In 2015, Mayor Bowser set a goal of zero fatalities and serious injuries to travelers of the District’s transportation system by 2024. For those of us who think this is a great goal, I have bad news and I have good news
The bad news is that this is very difficult, DC does not have a Vision Zero plan up to the task of achieving it, and the District isn’t even following through on their modest plan.
The Vision Zero program didn’t start out with the required forethought. Sweden invented the idea of Vision Zero in 1997, and at the time it set the goal of zero deaths by 2020, or in 23 years, and to cut fatalities in half by 2007. After a few years, they realized they weren't going to make those targets. They reset their goals to 50% by 2020 and to 0 deaths by 2050. So, Sweden — the inventors of Vision Zero — thinks hitting zero deaths is a half-century long project. Mayor Bowser announced that we would do it in nine. This is the equivalent of President Kennedy announcing the goal of getting to the Moon, not by the end of the decade, but by the end of lunch. How do we take that seriously?
The two-year Vision Zero action plan released in 2015 was never up to the task of the goal. It is filled with many good ideas and projects, all of which have the potential to save lives, but even if all were implemented, I wouldn’t expect it to move the needle much and it doesn’t help that many of the actions have not been done.
So what does make roads safer? There are a lot of steps that can make small marginal changes. But what really makes roads safer is less driving. For example, Paris cut its automobile mode share in half over the last 30 years and as a result, the fatality rate has dropped 70%. There is, it turns out, a direct relationship between a city’s automobile mode share and its fatality rate. The more people drive, the more dangerous streets are. So, if we want to save lives we need less driving.
Getting to zero deaths and serious injuries is a bold goal, and no one ever achieved something so bold with modest steps. If we really want to get there, we need to make large changes. Difficult changes. Bold changes. These changes will inconvenience drivers. We’re going to have to decide that we’re OK with that. If we’re not going to be OK slowing traffic down, providing a lower level of service for drivers, removing parking or making driving more expensive then we aren’t going to get there.
That’s the bad news. Now the good news.
The good news is that even without a Vision Zero plan up to the task, we do have plans that are.
In the MoveDC plan, it was recommended that we convert 70 lane miles of road to high-capacity transit, and add 200 miles of on-street bicycle facilities or trails. That requires a fundamental change of our road space. But such a change will make our roads safer and save lives.
Furthermore, in the SustainableDC plan, DC made the goal of reducing commuter trips made by car or taxi to 25% by 2032. Currently it’s at 42%. This will also make our roads safer and save lives.
We have the treasure map, we just need to dig where the X is.
We need to build a city that prioritizes transit, walking and biking. To do that we need to change our roads. It should absolutely make sense to anyone that if we dedicate our road space to the safest modes of travel, our roads will get safer. And we need to make this a priority over fixing alleys or reducing congestion. The flip side to encouraging these other forms of travel is that we also likely need to discourage driving with things like higher gasoline taxes, a downtown congestion tax, lower speed limits and reduced parking. Congestion pricing, along with being good policy, is Vision Zero.
We also need to change the focus of our enforcement and education programs. We need to rethink enforcement so that it’s focused first on improving safety not on moving traffic. We need to encourage drivers who’ve committed violations to learn how to be better drivers, not just fine them. And we need to find ways to get the worst drivers off the road with retesting and points for traffic-camera violations.
None of this is going to be easy. It won’t be technically easy and it won’t be politically easy. But there is nothing being proposed that hasn’t been done elsewhere with success. Parts will likely be unpopular and expensive. And we’re not going to get it done in 6 years, but we can make significant progress in a short time if we commit now. And, in the long run we can match the improvements seen in Paris over the next 30 years and in so doing save a lot of lives, while reducing congestion and improving the environment. We can, as one of your colleagues who I used to represent on the BAC used to say, build a more livable - emphasis on living - and walkable community. And bikeable. And scooterable.
The BAC thinks this is all too important for us to continue nibbling around the edges. The people of DC need a strong commitment to match this goal and as hard as it is, it’s not as grim as the alternative. It’s not as hard as watching people die.