Janette Sadik-Khan: Car Crashes Are an Epidemic We Can Solve

"Government and public health officials routinely face problems that exceed their capacities and powers. Traffic deaths are not one of them," says the transportation aide to would-be president Mike Bloomberg.

Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
Seth Solmonow and Janette Sadik-Khan, via Bloomberg.

There’s an epidemic killing millions of people across the world — and no, we’re not talking about the coronavirus. We’re talking about the pandemic levels of traffic violence on our streets, which claim the lives of 3,698 people worldwide every day. And in an explosive new article from Foreign Affairs, sustainable transportation luminaries Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow are putting rest to the notion that there’s nothing we can do to cut the death toll.

Sadik-Khan is most famous for serving as Mike Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner when he was mayor of New York City — a tenure whose highlights included the establishment of the nation’s largest bike-share program and the conversion of over 180 acres of car-dominated city streets into infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. She’s making waves lately, too, as one of the brains behind the bold, sustainable-transportation-focused infrastructure plan that would-be President Bloomberg released earlier this year.

Solomonow is also a long-time Bloomberg collaborator; he was Sadik-Khan press secretary, and is currently a manager with Bloomberg Associates, working to frame a message about transportation that would radically re-orient city space away from cars and towards human beings.

Sadik-Khan’s and Solomonow’s article should be required reading for every American road user, and you can get it in full with a subscription. But here are just a few of the highlights to whet your appetite:

Traffic violence is a bigger killer than most people think — and it’s on the rise

Car crashes killed 1.35 million people in 2016 — the last year for which World Health Organization data are available — a grisly 3,698 deaths a day. Traffic injuries are now the top killer of people aged five to 29 globally, outpacing any illness and exceeding the combined annual casualties of all of the world’s armed conflicts. And the toll continues to rise: it grew by 100,000 in just three years, from 2013 to 2016. This does not include the up to 50 million people who are hit and injured by motor vehicles each year, some grievously, but who nonetheless survive.”

We know what the root of our traffic violence crisis is — but we’re not doing anything about it

“To the extent that policymakers have reacted to this crisis, they have tended to do so through incremental measures: passing universal seat- belt laws, mandating air bags and antilock brakes, lowering speed limits, and raising penalties for drunk driving. These are valuable steps, but they are nowhere near enough. That’s because the root cause of traffic danger isn’t defective cars or unruly drivers. It’s the roads themselves.” 

It all started when we started widening roads to “solve” car congestion

“In 1955, the urbanist Lewis Mumford noted that widening roads to solve traffic congestion was like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity — it temporarily eased constraints but did not solve the underlying problem. 

The result of a century of car-focused design is that on every continent, roads and lanes tend to be wider than is necessary or safe. Although this keeps cars farther apart, bigger lanes — usually around 12 feet wide — reduce what traffic planners call “friction,” a healthy interaction among drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and others that induces safer behavior. Inevitably, roads designed for speed are deadlier. Psychology plays a role — oversize lanes encourage drivers to drive at dangerous speeds and to view everyone else on the street as obstacles—but so does physics. A pedestrian struck by a car moving at 25 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of surviving. If that car is moving at 40 miles per hour, the  odds drop to 50 percent. 

In the United States, federal and state street-design guidelines explicitly promote wider lanes, even though they are known to be deadlier. In other words, far from being “accidents” — and indeed, the World Health Organization and other traffic-safety proponents have shunned that term — traffic deaths are caused by roads that are operating exactly as designed.”

Instead of fixing bad road designs, we still focus on the wrong things: blaming “distracted pedestrians,” futile driver training efforts, and writing laws we often fail to enforce

As well meaning as most traffic-safety laws tend to be, they aren’t enough. Many societies have already had a century of practice training better drivers and writing better safety laws. Despite the laws on the books, vast numbers of crashes involve excessive speed, a failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, or drinking and drug use. In 2017, 29 percent of traffic deaths on American roads involved alcohol. An estimated ten percent of crashes involved distracted drivers, many of whom were using cell phones. Instead of trying to legislate safety, a more effective approach is to design it.”

We can redesign every road to end traffic violence. But first, we have to re-think what transportation agencies can do

“Although the average transportation agency confines itself to repairing potholes, repaving roads, maintaining signs, and so on, there is much more that municipal governments can do. From 2007 to 2013, both of us worked in the New York City DOT under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Our approach to traffic safety was simple and cost effective. Instead of dreaming up megaprojects, we took a long, hard look at the streets we already had, this time from the perspective of the most vulnerable people.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Department of Transportation redesigned lengthy portions of 137 streets and revamped 113 intersections — expanding the space to walk, decreasing crossing distances for pedestrians, and making streets navigable enough for children, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities to cross. By narrowing lanes and putting drivers in closer contact with pedestrians and cyclists, the redesigns forced drivers to proceed, turn, and change lanes more slowly and predictably.”

New York isn’t the only city that should inspire urban planners to make some big changes to the streetscape if they want to save lives

“Most of the time, urban planners do not have to reinvent the wheel. They have the experience and testimony of others to draw on. For instance, the Global Street Design Guide synthesizes the real-world experience and practices of experts from 72 cities spanning 42 countries. The guide has now been adopted by 100 cities and several nongovernmental organizations focused on traffic safety. It represents a sea change for street design, putting pedestrians and cyclists, rather than freight and private vehicles, at the top of the street hierarchy. 

Often, all it takes to make streets safer is paint, planters, and basic materials already in stock in city depots, such as stones, signs, and flexible traffic posts.”

Autonomous cars aren’t the answer

“It’s all well and good to claim that driverless cars operating in a closed, connected system would be safer. But everything is different on the open road, where those cars would need to drive alongside hundreds of millions of human-driven vehicles, whose operators are still speeding, cutting one another off, and jockeying for position. There has been only one death involving an autonomous car, but even one death doesn’t speak well of the technology’s capabilities in city centers alive with thousands of human actors — a jumble of people walking, biking, making deliveries, panhandling, and so on. 

Transportation officials can’t wait for driverless cars to make streets safe. Sidewalks won’t extend themselves; crosswalks won’t magically appear. Countries can’t bet their futures on the promise that better cars or better drivers will reverse the damage caused by a century of car-obsessed roadway design. If cities want infrastructure that accommodates all users, they need to lead by example and reclaim, redesign, and reconstruct their roads.” 

Ending traffic deaths is not impossible

“Government and public health officials routinely face problems that exceed their capacities and powers. Traffic deaths are not one of them. Indeed, traffic-related fatalities are unusual in that their causes are as straightforward as their solutions. Eliminating most health hazards on the roadway doesn’t require new technologies or unsustainable investments. It requires changing how we view traffic deaths and injuries, treating them as avoidable byproducts of a crisis in urban design rather than an inevitable feature of modern life.” 

 

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