Despite decades of focusing our national infrastructure on personal vehicles (often to the exclusion and outright detriment of other modes of transportation), modern humans get around far more than planes, trains, and automobiles these days. With our city streets and suburban neighborhoods increasingly populated by an ever-expanding variety of vehicles—from e-scooters to city bikes to autonomous EV taxis and internal combustion SUVs. The task of accommodating these competing priorities to ensure that everyone in the city, regardless of physical or financial ability, can get where they are going is becoming increasingly challenging.
Inclusive Transportation: A Manifesto for Divided Communities, by civil engineer Veronica O Davis, highlights the many failures (both procedural and structural) of America’s transportation infrastructure and calls on city planners to reconsider how their public works projects actually affect the people they are intended to serve. Davis deftly argues for a systemic revolution in transportation planning by calling for better and more functional training for civil engineers, more diverse voices in transportation planning projects, and undoing at least some of the community-divisive damage that America’s past love affair with highways has caused. In the excerpt below, Davis examines the relative successes of Washington DC’s Vision Zero road safety program.
from All Inclusive Shipping by Veronica O. Davis. Copyright © 2023 Veronica O. Davis.
Re-evaluation of transport policies
Policies lay the foundation for many decisions. For example, I worked with a city that had a policy that the sidewalk to curb space could not be widened unless there were extenuating circumstances, and even then the answer was no. This meant that the road could not be widened, but we could do a “road diet” or narrowing of the road. For example, if a road was sixty feet wide from curb to curb, all we had was sixty feet to work with as we developed alternatives to move the growing number of people moving along the corridor. The city’s policy decision was “Work with what you have and if we’re going to spend money to rebuild the road, it won’t be to widen it.”
Vision Zero may be a way forward as a general framework for changing policy priorities, but it must be more than a plan and must be drawn up with the people. Vision Zero is a concept from Sweden that recognizes that we are human and will make mistakes, but our mistakes should not lead to serious injury or death. One thing that gets confused as people in the United States try to adopt Vision Zero is confusing the total number of accidents with the total number of accidents that lead to death and serious injury. Vision Zero doesn’t require perfect records and recognizes that crashes will happen because we’re human. Instead, he argues that the focus should be on deaths and serious injuries. The distinction is important because crashes usually occur throughout a community, and people walk away from curves and fender-benders with little or no injury. Besides having a bad day, everyone is alive to recount the drama to their family and friends. But the worst clashes tend to cluster in certain communities. If you focus on crashes regardless of the resulting damage, you can shift resources away from the communities that need them most, because that’s where people are dying.
Washington, DC’s Vision Zero plan is a great example of successful interactions and some shortcomings. In 2015, only a few US cities embraced Vision Zero. The DC plan was one of the first in the United States to include extensive outreach during plan development. Over the course of one summer, we had ten street corner meetings across the city, a youth summit with over two hundred youth, two meetings with specific advocacy groups, and meetings with over thirty-five city agencies. We didn’t just inform people; we also engaged with them and used their feedback and stories to shape the plan. As an example, after talking to a group of young black teenagers at the youth summit, we removed all the obligations associated with people walking and biking. Young people told us that sometimes crossing the street in the middle of the block took them away from a group of people who might want to harm them. Teenagers rated their risk of being the target of violence as higher than the risk of being hit by someone driving a vehicle.
In addition, we heard from people that police enforcement of walking and cycling laws puts the community and law enforcement at odds with each other. Charles T. Brown has documented his research for his podcast Arrested mobility how laws such as those banning jaywalking are disproportionately applied in black and brown communities, particularly to men. In DC’s Vision Zero plan, enforcement targeted dangerous driving behavior such as speeding, driving under the influence, distracted driving and reckless driving.
In a world where we are taking a closer look at policing after the killing of George Floyd, I think plans that re-examine equality in this way need to go a step further. DC’s Vision Zero plan focused precisely on behaviors that lead to death and fatalities. However, the plan should have recommended a comprehensive assessment of everything transportation laws and repealing those that were not supported by data or did not lead to safer roads. If we are discussing data-driven approaches, laws should target behaviors that lead to crashes that result in death and serious injury.
Moreover, this plan offered recommendations and strategies and went no further. After the Vision Zero plan was shared, all communities demanded safer roads. This reminds you of the discussion [in chapter 2] of Montgomery County and the tension over who would get resources. All roads can be made safer, even if incrementally, and without guiding principles for more of an “emergency room” structure. DC’s Vision Zero program moved resources to where there was advocacy, but not necessarily to the areas most in need of investment. If you have an opportunity like this, I emphasize the importance of putting in place a framework that allocates resources to communities and areas that experience high rates of death and serious injury, which tend to be areas with high numbers of black, Latino, or low-income residents or all of these.
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