Explaining Houston’s Sky-High Roadway ‘Death-Goal’

Houston ... on a good day.
Houston ... on a good day.

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Call it Blurred Vision Zero.

Houston’s municipal planning organization recently announced its annual roadway safety targets, which included a goal not to exceed 728 deaths on area roads in 2020. The only problem? That “goal” is 29 more people than the number who died on H-Town roads in 2019.

So if the Houston region meets its safety “goal” for next year, many more people will die next year.

An increasing number of roadway deaths isn’t acceptable in any sane universe — and the fact that a supposed Vision Zero city like Houston can announce that target with a straight face calls into question the very way we use safety targets in transportation planning. It’s past time for the feds to start requiring that communities set real safety goals that aggressively seek to end roadway deaths — and cut road funding when they don’t meet them.

Space City, of course, isn’t the only place that makes a mockery of safety targets: As Streetsblog reported last week, a third of states are setting sky-high death “targets,” too — and eight of them hit their grisly “goals” in 2018.

So to more effectively demand a higher bar around the nation, let’s look at why, exactly, Houston’s “death goal” is so high:

A Bad Federal Formula

The first step to making roadway safety targets meaningful is to give communities a formula for calculating them that doesn’t generate unacceptably high numbers.

Houston’s death goal came about, in part, because the Council that set it followed a guideline supplied by the Federal Highway Administration. That formula is a bit of doozy: communities are advised, in essence, to look up their average annual roadway fatalities based on the last five years of data, and do no worse than that number.

Considering that roadway deaths are on the rise in states and regions across the US, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see how such a formula wouldn’t result in the kind of ambitious safety goals our communities should be striving for.

Houston, for its part, at least tried to do a little better than the formula: the council’s 728-person death goal actually seeks to beat the five-year trend line by two percent. But things are so bad in that corner of Texas that doing that still results in number that would have more people die on their streets than in 2019. Houston regularly ranks towards the top of the list of major cities with the most dangerous roads in the country.

“I’m no longer going to say that this is a safety target; I’m going to say that this is safety forecast, because that’s really what it is,” said Alan Clark, director of Transportation Planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which sets the safety target. “It’s our way of telling the public where we expect to be the next year relative to the five-year trend line. But it doesn’t mean we’re happy about that.”

He’s not the only one. Other Houston-area transportation leaders who weren’t involved in setting the safety target are urging the council to set goals consistent with their Vision Zero plans.

“My suggestion was, ‘OK, if we had 699 deaths last year, and we want VZ by 2030, and we’ve got 10 years to get there, so let’s divide that number by 10 and be aggressive about reducing deaths by at least that much next year,'” said Jeff Weatherford, the deputy director of Houston Public Works.

Regardless of the methodology, it’d be great if planners had a formula readily at their disposal that would help them set a real target, rather than just measure how bad things already are.

No Required Formula = No Safety Accountability

Here’s the thing, though: communities don’t have to use the anemic guidelines that the Highway Administration already provides. They could pick a goal more consistent with Vision Zero — or if they wanted, they could choose to set the bar even lower on their efforts to end fatalities than Texas did.

A 2012 bill called “The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” declared that states did have to report some annual safety goals to Washington to qualify for road funding, but they could choose to set those targets however they wished — even if the safety “goal” would mean more people would die on their streets.

The agency would even provide a formula that could validate their apathy towards their roadway users’ lives in the eyes of the public.

Municipal planning organizations like the one that set the abominable 728-death safety “goal” in Houston aren’t required by the federal government to submit safety targets to Washington at all (though Houston was required to submit a goal to state authorities under Texas law).

The city’s main transportation planner Stephan Gage blamed the feds for telling local authorities “how we do the math.” But that’s not true: Texas officials chose to require Lone Star State municipalities to use a toothless federal formula that generated a deplorable non-goal for roadway safety — and then have cities knock down that number by a nominal two percent.

“The idea that regional planning organizations are constrained from setting aggressive road safety goals by the federal government is not only ridiculous, it’s disqualifying,” said Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne.

Undoubtedly, the feds should mandate a formula that would require all states, regions and cities to set safety targets that would reduce roadway deaths. But right now, they don’t do that.

No Penalty For Carnage On the Streets

So what happens if Houston leaders (or leaders in Texas, or in your city or state) are forced to tell their superiors that they didn’t hit their target for improving safety? Nothing at all — and that’s a big part of why these outrageous “death goals” persist.

You read that right: whether roads are running red with blood or cities achieve their Vision Zero goal, states still get their designated road funding every year. And there’s no federal law requiring state leaders to withhold funds from cities that fail to make streets safer, either.

“I could understand [the safety target set by the Council] if, basically, the feds were tying our safety performance to actual funding,” said Weatherford. “But right now, there’s no penalty for us. If we put in 699 or 728 or zero, it wouldn’t impact our funding.”

There’s a precedent for tying federal road funding to state road safety. A 2005 federal transportation bill gave states $500 million for creating and enforcing primary seatbelt laws.

“If our funding hadn’t been tied to that, we never would have achieved what we did there,” said Clark, the Houston area transportation planning director.

Whether we reward communities that take specific safety measures or punish ones that fail to meet meaningful death reduction targets, adding some real consequences to our safety targeting process is critical. And if Houston is serious about getting to Vision Zero, leaders should start using every tool available to them to get there.

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