Last week, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) issued a comprehensive — and potentially controversial — action plan for improving traffic safety in the nation’s capital.
The group is calling for congestion-tolling and other steps to limit the number of vehicles that enter the city, raising residential parking fees, banning right turns on red and requiring residents to take a drivers test again when renewing licenses. WABA also wants a lot more bike lanes — 25 miles a year of them, or about five times the current pace. Above all, the group called on the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and other city agencies to cut the red tape that has slowed the process of making the District’s streets safer.
The action plan comes as fatal crashes have risen this year despite the city’s Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. It also follows a request by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for big ideas.
We talked with Colin Browne, the association’s director of communications and one of the people who helped develop WABA’s action plan. The following Q&A has been edited for publication:
Q: Why did you come out with the report now?
The timing turned out to be a little serendipitous with the mayor’s request for big ideas. But over the course of the past year or so — and talking to folks about Vision Zero and our concerns about the status of the city’s progress — we kept sort of encountering, “What do you actually want?” There was a bunch of stuff that seemed obvious to us, but apparently isn’t, about what a better-functioning and safer traffic system looks like. So we started compiling a laundry list of stuff.
Q: What item or items on your list deserve the highest priority?
I think the most important one is right at the front: the whole decision-making process right now is just too slow and has a really strong status quo bias. It’s really hard to achieve anything.
Q: You urge the city to build 25 miles a year of new bike lanes, when the city’s on a pace to add only five this year. Doesn’t that seem wildly optimistic?
This is exactly the same problem. We have this ambitious multimodal plan that came out a few years ago called Move D.C. that calls for 80 miles of new bike lanes. In order to get to that goal, we were looking at a number like 25 miles a year.
If the mayor and the various different Vision Zero-affiliated agencies are serious about getting to zero, they need to address these structural problems.
We had this hearing back in September or October — a [D.C.] Council hearing — and it was quite moving: There were eight hours of testimony of people who were hurt or had family members who got killed trying to move through the city in one way or another. And the DDOT director was there, and his response to this emotional eight hours was, “Well, we’re doing everything we can.”
That’s a frustrating answer to begin with, more frustrating because we have not heard the mayor, or that agency, or the government writ large say, “What do we need to change to be able to do more, more quickly?” This is literally a life-or-death problem, and we’re not moving fast enough.
Q: What’s the bottleneck?
We have a few in the document here. But there are also some we just can’t see from the outside. There is some big wonky stuff. Are you familiar with the Level of Service planning methodology?
Q: Can you explain for folks like me whose eyes glaze over at phrases like that?
This is a set of parameters for designing and measuring how effective a road is that was built to ensure some standardization across the interstate highway system in the ’60s. So it’s about moving people very fast — moving cars very fast. It has crept into the way we plan our cities and our urban streets.
Q: So you’re saying the Level of Service metric requires planners to figure out how to move vehicles from point A to point B the fastest, correct?
Pretty much. So if you have these ambitious safety goals and ambitious sustainability goals citywide, those are in conflict [with LOS metrics]. But it’s just a planning methodology. It’s not written in stone.
Q: WABA urges the city to adopt instead a Vehicle Miles Traveled standard, as California has done. What would that mean?
Instead of measuring your street based on how quickly it’s moving cars, and sort of minimizing delay for drivers, you measure your street design based on how is this reducing driving. The least wonky way to describe it is, right now we build our streets to accommodate cars, and what we want is to build our streets to accommodate moving people.
Q: What kind of response have you received to the idea that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) should retest everyone who’s renewing a driver’s license? Why is this important?
I haven’t heard anything yet. There already is a lot of passive educational stuff that’s built in at the DMV. Our proposal is this is something you could do online. It shouldn’t take very long.
Especially in a region like this where we have a lot of folks who didn’t get their licenses here, if you have a transportation system that works differently than somewhere else, you need a way to make sure that people who are starting to participate in that system know the rules. This is a way to address that.
Q: WABA’s action plan refers to New York City’s relatively quick transformation of part of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza. Do you have a location in mind where D.C. could do the same thing?
I think we’d like to see spaces like that in a lot of different places. New York has some sort of cool, iconic opportunities like that; I think D.C. could use the same thing.
But the idea is that there is this big chunk of space between buildings, basically — it’s like the sidewalk, parking, the street. And all of that is public space, and it’s public space geared toward moving people. But it doesn’t have to be allocated the way it is. There are a lot of compelling reasons in a lot of places to make more space for people doing other things than driving.
Q: Are you thinking of the makeshift pedestrian plaza that has existed on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House since its closure for national security reasons years ago?
Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s an interesting spot from a bicyclist’s perspective. But it’s great. There’s tourism happening there, but there are also people playing roller-blade hockey. The challenge there is, it is often closed without notice by the Secret Service. That space is both great but also problematic because the city doesn’t have any control over it.
Q: WABA says the city needs to restrict vehicular traffic in the city through congestion tolling. Do you have a model for that?
We don’t have a specific model. There are a lot of factors here that make it complicated — not undoable, but complicated.
We were really glad to see the Greater Washington Partnership put out a similar proposal a couple weeks ago. There are a bunch of different ways you could do it. London just has a line around part of the city and if you drive through it, it costs 5 pounds or something like that.
[If you’re] driving a single-occupancy car into the city, you’re taking up a lot of space, and you’re using a lot of shared resources. If you’re trying to keep a city sustainable and safe, it seems reasonable to assign a cost to the use of those resources.
Q: What would you say to those suburbanites who feel they have no other choice but to drive and that WABA’s action plan seems like one more way to soak them?
If you feel like driving to work or driving to get where you’re going is your only safe option, the system has already failed. We’re a major metropolitan area. People shouldn’t have to make a five-figure capital investment in an automobile just to get to work every day. That’s frustrating. That’s something that’s going to take some time to solve. But this is how we get there.
The other thing that’s important to think about that’s important is there’s a real difference between something that is unsafe and causes people to die, and something that is inconvenient and causes you to take more time to get where you’re going.
Q: You mentioned the “bad transportation decisions” in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs that D.C. sometimes has to live with, and the action plan talks about how D.C. is often at the mercy of the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG). Can you elaborate?
I don’t have a specific example of where Fairfax County has said, “No, you can’t do that.” But a good example is a section of the planned Metropolitan Branch Trail. And it’s been part of that plan since the 1990s, and the trail is moving slowly.
There is a lot of stuff where the regional planning process is slowing down D.C.’s ability to implement things quickly. Some of that comes from COG, and I think some of that comes from caution on the part of DDOT.
Q: WABA also seems to be saying that DDOT gives in to NIMBYism too often. Can you explain what you mean by urging the city to reduce the influence of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?
I don’t think that’s what we’re proposing. I think what we’re saying is the city is asking the wrong questions.
We’re seeing this play out up in Chevy Chase — there was reporting on it last year — where you have streets that don’t have sidewalks. That is an obvious safety concern that’s in complete violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the District’s Complete Streets policy.
DDOT shows up to those meetings, and they don’t say, “This street is unsafe and needs a sidewalk — how would you like to build it?” They say, “We’re thinking of putting a sidewalk here, what do you think?” And so they’re framing the question as, “Should we make this safety improvement or not?” — instead of, “We want your input on how we implement this safety improvement.”
Sidewalks should not be negotiable.
Q: The action plan calls for steps to reduce distracted driving. How?
If we had the answer to that in concrete terms we’d all be rich. It’s an endemic problem. It’s nuts.
I think there is an enforcement element to it. Because we’re not the federal government, the city has limited control over what it can say over automobile and device manufacturers. D.C. doesn’t have the power to say, “Your phone must turn off automatically when you’re driving in the District.” That’s a federal-level thing, unfortunately.
And enforcement is really tricky. Intentionally or not, if you end up with a situation where you have police or other law enforcement folks pulling people over, you end up with a situation where people of color and other marginalized communities are getting harassed more often by police.
My sense is that the way you solve this problem is, you give people better options. A lot of people take Metro because you can read the Internet on the Metro.
Q: What’s the price tag on all this?
Some of it is expensive, some of it isn’t. I don’t have a number, but we spend a lot of money on our transportation system already. We spend millions and millions of dollars rebuilding our highways, and a lot of this is cheaper than that. We talk a lot about reallocating space, and a lot of this is about reallocating the way we spend money on that space.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Enforcement is something that just comes up all the time with this stuff.
You can basically park in a crosswalk or a bus stop without consequences in this city pretty much anytime you want. Some of that is a design problem, and we need to be building spaces where it’s harder to do that. But the other thing that I think is really important is enforcement is going to be part of it, and it needs to be about changing behavior — not about generating revenue and not about punitive fines.
And so moving forward, I think the city needs to be investing some time and some resources in figuring out what is the enforcement activity that changes behavior — not what is the enforcement activity that generates revenue or that makes people feel bad.
One of the big ones that I’ve seen have success in some other cities is this notion of deferred disposition. If you get a speeding ticket, it doesn’t go on your record immediately. There’s a six-month grace period. And if you don’t get another one, it gets wiped.
The idea is this is an informational moment. Maybe you didn’t know what the speed limit was, or maybe you didn’t know you were speeding. Here’s an opportunity to change your behavior. It’s more important that you stop speeding than that you pay the city $100.