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December 03, 2015

Vision Zero conference highlights need to improve Philly's traffic safety

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney wants to change the culture on Philadelphia's roadways

Transportation Policy
01-100515_BikeLane_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A cyclist navigates around vehicles parked in the bike lane on the 1800 block of Spruce Street.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney pledged his support in changing the culture of Philadelphia's roadways, calling for greater enforcement measures as the city aims to improve traffic safety and transform its streets into a safer environment for pedestrians and bicyclists.

"All of our public space is shared, and cars should not dominate the public space for any good reason," Kenney told reporters Thursday after speaking at the Vision Zero Philadelphia Conference. "Pedestrians and people on bikes have a right to the same space as the automobile. I think we've gotten away from that over the years because of our fascination with cars."

Kenney was among several Philadelphia officials to highlight the city's traffic safety efforts during the conference hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Vision Zero policies seek to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by improving infrastructure, implementing new safety technologies and boosting education and enforcement. They have been adopted by cities across the country, including New York, San Francisco and Washington.

Kenney pledged during his campaign to make Vision Zero policies a top priority of his administration. At the conference, he said he wants greater police enforcement of traffic violations like speeding, double-parking and stopping in crosswalks. Such efforts will change behavior, he said.

"I think people don't understand what the rules of the road are," Kenney said. "When a pedestrian is in an intersection, that pedestrian gets the right of the way – period."

The conference, which organizers hope will become an annual event, featured more than 30 speakers who broached topics like traffic fatalities, data collection, infrastructure design and enforcement strategies, among others.

"I think it's really cool that we have so many voices here and one very large alliance," Bicycle Coalition Communications Manager Randy LoBasso said. "Everyone is in agreement that changes need to be made. Safety is of the utmost importance.

"Philadelphia is experiencing a gigantic boom in people living downtown and people moving to the city," he said. "The city infrastructure needs to respond to that. I think this is a very positive initial response."

Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner of Transportation Michael Carroll said the city tries to marry repair projects with safety improvements. He also noted automated red light camera enforcement dollars are being spent to improve signage, line striping and signal counters.

"It's not always very glamorous stuff, but when we are looking at the data that we have available, we can find we can make a big impact in a lot of different places by doing these things," Carroll said. "We still trying to harmonize the ways we collect data. ... We've got to become more knowledgeable of where the impacts are going to be the greatest for the dollars that we spend."

In the last three years, more than $4 million of improvements were made citywide, including updating pavement markings and signage intended to increase pedestrian visibility and calm traffic. Another $2.5 million was spent to update signal timings along coordinated corridors. And $2 million more was used to extend curbs, install ADA ramps and update lighting at seven intersections identified as dangerous to pedestrians.

The city also boasts some 400 miles of biking infrastructure, including 230 miles of bike lanes. Keeping those lanes clear of motor traffic has been a challenge, however. Adding buffers or fully painting bike lanes could improve biker safety.

"I've got to figure out how we protect those bike lanes in a way that is both economical and practical," Kenney said. "In every neighborhood, there is a different scenario."

Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel emphasized increased enforcement efforts aimed at educating both motorists and pedestrians. Since October 2014, police have issued some 2,000 warnings to pedestrians and motorists in three high-traffic zones. About 82 percent have been issued to pedestrians for distracted walking and other violations.

"We're much, much better than we were a few years ago, because we did zero," Bethel said. "I have to be very honest about that. We were not really working hard. We were not taking a lot of this seriously."

Scott Sauer, the SEPTA assistant general manager for system safety, highlighted a pilot system installed on some SEPTA buses that audibly warns pedestrians when the bus is turning. Flashing strobe lights give further warning while an internal audio system alerts the driver to any pedestrian within proximity of the bus.

"We're trying to take on the human factor (by) re-educating our operators, supervising our operators," Sauer said. "But at the same time, we're looking at engineering fixes."

Christiaan Abildso, a public health professor at the West Virginia University, stressed the importance of infrastructure in improving traffic safety during a panel discussion on traffic injuries.

West Virginia only invested $1.55 per capita of federal transportation funding to pedestrian and bicycle traffic projects. But the total cost of all pedestrian and bicycle crashes amounted to $43.83 per person. Such data helped push West Virginia to pass the Complete Streets Act, legislation designed to make streets safely accessible for everyone – pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transit.

"Policy – how we lay our concrete and asphalt – is a great intervention," Abildso said. "Rather than just telling people to change your behavior, we enable healthy behaviors."

Injuries and fatalities resulting from pedestrian and bicycle crashes are higher in the United States than in Europe, where such commuting is more common, according to Cheryl Bettigole, director for chronic disease prevention at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Data from Denmark shows injuries and fatalities fell as the number of pedestrians and bicyclists increased, Bettigole said. Californian cities have demonstrated similar trends.

"Places that have better infrastructure for walking and biking are likely to have more walkers and bikers – and, therefore, there is going to be some safety advantage," Bettigole said. "But there also seems to be a real effect on driver behavior."

The percentage of Philadelphians commuting by walking has remained at about 8 percent since 2000, Bettigole said. But the portion of commuters bicycling has doubled to about 2 percent as the city has improved its biking infrastructure.

Despite having more bikers on the streets, Bettigole said, bicycle crash data has remained level.

"Our experience here in Philadelphia really parallels that in California and in Europe," Bettigole said. "By getting more people out there, biking and out walking, we don't increase injuries. The person out there is actually safer."

Yet, traffic crashes kill one person every 15 minutes in the United States. Such a rate should inspire outrage, said J. Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. But too often, Kissinger said, a "culture of complacency" prevails as people say one thing but do another.

Research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 96 percent of motorists believe texting while driving to be a serious threat, but nearly one-third of motorists admitted to doing so within the last 30 days. Motorists responded similarly on issues of drowsy driving and red-light running.

Research also found Pennsylvania motorists drive more than 15 mph over the speed limit on freeways and more than 10 mph over the limit on residential roads at rates that exceed national speeding figures.

"Change is possible," Kissinger said. "But it is complex. It's not something you can do overnight. It's something you've got to be committed to over the long run."