision Zero—on the back wheels of Capital BikeShare bikes, for example—can’t in itself prevent crashes.
“The proof is going to be in the next six months,” says Greg Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “We can all put out good plans. It’s whether they’re implemented that’s the question. A lot of that will be about data: Can we get that number down?”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of about 20 residents gathered outside the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center to observe and discuss one of the city’s most dangerous intersections: 14th and U streets NW. Although it was only 4 p.m., the intersection already bustled with passenger vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, taxis, and Metro buses. At one point, a black SUV heading north made an illegal U-turn and nearly clipped a cyclist heading south on a designated bike lane; at another, a blaring ambulance quickly turned right onto U Street and drove farther east. The crowd tensed up.
The gathering was the second of five site visits, organized by D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, to crash-prone intersections. Cheh chairs the Council’s committee on transportation and the environment, and her office is working “on parallel tracks” with Vision Zero. Once the Council returns from recess, Cheh’s office is hoping to introduce legislation based on the results of a focus group that researched liability issues for cyclists, a recurring topic of debate. She’s an avid cyclist herself (“I love to bike!” her Twitter bio reads) and often bikes to the Wilson Building from her home in Ward 3, partly down hectic Connecticut Avenue.
To achieve Vision Zero, the District will have to collect reliable data on traffic incidents in all eight wards. This poses significant obstacles—some of which already seem evident. Take the crowd-sourcing map DDOT has posted online. Though many users have made comments about heavily trafficked areas in Northwest, far fewer have done so in Southeast, even along corridors like Pennsylvania Avenue and East Capitol Street, which connect the District with Maryland.
“I think DDOT has tried to do their best to get out in the community and has been around the city, but getting community engagement on this issue is challenging,” Billing explains. “People are busy and have jobs and families. DDOT will really need to do something with [culled] data.”
Compounding the problem are purportedly insufficient crash reports by the Metropolitan Police Department. Transit-safety advocates say many incidents don’t get fully recorded, either because the parties involved reach some kind of settlement or because MPD reports skimp on the details.
Sam Zimbabwe, an associate director of policy at DDOT, says more than 2,600 residents participated in Vision Zero awareness events held throughout July. From surveys administered at the events, DDOT learned that people are largely concerned about drivers going too fast or being distracted. Almost half of those surveyed said they knew someone who had been involved in a traffic crash.
“Part of the mindset of Vision Zero is that fatalities aren’t inevitable,” Zimbabwe says. “Every fatality can be looked at, learned from. We have to make sure we’re getting data that’s accurate.”
Around 7 a.m. on Aug. 24, the first day D.C. Public Schools were back in session, Mayor Muriel Bowser stood on a traffic island in the middle of Seward Square, holding a sign with a hand-drawn message: “Slow Down for Our Kids.” Bowser waved as cars sped northwest on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Some pulled over to greet the mayor or honked; others rushed to work—just another Monday.
Bowser occupied the square along with a group of about 30 volunteers for an hour, before she walked over to Brent Elementary School on North Carolina Avenue SE to welcome students and parents. Though the day-long, District-wide “Slow Down” campaign wasn’t advertised as a part of Vision Zero, it did raise some of the same questions D.C. now faces regarding the efficacy of educating drivers on the dangers of speeding. Education is one of the so-called “three Es” of Vision Zero, the other two being engineering (of streets) and enforcement (of traffic violations).
“I think what counts is having some enforcement on an occasional basis,” Sonia Conly, treasurer and Ward 6 representative of the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council, said that morning. “You have this campaign today, but what’s going to happen to [driving] behavior the next day?”
Like other urban centers, the District attracts drivers from all over the U.S.: some who learned to drive on country roads in Kentucky, some who did so on the congested streets of Manhattan. Then, of course, there are commuters from Virginia and Maryland—many who want to get between work and home as quickly as possible. (Within D.C., most commuters do not drive to work.)
Zimbabwe says the hodgepodge nature of transportation in D.C. means no single strategy or group can accomplish Vision Zero. Something as simple as playing safety videos in the waiting room at a Department of Motor Vehicles location, or publicly highlighting crash data, he adds, could move things forward: For example, when a car is going 40 mph and hits a pedestrian, there’s only a 10 percent chance of survival; when the same car is going half that speed, the pedestrian’s survival chances are 90 percent.
“We want to target speed reduction on our major arterial streets,” he says, referring to roads that typically have four or more lanes. “In some places, that could involve changing the lane striping, [or] adding small islands in the middle of the street. It’s not always going to be a capital project.”
