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Toward Zero (Pedestrian/Bike Deaths)

Unless you are a transportation professional, local elected official, or bike/pedestrian safety advocate there’s a good chance you hadn’t heard about Vision Zero until the Democratic candidate debates and platforms started coming out (Buttigieg has discussed National Vision Zero as a former mayor).

Vision Zero is the movement to get to zero bike rider and pedestrian deaths due to collisions with vehicles. There are several policy choices, market changes, infrastructure changes, and (quite honestly) social changes that would need to happen for Vision Zero to be achieved. I’m usually not a fan of visions or goals that say we’re going to eliminate something because the likelihood of success is limited when the goal is framed that way, but in this case moving toward zero deaths is really important.

I should probably provide some bona fides on this topic. I am a community planner with more than 20 years experience in economic development, community development, housing, land use, and transportation planning. I currently work in transportation planning. I am also a long distance runner and cyclist and share the road with motor vehicle users. I’ve also lost a dear friend to a crash with a box truck while she was riding her bike. She was an experienced cyclist, an Ironman, like me. My expertise, and indeed, my interest, is both personal and professional. 

There are four main components of change to achieve Vision Zero. Some are in the realm of transportation professionals and policy makers. Some are things that every road user can do.

Infrastructure changes: Making sure that there is safe bike and pedestrian infrastructure for all users is the stuff government needs to get better at. A concept that may not be widespread outside the industry is the idea of Dangerous by Design. It is about the increases in pedestrian deaths and fatalities due to prioritizing fast movement of vehicles over all other road users. Changes to improve safety include adequate crossing time for people using walkers, wheelchairs, or toddlers at all intersections. They includes sidewalks that are in good repair and don’t have obstacles (like utility poles) for people who use wheelchairs or people pushing strollers. Bike lanes and off-street multi-use paths are also critical infrastructure to providing safe travel for people on bikes and walking/running.

Behavior changes: This is all of us! Distracted driving has become a big problem for vulnerable users (pretty much anyone not in a car). But there are other behaviors that are problematic, too: 1. Stopping before a stop sign (often there’s a wide white “stop bar” where you should stop); 2. Stopping before making a right turn to check for pedestrians; 3.Not blowing through traffic signals; 4. After yesterday I’ll also add not driving on multi-use paths (my friend encountered someone doing this on the Cultural Trail); 5. But also not parking or stopping blocking crosswalks, not parking on sidewalks, and not parking in bike lanes.

Vehicle changes: This is a concept about vehicle design, marketing, and consumer behavior. SUVs and large trucks are the most popular vehicles on the market right now. They are touted as being safe and comfortable – and that is true as long as you are inside. When you are a pedestrian or a cyclist that is hit by one of them you are many times more likely to have life-threatening injuries or die than being hit by a smaller vehicle because the vehicle hits your vital organs in mid-body rather than legs. Also, it is challenging to see children behind a SUV when backing. Autonomous vehicles are raising concerns on several levels, one being that they are pretty bad currently at detecting anyone that is not an average height white adult using a crosswalk.

Normalizing mode choice: How people get around is called mode choice. In may of our communities by community design or social norms we have made it so the only normal mode choice is driving. Yet many people – old, young, with physical/vision/auditory limitations – can’t drive. Others can’t afford to, owning vehicles is really expensive. We need to think of it as normal to walk or bike to school, work, or the store. It should be normal to take public transit in places where that is available. Yet when someone chooses a different mode our default question is “what happened to your car?”

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