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Curbing traffic deaths: how can we make our streets safe?

Making complete streets a community priority

By Paula Benway

As a transportation professional, safety is inherent in everything I do. I recently read an article by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) on the latest crash statistics. It shows disturbing trends in the rising number of fatalities since 2015 (+35,200 US). Fatality estimates for the first six months of 2016 show an alarming increase by 9% over 2015 levels, and 18% over 2014 levels. The number of conflicts with “vulnerable users” in urban centers is at an all-time high and clearly reflected in the 10 to13% increase in fatality rates for pedestrians and bicyclists1. What does this tell us? That we should ring the alarm bells—we should renew our focus on safety within our communities.

As we continue to expand our urban centers where we live, work, and play, our city streets must be safe. Providing accessibility to employment, schools, healthcare, shopping, and civic centers is a high priority. When I mention all users, it infers users of all ages and ability. We should plan and design for everyone from 8 to 80 years old. One more death is one too many, and we must do more to protect our vulnerable users to prevent senseless deaths.

I’m passionate about this issue, not just because I’m an urban transportation planner, not because I’m the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) International President, but because I’m also a bicyclist. I was recently transferred from Stantec’s Rochester, New York office to the Tampa, Florida office. It took my breath away. Was it the beaches? The beautiful weather? No (but they are amazing and so radically different from my hometown). It was discovering that Florida has four of the top cities in the nation for fatal crashes, and Florida is, overall, the nation’s deadliest state for traffic fatalities involving bicyclists. Wow.

I am happy to report that as ITE president, we made safety one of our biggest priorities in 2016 by taking a bold step forward in initiating a “Vision Zero” Taskforce in collaboration with the Vision Zero Network. Our goal is to bring attention to, and better address safety, in our communities. The taskforce is a multi-national road traffic safety initiative that aims to assist local municipalities with the right tools to take Vision Zero policies and goals to the next level – meaning implementation. Vision Zero acknowledges that human beings are fallible; we make mistakes. Therefore, we must create road safety systems and policies that allow for mistakes but help us avoid severe consequences (like fatalities and serious injuries). We must recognize that many factors contribute to safe mobility - like street design, education, enforcement, encouragement, evaluation, and equity. Therefore, we need a coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach to road safety and that’s why I am thrilled to be part of the ITE’s movement to support a new safety culture. 

Photo credit: City of Seattle

Per The World Bank, 54% of the global population lives in urban areas today, estimated to increase up to 70 to 80%. And according to the US Census Bureau, 80% of the US population already lives in urban areas, which has created “megaregions”—a large network of metropolitan areas that share environmental systems, infrastructure, economic linkages, and land use patterns. The continued influx of people into our urban centers requires proper community planning and investment. That’s the piece that we’ve missed. So how can we address this today for the future increase in urban populations?

It starts with education. I recently heard a Vision Zero advocate say,“Traffic violence is a public health crisis.” That is so true! And, until we start talking about the literal impact of unsafe streets, our communities will not take this crisis seriously. So here is my challenge to all transportation professionals. We can start to enact change by:

  • Education. Visit your local planning and transportation agencies to let them know about these statistics and our profession’s growing concerns surrounding safety. Educate them about the alarming trends in traffic fatalities.
  • Suggest. Ask design professionals and community leaders to humanize the experience. It’s not only about safety, it is about community health. If streets are unsafe, we enable unhealthy behaviors and our people and communities will suffer.
  • Demand. Prioritize people first!
  • Implement. Make sure you are using multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approaches to community and street design. The relationship between land use and transportation is pivotal and connectivity and Complete Streets aren’t just a trend—they’re about creating spaces for all people and modes of travel.

The National Complete Streets Coalition identified that between 2003 and 2012, almost 68% of all pedestrian fatalities were on roadways funded (in part) by federal money and designed in accordance with federal guidelines. Simply designing to guidelines doesn’t make a facility safe. Applying the right tools and guidelines for the right “context” is critical, and good engineering judgement is necessary. But, until we humanize the experience of using our transportation systems, we can’t truly appreciate the needs and challenges; adding the human element will make us better planners and engineers.

In that vein, I ask my colleagues to join me in an experiment. On your next project, get out of your car, leave your hard hat and safety vest at the office, and take a walk with your child or elderly parent. What’s the point? I want you to experience your city’s streets and corridors like an average person. How safe did you feel? Would you let your child/elderly parent bike or walk alone? Let me know how much your perspective changes. You just might be surprised.

It starts with education. I recently heard a Vision Zero advocate say - “Traffic violence is a public health crisis.” That is so true!  And, until we start talking about the literal impact of unsafe streets, our communities will not take this crisis seriously.

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