Philadelphia traffic deaths on the rise, despite Vision Zero promise

Despite making bike lanes more visible, cars are still blocking them. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Despite making bike lanes more visible, cars are still blocking them. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Two years after Mayor Jim Kenney launched the Vision Zero initiative aimed at eliminating traffic deaths in Philadelphia by 2030, the number of people being killed in crashes is on the rise.

“If we continue our current trend,” authors of a report issued by the city Tuesday wrote, “we will not reach our goal by 2030.”

In 2017, there were 78 traffic deaths in Philadelphia, the lowest since 2014, but last year, that number shot up by 17%, to 91. More than 40% of those killed between 2014 and 2018 were pedestrians, though pedestrians made up only 7% of those involved in crashes.

Philadelphia recently mourned the loss of Kyle Shenandoah, a Grays Ferry community leader who was killed by a car while walking near the intersection of South 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue.

‘A marathon, not a sprint’

Though the numbers are alarming, “you can’t change an entire city’s transportation network culture overnight,” said Kelley Yemen, director of Complete Streets, a division of the city’s Office of Transportation Infrastructure and Sustainability charged with overseeing the initiative,

Yemen said that as the safety improvement project initiated in 2017 makes progress, crashes should begin to trend down.

“I think it’s really important to think about this as a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.

So far in 2019, Vision Zero has made strides with automated enforcement plans on Roosevelt Boulevard, reconstructed bike lane/parking on South 11th Street, and repaving of miles of city streets.

All of these projects had been in the works for years.

“We’ve received funding for a multitude of different projects,” said Yemen. “But it takes a few years … to get those projects out, let alone create citywide, systematic improvement.”

Every life saved is a victory

(City of Philadelphia)

The city will have to reduce traffic deaths by at least eight every year after 2018 to achieve its goal. Yemen said that every life saved is a victory, but that the city remains committed to zero traffic fatalities in 2030.

“We’re holding ourselves accountable to what was laid out in the original action plan,” Yemen said. “Our goal is zero. Our goal is that everybody is getting home, everybody is getting wherever they’re going, safely and securely. And if we don’t have that goal, then we’re a little lost, because we’re saying it’s OK that somebody’s brother, or sister, or loved one, it’s OK that they died.”

Other groups in the city are holding them accountable, as well. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia keeps an unofficial count of traffic deaths on its site, PHLtrafficvictims.org. The page, which tallies victims’ names, ages, and crash locations, is updated in real time.

Randy LoBasso, policy manager for the Bicycle Coalition, said the count reminds advocates to continue working toward change, even when policy or infrastructure changes can be “a slog.”

“There are definitely a lot of things that are happening, that are in the works, that are good,” LoBasso said. “But that in itself is not good enough. A lot of this stuff is not happening fast enough.”

He said Vision Zero is still young and other cities that have implemented it, like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, haven’t seen immediate change. But he’s also insistent that city officials remember their priorities.

“You need to prioritize human life over the speed of vehicles, the storage of vehicles,” LoBasso said. “Otherwise, we are never going to reach Vision Zero.”

In 2020, Vision Zero’s third year, Yemen’s task force will survey the data and evaluate the successes and failures of the program. She said there is plenty of work to be done, but the city can turn things around.

“We [look] at things in in five-year trends, so any one year doesn’t overwhelm either for good or bad,” Yemen said. “Last year was definitely an alarming year, as far as the number of fatalities. But I think there’s been a lot of good internal progress.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.