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D.C. Shows What To Do When Your Vision Zero Plan Is Failing

12:01 AM EDT on September 28, 2020

Cyclists on the Black Lives Matter Plaza, created by the Government of the District of Columbia, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Source: Ted Eytan via Creative Commons.

The nation's capital is finally putting some teeth into its failing Vision Zero initiative.

With fatalities so far this year exceeding all of last year's road deaths, the Washington, D.C. City Council last week passed the Vision Zero Omnibus bill, which will rethink city policy from the ground up. Advocates are hopeful that the bill will save more lives than the city's current Vision Zero initiative, which set an ambitious goal — the "zero" part — without ambitious policies.

"We have a goal of Vision Zero; we don't have a goal of Vision 10, and we don't have a goal of Vision 29," said Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, which has been pressuring the City Council this year as traffic deaths reached 29 so far, up from 27 in all of 2019, despite an historic drop-off in car traffic during the coronavirus lockdown.

"This bill is a great first step, but it's not the conclusion," he said. "Once this bill gets funded, we're going to be right back at it."

Among other reforms, the bill would:

    • require the city to draw up a safety redesign for any roadways where a collision resulted in a death or serious injury (though it's not clear whether the department will be required to actually execute the design changes).
    • accelerate the district's Complete Streets programs, requiring an update every four years. The city DOT must also submit "a Vision Zero infrastructure progress report" on the District’s 15 most dangerous pedestrian and cyclist corridors — with a plan to keep vulnerable road users safe.
    • add at least 125 new red-light cameras by 2024
    • ban right turns on red at intersections within 400 feet of schools, Metrorail stations, and other areas with high pedestrian traffic.
    • cut speed limits to 20 miles per hour or less on local and collector roads, though some advocates think D.C.'s high-speed arterials should also have been tamed.

Several areas of D.C. have notoriously high rates of pedestrian crashes — including in some of its most historically disinvested Black neighborhoods.

"There are still neighborhoods in D.C. without stop signs and crosswalks — basic things like that," said Lowery, adding that he will also push to make the limited right-on-red ban citywide at some point.

The bill will now proceed to the mayor's desk for approval, and then to Congress, both of which it is expected to pass. (Yes, your vague memory of high school civics class is correct: changes to D.C.'s local laws actually require House approval.)

The bill is a rare example of a city charting a new Vision Zero course midstream. Of the dozens of communities that have adopted VZ goals, no U.S. city has succeeded yet in saving all pedestrian and cyclists' lives in a single year— even though international communities like Oslo and Helsinki pulled off the feat last year. (D.C. is giving itself until 2024). Experts say that leaders around the country are waking up to the need to course-correct and adopt more aggressive strategies if deaths start climbing.

"These early adopting cities, including D.C., have been at it for long enough to recognize where bigger changes are needed," said Leah Shahum, founder and director of the national Vision Zero Network. "It's not surprising that the low-hanging fruit is what a lot of cities went after first, but now, they're really recognizing the need for deeper and more systemic change. This omnibus bill is a really good example of that recognition, and it's a good step forward."

The legislation will also open the door for better collaboration between dangerous driving enforcement efforts in adjacent Virginia and Maryland, a perennial problem in a city of commuters. Lowery expressed particular disappointment that the council failed to prioritize a protected bike lane network; the District only has 12 miles of separated facilities, despite having the second highest rate of bicycle commuters per capita in the nation, behind only Portland (the one in Oregon).

Other common-sense land-use reforms, like aggressive parking pricing and the conversion of heavily walked streets to pedestrian plazas, were left out entirely. National experts agree that there's even more that the council could have done — particularly for the most vulnerable road groups. The bill may indirectly help address some baked-in racial disparities, but it did not specifically address equity issues.

"Historically, traffic safety efforts have been racially inequitable and unjust. I didn't see a lot addressing that in this bill," said Shahum. "Looking at the inequitable impact of traffic fees and fines, and tying them to income, is one example. It's great that D.C. putting in more automated enforcement rather than officer enforcement, because that's been proven to work better, but there's still the question of where the cameras will be placed. And then, there are some really good accountability measures in this bill, but I don't see a lot of that around racial equity concerns. I don't think D.C. is any further behind on equity than other U.S. community, but the whole country is struggling with this, and we need to confront it."

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