Four people have been killed on bicycles and scooters over the past few months, and 27 total people killed on DC roadways this year. In the shadow of those tragedies, advocates and councilmembers packed a hearing to express frustration at the lack of progress making streets safer for vulnerable road users.
We heard agonizing, poignant testimonials from relatives of some of the people killed recently. These weren't professional safety advocates, but regular mothers, brothers, and other loved ones who saw death devastate their families. Cyrus Habib was five feet from his brother Malik when Malik's wheel got stuck in a streetcar track, fell in front of a bus, and was killed.
We also heard from Malik Habib's mother, Laura Montiel, who has been involved in safety actions and memorials around other traffic deaths since the death of her son.
Seeing Carlos Sanchez-Martin's mom in tears yesterday was heartbreaking. An angry drivers runs the red light almost hit a baby carriage, appauling. So many emotions!! I'm going to take them all to my Testimony at the DC Council Hearing TODAY at 1:30pm!! #bikedc #ddotdc pic.twitter.com/NfRIDYk4Vb— Laura Montiel (@LLdoesITRecruit) September 27, 2018
DC isn't doing enough, fast enough
Robert Gardner, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said, “Washington, DC is not meeting its commitment to Vision Zero, period. People are continuing to die because Mayor Bowser and the District government have not done enough.”
The two co-chairs of the hearing, transportation committee chair Mary Cheh (Ward 3) and public safety committee chair Charles Allen (Ward 6), also chastized the DC government for its inaction or slow action.
“I don't believe that we actually have a Vision Zero plan,” said Allen.
Cheh said, “It just takes too, too long for DDOT to implement safety measures. We are plagued with study after study and then,” when there is a change in leadership or policy at DDOT, “it's folded into another study.” Changes like protected bikeways, she said, “will mean cars will have to give up space. But I believe until we have that, we won't have safe streets.”
Brandon Todd (Ward 4) talked about experiencing the city as a bicycle novice on a constituent bike ride with Rachel Maisler, the Ward 4 representative on the Bicycle Advisory Council (and a GGWash contributor). Todd said, “I was scared going down 14th St NW until I got to the protected bike lane on 15th Street.” Maisler's response, according to Todd: “So am I,” and she rides that every day.
David Grosso (at-large) said, “It often takes someone being killed at an intersection before we see a hastily installed fix. … Will it literally take a death at every intersection before we see improvements at each one?”
Advocates weren't giving councilmembers a complete pass, though. Alex Baca of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said,
Fundamentally, what comprises Vision Zero—evaluation, engineering, enforcement, education, and encouragement—is not technically difficult. It is politically difficult, because it changes the environment for, or takes away from, a constituency of people who drive and park in DC. You may not state it publicly, but your actions as a council and as a city demonstrate that your allegiance is to that constituency, not to the people who walk, bike, or take transit on the roads that you control.
Since building out the 2005 bike master plan, you have not meaningfully implemented any protected bike infrastructure. Notable proposed projects like the 6th Street NW bike lane are in political limbo, while the 16th Street bus lane plans are laughable, given DDOT’s, and your, shying away from removing enough parking to truly create dedicated lanes.
Both MoveDC and the city’s sustainability plan call for a bump to 25 percent in mode share for pedestrians and bicyclists. So far, the District seems unwilling to achieve this target through any means other than asking people to bike or walk out of the goodness of their hearts. Induced demand doesn’t just apply to highways; women and people of color are more likely to ride bikes when there are protected bike lanes. Bike lanes slow down car traffic, which in turn creates streets that are safer for people who walk.
That message was clearly lost on Jack Evans (Ward 2), who briefly came into the hearing only to complain about dockless bicycles and now scooters scattered about the streets and cyclists who don't stop at stop signs. He stands in the middle of bike lanes at stop signs, he said, to see if they stop, and they just go around him.
The juxtaposition between his petty complaints and the painful experiences of those who've lost family members was infuriating. As several witnesses pointed out, drivers are ensconced in two-ton metal boxes which cause repeated deaths. Sure, people on bikes really should stop for stop signs. Experience with other cities has shown that people follow traffic laws when they perceive adequate infrastructure which makes them safe, and when the design of those spaces considers the needs of all road users rather than just drivers.
Another dinosaur in the hearing was AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson John Townsend. He started his testimony by noting that AAA nationally has been a leader in road safety, and it deserves credit for that. But when Cheh asked him if he'd support a network of protected lanes to separate people on foot, on bikes, and in cars, Townsend said, “That should be a long-term goal, but the question is, is it practical? Can it be done to not impede the flow of traffic?”
Cheh was not impressed. “If you have the commitment to do it, you can do it. You talk about it being a long-term goal. How about it being a short-term goal.”
Meanwhile, here's San Francisco's mayor on Wednesday:
I’m tired of waiting for months, and often years, for important Vision Zero safety improvements. I’ll be personally reviewing pending proposals on high-injury corridors and directing the SFMTA to move quicker on these projects, starting with Valencia St. https://t.co/zOAkPavZkz— London Breed (@LondonBreed) September 26, 2018
Fines won't solve it, many say
The District Department of Transportation has proposed Vision Zero regulations, a big part of which is higher fines. Many at the hearing were skeptical about the effectiveness of this idea.
Maisler said, “I don't think fines are going to change driver behavior. Fines aren't changing driver behavior already.”
Baca said that the only reason national US Vision Zero leaders recommend fines is because they don't trust elected officials to actually make infrastructure changes. “European Vision Zero is not about fines and ticketing, because physical infrastructure works,” she said.
Mark Eckenwiler disagreed, saying a big part of solving this problem “is changing dangerous drivers' mindset, and that means enforcement.” But the Department of Public Works is not doing enough to actually enforce against, for instance, rampant examples of trucks and vans parked on the sidewalk or blocking bike lanes.
“There are no more words”
In her testimony, Maisler talked about organizing memorial ride after memorial ride, then preparing testimony for this hearing, only to receive word of yet another person killed. She related a haiku she wrote to DDOT Director Jeff Marootian:
There are no more words
Two traffic deaths this week alone
We need to save lives
The hearing has many witnesses to go as this is published, culminating in testimony from Marootian and MPD Assistant Chief Jeff Carroll to come later this evening. If you're reading this Thursday afternoon, you may still be able to catch the rest of the hearing here.