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Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a Streetsblog NYC series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.

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Large trucks operating in New York City are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from the states look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, New York state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

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NHTSA Touts Decrease in Traffic Deaths, But 32,719 Ain’t No Vision Zero

Twenty-four-year-old Taja Wilson was killed near the Louisiana bayou in August when a driver swerved on the shoulder where she was walking. Noshat Nahian, age 8, was killed in a Queens crosswalk on his way to school in December by a tractor-trailer driver with a suspended license. Manuel Steeber, 37, was in a wheelchair when he was killed in Minneapolis while trying to cross an intersection with no crosswalk or traffic signal on a 40-mph road. One witness speculated that Steeber must have had a “death wish.”

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a motorist on his way to school in Queens with his sister, Nousin Jahan Nishat, 11. Photo: ##http://accidentsinus.com/Victims/detail.aspx?Victim=ea990b8d-8312-4526-bf61-b326706ffdf9##Accidents in US##

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a truck driver on his way to school in Queens with his sister.
Photo: Accidents in US

These are just three of the 4,735 pedestrians killed in 2013. Believe it or not, that was an improvement, down 1.7 percent from the year before.

New data [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that overall, traffic fatalities went down in 2013 — reassuring news after a disturbing uptick in 2012. But 32,719 preventable deaths on the country’s streets is still an alarming death toll. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved if the United States achieved a traffic fatality rate comparable to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

The Vision Zero movement is growing around the country, but advocates are still trying to come up with a way to bring the movement for zero deaths to the national level, instead of just city by city.

Moreover, though the overall situation improved in 2013, beneath the surface there were some disconcerting trends and facts:

  • Bicyclists (categorized as “pedalcyclists” in NHTSA reporting language) were the only group to experience more deaths in 2013 than 2012. With more and more people riding bicycles, the 743 cyclists killed in 2013 probably still represents fewer deaths per miles ridden, but it also reveals a blind spot in many places in the country that have yet to adapt their roads to the reality of more people biking.

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To Build Safer Streets, Cities Have to Challenge State DOTs

Have you ever heard this line from your local transportation officials? “We’d like to redesign this street for safety, but the state won’t allow it.” Often, that is indeed the truth.

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Activists striped a bike lane on Seattle’s Cherry Street before the city DOT made it permanent. James Kennedy says city DOTs should adopt the activist tactic and do more redesigns without asking permission from the state DOT. Photo: SDOT/Seattle Bike Blog

But James Kennedy at Transport Providence says that’s still no excuse for city officials to sit on their hands. Local DOTs should directly challenge the retrograde policies imposed by state DOTs that undermine the health of the city, he says:

In many cases, RIDOT has moved slowly towards a less Neanderthal-like perspective on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. RIDOT officially allows cities to “consider” NACTO guidelines for street design instead of AASHTO ones, which opens the door to much better design. “Consider” doesn’t mean anything in practice though. Many engineers working on behalf of RIDOT are used to what they’re used to, and without forceful changes in policy, the same things continue to be built. The same city official I quoted earlier told me that for one project in his purview, RIDOT engineers arrived to the meeting unaware even of the terms of the debate. “They didn’t even know what a protected bike lane was, or a sharrow.” RIDOT engineers blocked additional street trees, saying it put them over budget, insisted that pedestrian bump-outs would harm street width, blocked bike lanes of any kind, an ultimately (reluctantly) gave in to sharrows on an arterial street. This is progress, I guess.

The best example I can think of of cities actively thumbing their noses at the authority of states is gay marriage. In many states, gay marriage continues to be illegal, and even more menacingly, in some states it’s totally legal to fire people from jobs for being someplace on the queer/gender-queer spectrum. But where we have made progress on changing the culture around gay/bi/trans rights, it has been because activists and local officials took control of the situation and put opponents on the defensive. Before California ever had gay marriage, mayors like Gavin Newsom started officiating weddings with full recognition that they would not be respected by state officials. But this had power. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

City officials must do the same with transportation.

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Today’s Headlines

  • NHTSA: Pedestrian Deaths Down, Bicyclist Deaths Up in 2013
  • Even With Gas Prices in Free-Fall, Transit Ridership Keeps Climbing (NYT)
  • NOAA: Washington, DC, Has Hit a “Tipping” Point for Sea Level Rise (UPI)
  • Michael Brown, Raquel Nelson, and the Injustice of Car-Based Traffic Engineering (Dissent)
  • As HOT Lanes Open on I-95, A Brief History of Virginia’s HOT Lanes (WaPo)
  • New York Upgrades Antiquated Technology on the Country’s Biggest, Busiest Transit System (AP)
  • Amid Bertha Fiasco, WA Gov. Jay Inslee Proposes Cap-and-Trade to Fund (Green) Transpo (Planetizen)
  • DC Experiments With Dynamic Pricing for Downtown Parking (WaPo)
  • California Drivers Likely Won’t Even Feel Effects of New “Hidden Gas Tax” (Fresno Bee)
  • Yes, Millennials Want to Live in Cities. But the Jobs Are Still In the Suburbs (Salon)
  • Globe and Mail: Other Cities Should Emulate Vancouver’s Half-Cent Sales Tax for Transit
  • Milan Offers Free Transit for Leaving Car at Home (But Not to the Car-Free) (Car Scoops)
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Here’s How Much Safer Transit Is Compared to Driving

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Keep this in mind the next time a high-profile train crash generates more press coverage than a year’s worth of car wrecks: Despite the media sensationalism and overwrought regulatory responses that follow such events, transit is already a lot safer than driving.

