Tag Archives: vision zero

Why Are Traffic Deaths So Barbarically High?

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2017

It is inexcusable that when we look at traffic fatalities — and the all-too-common call to reduce the number of fatalities with “safer” cars — we ignore the huge number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by motorists.

As my op-ed in the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera noted recently, despite a century of “redoubling our efforts” every few years to make our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, our roads are the most dangerous than they have ever been. Adding more road caution signsWARNING signs, WARNING paint, WARNING education, WARNING enforcement, and WARNING lights (as Boulder is once again proposing to do this year) has done nothing meaningful to make roads safer (many persuasively argue such things make our roads LESS safe).

But I’ll ignore cyclist and pedestrian deaths for the time being.

It is quite common for someone to point to an increase (or decrease) in traffic fatalities suffered by motorists and their passengers over the past year as indicative of a long-term trend – and what has allegedly caused the “trend.” But statistical principles and the complexity of transportation inform us that taking a one-year data point – and then applying a single variable to explain it – is highly unlikely to be accurate. Not nearly enough time has elapsed. And there are way too many variables when it comes to transportation.

An extremely important question I want to ask, rather than trying to explain a one-year change in fatalities, is why motorist deaths have been barbarically high for so long. The US has suffered over 30,000 traffic deaths per year since the 1930s.

And no one seems to care, when we compare concern about traffic deaths to the hysteria about drugs and terrorists and communists…

How have we gotten to this state of affairs?

First, the vast majority of motorists/Americans/elected officials have one objective that is light years more important than safety or quality of community: SPEED. Anything that slows motorists down — such as traffic congestion, road diets, traffic calming, etc. — must be furiously fought against with any and all means necessary.maxresdefault

Even in allegedly enlightened and progressive Boulder, free-flowing, high-speed car travel is head and shoulders above almost anything else as a measure of quality of life.

This single-minded focus explains why cities such as Boulder have a huge number of roads that have way too many travel lanes. Anything more than 3 is incompatible with a quality city, yet Boulder has many roadways (stroads, as Chuck Marohn would call them) that are in the 6- to 12- lane range. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is inevitably a recipe for a huge number of car crashes and fatalities.

More of the same thing all American communities have been doing for a century — more WARNING signs, more WARNING paint, more WARNING education, more WARNING enforcement, and more WARNING lights — will do nothing to make such monster roads anything other than on-going death traps.

Yet this same old song and dance is precisely what Boulder proposes to do as it rolls out its exciting “new” objective called “Toward Vision Zero.”

Excuse me for not being optimistic about Boulder not achieving this objective.

A related problem for almost every city — including Boulder — is the century-long use of the “forgiving road” design paradigm, which “forgives” the motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention. Using the “forgiving street” strategy, we remove street trees, make intersections and turn radii crazy big in size, create “super-elevations” at road turns, remove on-street parking, eliminate mid-block pedestrian crossings, move cyclists onto off-street paths, pull buildings away from the street and street corners, etc.

The result?

For several decades, we’ve had an epidemic of excessive speeds and inattentive driving. A great way to ramp up the death toll.

Most cities – to enable easy, high-speed car travel — have followed the path Boulder has taken over the past century regarding land use patterns by keeping densities at ridiculously low levels and strictly separated houses from shops and jobs and offices.

The result?

Distances to daily destinations are extremely lengthy, which makes it impossible for all but a tiny number of people to make ALL trips by car. That guarantees a large number of annual motorist deaths, as driving a car is inherently very dangerous — due to the fact that cars are heavy, large, able to achieve high speeds, and substantially reduce the sense of hearing and sight that a motorist has outside of a car.

One example of a destination that is now nowhere near any homes is an iconic social gathering place: the pub. Unlike in past times, it is now almost impossible to walk or bike home after having a few beers. Inevitably, that means a lot of people are driving in an inebriated state.

The “forgiving street” design paradigm has so substantially increased inattentiveness that a huge number of motorists now drive inattentively at high speeds. Again, a great way to ensure a huge number of motorists crashing and dying.

Americans are extremely busy – probably a lot more so than in the past – and the motor vehicle provides a way to save time: drive very fast. Oops. Another way to kill people in car crashes.

