This post has been updated.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Carol Regier on the news. Her husband, 64-year-old Thomas Hollowell, died last month when a speeding driver struck him on Constitution Avenue NW.
According to police, who made an arrest earlier this month, Hollowell was hit as he rode his bike across 12th Street NW on Sept. 24. The driver was a 20-year-old Suitland, Md., man who ran a red light “at a high rate of speed.” Hollowell was the 27th person to die on D.C.’s streets this year, including three bicyclists and 13 pedestrians, making a mockery of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “Vision Zero” goal of eliminating road deaths and serious traffic injuries by 2024. On Oct. 12, a 70-year-old woman died after being hit by a pickup truck while walking in a crosswalk at 15th and H streets NW.
As I watched Regier plead with drivers to slow down, I felt my anger rise — as it does daily each time I’m nearly hit by cars while walking in this city.
It happens most often when I’m trying to cross the street with the walk sign. Apparently, a lot of drivers are unable to grasp that when they have a green light, pedestrians on their right have the walk signal.
I theorized to Peter Koonce, the signals and street lights division manager in Portland, Ore., that a lot of suburban drivers aren’t used to looking for pedestrians.
“Oh, I think they see you,” he countered. “It’s a bullying thing.”
I’ve also almost been run over while crossing Louisiana Avenue NW at Constitution Avenue. Approaching the intersection, driver after driver will look down Constitution for a gap in the traffic — the way you do when you’re merging onto a freeway. And if there’s a space, they’ll run the red light without slowing down, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I have the right of way and am crossing right in front of them.
I’ve almost been hit while walking my dog on a marked crosswalk near H Street NE by cars running the clearly visible sign telling them to stop for pedestrians or face a $250 fine.
I’m not alone in thinking something fundamental has to change to make the streets safer and encourage more people to walk or bike, as other cities have already done.
At a hearing three days after Hollowell was killed, one person after another, for five hours, told D.C. City Council members about getting hit by cars.
Alex Baca, an activist with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said her jaw was broken when she was hit by a car while riding her bike. A third of the people in her office have been hit by cars, she said.
Many vented that the city isn’t putting in bike lanes fast enough or taking other measures to make biking or walking safer.
“Frankly, right now no one believes Vision Zero is a serious undertaking,” City Councilman Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, said at the hearing.
In a series of emails and phone conversations after the hearing, city transportation officials argued that the city is, in fact, taking steps to protect pedestrians.
Sixty-two of the 87 traffic projects the city has undertaken over the past three years were aimed at improving pedestrian safety, said Wasim Raja, associate director of the city’s traffic engineering and signals division. That includes adding 48 Leading Pedestrian Intervals at intersections, so that pedestrians crossing the street get a walk signal a few seconds before cars making a right get a green light. Ideally, this means drivers will be more likely to yield.
The intervals have been added to 200 intersections in the city, and 90 more will be added in November, mainly in Southeast and Southwest. The city has increased the time pedestrians have to cross the street and added more of those buttons you hit to get a walk signal at several locations. Bowser has also proposed raising fines for traffic violations.
But John Townsend, a lobbyist for the American Automobile Association, said at the hearing that the city has become too reliant on traffic cameras, and doesn’t have enough officers on the streets enforcing traffic laws. Drivers tend to drive with halos over their heads in the areas where they know there are cameras, he said, “but if I don’t know where the police officer is, I’m going to mind my P’s and Q’s whenever I drive around the city.”
Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh, D-Ward 3, floated the idea of separating pedestrians, bicycles and cars from each other, as some cities have done, by creating a bike lane next to the sidewalk, then a lane for parked cars, then the traffic lanes.
And other U.S. cities about D.C.'s size, like Portland, seem to have a different mindset about their streets, one that prioritizes pedestrian safety over speed of traffic.
In D.C., traffic light cycles are generally based on cars going the 25 mph speed limit. In Portland’s downtown, lights are timed for vehicles to hit green lights by going 13 mph.
In a phone call, Koonce said his city did this because it wants to slow cars down and create an environment conducive to walking.
On a corridor used heavily by bicyclists going to and from Portland’s downtown, the lights are set based on an uphill speed of 16 mph and 18 mph downhill, tied not to the speed of cars but to make it more likely bicyclists at a normal pace will hit green lights.
In D.C., traffic lights are set to complete the cycle from green to yellow to red and back to green again in 80 to 120 seconds. To encourage people to walk more — by not making them wait forever in the rain, cold or heat to cross — Portland sets its signals to complete the cycle in 60 seconds.
It’s a different way of thinking that doesn’t seem to be catching on here.
There’s been some signs of progress. But clearly, D.C. doesn’t do enough. Sixteen pedestrians and bicyclists have died this year, and there most likely will be more.
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