It may not be possible to be upbeat about one of the most depressing topics in transportation.
“It’s the paralysis of thinking that there’s nothing we can do that, I think, puts the most lives at risk,” he said.
As his department was issuing $800 million in safety grants to more than 500 communities this past week, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Democratic presidential candidate spoke to The Washington Post about tapping data and local expertise to focus on safety during what he called a “season of building” brought on by the 2021 infrastructure law.
Q: Reading through the list of projects receiving funding, you get the sense these measures could actually save lives. It seems obvious, but how did that shape which ones were selected?
A: This is a very data-driven approach. That’s one of the main things that we looked at in selecting the grants. And, unfortunately, there are enormous volumes of data on this because we have so many fatal crashes in the U.S. It’s about 40,000 a year, comparable to the rate of gun violence. Of course, it’s never as easy as saying that if you do this one thing in this one place, it’s guaranteed that you’ll never have a problem. But we do know that there are proven safety countermeasures that will help make a given street or intersection safer than it’s been in the past. We’ve been able to direct this funding toward a lot of the hot spots because there’s so much data around where the worst incidents are occurring.
Q: I was also struck by how almost mundane some of the projects seem — sidewalks and crosswalks and pedestrian refuge islands. It seems like people know what they need to do. So why hasn’t it been done?
A: I put myself in the shoes of a mayor or community that knows exactly what they want to do but haven’t had the funding to do it with. And that’s one of many reasons the president’s infrastructure package is right on time. It’s not just the big, gleaming roads, bridges and tunnels, but the little changes that federal funding can make at a high-crash intersection that are literally lifesaving. Even with this unprecedented funding, we can’t get to everything. But to be able to fund hundreds of communities developing their plans and dozens of communities turning those plans into physical reality is something we have not been able to do before.
Q: There’s long been some sensitivity about pointing out the most dangerous places because it might embarrass a state. Why was the decision made to make it easier, including through a series of new maps, for people to see where the problems are?
A: We have to face it in order to fix it. We’re not out to blame any community for a safety problem that’s emerged, especially knowing the underinvestment that has happened nationally in our roads and streets and infrastructure. What we know is that when we target these investments and interventions where they’re going to make the biggest difference, we’re saving a lot of lives. And, as with so many things in America, often it’s the lower-resourced or lower-income areas that bear the brunt of this through no fault of those who live there, but through choices that have been made over the years that we can now reverse or remedy.
Q: Some of the states with the worst records, such as Mississippi and South Carolina, have death rates that are several times what they are in places like Massachusetts. How do you close that gap?
A: Strategies are going to need to be different in different places. We’re working everywhere, from urban areas like Detroit and Charlotte, to rural Iowa, where their problem is lane departures. We really need to meet communities where they are. Rural areas tend to have longer open roads and higher speeds. You can adjust for that in ways that can save lives. It’s just different than what you do in slower, denser areas where pedestrians or bicycles can be in conflict with the path of a car or truck, for example. We’re trying to lay out what we know works and allow communities to customize their approaches.
Q: It seems like this is an exercise in soft power. You’re essentially seeding places around the country to provide good examples. But are you concerned that the improvements in places you have influence over, through these grants, might get swamped by states building as they always have with funds from the infrastructure law?
A: Well, it’s one of the reasons why we’re in dialogue with the states even on the funding they can use as they see fit. When I’m with state [transportation department] heads, I know they care about safety, too. There are a lot of areas where we’re not imposing something, we don’t have the authority even if we wanted to, but we can provide data and encouragement, and remind them of things that they might not even have realized they can do with their federal money.
A lot of people snicker at the idea that you could have a nationwide rate of zero when it comes to traffic fatalities, even though we often have zero when it comes to passenger airline fatalities. But I think the best way to get closer to zero as a country is to demonstrate that it can happen somewhere in particular, as it has in Hoboken and Jersey City, and Edina, Minnesota, places that made it to zero deaths. The more we can add to that roster, the less this feels like a pie-in-the-sky goal and the more a community is saying, “I want to be like these other communities that have already gotten there.”
Q: When speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently, you said: “Done right, every infrastructure choice is also a safety choice, just like it’s a choice about our economy and about our climate.” That’s a heavy weight to put on every transportation project out there. What do you mean in practical terms?
A: America is in a season of building right now, and we need to make sure that we build good things well. Part of that is making sure we’re intentional about what we are solving for. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was mostly speed. That had benefits, but also came at a great cost in terms of safety, in terms of whole cities that got reshaped to kind of revolve around their highways. It certainly had consequences in terms of climate. So this time around, we’ve got to make sure that we recognize all of the different things that are at stake, whether you’re redoing a crosswalk or whether you’re digging a $10 billion tunnel.
We’re prioritizing the things that we think transportation policy most needs to support: safety, jobs, climate, equity, keeping America competitive for the future. These things are at stake in every part of our transportation policy. That doesn’t mean we need to solve the world’s problems with every bridge or crosswalk. But it does mean that we should account for the results and the consequences of all these transportation moves we’re making, because half-a-trillion dollars is going to make a big difference, one way or the other.
Q: At more than 40,000, the number of road deaths is so high it makes some people look away or just say it’s the price we pay to get around. How do you reach people on this topic?
A: Everybody has their own horror story. Everybody in this country knows somebody who’s been lost to traffic crashes. So I think it’s less about proving that this is bad and more about demonstrating that this is preventable. That’s why I want to keep shining a light, as we did at the mayors’ conference, on the places that are really making strides here. It’s the paralysis of thinking that there’s nothing we can do that, I think, puts the most lives at risk. And that’s part of what these grants are about.
You know, it’s 37 grants and several hundred planning grants. Sure, some of them will be more effective than others. But that’s exactly why we need to be doing this in lots of places and continue letting the data guide us on what works most effectively with these dollars, so that we can double down on what’s most successful.
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