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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Vision Zero Philadelphia: The New Policy That Could Eliminate Bicycle Crash Deaths

According to the most recent data published by the US Census Bureau, Philadelphia is the most bike-friendly city with a population of more than one million people in the United States.[i] Roughly 1.9% of the City’s workers commute by bike. In a world pushing for more sustainable practices, the growing rate of bicycle commuters is great news. However, the question remains as to how safe it is for cyclists to share the road with drivers. In 2014, three cyclists were killed out of a total of 551 crashes that involved pedestrians in Philadelphia.[ii] As a comparison, New York City experienced 20 cyclist fatalities, with roughly four times more cyclists than Philadelphia.[i][iii] But New York City has something Philadelphia doesn’t: a Vision Zero policy.

Bicycle commuting has risen in popularity all over the country, but no large city has as many bike commuters as Philadelphia has. Courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists

Vision Zero is an effort to reduce and ultimately eliminate all traffic-related deaths. The movement started in Sweden in 1993 and earned Swedish parliamentary approval in 1997.[iv] The country’s Vision Zero initiative focuses on both human error and mechanical systems to improve safety. Education and public services help reduce human error. Improving systems has been more vital to the Vision Zero initiative. Vehicle technology, infrastructure improvements, and increased surveillance systems can all help save lives. A city can do little to improve vehicle technology, but it can push for measures on every other front.
Over the past few years, American cities have begun to implement Vision Zero plans or have stated initiatives to eliminate traffic-related deaths. Many cities have set strict deadlines: Chicago hopes to eliminate deaths in 10 years[v]; Los Angeles’ goal is 2025, giving the city eleven years to eliminate deaths.[vi] New York City announced a Vision Zero policy in 2014, outlining 63 separate initiatives and adding 40 more earlier this year.[vii] The initiatives include reducing the city speed limit to 25 MPH, adding more crossing guards at schools, installing speed cameras, adding speed humps, and enhancing street lighting. New York City has also made engineering changes at 50 intersections in the past decade. The city claims that fatalities at these intersections have decreased twice as fast. New York City also added slow zones on main arteries, which make up 15% of the city’s roads, but 60% of pedestrian deaths.[viii]
Philadelphia has a Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan, which was instituted in 2012.[ix] This plan seeks to cut fatalities and injuries in half by 2020 and raise rates of biking to 6.5%. Unfortunately, the plan has yet to meet its tangible goals. One such goal was to reach the League of American Bicyclists’ platinum level by 2013. The city still holds a silver ranking, up from bronze in 2009. The award, updated every four years, is evaluated based on a city’s engineering of bicycle safe areas, bicycle education, encouragement of bike culture, enforcement of laws, and evaluation and planning for bicycle safety.[x] In awarding a ranking, the League looks at a community’s programs, facilities, bicycle use, fatalities, and other government services related to biking.
Philadelphia’s mayor-elect Jim Kenney stated his support for a Vision Zero policy, meaning such a policy could be adopted once Kenney is inaugurated.[xi] The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, aided by Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, is hosting a Vision Zero Philadelphia Conference on December 3, 2015 at the Hospital’s Alumni Hall.[xii] The conference will host a number of expert speakers and panelists, including Department of Transportation, SEPTA, and police employees, as well as other government employees and private sector experts.
It is unclear exactly what new objectives Kenney may initiate, but there are many options. The League of American Bicyclists highlights many such goals. To reach a platinum status, which the city currently seeks, a community should have “very good” bicycle friendly laws and “excellent” public education. From an engineering perspective, 78% of arterial streets should have bike lanes. A community also needs 1 bike staff for 20,000 citizens, suggesting Philadelphia should have almost 80 bike staff. The major outcomes are .5 fatalities and 90 crashes per 10,000 commuters, and 12% ridership for commuters. These fatality and crash goals are important stepping stones for a potential Vision Zero policy, and are realistic for the City’s next League review in 2017.
Philadelphia currently has 600,000 commuters and averages 30-40 pedestrian fatalities per year, around .6 fatalities per 10,000 commuters, just over the League’s cutoff.[xiii] However, when one narrows the dataset to just cyclists, the number is slightly better. While no cyclists died in 2013, the city typically averages two or three deaths per year.[ii] As of the 2012 plan, 239 of the over 2500 miles of streets in Pennsylvania had bike lanes. By increasing the availability of these safe lanes, the city should hopefully allow for safer commutes. In general, increased bike lanes mean more bicyclists, with lanes reducing overall crashes by roughly half.[xiv]
Philadelphia has a long way to go to meet the criteria set forth in its Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan and even further to become a city with no traffic-related fatalities. However, the increasing popularity of biking and the increased awareness of safety mean increasing efforts to lower the dangers of biking in the city. Accordingly, the city just planned its first protected bike lanes this year. Protected lanes contain a buffer between bicycles and vehicle traffic, such as shrubbery, parking spaces, or median strips. The lanes in Philadelphia, which rest between the curb and a row of parked cars, will become the standard, according to the Department of Streets commissioner. [xv] The launch of one of the nation’s most accessible bike share programs this year, one of the only that does not require a credit card for a membership, may help ridership in the city.[xvi]

A Protected bike lane in Vancouver, Canada. Photo courtesy of Paul Krueger

If Philadelphia follows on its current path, the city could be the first with over one million citizens to reach a gold or platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists. Such a status would be a landmark for any Vision Zero initiative. While truly eliminating fatalities may not be immediately achievable, a consistently improving status from the League of American Bicyclists is an effective marker of a City’s progress. With each step towards zero traffic-related fatalities, cyclists can feel more confident and comfortable riding on their city’s streets.
- By Jeff Williams




[i] http://bikeleague.org/content/where-we-ride-2014-analysis-bike-commuting
[ii] http://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/05/11/bike-crashes-philadelphia/
[iii] http://gothamist.com/2015/01/16/cyclist_deaths_bike_lanes.php
[iv] http://www.visionzeroinitiative.com/en/Concept/The-vision-zero/
[v] http://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/cdot/Admin/ChicagoForwardCDOTActionAgenda.pdf
[vi] http://www.dailynews.com/government-and-politics/20140929/making-los-angeles-streets-great-ending-pedestrian-deaths-are-mayor-eric-garcetti-and-ladots-goals
[vii] http://www.nyc.gov/html/visionzero/pages/initiatives/initiatives.shtml
[viii] http://www.nyc.gov/html/visionzero/pages/initiatives/street-design.shtml
[ix] http://www.phila.gov/CITYPLANNING/PLANS/Pages/PedestrianandBicyclePlan.aspx
[x] http://bikeleague.org/bfa/awards
[xi] http://kenneyforphiladelphia.com/priorities/
[xii] http://bicyclecoalition.org/our-campaigns/visionzero/#sthash.b2ecYtSe.dpbs
[xiii] http://bicyclecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/SaferStreets.Final_.12.5.141.pdf
[xiv] http://usa.streetsblog.org/2012/10/22/study-protected-bike-lanes-reduce-injury-risk-up-to-90-percent/
[xv] http://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/05/26/new-bike-lanes-philadelphia/
[xvi] http://time.com/3854835/best-bike-work-cities/

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