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Vision Zero

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

More speed bumps coming

Like ’em or not.

Houston officials are speeding up the process of slowing down residential street traffic.

A laborious process to improve traffic and safety by installing traffic calming devices such as speed humps is radically streamlined in a new method by the city’s public works department, unveiled Monday at a City Council committee meeting. Council members applauded the change.

“I am doing the happy dance here,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, whose southwest Houston area has some of the neighborhoods that have waited the longest for relief from speeding cars.

In the future, with demand for speed humps high in many areas, public works will no longer require traffic and speed analyses, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said.

“We believe all local neighborhood streets should automatically qualify for speed control if they want it,” Weatherford said, citing overwhelming evidence that pedestrians and bicyclists are safer with lower residential street speeds.

The change would only apply to residential streets, where speed humps are practical, and not thoroughfares that carry far higher volumes of traffic.

[…]

In the past, neighbors upset at a cumbersome city process left dissatisfied, especially when the analysis found they didn’t have a speeding issue. Residents would then frequently ask public works to assess the traffic volume, which would start the process over again.

When requests from residents come to public works in the future, staff will analyze the neighborhood and then deliver their recommendations to the district council member for the area.

Pending approval from the council member, public works will then coordinate construction of the speed humps. Plans are devised for entire neighborhoods, often a 10- to 20-square block area between two major streets. Public works will normally consider streets best suited for traffic calming, then locate humps, medians and other features where appropriate to control speed.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins noted the city successfully dealt with fast-moving vehicles crashing in a curve in a residential area by placing the humps not at the curve, but leading to it.

Under the old way, however, that process often took nine months to complete. The new method that reduces studies decreases it to six to eight weeks, but it also puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of council members, [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

I confess, I hate these things. I hate driving over them, and will go out of my way to avoid them. But I understand why we have them, and I’ve seen more than enough jackwads doing in excess of 40 on residential streets to accept them without complaint. Well, OK, with a bit of whining, but without any expectation of sympathy. If we want safer streets and fewer traffic fatalities – and we do, or at least we should – then this is a part of that. I’ll just have to suck it up.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

San Antonio implements Vision Zero

Good for them.

Tuesday marked the official launch of San Antonio’s Vision Zero, a multi-national awareness and educational initiative that calls for zero traffic fatalities. It’s a lofty goal, but proponents of the plan say these deaths, especially those of pedestrians, are preventable accidents that can be systematically addressed with infrastructure and safety education.

Last year 54 pedestrians were killed while walking in San Antonio, an average of one death per week. To pay tribute to those individuals, 54 people stood on the steps of City Hall as Mayor Ivy Taylor, Council members, and City staff launched the initiative.

“We suffer human losses because of culture and public policy decisions that have resulted in the built environment we have today,” said Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who has long advocated for more City investment in complete street, or multimodal, infrastructure and led the Council’s backing of Vision Zero.

According to the ethos of Vision Zero, individuals and roadway design should share the burden of ensuring safe passage. Priority is often given to vehicles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to fend for themselves in an environment built for tires and steel.

“We have a high number of traffic fatality rates because we have a fundamentally dangerous environment,” Gonzales said.

Aside from infrastructure like better sidewalks and safer street crossings, the City is looking into reducing speed limits to create a safer environment for those walking and bicycling.

“We’ve made and continue to make policy decisions and direct City staff to construct projects that keep everyone and every mode of transportation in mind,” Mayor Taylor said.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s official plan. The basic idea here is that the way our streets are constructed now, it’s dangerous for anyone who isn’t in a car, and this is reflected in the number of accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. This doesn’t have to be the way things are, it’s the way we currently choose to do them. If we do them differently, and think in terms of everyone who uses the streets and not just the cars, we could have fewer accidents and fewer deaths. That seems like a worthy goal, no? I look forward to seeing what kind of results they get, because that is how this will ultimately be judged. The Current has more, and you can sign petitions to bring this to Houston and Austin if you are so inclined. Streetsblog has more.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

Your input for the Bike Plan requested

I’ve written before about the Bike Plan the city is currently working on, to improve all facets of bike travel in Houston. This effort, now in Phase 2 of 6, depends heavily on input from the public, and the time to give that input is now. Phase 2 is about defining the goals of the plan, and towards that end the following input is being sought:

On-line Survey: Help us define the issues important to you. The survey takes about 15-20 minutes, but will affect bike planning in Houston for years to come.

Interactive Maps: Identify where gaps within the existing network. Discuss where you want to bike? Help us locate key trail connection locations, and more!

Blog Forum: Review daily posts and provide feedback, or post your own questions and start a discussion!

Public Meetings: To kick off the Houston Bike Plan, five public meetings were scheduled during the last week of May, and all four weeks of June! To learn more about the two remaining meetings on Tuesday, June 23rd and Tuesday, June 30th check out our website to learn more.

o Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Tuesday, June 23rd 6pm – 8pm
6500 Rookin, Houston, TX 77074 (MAP)
RSVP on the Facebook Event Page.

o HCC Memorial City Performing Arts Center / Theater II, Room 411
Tuesday, June 30th 6pm – 8pm
1060 W. Sam Houston Pkwy N., Houston, TX 77043 (MAP)
RSVP on the Facebook Event Page.

Meeting in a Box: This is your instruction guide to have your own community meeting on the Houston Bike Plan. Click on the interactive links provided to download materials to assist you in conducting your own community meeting and gathering feedback for the Bike Plan. Pick and choose from the activities below or do them all. Thanks for being a part of the Houston Bike Plan!

