Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | March 2, 2017
The sun was still 20 minutes from rising when he crossed Broadway south of downtown Los Angeles early one February morning. The police offered few details about what happened next. The 69-year old, who went unidentified in news reports, was struck and killed by a motorist who fled the scene.
There area where he was walking, part of a six-mile stretch of Broadway that runs between Adams and Century Boulevards, is among the most dangerous in Los Angeles for pedestrians and bicyclists. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, just 6 percent of the city’s streets — including that six-mile stretch — account for 65 percent of deaths and serious injuries for pedestrians involved in traffic collisions.
And, to be clear, these incidents are indeed “collisions,” not “accidents,” said Nat Gale from LADOT. Whether through engineering, enforcement or education, he said, “they are preventable tragedies.”
That’s the idea behind the city’s Vision Zero program. Borrowed from Sweden, the strategy has the ambitious goal of eliminating all traffic deaths and severe injuries and has been adopted in roughly two dozen cities, according to the national Vision Zero Network. For years, streets were designed with the goal of moving as many cars through as quickly as possible.
But as cities look to become increasingly multi-modal, they have to confront the uneven consequences that this logic has had for pedestrians and bicyclists. Though the majority of collisions in Los Angeles — 85 percent — occur between two vehicles, roughly half of all traffic deaths involve people walking or biking.
New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles each have official Vision Zero plans, but many large cities, including Houston, have not approved a plan. Los Angeles, which released its action plan in January, is hopeful that it can transform its sprawling, car-focused streets into safe place for everyone, starting with the 6 percent of streets identified by LADOT as the city’s High Injury Network.
“Los Angeles is a big city, just like Houston, so 6 percent of our streets is still 450 miles,” added Gale, who is heading the Vision Zero effort for the department. He said the city would focus first on roughly 80 miles of priority corridors.
In addition to reworking dangerous intersections and other engineering changes, cities also look to enforcement and education to reduce traffic deaths. In New York City for example, to combat the spike of collisions during the darker winter rush hour, the city added more lighting to crosswalks. It also stationed more cops at hot spots to catch drivers who sped through crosswalks. During first two months of the effort, “pedestrian deaths dropped to half of what they had been during that stretch the year before,” according to Governing magazine.
In Los Angeles, the city has set two goals. It aims to reduce traffic deaths by 20 percent by 2017. By 2025, it wants to eliminate them. The city has already started making changes to its streetscape to achieve those goals, like adding a “scramble crosswalk” at a popular intersection in Hollywood that allows pedestrians to cross from every street corner while car traffic remains stopped. The city has also added curb extensions that effectively restrict the turning space for cars in an intersection, forcing them to reduce their speeds.
Other tools like pedestrian medians in the middle of streets, new signage and striping, dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian intervals that give people crossing the street a head start at traffic lights have all been put to work on the city’s streets.
And Los Angeles has taken a particularly data-driven approach, looking at not only collision data but neighborhood level disparities. By doing that, LADOT found that nearly half of the city’s High Injury Network sits inside some of the poorest communities with the worst health outcomes.
“In L.A., as in most cities that have analyzed their data closely, some communities are disproportionately impacted by traffic crashes,” said Leah Shahum, founder and director of the organization Vision Zero Network, “This includes seniors, children, low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those walking and bicycling.”
Gale put it bluntly: “We can prove that where people are dying are in communities already overburdened with other conditions.”
But he said the data also point to the need to tread carefully, particularly around enforcement. “It can’t mean that we’re criminalizing walking and biking or overburdening them with law enforcement,” said Gale.
Most Vision Zero plans require governments to work simultaneously in very local contexts and at a broader systemic level.
“Traditionally, we have over-emphasized the education or training of individuals to ‘do the right thing’ with very mixed success,” said Shahum. “Vision Zero holds that, while education and training still have a role to play, this is not as effective as focusing on the systems level changes that will have far greater impacts.” That means both changes to the built environment but also a collaborative approach between city departments, particularly law enforcement, health and transportation, and updated policy.
In Los Angeles, said Shahum, “They have set clear benchmarks with years and measurables and named which agency is responsible, which is important. Not all Vision Zero plans by all communities have done this.”
A handful of cities are considering their own Vision Zero plans, according to the latest map from Shahum’s organization. Among them is Houston, where promises of Complete Streets have yet to materialize into a systematic overhaul of street design. In 2016, the non-profit Houston Tomorrow crafted its own action plan for the city advocating for the adoption of a Vision Zero strategy. Houston was among the top 20 deadliest cities for pedestrians, according to the latest report from Smart Growth America, ranking 15th, below Little Rock, Arkansas.
“In the end,” said Shahum, “Vision Zero acknowledges that people will make mistakes, and there will always be crashes. But, it is the speed that kills. By managing speed effectively, we can prevent the most serious crashes and, hence, fatalities and severe injuries. People can still get where they need to go, of course, but in a Vision Zero community, safety is prioritized over fast speeds.”