Traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington came to a halt for a few moments midday Friday as demonstrators called for safer streets in the nation’s capital, in the wake of a string of collisions that claimed the lives of three people over Easter weekend.
A mammoth white sculpture — featuring baby shoes, helmets and bike parts — was erected outside the John A. Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, as hundreds of people turned out in a show of solidarity led by advocates, victims’ relatives and crash survivors. They spoke of anger and pain about the city’s recent road carnage.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable that people are dying on our streets,” said Christy Kwan, a District resident who choked up while reading the names of 128 people killed in vehicle crashes over the past four years. “These are not just numbers. They are more than a dot on a map.”
One of those names was David Salovesh, a local cycling advocate. His death, one of the three over Easter weekend, ignited a wave of protests and memorials and spurred angry tweets and messages directed at city leaders. It re-energized calls for traffic-law enforcement, safe spaces for bicyclists and pedestrians, and design changes to roadways to prevent cars from speeding.
News of Salovesh’s death spread beyond Washington. Across the country, from Boston to New York, Austin and Denver, cycling advocates showed support for Friday’s D.C. event by placing red plastic cups in unprotected bike lanes, to demonstrate how cars often cross over the bike-space buffers, putting riders at risk.
Over the past several years there has been a rise in cycling and pedestrian deaths in the United States, and trends suggest that fatalities will continue to increase in 2019. In the District, the upward trend has hindered the Vision Zero program of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), an effort to end traffic fatalities by 2024. The District logged 36 traffic deaths in 2018, up from 31 in 2017, according to city and federal crash data. Half the victims last year were on foot or two wheels.
This year, eight people have been killed in road collisions, and April has been the deadliest month yet, with four deadly crashes that left five dead — all allegedly involving reckless driving.
Salovesh, 54, was the first cyclist killed in the city this year. He was struck the morning of April 19 by a stolen minivan whose driver was fleeing at a high speed from police officers who had attempted to stop him, police said. Salovesh died at the scene.
The next morning, a driver lost control of his vehicle while traveling at “a high rate of speed” on a six-lane stretch of East Capitol Street NE, police said. The car struck a tree and caught fire. The driver, whose name has not been released, died.
Then on Easter Sunday, Abdul Seck, 31, of the Bronx was struck and killed while walking in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood. Police said a man speeding in a 2002 Chevrolet Cruze struck another vehicle near the intersection of V and 16th streets SE, pushing it into the pedestrian.
In all three incidents, speeding was a factor, according to police.
“Unlike Dave, unlike Abdul — who are gone — for some reason I survived,” Sherri Joyner told the crowd camping outside city hall on Friday. The District resident was rear-ended by a car six months ago while she was riding on Michigan Avenue. “There are too many [drivers] who do not care,” she said. “Share the road!”
After Salovesh’s death, more than 800 letters were sent to elected leaders this week, activists said, urging investments in safer road infrastructure. Some elected city officials also expressed anger, condemning as too slow the progress on bike infrastructure and the redesign of dangerous intersections.
“There is no sense of urgency to get the job done,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “In the meantime, our residents, our neighbors, our visitors are put at risk, and unfortunately we have lost several of them.”
Allen, a critic of Bowser’s road safety strategies, introduced emergency legislation Tuesday to expedite pedestrian and bike improvements along Florida Avenue NE, where Salovesh was killed.
Bowser, who was not at the Wilson Building on Friday, sent deputy Lucinda Babers to address the crowd. Traffic was detoured around the protest on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds rallied, holding signs that read “Safe Streets for All,” “Bowser Bowser Broken Promises Cost Lives” and “These are our streets.”
“We understand you, and we will take bold action to work towards Vision Zero,” Babers said amid interruptions from protesters shouting “That’s not enough!”
“We are going to do better,” Babers said. “We can, we should and we will.”
Demonstrators said they hope the massive “ghost” memorial built with wreckages of bikes, car doors, wheels, walkers and strollers would raise awareness and prompt action from city leaders to take bolder steps in the fight to end traffic deaths.
The recent deadly crashes, advocates and officials say, showcase a growing problem with reckless driving, chiefly speeding, in a city where the default speed limit is 25 mph.
City transportation director Jeff Marootian said the city shares the sense of urgency to get projects done and cited recent efforts to enhance safety, among them new and heftier fines for traffic violators and beefed-up enforcement of bike-lane and parking regulations. The city this year established more restrictions on left turns and right-on-red turns, and it opened a Vision Zero office last month to coordinate the citywide efforts to reduce traffic injuries and eliminate traffic fatalities in five years.
“We have many more to do, and we acknowledge that,” Marootian said.
Salovesh’s friends and fellow advocates say they hope his death will be a turning point, promising to beef up their activism.
Four years ago, Salovesh placed red plastic cups along the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane, each filled with water, documenting each time an intruding car flipped a cup. When the cup experiment didn’t lead to change, Salovesh created a fence with pool noodles. Those were torn. The city eventually installed rubber barriers.
He was a fierce advocate, friends and fellow activists say. They say their goal is to keep doing what he did — showcasing the ailments on city roadways — including snow-covered bike lanes in the winter and daily encounters with vehicles blocking the bike lanes — and calling for pedestrian crossroads, better signs and potholes repairs.
“Dave would be incredibly angry if we did not act,” said Allen, who last talked to Salovesh about street safety a week before his death. “He would want a fundamental shift. He would want to see an entire network of protected bikeways in our city. He would want to see the ability for every kid to walk to school safely.”