– Project Website: www.HoustonBikePlan.org

– Email: [email protected]

See here for more. Just scanning through that forum linked above, let me say that I wholeheartedly endorse this idea. I don’t even consider biking any farther south than Washington Avenue because there’s no good way to get there. Make your voice heard, and make sure you ask candidates for city office that you encounter what they think about this. Thanks very much.

How does a 25 MPH speed limit for downtown Houston grab you?

Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:

Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.

Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

[…]

It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.

Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.

Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.

You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.

Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.

When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.

There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.

I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?

Speed limits and pedestrian fatalities

Here’s a topic that won’t be the least bit controversial, I’m sure.

The New York City Vision Zero goal is simple and precise: to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets. This is not a mere sound bite in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Vision Zero initiative before he took office and is moving the transportation safety work started by his predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Polly Trottenberg, the current New York City Transportation Commissioner, was an opening speaker at the inaugural Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in mid-November where she restated her commitment to safety for all transportation modes, including walking and cycling.

The symposium, organized by Transportation Alternatives, brought together 300 government and non-government participants from dozens of cities across the U.S. and the world. Transportation Alternatives is a grassroots organization that has worked for decades to improve cycling and walking safety in New York City. It reached a major milestone in 2013 when the city adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan. The 10-year plan sets a high bar through better street design and changing road user behavior. The details are as complex and comprehensive as you might expect for a plan that will create sweeping cultural and engineering changes to the nation’s largest city, but it is built on two fundamental principles: Reduce the chance of collisions and reduce injury by reducing speed.

The myths about New York City transportation safety defy the facts. A popular myth is that New York streets are dangerous, but the fact is their streets are far safer than San Antonio’s streets. In 2012, there were 268 deaths from traffic violence in New York City. Of those, 127 pedestrians and cyclists were killed. During the same period, San Antonio traffic fatalities per capita were 297% that of New York City, and pedestrian/cyclist fatalities per capita were 176% greater that of New York City, according to 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

New York City outperforms San Antonio, and almost every other city in the nation, in traffic safety. Yet, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers share San Antonio’s culture of indifference to traffic deaths. However, a growing group of transportation safety activists throughout New York City steadily chipped away at that indifference and in the past 24 months made powerful breakthroughs. First was the adoption of Vision Zero, followed by establishment of Families for Safe Streets. Families for Safe Streets is a coalition of families who lost a child, parent, or spouse in a pedestrian or cycling collision with an automobile. Families for Safe Streets was a powerful, watershed organization, but one that no one wants membership in.

The establishment of Families for Safe Streets was a pivotal step. Their tragic stories, their conviction to ending this culture of indifference compelled the state legislature to pass a bill permitting New York City to set a city-wide default 25-mph speed limit. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi trade association, has joined as partners. Major arterials are being converted to 25-mph speed zones. Streets and intersections throughout the city are being redesigned to reduce chaos, instill discipline, and convert automobile lanes to dedicated cycling and pedestrian uses.

It’s the citywide 25 MPH speed limit that I’m sure will give everyone reading this heartburn. Author Kevin Barton discussed that topic in an earlier post in which he notes that on military bases, in San Antonio and around the country, where speed limits in housing areas are 20 MPH and more rigorously enforced, there are essentially zero traffic fatalities. This Wired article goes into some detail:

“I’d estimate that a person is about 74 percent more likely to be killed if they’re struck by vehicles traveling at 30 mph than at 25 mph,” says Brian Tefft, a researcher with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety who wrote a 2011 report on the subject. He looked at 549 vehicle-pedestrian accidents occurring across the US between 1994 and 1998, accounting for factors like vehicle size and pedestrian BMI. The risk of serious injury (defined as likely to result in long-term disability) for a pedestrian hit at 23 mph was about 25 percent. At 39 mph, it jumped to 75 percent. Analyzing his findings, Tefft says, “25 to 35 mph, they’re almost three times as likely to be killed.” 35 mph, he found, was the median impact speed for fatal pedestrian crashes.

A 2010 study in London had similar findings: “In all of the pedestrian datasets, the risk of fatality increases slowly until impact speeds of around 30 mph. Above this speed, risk increases rapidly – the increase is between 3.5 and 5.5 times from 30 mph to 40 mph,” the author, D.C. Richards, writes.

So why doesn’t a 20 percent change in speed just mean a 20 percent change in serious injuries? There are lots of variables at work here (is the car an Escalade or a Fiat? is it a direct hit or a side swipe?), but, it turns out, the 30 mph mark is something of a limit for what our bodies can live through. Above that speed, organs and the skull aren’t necessarily strong enough to withstand the kinetic impact of a bumper and windshield.

“It has to do with fracture forces,” says Dr. Peter Orner, a licensed physician and former engineering professor who consults on injury biomechanics in car crashes. “As velocity increases, you’re crossing thresholds.” Though he’s skeptical of the comprehensiveness of studies like Tefft’s, Orner also says that at higher speeds, “the car is going to scoop them up.” And when you’re talking about cars, what gets scooped up is usually smacked against a windshield or thrown onto the ground. That can easily lead to brain trauma.

This Smart Growth America report on how dangerous various cities are for pedestrians tells us that for the period of 2003 through 2012, there were 1,073 pedestrian fatalities in the Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land MSA. Granting that that’s a large population, it’s still a lot of dead people, and that doesn’t include bicyclists and passengers or drivers of motor vehicles. I feel reasonably sure if you put all that together the total would exceed the equivalent tally for homicides, yet somehow it gets much, much less attention. Lower speed limits in residential areas, combined with tighter enforcement, could have a large effect on that, and I say this as someone whose driving habits would most definitely be affected. It’s a subject that deserves some discussion. Here’s some further information about Vision Zero in New York, and an assessment of how the first year of it has gone. What do you think?