Meet the City Council candidates running on Vision Zero

Last fall, when we first wrote about Vision Zero, the aggressive new approach to reducing pedestrian and cyclist injuries being employed in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, there was an open question as to whether it would catch on in Philly’s Mayoral race.

The issue wasn’t really whether any candidates would necessarily come out against the policy, but whether street safety could even register as a political issue at a time when so many other big weighty problems like school funding and the economy seemed sure to dominate the 2015 agenda.

Would the Bicycle Coalition (which received a $10,000 Advocacy Advance grant to promote Vision Zero during the campaign season) and other groups be able to complete the hand-off to candidates, or would the political calculus be that street safety is a luxury political issue to be dealt with in more prosperous times?

Less than a month out from primary election day, we have the answer: every one of the Mayoral candidates is on the record with a strong commitment to cutting traffic injuries in half by 2020, and to creating a Vision Zero task force of stakeholders to devise a strategy to make good on that commitment.

What’s so significant about campaign promises? Don’t politicians really just tell everybody whatever they want to hear?

Actually, contrary to some popular perceptions, there’s compelling evidence from political science that elected officials generally try to do the things they campaigned on. As Bicycle Coalition executive director Alex Doty has said, almost everything the city has achieved in the realm of better cycling infrastructure is a result of commitments secured from Mayoral candidates during campaign season.

What will be interesting about Vision Zero in the Philadelphia context though is the unusually high level of authority City Council members have over the allocation of right-of-way on the public streets.

Physical traffic calming changes to streets like road diets, protected bike lanes, curb extensions, and other interventions designed to slow vehicular traffic have been a major part of Vision Zero implementation in New York and San Francisco. For an example of what this would look like locally, here’s a brand new example of just such an intervention from MOTU and University City District at the intersection of Baltimore and Springfield Avenues:

Here, as in the recent case of the new Rittenhouse West bike lane pilot, the Nutter administration has some room to maneuver, so to speak, in situations where they’re not actually removing travel lanes or parking lanes.

In those cases, a City Council ordinance is required, according to a law Council passed in 2012.

In response to the Nutter administration’s striping of the 10th and 13th Street bike lanes in Center City, At-Large Councilman Bill Greenlee sponsored a bill requiring a Council ordinance for every street change where parking or travel lanes would be removed (including, apparently, some colloquially-accepted travel lanes.) 

That effectively brought right-of-way policy under the Councilmanic Prerogative tradition, whereby all District Councilmembers defer to each individual District Councilmember on land use and development issues that arise in their districts, essentially creating a political cartel dynamic around land use.

Since that bill passed in 2012, no District Councilmembers have availed themselves of their new traffic-calming powers, raising the question of whether Council will ultimately let the next Mayor shift Vision Zero out of first gear.

So far, only a few City Council candidates have really taken up Vision Zero or related street safety ideas as a defining political issue.

8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass was first to broach the issue in December with a resolution calling for hearings on Vision Zero.

Then a couple months ago, Council At-Large candidate Helen Gym, usually best-known as a public school activist, took up the street safety cause in her campaign announcement speech, promising to fight for “a walkable city that protects pedestrians and cyclists alike,” and win protections for “the cyclists riding to work each morning and night, whether they are the most recent generation of immigrants to settle in South Philadelphia, or entrepreneurs creating a tech boom on North Third Street.”

Gym later included Vision Zero by name in her campaign platform.

“I will embrace “Vision Zero” goals of minimizing harm to pedestrians, and will encourage the redesign of dangerous intersections and frequent crash sites. I believe we should further fund our growing network of bike lanes, and create Philadelphia’s first protected bike lanes to ensure that riding is easy and pleasant for cyclists of all ages.”

Tom Wyatt, a lawyer at Dilworth Paxton and formerly a business executive and teacher, has also been showcasing his urbanist bona fides. He’s called for ramping up the pace of striping new bike lanes, ditched his car for a week on the campaign trail, and promoted a GoPro video of a bike ride he took that week with his neighbor Kate Mundie (best known to most of you as @katebikemom.)

On the day Indego launched, Wyatt released a statement urging the city to make the streets safer for bike share’s least experienced users.

“We must harness the energy around today’s bike share launch and create urgency for better and safer streets,” said Wyatt. “That means truly adopting a Vision Zero plan that dramatically decreases traffic-related deaths and invests in safer streets for our growing population of car-less commuters.”

Wyatt and Paul Steinke, the former general manager of the Reading Terminal Market who is also running for Council At-Large, have both been putting in a good deal of face time at events of interest to Philly’s built environment community.

Wyatt was the only non-incumbent running for Council to attend the Indego bike share launch, and Steinke has often been the lone Council candidate (or politician, frequently) to show up to meetings of the Design Advocacy Group, Center City District, ULI, and various happy hours and gatherings for folks of that ilk.

With so much focus on his most recent position with Reading Terminal Market, Steinke likes to remind people that he’s no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to urbanism and people-focused planning.

“As the former finance director of the Center City District and executive director of the University City District, I played an active role in making streets more pedestrian friendly,” he says, “and I plan to continue that work in City Council to improve conditions for pedestrians throughout all Philadelphia neighborhoods. As a lifelong Philadelphian, a daily public transportation commuter, and an occasional bicyclist, I recognize that we cannot allow automobiles to rule our roads and impinge on the safety of everyone else.”

Isaiah Thomas, a charter school dean and athletic director who served on staff for former state Rep. Tony Payton Jr., has made Vision Zero a component of his plan for “future-proofing” Philadelphia––heading off foreseeable problems early, while they’re still manageable. That includes street safety.

Citing my PlanPhilly article showing pedestrian fatalities are more prevalent in more economically distressed areas of the city, Thomas made the case for refocusing the street safety agenda outside of Center City, and for himself––a 30-year-old African-American educator from East Oak Lane––as an effective voice to carry that message.

“William Penn created Philadelphia as a planned city but we have to update our plans,” he says, “To improve public safety we have to future proof Philadelphia. We must solve the problems of today without creating new problems of tomorrow through fiscal, economic, and physical planning. These plans must happen outside of Center City and bring business and opportunity to all corridors of Philadelphia. Vision Zero has worked for New York, it has worked for San Francisco, and Vision Zero will work in Philadelphia.”

These five aren’t the only candidates supporting Vision Zero, but they are the ones campaigning on it most actively, and using the issue to brand themselves in a crowded At-Large field.

To Helen Gym, that’s an important distinction that helps gauge a candidate’s appetite for supporting the policy even when the chips are down.

“There are people who will sign onto the Vision Zero policy––I don’t think there’s any question, why wouldn’t you?––but there are people who understand what Vision Zero means in terms of broader political movement-building and what it means to take action locally. I think there are differences in candidates who support the position vs those who want to move it forward.”

Notice who’s missing from the list: any District Councilmembers.

Whether that’s because of the perception that this is more a Mayoral-level issue, the absence of a need to campaign on anything for the majority of District candidates who are running unopposed, or a cautious response to some of the implied policy changes like stepped up traffic enforcement and physical traffic calming changes to streets that could be unpopular in some quarters is an interesting question that we won’t really have an answer to until further into the next Mayor’s first term, when the big vision gets translated into specific plans.

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