Solutions? The effective tactics are nearly impossible to achieve in almost any city – including Boulder — where 98 percent of the population will fight to the death to stop these safety measures from being enacted:

  1. More compact, mixed-use land use patterns so that travel distances are short enough to make walking and bicycling feasible for most people and most trips.
  2. Toss out the forgiving street paradigm in favor of designing streets that obligate slower, attentive driving.
  3. Substantially shrink the size of nearly every road and intersection.road diet before and after

But each of these essential tasks (if we are serious about achieving Vision Zero) is utterly off the table – not even something that one is allowed to mention in “polite society.”

Much of what I advocate in transportation is an “off the table” topic. My friend Jim Kunstler just pointed out that this “elephant in the bedroom” syndrome has a name. It is called the Overton Bubble.

http://thefutureprimaeval.net/the-overton-bubble/

In sum, because we are probably decades away from having the political will to opt for effective street safety methods, we will continue to see over 30,000 American motorists die every year for the remainder of our lives.

After all, speed — not safety — is what we sincerely seek.

 

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Traffic Safety Suggestions to the Boulder Colorado Mayor

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 17, 2016

I met with the mayor of Boulder in October 2016 to offer my suggestions for how the City could effectively take steps to address the recent uptick in traffic safety problems in Boulder. The following are my suggestions.

Traffic calming is the first order of business. Quick and relatively low-cost calming strategies that have some effectiveness: (1) on-street parking; (2) curb bulb-outs and traffic circles (these “horizontal interventions” effectively slow cars without slowing emergency response times – particularly when those interventions use “mountable curbs”); (3) install street trees near the edge of the street (popular with neighborhoods, modest effectiveness in slowing cars and making motorists more attentive); (4) photo radar (modest effectiveness, needs to be coupled with relatively frequent fines).

We need to review the list of Big Ticket (relatively expensive) transportation projects. Can some of them be delayed or foregone and instead put the Big Ticket money into refunding neighborhood traffic mitigation (calming)? Can we alternatively find new money to add to the Transportation Department budget so we don’t have to reallocate dollars from other important transportation safety needs?

We need trend data that goes back decades. Not just a year or two. Surely this info exists for decades: (1) The number of annual car crashes citywide (or on selected streets); and (2) change in average car speed citywide (or on selected streets).

Things we probably can’t directly measure but which are nevertheless crucial: (3) change in crossing distance for pedestrians; (4) change in the amount of distracted or inattentive driving; (5) change in the number of discouraged bicycle, pedestrian, and transit trips; and (6) change in ‘near misses.’

Given the enormous number of citizens emailing the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) I serve on –emails about the significant amount of speeding and cut-through traffic in their neighborhoods — we have a very serious problem in Boulder with dangerous car travel. The fact that a neighborhood is so often told by the Transportation Department that the neighborhood does not qualify for traffic calming is a clear sign that our qualification triggers are too high of a bar and need to be revised.

  • Lowering the trigger threshold could involve lowering speed limits (even though doing so is not an effective way to slow cars, it would allow more neighborhoods to qualify for calming – because speeding would be recorded more often);
  • Giving staff the authority to calm a street if the street width exceeds, say, 25 feet;
  • Allowing a neighborhood to qualify for calming if, say, at least 80% on a block support doing so.

About 75 percent of the emails TAB has gotten contain counterproductive suggestions for calming (for example, lowering speed limits, increasing law enforcement patrols on a street, speed humps, and stop signs).

The two biggest bang-for-the-buck transportation strategies that Boulder can deploy to improve safety, improve quality of life, promote infill, and recruit new bicyclists and pedestrians is removing unnecessary travel lanes on oversized roads and intersections; and traffic calming.

Since Boulder is admirably on a fast track to implement Vision Zero (bring traffic-related serious injuries and fatalities to zero), and since Vision Zero is an umbrella that includes major roadways (arterials and collectors), can we combine Vision Zero with Neighborhood Traffic Mitigation (calming) for faster traffic calming implementation? The City calming program only addresses neighborhood streets, while Vision Zero includes major roads. Serious car-related injuries and deaths nearly always occur on major roads. It is naïve to think that we can create a pedestrian and bicycling system that is separate from major roads. Such a separate system cannot affordably reach more than a tiny fraction of destinations that pedestrians and cyclists would like to reach.

