People in the crosswalk at 7th and H streets NW in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C., like many places across the nation, has seen a rise in traffic fatalities over the last two years, especially in wards 7 and 8. The District is also grappling with racial disparities in policing practices, including in traffic enforcement. Local policymakers have taken steps to improve traffic safety, such as committing to the Vision Zero initiative, funding road safety initiatives, increasing enforcement around schools, expanding the use of speed cameras, and reducing speed limits. Other proposals include a new bill to stop revoking licenses for outstanding fines over $100, and recommendations to move traffic enforcement from the Metropolitan Police Department to the Department of Transportation. 

While these efforts may affect traffic safety, some may also exacerbate racial disparities. Despite promises of race neutral enforcement, drivers in D.C.’s predominantly Black neighborhoods receive more tickets and higher fines than drivers in other D.C. neighborhoods. To achieve both safety and equity, the District can focus on changes to the design of streets and neighborhoods, which would improve traffic safety while also addressing racial disparities in enforcement. 

Neighborhoods and streets in D.C. aren’t created equal when it comes to traffic safety. Some neighborhoods have small streets with clear markings, low speed limits, bike lanes, and pedestrian crosswalks—all designs that promote safe driving. Other neighborhoods have wide streets that lack clear markings and pedestrian crosswalks. Legacies of racism in the District affect neighborhood segregation today, and this history of racism and segregation, along with past and current disinvestment, have left some communities with streets that aren’t designed for resident safety.

Here are six ways D.C. policymakers can improve street design to promote traffic safety and reduce racial disparities in traffic enforcement: 

  1. Add road markings and marked pedestrian crossings. These amenities are a low-cost first step to improving traffic safety, but they are not distributed evenly across the city. The failure to address these needs has led to unnecessary traffic fatalities. In fact, after a preventable traffic fatality, two Southeast D.C. residents took it upon themselves to paint pedestrian crosswalks near where the fatality happened. Research indicates that road markings encourage safer driving, and crosswalks—signaled or otherwise enhanced—can also improve traffic safety.
  1. Design complete streets with all users in mind. This design approach promotes safety and ensures streets support the needs of all users regardless of mode of transportation, age, or ability. This approach can look different in different areas depending on the community’s needs. It might look like a street with well-maintained sidewalks on either side and a dedicated bike lane, or pedestrian plazas in place of large multi-lane roads. Evidence suggests that changes to environmental design like complete streets can reduce crashes and fatalities and promote the active use of neighborhood environments
  1. Expand traffic calming initiatives. Traffic circles, curb extensions, and raised crosswalks can reduce available street space and force cars to make careful movements that result in slower speeds. Traffic calming strategies have been shown to help reduce speeding and accidents. Some D.C. neighborhoods have implemented these designs, but Traffic Calming Assessment petitions with 75 percent block agreement are required to put them in place. Communities that aren’t aware of these protocols may miss out on opportunities to improve road safety.
  1. Implement road diets. These are often used to adjust undivided highways and involve making changes to existing streets by redesigning excess space, often for a low cost. These changes can improve safety by reducing speeds and increasing mobility, which in turn reduces crashes. Wide streets with many car-devoted lanes can be dieted by shifting lanes into protected bike lanes or cycle tracks, adjusting parking lanes, or making space for larger sidewalks. These types of lane reductions have been slowly becoming more prominent in the District, but these strategies can continue to be used to increase safety and make the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
  1. Adjust signal timing and phasing. These optimizations can improve safety and reduce opportunities for crashes. Ensuring that each intersection has an appropriate amount of time for crossing that is clear and displayed can also help drivers and pedestrians interact safely. Consistent timing can also discourage drivers from feeling the need to speed through intersections and help them better anticipate stops. Evidence has suggested that these improvements can decrease pedestrian injuries as well as vehicle-to-vehicle crashes
  1. Engage community members most affected by traffic safety issues. Hearing residents’ concerns and collaborating to identify solutions is an integral step to improving safety. Many safety changes in D.C. require making requests or completing forms with petitions. This practice ensures that only neighborhoods with high community participation can make changes. For D.C. policymakers, soliciting community leadership support can ensure residents are encouraged to share their ideas and participate in the process. Decision makers who first identify the places most affected by dangerous and risky driving, and then engage with those communities to identify problems and brainstorm solutions, will be able to make lasting, meaningful changes. 

Improving street design is a vital ingredient to improving safety. While making changes to laws in response to dangerous driving behaviors has been the norm in D.C., street design changes would allow the city to address traffic safety and racial disparities together. These types of environmental changes are supported by a growing evidence base and can also improve communities’ outdoor spaces. And by engaging with residents to best understand their needs, perceptions of neighborhood safety, and ideas, decisionmakers can ensure they have the buy-in and input needed to facilitate change. 

Lily Robin and Susan Nembhard are research associates in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.