City officials optimistic that 2017 will bring smoother, safer streets

Conversations about how Philadelphians should share the city’s roads often feel like a traffic jam: Tense, angry, and going nowhere fast. Little old ladies turn into virulent vulgarians, and Earth-worshipping vegan cyclists thirst for blood, while the outsiders just wonder what that honking is all about.

But in an interview with PlanPhilly, city officials from the Streets Department and the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) expressed hope that, in 2017, things would look a lot less like the incessantly immobile Schuylkill Expressway.

Last year was a transition year for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, said spokesman Mike Dunn. This year, he said, the city wants to build on 2016’s work: 15 miles of new bike lanes, traffic calming on 5th Street and 2nd Street in Northern Liberties, the first Philly Free Streets event, and initial plans to improve Roosevelt Boulevard. In 2017, the administration wants to add more bike lanes, hold a second Free Streets event and continue Roosevelt Boulevard’s three-year, $5 million planning process.

In 2016 OTIS in particular saw some major personnel changes. The search for a Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Infrastructure continues, but Dunn predicted a more productive 2017 with Complete Streets Coordinator Kelley Yemen and Chief of Staff Michael Zaccagni in place. “I think the momentum of what was done in 2016 is only going to pick up. So to the degree they are able, with all the contemplation, and deliberation, and community outreach they are talking about still there, hopefully a lot of these [street safety and improvement] efforts will move along a lot quicker.”

The reason for optimism? A commitment to Vision Zero and a bunch of new paving equipment.

The city purchased nine new pieces of paving equipment in 2016 and has another set of tools and trucks on the way for 2017. The capital purchase equipped another repaving crew, helping Streets go from just 38 miles resurfaced in 2015 to 52 miles in 2016. For 2017, the department expects to resurface more than 70 miles, said Acting Streets Commissioner Mike Carroll. Seventy miles is a major improvement, but still a far cry from the 135 miles or so it would take to keep up with repaving every street, every 15 years.  

But more than any asphalt hauler, it’s Vision Zero that has the OTIS and Streets administrators excited. The administration announced that a task force headed by Yemen would come up with a Vision Zero Action Plan in the first half of 2017, with implementation of its recommendations fast behind it.      

“Vision Zero really gives us an opportunity to make this a whole new focus, a whole new brand if you want to say that, to really kick this into a different degree,” said Zaccagni of the safety initiative named after the goal of reducing serious traffic injuries and deaths to zero. “It’s obviously something that nobody can argue against. I mean, what we’re trying to do is save lives.”

Carroll, focusing on Vision Zero’s “profound” question: “How many people is the right number to die? Is it okay for one person to die? Is it ok for your son, daughter or wife to be that one person?

“I don’t think anyone will stand up and say, ‘Yeah, that’s something I’d be okay with if we can get to work faster.’”

But some people do think stand up and say that. The National Motorists Association (NMA) openly opposes Vision Zero. The local chapter recently promoted an essay by Cato Institute scholar Randal O’Toole calling Vision Zero a “cult”. The NMA consistently opposes traffic safety measures aimed at slowing traffic or increasing enforcement—they also fight against the use of automated cameras to catch speeders or red-light violators. “Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl,” writes O’Toole. “In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile.”

O’Toole isn’t the first to coldly calculate the costs and benefits of speed limits. Cold-hearted economists have performed a number of cost-benefit analyses that attempt to factor in all the various elements, to conflicting results. Instead of a utilitarian frame, Carroll tries to make it personal. “When you think about the personal impact of it, we stand on pretty firm ground…. We need to think about how to bring people’s priorities around, what their mentalities are when their lives are just as much at stake as anybody else’s.”

But, Carroll adds, even accepting this Vision Zero framework doesn’t mean everyone will accept the path to getting there. “I do acknowledge that the specific factors that can be taken to approach zero deaths are things that people aren’t always comfortable with,” said Carroll. “So we need to figure out how to make those things be more seamless.”

“There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3),” argues O’Toole, suggesting that speed and safety aren’t related. But the numbers also support a different theory: Most driving, and therefore most crashes, happens on local and arterial roads like Broad Street.

Notably, America’s more famous driver’s association, AAA, supports Vision Zero. AAA-Mid Atlantic went so far as to join the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia in forming Philadelphia’s Vision Zero Alliance and to co-hosting the Vision Zero Conference held last year at Jefferson University.

Beyond the policy advocates on both sides, though, Vision Zero faces a more pedestrian hurdle: Neighborly opposition. The NIMBY attitude can extend to street safety projects when these mean fewer parking spots or infrastructure some might find visually unattractive or conducive to crime. A number of Washington Square West residents oppose upgrading the bike lanes on Pine and Spruce Streets into protected bike lanes, which refer to bike lanes with some sort of physical barrier, like small bumps or plastic delineator posts to separate cyclists from drivers more than the oft ignored paint currently manages. In Bucks County recently, neighbors successfully fought off a proposal to build a pedestrian and bike trail in their community, saying they worried about crime (even though such suburban trails tend to raise nearby property values and, if anything, reduce crime rates).

Residents can support Vision Zero’s ultimate ends (zero deaths) and even the general means (e.g. slower traffic) but still come out in strong opposition to the specific policies. It’s a classic collective action problem Each Vision Zero policy interventions make us all a smidgen safer, but the costs are born hyper-locally, often in the form of worse parking on a given block, creating a sense among the affected residents that they are being singled out unfairly to deal with the downsides.

Progress will still be tough, with lots of community outreach and public deliberation. But the administration sounds hopeful that it’ll come along quicker in the new year.

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