Oversized roads, such as the 8-lane Arapahoe at 30th Street, are an example of the City striving to accommodate the huge influx of regional car trips. In part, this seems to be an “affordable housing” strategy. But 5-, 6- and 8-lane roads are too big for a city that seeks to promote safety and travel choice and compact development. Regional car trips CAN be 30th-and-arapahoe-double-leftsaccommodated with less lanes. Some motorists can opt to accept moderately slower commute times. Some motorists can choose a different route. Some motorists can drive at a non-rush hour time. Some motorists can use transit. Some motorists can live closer.

As for affordability by living in an outlying town, studies show us that this is a false economy, as the cost to live in auto-dependent locations often exceeds the cost savings from lower-cost homes.

“Slowing fire truck response time” due to calming is a red herring. There are effective ways to slow cars and increase motorist attentiveness without significantly slowing emergency vehicles. In addition, the Peter Swift 2003 study in Longmont conclusively showed that oversizing roads and intersections to reduce emergency vehicle response times results in a substantial net loss in community “life safety.” Yes, there may be a slight increase in fire-related injuries and deaths, but that increase is far exceeded by the substantial increase in car-crash-related injuries and deaths. For the best public safety results, therefore, Boulder needs to focus on “life safety,” not just the subset of “fire safety.” See: http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/robert-steuteville/21128/bad-call-wide-streets-name-fire-safety

The “Five Warnings” (more lights, paint, enforcement, education, signs) have been tried every few years for about 100 years. After all of those efforts, our streets and intersections are more dangerous than ever – largely because streets and intersections are WAY over-sized. The Five Warnings do almost nothing to make such deadly, oversized roads and intersections safe.

 

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Improving Traffic Safety in Boulder Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 12, 2016

In recent weeks, I have been alarmed and saddened by the uptick in vehicle crashes in the Boulder area that have led to serious injuries and deaths. I was touched and encouraged last night by the strong showing of support for a big improvement in traffic safety for Boulder at my Boulder Transportation Advisory Board meeting (of which I am a member).

I have been a bicycle commuter since I was a young boy. I have spent the past 35 years both academically and professionally in the field of transportation – particularly in the area of transportation safety for bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

That background has made traffic safety one of my most important objectives of advocacy, and a primary reason why I was interested in serving on Boulder’s Transportation Advisory Board.

I think it is very important that our Board respond to the heightened community concerns about the state of traffic safety in Boulder with support for an agenda we as a Board recommend to City Council.

Indicators of Traffic Safety

If we are to make any meaningful progress in reducing the number of serious crashes in Boulder, we must be able to measure trends to know whether our safety measures are succeeding. In my view, there are three primary measures:

(1) Annual Number of Serious Crashes. This measure is readily available and has not shown any substantial downward trend for a long time.

(2) Average Speed of Motor Vehicles. This measure is difficult to quantify, but given long-term trends in conventional street design, average speeds are likely to have plateaued at a high level or has increased over time. We know that average motor vehicle speeds are strongly correlated to the number of severe crashes.

(3) Level of Motorist Inattentiveness. At least one study I have seen reports that approximately 80 percent of all motor vehicle crashes are due to inattentiveness. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to measure the level of inattentiveness. Nevertheless, it is extremely likely that motorist inattentiveness has skyrocketed in recent decades due, again, to long-term trends in conventional street design, as well as an American lifestyle that has grown increasingly busy and exhausting.

Street engineering and Safety in Numbers are head and shoulders above other common safety efforts, in terms of effectiveness. Indeed, Boulder’s laudable goal of achieving Vision Zero will not be meaningfully approached without street engineering reform.

As has been said many times, good street design produces desirable and safe travel behavior.

By far, the most effective way to increase road safety is to engineer Boulder streets to reduce average car speeds and increase motorist attentiveness. Traffic engineers are well-versed in how to do this.

In particular, minimizing the curb to curb distance on streets and intersections is essential.

The Same Old Song and Dance

For the past century, the status quo for Boulder and the State of Colorado has been to employ warnings, and the “forgiving street” paradigm for road safety.

