D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) stood at the muddy corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues SE on Monday and pledged a new effort to eliminate pedestrian deaths in the growing city.
The plans are still in flux, which officials from her transportation team said is in some ways the point: the problem is diffuse and complex and the solutions touch on everything from behavioral science and psychology to road design and sidewalk concrete pouring.
Workers from more than a dozen District agencies — including the health department and homeland security — met last month to start hashing out detailed strategies on enforcement, public education, street engineering and data collection. Their work is inspired, in part, by a campaign led by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to draw support and ideas from cities nationwide to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. So far, more than 160 communities in 44 states have signed up for Foxx’s “Mayors’ Challenge,” and the former Charlotte mayor is bringing in officials from around the country for a summit Thursday.
“We need to achieve a culture change,” Bowser said, noting that the District needs to both increase the installation of countdown signals — so people know long they have to get across the street — and to actually, well, follow the signals.
Calling out to the mayor over the sounds of cars and buses and sirens on a stretch of road that officials said has seen 90 crashes in three years, Mary Cuthbert, a neighborhood advisory commissioner, said persuading people to be safe is a persistent problem.
“If we want safety, we need to teach people how to cross the street by the light. Our young people cross the street anywhere. And we need to correct that behavior,” Cuthbert said.
Last month, Bowser signed on to a “Vision Zero” approach, which had origins in Sweden and has been adopted in New York and other U.S. cities. Its aim is to eliminate traffic-related deaths and serious injuries, with an emphasis on pedestrians and bikers but also including drivers. The District’s serious-injury tally reached 1,688 in 2013, according to the city’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Between 2008 and 2012, the annual average number of deaths was 26, according to the plan, which was released last fall. The District’s Pedestrian Advisory Council tallied 10 pedestrian deaths last year.
George Branyan, coordinator of the District Department of Transportation’s pedestrian program, said officials want to take some of the intricate thinking and planning that has long gone into making roads safer for motorists and apply that rigor to designing streets, intersections and traffic patterns for people out walking or biking.
“The philosophical underpinning is we should have a transportation network that is forgiving enough that when people make mistakes they don’t pay for it with their lives,” Branyan said. “We always had that in highway engineering: clear zones, breakaway signs, so that when you do lose control of your car you don’t die. That’s just a lot easier to do on a rural highway than it is in a city. But it can be done in a city. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Speed is a particular key, Branyan said. Statistics from U.S. and British government transportation experts, he said, show that a pedestrian hit by a car going 40 mph has about a 90 percent chance of dying. But if a pedestrian is hit by a car going about 25 mph, it’s about an 80 percent chance of survival. “It makes a huge difference how fast a car’s going when you hit a pedestrian or a bicyclist,” Branyan said. Speed cameras have helped reduce speeds and deaths, he said.
Tackling particular problem intersections has been an ongoing challenge and something of a moving target, said D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the panel’s transportation committee. Two years ago, DDOT provided a list of 57 dangerous intersections. In recent weeks, transportation officials said they made improvements to 52 of them, Cheh said, although she’s still trying to understand what exactly was done.
“I want to know what they did. I want to know from the neighborhoods, is it working?” Cheh said.
Bowser said the intersection and area around Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues is slated for $5 million in improvements, including new pedestrian islands, improved sidewalks and ramps for people with disabilities, part of an effort to bring better technology and roadway fixes along Martin Luther King Avenue.
As for investments in the broader Vision Zero effort, Bowser was circumspect. “All of my agencies right now are competing for those very scarce resources, and I’m going to make sure that my vision is backed up in the budget,” she said.