Philadelphia has a blueprint on how to make city streets safer

A three-year plan to make Philadelphia’s streets safer includes proposals that touch on virtually every aspect of road travel around Philadelphia.

“It’s really about integrating this into the way we do business,” said Kelley Yemen, the city’s director of complete streets.

The Vision Zero Draft Three-Year Action Plan is the first product of a task force assembled by Mayor Kenney in November to review how the city can improve road safety. Its recommendation include expanding existing initiatives such as a network of protected bike lanes; adding more red light cameras; and addressing old complaints, such as enforcement against illegal sidewalk closures and blocking bike lanes.

The report also recommends changes in the way the city manages its roads. Among them is a proposal that City Council give the city traffic engineer authority to change road signs and lanes to make them safer. There’s also an emphasis on data collection, such as a database combining police crash data with hospital trauma information, and a review of new developments to learn how they affect traffic safety.

Vision Zero, a city-planning philosophy that originated in Sweden, proposes that virtually all traffic-related injuries or deaths are caused by human error that can be planned for and prevented through a combination of design, education, and enforcement. Kenney aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2030. Details on which streets will be affected will come as the city meets with residents in the spring and develops a technical report. A final draft is due in September.

About 100 people a year die in Philadelphia traffic crashes. Philadelphia had six fatalities per 100,000 people, according to the 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. That’s more than New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Each day, four children in Philadelphia are involved in traffic crashes. And a disproportionate number of crashes happen in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live below the poverty line.

In City Council, Cindy Bass welcomed the report’s findings. In her Eighth District, two schools, Roosevelt School and Wissahickon Charter School, both on Washington Lane, have problems with speed restrictions, crosswalks, and a lack of traffic guards.

“People just don’t slow down and seem to have respect for the traffic signals around schools,” she said.

The report included recommendations for more attention to people who park in school zones and dropoff lanes, and red light cameras on school bus stop-sign arms. Other enforcement recommendations include focusing on obstructed bike lanes and illegally closed sidewalks.

City officials emphasized that education and design were more effective than penalties. Philadelphia will soon install two bicycle signals that will grant right of way to bicyclists, and the feedback from that and other initiatives will determine whether they’ll be more widely applied, Yemen said.

Another proposal is an intersection traffic light system that gives pedestrians and cyclists a chance to walk before turning cars get a green light.

“It’s one of those cheap, easy things that can really change the complexion of an intersection,” she said.

City money dedicated to Vision Zero projects is spread through multiple departments, but major investments are $1 million for Vision Zero safety measures in the Streets Department's $23 million 2018 capital budget, and $500,000 to the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems from Philadelphia's operating budget, said city spokesman Mike Dunn. 

The report includes as goals seeking money to upgrade existing bike lanes, and preparing to redesign routes with high-injury rates in order to apply for grants. The city has about $550,000 in grant money to install 25 miles of protected bike lanes, but few of those lanes will appear this year because of when the city receives the money, Yemen said.

Vision Zero has its critics. One, John Baxter, of Downingtown, a member of the National Motorists Association, applauded the report’s emphasis on redesigning roads, but said he worried that another priority, slowing cars, would unnecessarily hinder motorists, the majority of whom, he said, did not drive dangerously. He said focusing on speed ignored the role that pedestrians play in causing crashes.

“Jaywalking is not human error, it’s just stupidity,” he said. “There needs to be more respect for drivers.”

The report issued Tuesday highlights that the likelihood of death in a traffic crash increases substantially the faster a vehicle is traveling. One of the city's goals is to slow down traffic.

Bob Previdi, policy coordinator for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, which has been leading the effort to embrace Vision Zero in Philadelphia, said the report highlights the right priorities.

“The impacts of this should be directed into the neighborhoods,” he said. “The neighborhood piece is vitally important here.”

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