Conventional warning methods (the “Five Warnings”) long used in Boulder (and other cities) include Warning Paint, Warning Lights, Warning Signs, Warning Education, and Warning Law Enforcement. These warnings are almost entirely ineffective when roads and intersections are oversized, and after a century of employing these warnings, they now suffer from severely diminished returns.

Street design is “forgiving” when street design “forgives” the motorist for driving too fast or too inattentively.  This design paradigm strives to minimize the likelihood of motor vehicle crashes by seeking to minimize the consequences of driving too fast or too inattentively. Forgiving design has converted a large number of Boulder streets into high-speed highways rather than the local and slower streets they should be. The following are design examples:

  • Travel lanes that are extremely wide;
  • Roads that contain an a large number of travel lanes or turn lanes;
  • A large vision triangle at intersections;
  • A large clear zone on the sides of roads (removing trees or other stationary objects);
  • Super-elevating road curves;
  • Intersections with a large turning radius.

The following links describe this strategy.

http://www.pps.org/blog/what-can-we-learn-from-the-dutch-self-explaining-roads/

https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/new-science-street-design

http://nacto.org/docs/usdg/design_safe_urban_roadsides_dumbaugh.pdf

Today, following several decades of forgiving street design, average car speeds are higher and motorist inattentiveness is a far worse public safety problem. In many ways, forgiving street design is the reason for these higher speeds and increased inattentiveness.

Fortunately, Boulder is beginning to move toward a new street design paradigm. But relatively narrow, attentive streets such as those found in Boulder’s Holiday neighborhood are the rare exception rather than the rule.

Nearly all of the recent, significant car crashes in Boulder have occurred on major roads. Our dilemma is that a large number of Boulder residents seem unwilling to humanize such roads to make them safer (reducing dimensions to reduce car speeds, for example). And there remains a strong desire to maintain relatively high speed, free-flowing traffic on such roads, which is in direct conflict with safety objectives. One commonly heard strategy for those who oppose the safety redesign of major roads is to recommend that bicyclists avoid such roads. But this is naïve, in conflict with healthy city objectives, and discriminatory.

It is also naïve to think that Boulder can ever comprehensively provide such things as protected bike lanes, off-street paths, and safe pedestrian crossings for the enormous number of destinations that bicyclists and pedestrians need to access. While protected lanes and safe pedestrian crossings have a role to play, it is incumbent on us as a city to recognize that over-sized, high-speed highways are inappropriate in cities and must be reformed to be compatible with safety objectives and healthy city objectives. Many other cities have done this. There is no reason that Boulder cannot follow that path.

Cities thrive when streets induce slower, more attentive travel speeds, and when streets safely allow travel by pedestrians and bicyclists. In part, such design advances city health by promoting “agglomeration economies,” where people and businesses are induced to be compactly drawn to each other (or co-located near each other).

Ruinously, nearly all Americans have aggressively worked for several decades to ensure that communities enable higher car speeds.

Cities are degraded and unsafe when large, high-speed highways intrude into them. Such design has a repelling influence on people and businesses that induce them to disperse and separate from each other. Social capital and a sense of community thereby decline as well.

Toward a New Vision for Traffic Safety

For Boulder to make meaningful progress in reducing serious motor vehicle crashes, new methods must be employed in the future.

It has become increasingly clear after decades of use that the “Five Warnings” are not working well.

Nor are the forgiving street tactics.

Instead, there is a growing recognition of the need for street design that obligates slower motor vehicle speeds and more attentive driving. This design is by far the most effective way to increase road safety in Boulder. Traffic engineers are well-versed in how to do this.

Given the above, I have proposed that the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board support the following. Admittedly, they are largely long-term tactics, but after 100 years of using counterproductive approaches, it should not surprise us that there are few if any quick fixes.

