Tomorrow at 1:30 PM, the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment will be meeting to discuss the implementation of “Vision Zero,” DC’s [thus-far failed] effort to reduce traffic deaths and fatalities. It’s clear to me that the plan’s strategy was small potatoes to begin with, and that a much bigger vision will be needed if we are to achieve its goals.
To that effect, I’m reproducing the testimony I submitted for the record below, and I encourage anyone else so interested to do so. Copies of written statements should be submitted to Ms. Benjamin at the following address: Committee on Transportation and the Environment, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 108, Washington, D.C. 20004. Statements may also be e-mailed to email@example.com or faxed to (202) 724-8118. The record will close at the end of the business day on October 11, 2018.
To the Committee:
I appreciate the opportunity to provide a statement on the District of Columbia’s implementation of its “Vision Zero” plan. I am a transit advocate and DC resident. I am also a pedestrian who has eschewed car ownership in favor of walking and riding public transportation. While well-intentioned, the current government has shown little interest in actually taking the steps necessary to accomplish its goals and has in many ways reversed some of its previous gains.
Few would take issue with the assertion that the District of Columbia remains by and large a city for cars. Our streets and roads, our built environment, our attitudes and infrastructure are all oriented towards moving vehicles and not people. Vision Zero was an opportunity to correct that imbalance by actively designing this city to welcome pedestrians and to deter fast driving. Instead, we have 8-lane arterials in the heart of the city and six-lane “neighborhood” streets, all seemingly designed to move cars as fast as possible and damn the consequences. We have high-speed roads cutting through our parks, our neighborhoods, the National Mall, all of which clearly send the message that the priority is cars and not people once they step out of them.
Vision Zero, as per the 2016 legislation, consists of some DDOT/MPD studies and data-keeping, policy adoption, enhanced penalties for ATVs and aggressive driving, and interlock breathalyzers. It should have been clear from the outset that these elide the real issues that make Washington, DC unpleasant and unsafe for anyone not in a car, and that it ignored best practices and proven solutions from other cities around the world. It is in fact easier to compile a list of improvements not made than it is one of achievements. To wit:
- No new bus lanes
- No significant new bike infrastructure
- No road diets
- No ban of right turns on red
- No congestion charge for vehicles entering the core
- No shortening light cycles to meet NACTO standards (60-90sec cycles, https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/intersection-design-elements/traffic-signals/signal-cycle-lengths/)
This suggests some obvious courses of action:
- Build and enforce dedicated 24/7 bus lanes on most major roads
- Build protected/separated bicycle lanes on most streets
- Ban right turns on red
- Impose a congestion charge on the urban core
- Impose a road diet on the most dangerous streets in the city; begin reducing the number of travel and parking lanes across the entire district
- Shorten light timing cycles across the city to make it easier to walk
Even those few changes that have been made seem actively hostile towards pedestrians and cyclists. Here’s one example: I recently noticed that on 9th Street NW between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues that even the already overly-long light cycle countdowns have vanished from crosswalk signs. Whereas before, a pedestrian could count down all 57 seconds (e.g.) they had to make it across a light, now the countdown doesn’t begin until there are only 11 seconds remaining. It is hard to see how this makes the road safer for anyone: a pedestrian now cannot how long they might have to wait, encouraging crossing against the light, and even if drivers might be prompted to go faster, those who would speed because of a countdown are even more likely to drive faster when they see much less time remaining. Less information does not make for a more pleasant or less dangerous walking environment. And yet this phenomenon seems to be spreading across the District, sans explanation.
Existing laws that might inconvenience drivers go unenforced. Drivers run red lights, construction crews ignore their obligation to provide pedestrian accommodation when sidewalks must be closed, and the comical bus lanes on 7th and 9th Streets NW might as well not exist. If this city is to take the safety of non-drivers seriously, then drivers – the ones operating the machines that can do grievous bodily harm – must be held accountable, and consistently.
I hate to attribute this lack of progress or enforcement to the “windshield perspective,” but it is hard to imagine why else District officials would have failed so comprehensively at Vision Zero. The complete disregard for offering buses any form of priority travel (queue-jumping, dedicated lanes, etc.) which have become standard best practices the world over is inexplicable, save for a political cowardice that is unacceptable given the rates of injury and death that plague the city. Cars do not enjoy a natural primacy; their dominance in Washington is the result of public policy choices we have – and haven’t – made.
Vision Zero must start with a vision of not just a marginally safer status quo, but of a city where the dangers from cars are reduced because the cars themselves have been reduced. A city where people can feel free to walk and bike and ride scooters as they please without risk of bodily harm; where buses enjoy priority and status and a speed advantage; where the District does not feel obligated to dedicate public space to private vehicle storage; where drivers move at or under the speed limit because the road itself forces them to; where the car is unnecessary because the alternatives have been so well-developed that driving one simply begs the question. That’s a sustainable vision, an achievable vision, and a vision that will actually get us to zero deaths. Thank you.