Often, however, what gets drivers to slow down isn’t knowing that speeding is bad—it’s fear of getting caught. One proven way to do this is through automated enforcement. A recent report based on traffic data from Montgomery County found that automated cameras “were associated with a 10 percent reduction in mean speeds and a 59 percent reduction in the likelihood that a vehicle was traveling more than 10 mph above the speed limit at camera sites.” The study, published in August, showed that cameras reduced the probability of serious crashes by 19 percent. A report from DDOT last year recorded a 20 percent decrease in crashes near 87 camera locations in D.C.
Advocates say ramping up enforcement measures, including automated cameras and ticketing for moving and parking infractions, would limit dangerous driving behavior while the city plans longer-term (and higher-cost) engineering projects, like building more bike lanes. (Even there, D.C. is behind target: Out of a goal of 7.5 miles of bike lanes as part of a two-year action plan, DDOT had created 2.27 as of Aug. 24 . In 2014, the District added a record 9 miles.)
Other effective strategies could include road diets and step outs. The first entails removing at least one lane of traffic and converting it into something else, like a shared turn lane in the middle of the street, or parking spaces that then serve as an additional layer of protection from moving cars. Step outs, which MPD has conducted before but only began doing with Vision Zero data this summer, refer to when plainclothes officers step off the curb and issue citations if drivers fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. They can also cite pedestrians for jaywalking. A step out conducted at Georgia Avenue and Lamont Street NW in July resulted in 26 citations.
Still, advocates acknowledge that enforcement won’t solve everything: Police officers can’t be everywhere all the time. That’s why Vision Zero needs to include projects that can be “rapidly implemented,” Billing says; the District can’t wait five to seven years to execute its Vision Zero plan when it’s supposed to be completed by 2024.
The District does have a comprehensive, long-term plan for improving transportation, Move DC, which seeks to invest in alternatives to driving over the next quarter century. Its goal is to accommodate an estimated population growth of 100,000 people in the District through better infrastructure and transit networks.
Zimbabwe says he sees Vision Zero as a “subset” of Move DC, which involved fewer agencies. The former has greater urgency (“It’s not like we set some interim goal of five fatalities”), but is closely linked to the latter: “People aren’t going to bike if they don’t think they can bike safely.”
“We’ve [heard] frustration from people about the speed and implementation of various things,” he says. “There can be a reaction to something like Vision Zero [of] ‘Show us something instead of just creating another plan.’ That’s the criticism I’ve heard [and] I don’t know if it’s fair.”
Eileen McCarthy, the secretary and Ward 3 representative of the D.C. Pedestrian Council, has somewhat less-lofty recommendations for implementing Vision Zero. She says the District might want to consider buying ads that portray the effects of speed and explain how speed limits get set—something she saw during a recent visit to Portland, which has established 2025 as its goal for Vision Zero. She adds that she finds the current progress of D.C.’s initiative “very encouraging.”
“I know people are impatient and want [the implementation or Vision Zero] to start soon, and so do we, but it has to get done right—something that is both realistic and optimistic.”
A little over a month ago, Laura Bliss was hit again. This time, she was on her bike.
“Another cyclist rear-ended me, and he fell off his bike,” she says, with some disbelief. “This was so insane. My bike was fine; I was totally fine. I saw something black and plastic fly off his head and I realized it was his helmet, but that he hadn’t strapped it onto his chin. So stupid!”
The other cyclist was ultimately fine; he got up quickly and seemed to have everything together.
Steve Sund, a commander within MPD’s special-operations division, says the department will work with DDOT to identify problem-areas using analytics that are currently being developed. Asked whether officers will have Vision Zero beats based on that data, he replies: “It’ll be an ongoing effort. I don’t know if I’d specifically say a daily effort, with various initiatives changing. The big thing is behavior modification.”
Which raises perhaps the biggest challenge for transit safety in the District: Unless individual behavior changes—whether while driving, biking, or walking—it seems impossible that Vision Zero can become more than just a nice idea. Proponents realize that, to some extent, they’re fighting against a force much larger than drivers making illegal U-turns and pedestrians not using marked crosswalks: human nature.
“If we had a silver bullet, I think we would have used it already,” Billing says. “Which is why you have to have a common goal, which is: People shouldn’t die going to work, people shouldn’t die going to pick up their kids, and going to the grocery store, and going home from their coffee shop. That the mistakes people make, because we all make mistakes, shouldn’t be deadly either.”
More from this issue:- A year of crashes, in maps and charts