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Vision Zero

‘We Have the Power To Reshape our Cities’: Hoboken Mayor Reflects on Seven Years of Vision Zero Success

"Change is scary and painful sometimes. And it would be easy to give in and say maybe now is not the time. But it is our duty, as elected officials, public policymakers, and advocates, like many of us here today, to face these challenges head on, and recognize that the status quo doesn’t always cut it."

Editor's note: A version of these remarks were delivered as the keynote address at the National Association of City Transportation Officials Confrenece in Miami, Florida. They have been edited slightly for length.

Hoboken, as many of you know, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, is a wonderful place that I have called home for over 20 years. It is a commuter’s dream, with public transportation options, human scale development, the best views of the New York City skyline, and most importantly, an incredibly engaged community. But it is not a place without challenges.

And no, I’m not talking about the challenges in response to our Vision Zero initiatives that we see on Twitter. Some of the fun tag lines that I read on a regular basis include phrases like “Zero Vision” – that’s so clever, right? Or calling flexible bollards “Bhallards” using my last name – Bhalla — to spell it out. Or renaming curb extensions, also known as bump-outs, as the “Bhalla bump-outs.” Funny, right? If anyone sells t-shirts later using Bhalla bump-outs, let’s work out a royalty and we can all make a few extra bucks.

These are comments I like to highlight to keep things in perspective. Believe me, I have thick skin and don’t lose sleep over them, and neither should you. It’s something I like to share because it is one small way that demonstrates implementing bold action through Vision Zero is tough work. It requires political courage. And it requires facing our challenges, head on, knowing that saving lives is worth fighting for.

Just five years ago, I signed an executive order that formalized our Vision Zero program, setting forth the goal of eradicating all traffic fatalities and injuries from our streets by 2030. We understood then, as we do now, that our roads should be avenues of connection, not peril. Places where children can walk safely to school, where seniors can run errands without feeling like they need to race across intersections, and where everyone can move about freely and securely. Places where anyone, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation, can get around safely.

As a part of Vision Zero, we have systematically redesigned our streets to focus on safety first for our most vulnerable. We have launched public awareness campaigns, enforced traffic regulations, and lowered our speed limit to 20 miles per hour citywide.

And most significantly, we have witnessed tangible results. We have not had a traffic death in SEVEN years, incidents of traffic injuries have declined 60 percent since last year alone, and we are well on our way to realizing our ambitious objectives.

Our commitment to Vision Zero extends beyond statistical achievements; it embodies a steadfast dedication to equity and justice. All of us here should recognize the disproportionate impact of traffic fatalities on vulnerable demographics, particularly children, seniors, and our low-income residents.

This is important because you won’t always hear a child or senior voicing their concerns at a town hall meeting or on Twitter. It often goes without saying, but Vision Zero successes in any community are saving lives every single day.  It’s the senior who crosses the street in a high visibility crosswalk, who in an old street design would have gotten hit by a careless driver. It’s the mother walking with her child knowing to avoid crossing the street with her stroller because of flashing LED signs. It is a daylit corner that prevented a car from blocking pedestrian sightlines and avoiding a traffic injury altogether.

One moment that spurred my conscience into action was attending the funeral of a beloved senior in Hoboken, Agnes Accera who sadly passed away when I was a Councilmember. Agnes was crossing our main commercial corridor. She was killed when a van was turning at an intersection when she was in the crosswalk. The tragedy could very well have been prevented had Washington Street had the redesign that was initiated just years later that included lead pedestrian interval times, pedestrian countdown timers, curb extensions, and more.

Agnes’ passing is a vivid example for me of Vision Zero’s importance in standing up for those who don’t always have a voice but are truly the most impacted.  It’s also a stark reminder that Vision Zero is not just about smart urban planning – it has the potential to save human lives.

While we continue our quest for safer streets, we know that our journey intersects with our battle against climate change, which also disproportionally impacts vulnerable communities. When we speak of Vision Zero, we are not solely discussing the reduction of traffic fatalities. We are talking about reimagining the very fabric of our urban mobility. We are discussing the establishment of transportation infrastructure that is more efficient, less polluting, and better equipped to confront the trials of a shifting climate. Because, in my mind, climate change poses the very real risk of cities like Hoboken and Miami from even existing in 100 years, if we don’t take bold action now.

The same year I launched our Vision Zero initiative, we launched our Climate Action Plan and since then, we have worked tirelessly to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and net-zero energy by 2030. We have invested in renewable energy sources like solar power and green infrastructure to diminish our carbon footprint and help mitigate flooding. Other successes include projects that fold into our Vision Zero program, including 47 rain gardens to mitigate flooding, some of the largest of which can detain up to 26 thousand gallons of rainwater, many of them doubling as curb extensions to reduce pedestrian crossing distances and improve visibility. We are now implementing the largest public EV charging program in New Jersey, expanding our composting options for residents, and creating more energy efficient buildings.

Change is scary and painful sometimes. And it would be easy to give in and say maybe now is not the time. But it is our duty, as elected officials, public policymakers, and advocates, like many of us here today, to face these challenges head on, and recognize that the status quo doesn’t always cut it.