  1. The City should ramp up its program to redesign streets. Lane repurposing should remain in the city toolbox for roads that contain a large number of travel lanes. Major roads should be Complete Streets. Local and collector neighborhood streets – which today are excessively wide and unsafe on a large percentage of streets — should be incrementally redesigned to be slow streets, shared streets, and give-way streets. road diet before and afterOn-street parking should be employed much more often (and retained where it already exists), and existing one-way streets should be converted back to two-way operation (one-way streets are exceptionally dangerous and inconvenient for bicyclists – not to mention their toxicity to retail and residences). Lane widths and turning radii at intersections need to be incrementally reduced as well.
  1. The City should restore funding or find new funding to finance a ramped up street redesign program to create low-design-speed streets.
  1. The City should ratchet down the use of the “Five Warnings”: warning signage, warning lights, warning paint, warning education, and warning law enforcement. These tools have been over-used to the point of being a distracting, counterproductive tactic that reduces safety.
  1. To take advantage of the powerful safety benefits of Safety in Numbers, the City should redouble efforts to significantly grow the number of bicyclists and pedestrians and transit users. Tactics can include pricing, Eco-Pass provision, compact development, and parking reform, for example.
  1. The City should incrementally strive to increase street connectivity. By having more connected streets, bicyclists and pedestrians can better avoid using more dangerous major streets.
  1. The City should put a moratorium on the creation of new double-left turn lane intersections, and incrementally convert double-left turns to single-left turns (removal of left- and right-turn lanes is particularly important in the Boulder town center). City data shows that major intersections are the location of an enormous number of crashes. Double-left turn lanes create huge intersection sizes and high-speed, inattentive driving. Such intersections are far too scary/dangerous for all but the most skilled, courageous bicyclist, and the crossing distance for pedestrians makes these intersections very undesirable – particularly for seniors, the disabled, and children. Double-left turn intersections are in direct conflict with safety objectives and efforts to leverage Safety in Numbers.
  2. The City should strive to minimize the size of service vehicles and buses so that larger vehicles do not become an excessively large design vehicle. When emergency, service and delivery vehicles are relatively large, the excessive size becomes the “design vehicle” that road engineers use, which ends up driving the dimensions of city streets. Huge vehicles should not be determining the size of our street infrastructure. Street sizing in a town center should instead be based on safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, human scale, and overall quality of life.

The time for Boulder to start using effective tactics for improved traffic safety is way overdue.

 

 

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Is More Aggressive Enforcement of Traffic Laws an Effective Way to Increase Traffic Safety?

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 26, 2016

I respect and appreciate the concerns people have about traffic safety. I share the concern and am extremely motivated to leverage it to see that communities adopt meaningful measures to increase traffic safety.

One relatively recent, encouraging initiative that has emerged in places such as New York City is known as “Vision Zero,” which strives to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and serious crashes each year to zero.

Speaking as someone who has worked academically and professionally in transportation for about 35 years, I must be honest and say that I don’t believe stiffer criminal/civil penalties would be effective. Yet this is a very common tactic that is urged to increase traffic safety.

I am quite convinced that the main cause of the many traffic fatalities and serious crashes street without on street parking(and road danger in general) is due to our communities being afflicted with oversized streets and intersections. Those factors, in combination with several decades of traffic planners designing “forgiving” streets and installing an overwhelming number of “safety” measures (such as road paint, signage, lights, etc.) have created a huge traffic safety problem in our communities. These factors have induced an enormous amount of excessive driving speeds and a lot of inattentive driving. Those two features are deadly when motorists so often drive that way (and they drive that way largely because of the road design we have put in place — ironically, mostly in the name of safety).

Unless communities starts getting serious about incrementally installing and retrofitting road designs that will effectively reduce driving speeds and inattentiveness (and transportation professionals are well aware of what those designs consist of), I don’t believe we will see any meaningful reduction in road deaths.

Frankly, I don’t believe that law enforcement measures would help much at all on this very important problem. Many communities have adopted quite aggressive enforcement measures for several decades, yet they (and nearly all other communities) have seen road safety continue to worsen over those decades.

I question whether fear of severe penalties would effectively and comprehensively motivate drivers to drive slower and more attentively. Let’s face it: Most of us are very busy, stressed and exhausted. If we design streets so they are too big and forgive us for, say, multitasking while we drive, most of us will drive too fast (to save precious time) and be inattentive — particularly if the road design enables that sort of driving. Penalties can never been applied for more than a tiny number of infractions, so even if the penalties are severe, most are unlikely to be deterred.

Enforcement is common because it is comparatively quick, easy and cheap, but it took us about a century to get to where we are today. It will therefore take us a long time to start ratcheting down the real causes of road safety problems: oversizing and designing for inattentiveness.

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