by Julia K. Stevenson
When committing to Vision Zero in 2015, Mayor Bowser made us all a promise: She pledged to bring roadway fatalities and serious injury numbers down to zero by 2024. She was acknowledging that such trauma is not an inevitable consequence of modern times; rather, that it is preventable if we commit to transforming our street and sidewalk system to one that prioritizes safety for all users.
“Safe Streets are what we need as a community, and together, we can get there. We cannot and will not accept the constant toll of traffic injuries and death in our community.” – From the mayor’s message in the Vision Zero DC 2022 update
2024 was a decent target year back in 2015, but it remains unattained. The number of traffic fatalities in DC has actually risen nearly every year since.
In March of this year, DC Auditor Kathy Patterson blamed the Bowser administration, which “failed to follow the ambitious announcement in 2015 with appropriate resources in both funding and manpower.” (Read the audit and The Washington Post report.)
This is unacceptable.
Vision Zero is a global movement, and if we want our neighborhood to benefit from this laudable presumption and realize this fundamental goal, we must be intentional about the safety of people on our roads.
The Connecticut Avenue Multimodal Safety Improvement Project is just such an opportunity. This is a chance to play a constructive role in putting an end to ever more people killed while walking, biking or driving. Mayor Bowser, by following through, would make good on her promise to create a safer environment for travel, one that will benefit all residents and visitors to our neighborhood.
From car-centered to people-centered transportation
I think it would be helpful to take a look at the safety-conscious context within which the Connecticut Avenue study developed. Perhaps it will help us all endorse a common vision of road and traffic safety.
Historically, U.S. transportation policies have focused on the automobile, and the typical calculus was concerned with efforts to ensure that drivers travelled with as little delay as possible from point A to point B. This model also included unlimited parking wherever, no matter the context.
The Federal Highway Administration is now championing a Safe Systems approach to road infrastructure. It is premised on the acknowledgement that humans make mistakes, so we should be designing roads that lessen the likelihood of those mistakes occurring while driving.
Street design provides guidance and visual cues – it influences behavior – so if designed properly, streets can be mostly self-enforcing. These are road systems then, either built or modified, that aim to safely tolerate human errors.
Strategies for implementing such safety-conscious thinking include narrowing traffic lanes, adding curb extensions and safety islands, enhancing the visibility of crosswalks, and physically separating people traveling at different speeds – hence, protected bike lanes.
“The District is refocusing our efforts on Vision Zero by embracing a Safe Systems approach… the District is authorized to design roads that make operating at safe speeds intuitive, and by introducing an inclusive and holistic design approach… in every project we undertake.” – Vision Zero DC 2022 update
Complete Streets is another policy and design approach for addressing problematic transportation issues. It is actively encouraged by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In 2022, the National Complete Streets Coalition released a report called “Dangerous by Design.” This report addressed the increase in traffic deaths and critical injuries nationwide. And as with Safe Systems, it posited that the way we’ve been designing our streets is part of the problem. It said that the most dangerous streets we have are “the big, fast, wide streets designed for cars to run at expressway speeds through busy cities and towns.”
According to those who study traffic safety, speed limits, on their own, are insufficient. Sitting behind the wheel of a car (and increasingly large pickups and SUVs), people are likely to drive at the speed that it feels as if that road was built for. And Connecticut Avenue was built for speed. In transportation engineer parlance, it is an arterial road – long and straight, having clear sight lines and multiple lanes – design characteristics that foster faster, deadlier speeds.
The Complete Streets design concept seeks to ensure safe access for all users of the road, as does Safe Systems, but in addition, Complete Streets specifically promotes the use of other mobility devices. Such an approach reevaluates road systems by looking afresh at how road use could be enhanced for greater benefit. This means that cars must give space to other modes of transportation, necessarily, and given the unique history of American roadway systems, persistent inequities associated with these past approaches need to be confronted and fairly worked out.
“Riding a bicycle isn’t a revolutionary act; it’s a common way for millions of Americans to get from place to place each day.” – Smart Growth America
Only 64.3% of DC households had one or more motor vehicles in 2021, the lowest percentage nationwide. Knowing this, to continue to preference cars on our roadways is an inequitable distribution of monies and resources.
A further significant inequity is to be found when the environmental impacts of various transportation options are assessed. Climate change is increasingly threatening our health, economic vitality and the world’s ecology. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2021, the transportation sector was the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and more than 20 percent of transportation emissions came from passenger vehicles.
To allow cars to continue to dominate our roads and to cede so much land use to storing them when not in use, actively encourages their dominance in the transportation landscape, despite all other considerations.
This is unsustainable.
The Connecticut Avenue plan
And yet we have been given a remarkable chance to transform Connecticut Avenue into a road that works for everyone. In December 2021, after years of study by DC’s Department of Transportation, and much strategizing and conferencing with numerous stakeholders, Mayor Bowser committed to the Connecticut Avenue Multimodal Safety Improvement Project’s Concept C.
This plan laid out a number of improvements, such as adding refuge islands and curb extensions, both of which will shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, and adding left- and right-turn lanes at various intersections, which will add coherency to the flow of traffic. And the plan included a well-connected set of protected bike lanes.
People feel safe on them. And in truth they are. “If you build it, people will ride.”
DC was one of the first U.S. cities to start building modern protected bike lanes, and a DDOT study showed that bike traffic in those areas grew seven times faster than the citywide rate.
When a protected bike lane was built on a particular street in NYC, there was a 190% increase in weekday ridership, and 32% of those biking were children under the age of 12.
Connecticut Avenue is our main street and we can redefine its character while making it safe. It is important that everyone be aware that when Concept C was selected in 2021, it was the compromise – concessions had been made on all sides so no one group who had participated in this long process was completely satisfied.
And yet as it stood, in late 2021, it was a remarkable plan because of the promise it held for making more people safe on Connecticut Avenue than ever before. What a terrible shame it would be to back away from this promise. Protected bike lanes are such a simple approach, akin to sidewalks for pedestrians. Trade-offs get made: street parking must give way so as to enhance the safety of cyclists and scooter riders.
As cities all across the country have found, safety enhancements produce almost immediate results; in places where streets have been redesigned, there are significant drops in fatalities and serious injuries. Isn’t this something we should be aspiring to?
We are all jockeying for space but when considering how we want our roads to function, we must be fair. Everyone outside of a car is vulnerable – shockingly so. Most people understand the obligation to keep pedestrians safe – why is it that, too often, we expect bicyclists and scooter riders to ride unprotected in the midst of 2,500+ pound motor vehicles?
I wish we would all keep uppermost in our minds that the safety of all users should always be our highest priority. As a community I hope we are capable of embracing this.
Julia K. Stevenson is a lifelong resident of Washington DC. She is on ANC 3F’s Streets and Sidewalks Committee. She lives with her family on Albemarle Street.