Recently, we also opened one of, if not the country’s largest resiliency park, our 5-acre ResilienCity Park in Northwest Hoboken. This isn’t just a typical park – we went through a major engineering process to include an underground detention system that can store up to 1 million gallons of rainwater, along with above-ground green infrastructure to store another 1 million gallons. This includes 19 rain gardens and 11 rain garden curb extensions, as well as a bike share e station, a protected bike lane, and improved pedestrian crossings. We have two other resiliency parks constructed and two more in the pipeline all of which will be enjoyed by residents during sunny weather, and capture rainwater and alleviate flooding during storms.

I highlight these groundbreaking park projects because quite frankly it is my hope that this model of creating resiliency parks that accomplish three major goals – creating more outdoor areas for residents, adapting to the effects of climate change, and creating safer streets – can be replicated across the country. I challenge each and every one of you here today, to think about how you can implement these projects in your respective communities, and to go through that extra step of planning or engineering to create your city’s first resiliency park. Or on a smaller scale,  a city can add a rain garden curb extension during its next repaving project to provide the multiple benefits of safety, resiliency, and placemaking. Or to take a few parking spots away to add a bike share station that can serve many more people. Hoboken is an example that these safety and resiliency projects, both big and small, can in fact be done.

Although I will admit, these Climate Action Plan and Vision Zero initiatives are wonderful when completed, they are not always easy to implement. Change, by its very nature, can be difficult to embrace. For decades upon decades, densely populated cities like Hoboken have operated under a car-centric paradigm, and disrupting that mentality, with the aim of fostering safer streets and saving lives, invariably incurs backlash. And creating resiliency parks that, yes, cost millions of dollars more than it would have if we simply built a surface field or playground, could be easier and cheaper to build without flood infrastructure.

Change is scary and painful sometimes. And it would be easy to give in and say maybe now is not the time. But it is our duty, as elected officials, public policymakers, and advocates, like many of us here today, to face these challenges head on, and recognize that the status quo doesn’t always cut it. And that breaking with that status quo can quite literally save lives and protect our cities from climate change.

The Washington Street Story

A perfect example of this was the redesign of our most important commercial corridor. We planned a redesign of Washington Street after extensive public involvement that began under my predecessor. This project did not just repave the road, but, we also took an opportunity to integrate components that improve safety and resiliency.

Before the redesign, Washington Street felt hazardous to our most vulnerable road users: it had excessively wide pedestrian crossing distances, antiquated traffic lights with no pedestrian countdown timers, faded crosswalks with poor intersection visibility, and spacious travel lanes. Fast forward to today, over five years since we completed the Washington Street redesign, the evidence speaks for itself: crashes and pedestrian injuries have markedly diminished, rain gardens collect and filter rainwater during storms, businesses are flourishing, and more residents than ever before are frequenting our commercial corridor, including by bike.

When we started making these Vision Zero infrastructure improvements like curb extensions, the names “Bhalla bump outs” with “Bhalla-ards” were frequent in the vocabulary of critics of the project, as I mentioned. And, as we marched construction up Washington Street from downtown to uptown, certain members of the City Council contacted me and asked to change approved plans for curb extensions because they were worried about losing illegal parking spots near crosswalks.

To be frank, I was surprised by the requests. The data and studies were clear – curb extensions create safer streets, period, full stop. And my answer, emphatically, and unequivocally, was no. And again, today, curb extensions, many of which include green infrastructure, have become a part of our daily lives and have in fact been requested by members of the public within their own neighborhoods.

But as I point out the importance of breaking from the status quo, it is also important to admit when mistakes have been made. While the Washington Street redesign has undoubtedly been a major benefit to our residents, it could have had one more important addition. When the proposed redesign was before us when I was on the City Council, it included protected bike lanes all along Washington Street. Listening to some who wanted to maintain the status quo, I ended up voting for the street design that instead had unprotected bike lanes.

Looking back on it, I truly regret this vote. I know now that residents would have been better served with the added safety of a protected bike lane. I keep this vote in mind as Mayor when we take into consideration various infrastructure projects, and I will push for a protected bike lane on Washington Street the next time it is repaved. As policy makers, we should never shy away from mistakes of the past, and instead use them as a learning experience to do better next time.

Now, while we’re doing all that we can within our one square mile to make Hoboken a safer, more resilient and sustainable City, it’s incumbent on leaders and advocates across the country to adopt this same mentality, and to speak out when it’s important. Recently, the State of New Jersey dedicated nearly 11 billion dollars to widen the New Jersey Turnpike in Hudson County. This coincides with the State’s failure to adequately fund New Jersey Transit, the main mass transit link between New York and New Jersey, which is now facing a deficit with a 15 percent rate hike that will turn to 30 percent in six years.

To me, it is unfathomable that the State is actively pushing a highway widening project that history has repeatedly demonstrated does not work, as cars will inevitably fill the lanes, leading to more traffic and harmful emissions. Instead, we should be using the billions of dollars to invest in New Jersey Transit – so we can incentivize more residents to use mass transit, as opposed to cars. It is another example of how we need to break from the norm and car centric mentality that has persisted for decades to think critically about our future.

To conclude, I pose these questions to each one of you here today: will you join us? Will you pledge to render your streets safer, healthier, and more livable?  Will you combat the status quo when needed? Will you champion the cause of the most vulnerable among us by prioritizing complete streets and investing in infrastructure? If you are willing to heed this call, then I have no doubt that together, we can forge safer streets and more resilient cities in every community nationwide.

Through our collective resolve and unwavering commitment to progress, we have the power to reshape our cities, safeguard our communities, and forge a future defined by resilience and hope.

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