Looking at traffic fatalities per mile traveled in the U.S., analyst Todd Litman found that riding commuter or intercity rail is about 20 times safer than driving; riding metro or light rail is about 30 times safer; and riding the bus is about 60 times safer. Factoring in pedestrians and cyclists killed in crashes with vehicles, the effect is smaller but still dramatic: the fatality rate associated with car travel is more than twice as high as the rate associate with transit. Litman’s study was recently published in the Journal of Public Transportation [PDF].

Litman notes that most transit travel involves some walking or biking, which carry a relatively high risk of traffic injury. But those risks are mostly offset by the health benefits of physical activity. Living in a place with good transit has safety benefits as well: Litman cites research showing that cities with higher transit ridership rates tend to have lower per-capita traffic fatality rates.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Here I Am, Stuck in Seattle With You

podcast icon logoStuck in Seattle or Stuck in Sherman Oaks. There are so many places to get stuck these days and so many clowns and jokers making it worse.

First, poor Bertha, stuck 100 feet under Seattle. All the tunnel boring machine wanted to do was drill a 1.7-mile tunnel for a highway that won’t even access downtown and is projected to cause more congestion at a higher price than a parallel surface/transit option — and it got stuck just 1,000 feet in. Last December. Now the rescue plan is making downtown sink. It’s not going well. And to be honest, it was always destined to not go well. It was a crappy plan to begin with. Luckily, there is a rescue plan for the rescue plan, if anyone cares to carry it out. It starts with some accountability and ends — spoiler alert! — with pulling the damn plug.

But if the new tunnel to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct is likely to cause traffic tie-ups, it’s nothing compared to the perennial jam on LA’s I-405. The popular navigation app Waze has started directing drivers off the freeway and into the residential neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, infuriating the people who live there. Their solution: Try to convince Waze there are traffic jams in Sherman Oaks too. Our solution: Build a better transportation system.

And that’s it! This is our last podcast until the New Year. You can catch up on anything you missed on iTunes or Stitcher, and if you follow our RSS feed (or our Twitter feeds) you’ll be the first to know when a new episode is out.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Trails!

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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to Rip Out City’s First Protected Bike Lane

Mt. Prospect Avenue in Newark has New Jersey’s first protected bike lane, as far as we know. But unfortunately it looks like the Garden State will soon be back to zero.

Merchants around the Prospect Avenue protected bike lane in Newark complained about losing parking, and the Mayor caved. Photo: WalkBikeJersey

After business owners near the Mt. Prospect Avenue bike lane in Newark complained about losing parking, Mayor Ras Baraka ordered its removal. Baraka is allowing drivers to block it in the meantime. Photo: WalkBikeJersey

Andrew Besold at WalkBikeJersey is reporting Mayor Ras Baraka has ordered the removal of the bike lane, and in the meantime is allowing people to park in it. The executive order follows some unfriendly news coverage, Besold says:

Well, it might have been too good while it lasted. If you read The Star-Ledger or have been following our Facebook page you are likely aware of the parking protected bike lanes on Mt. Prospect Ave in Newark’s North Ward, the first that we are aware of in New Jersey. Columnist Barry Carter has been writing a series (123) about the claimed hardships the streetscape redesign, particularly the parking protected bike lanes have caused the local residents and merchants. This Tuesday he claimed victory over the bike lanes after Mayor Baraka issued an executive order [allowing] drivers to park at the curb until the roadway could be entirely redesigned without the bike lanes as they are now.

The crux of the argument to remove the bike lanes was that they had eliminated valuable parking that was preventing customers from visiting the stores on the avenue. Also, since the addition of parking protected bike lanes had narrowed the width of the the avenue, customers now would no longer be able to double park to quickly visit a store. However in the hour I was there on Tuesday, December 16th, between 2pm and 3pm, parking was not at all a problem. Again, I arrived by car and was able to find a parking space on just about every block, if not on Mt. Prospect Ave itself, on the immediately adjacent side streets.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Roll Call Rounds Up the Year’s Most Encouraging Transportation News (Part I and II)
  • How Can Northern Virginia Maximize the Benefits of the Silver Line? (CAP)
  • Amtrak Service Returns to Massachusetts’ “Knowledge Corridor” (Recorder)
  • Costs for Honolulu Rail Project Could Balloon by $750M (Hawaii News Now)
  • In D.C. Area, It Looks Like Rich and Poor People Are Biking More Than Average (GGW)
  • How Lower Gas Prices Could Encourage Sprawl in Houston (Houston Chron)
  • Uber to Take a Three-Month Hiatus in Portland (NYT)
  • New MD Governor’s Comments on the Purple Line Aren’t Encouraging (WaPo)
  • The Court Case That Could Transform California’s Approach to Climate Change (CityLab)
  • In West Seattle, Baby Steps Toward Light Rail (West Seattle Blog)
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The Importance of Driving to the U.S. Economy Started Waning in the 70s

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Americans drive much less per unit of economic output than we did a generation ago.

Earlier this year, following a slight uptick in U.S. traffic volumes, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release, “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed.” He’s not the only person to equate traffic with economic growth. Even former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once said, “We like traffic, it means economic activity,” before his administration embraced ideas like congestion pricing, bus lanes, and protected bikeways.

In fact, the amount Americans drive is an increasingly poor reflection of the nation’s economic output. A forthcoming analysis from Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (sorry, no link available yet) finds that by some measures, driving has been “decoupling” from U.S. economic growth for a generation.

Sivak looked at two measures of driving activity in relation to economic growth: mileage per unit of gross domestic product and fuel consumed per unit of GDP. On both of those metrics, when GDP is adjusted for inflation, the amount of driving relative to economic output peaked in the 1970s.

Distance driven relative to economic output was highest in 1977. After that, it more or less plateaued until the 1990s, when it began to decline sharply, Sivak reports. Today it stands at about where it did in the 1940s.

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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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