By Delger Erdenesanaa, DC EcoWomen member
Once a week in April and May, rather than taking the Metro to work, I rode my bike from Takoma to Union Station. My office was promoting a “Zero-Carbon Commute Challenge,” and two women in my neighborhood showed me the route. I was grateful.
The seven-mile trek over roads with cars, unprotected bike lanes, sidewalks and one short segment of bike trail was a lot for me. Hence, only once a week.
But distance wasn’t the real issue. The problem was safety.
Shortly into this routine, during a single weekend, cars hit and killed two people in D.C. Dave Salovesh was hit while riding his bike on Florida Avenue NE. Abdul Seck was hit while walking on the sidewalk on 16th Street SE. And a couple of weeks later, another pedestrian, Josh Williams, was killed on Southern Avenue SE.
Like many others, I wondered what it would take to change. The D.C. government has a road safety strategy. So do other cities, many of them part of the international “Vision Zero” movement, started in Sweden in 1995. I wondered if these cities were tackling the same problems, and if D.C. could learn from its peers.
Is It Possible to Reach Zero Road Deaths?
Mayor Bowser has committed to reaching zero road fatalities by 2024. Her Vision Zero is broad, calling for measures like:
A comprehensive “complete streets” law, which led to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Amendment Act of 2016
Starting this year, banning right turns on red lights at 100 priority intersections
Doubling the city’s mileage of protected bike lanes from 10 to 20
Filling gaps between sidewalks (the city filled more than 100 blocks of missing sidewalk since 2015)
D.C. is making progress, but it still has a way to go. In 2018, drivers killed 14 pedestrians, three cyclists and one person on an electric scooter. Advocates are pushing for urgent action.
Road Safety Lessons from Around the World
To find out more about other cities’ efforts, I reached out to my colleague Anna Bray Sharpin at World Resources Institute, which has a research program on urban mobility.
Sharpin mentioned that Auckland, New Zealand faced similar challenges to D.C. In Auckland, a city of 1.66 million with a fairly robust collection of local bike paths, getting from one path to another was tricky. That’s why, four years ago, the city began a massive effort to connect residential areas to downtown Auckland—all with “cycleways” that are protected from cars by physical barriers.
The recent Bicycle Architecture Biennale highlighted one section of the cycleway. Auckland converted a highway ramp into an eye-popping pink bike trail, which allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross busy roads safely. Sign me up for a brightly colored bicycle skyway across North Capitol Street!
While Auckland isn’t officially part of the Vision Zero network, New Zealand as a country is set to adopt a Vision Zero strategy in 2020.
Anna also pointed to London. In ten years, London reduced traffic deaths by 45 percent. How? Stricter speed limits played a huge role. Research shows that every 1 percent reduction in road speed reduces fatal crashes by 4 percent.
London is also one of a few cities that charge drivers to enter the city center. Taking cars off the streets might be the most effective strategy of all. In the first year of congestion charging, 30 percent fewer private cars entered the affected zone. At the same time, the city ran more public buses, and invested in bicycle infrastructure. This integrated approach has increased bicycle trips in London 135 percent since 2000.
What about the U.S.? Cambridge, MA recently passed a law to install bike lanes—protected ones at that—much more systematically. Cambridge already had a Bicycle Plan proposing a 20-mile network of protected bike lanes. The new law requires any reconstruction on roads identified in this plan to include installing those bike lanes, permanently.
A Path Forward for D.C.
Residents criticize the D.C. government for studying changes to dangerous roads for years without acting. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s recently introduced bike lane bill, mirroring the one in Cambridge, could help.
Charles Allen introduced a comprehensive bill that would give our Vision Zero more legal teeth, and make safer designs the default. For example, developers would face stricter requirements for crosswalks, bike lanes and stopping areas for rideshares and deliveries. Four-way stops would be the starting point for intersections of two-way streets in residential neighborhoods.
The Council is reviewing both bills. As members deliberate, they should look to cities like London and Auckland for the benefits of an inclusive transportation policy.
Delger Erdenesanaa is a DC EcoWomen member and communications specialist at World Resources Institute. She studied earth & ocean science in school, and can now be found thinking about how the global issues she works on 9-5 also impact DC and her personal life 24/7!
Photo Credits: Geoff Alexander CC BY 2.0, Daniel Lobo CC BY 2.0, Schwede66 CC BY-SA 4.0, La Citta Vita CC BY-SA 2.0, Ted Eytan CC BY-SA 2.0