Safe Streets As Progressive Imperative

Why safe streets for walking, biking, and transit are a key part of an equitable left agenda

By Ben Furnas (@bfurnas)

In the United States, of the over 37,000 people killed in automobile crashes last year, more than 6,000 were pedestrians, crushed under a vehicle's wheels or killed by the collision's impact. This problem is getting worse: since 2013, traffic fatalities nationwide are up more than 13 percent and in cities, towns, and suburban communities, they have increased by 25 percent.

Across the country, advocacy for safer streets has grown in kinship with environmental activism, organized labor and people fighting against income inequality. In recent years, it has moved from a niche issue to a solid part of the progressive policy matrix in major cities.Street safety fits neatly into the coalescing progressive vision for our towns and cities: Dense, affordable housing. Parks and open space. Reliable public transit. Walkable and bikeable streets.

As a new generation takes office at the state and local level, progressive leaders are assuming responsibility for thousands of miles of streets—the largest public space asset in most jurisdictions. As these progressive leaders look to put their stamp on the neighborhoods and cities around them, how they manage the streets they control will prove an early and important test.

For decades, this space has been managed for the cars speeding through, not for those who live along the way. But public streets should be made for everyone using them. The design of roads is a political choice, and progressives can make a better one: We can transform streets into safer, more pleasant, and more effective places.

Traffic deaths are not distributed equally. Seniors are more likely to be killed walking than younger people, and people of color are more likely to be killed walking than whites. In low-income neighborhoods, where people are more likely to walk, bike, or rely on the bus, fatalities are twice as common as in more affluent areas. Sidewalks are poorly maintained or non-existent, crosswalks are faded and far apart, street lighting is inadequate, wheelchair accessibility is either an afterthought or missing altogether.  A shopping center might be separated by twelve lanes of traffic from the closest bus stop.

It does not have to be like this.

In New York City, shortly after taking office, the de Blasio administration fulfilled a campaign promise and committed to Vision Zero—the simple notion that no deaths or serious injuries on city streets are acceptable. The moral stakes of this work were made clear by the families of people killed in traffic crashes. These mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents spurred politicians to action and, as I can attest, their stories of lost loved ones inspire people working across government to see beyond the daily grind of our work.

The steps New York City took towards the goals of Vision Zero were straight-forward. We required drivers to slow down, by lowering the default speed to 25 mph. We increased accountability for reckless drivers by expanding the use of automated speed enforcement around schools and focusing traffic enforcement on dangerous driving. We also purchased safer vehicles for the city fleet and required safer designs in garbage trucks and other large vehicles operating on our streets.

But the central feature of Vision Zero has been changes to the streets—the city is redesigning hundreds of streets and intersections. That might mean expanding sidewalks, creating new pedestrian space, and adding bike lanes. It might mean installing speed bumps and refreshing crosswalks, or changing signals to give people a head start while crossing the street. We've upgraded street lighting across the city. Projects are prioritized in places where fatalities and serious injuries occur with the most frequency (a clear and straightforwardly egalitarian rubric), with the simple goal of making walking and biking safer and less scary for people in every neighborhood.

These measures are working. Since 2013, even as traffic fatalities climbed nationwide, New York City has achieved five consecutive years of record-low deaths on the streets. Overall traffic fatalities have dropped by a third; pedestrian fatalities have fallen nearly 40 percent.

These measures sometimes spark controversy when they involve repurposing parking spaces or trigger fears of increased traffic. But they are also very popular. In New York City, more than 70% of likely voters support investments in safer streets—projects such as expanded sidewalk space, bike lanes, and pedestrian refuge islands. This support includes majorities of car owners and regular drivers, and very strong support among Black, Hispanic, and low-income New Yorkers. More than 80 percent of likely voters support speed cameras in school zones. Nationwide, there is widespread support for more investment in sidewalks and bike networks.

The levers to make major changes to the streets are squarely in the hands of local and state officials, and cities across the country have begun to adopt “Vision Zero” as a guiding principle and are working increase the safety of their own streets. Embracing these efforts gives new progressive leaders an opportunity to shift the use of streets—both infrastructure and public space—in a more egalitarian and humanistic direction.

There are other good reasons for progressive leaders to make these spaces safer. Stores tend to do brisker business when the streets outside are friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. Climate change pollution drops when walking and biking are more appealing than a trip in the car. (Streets reconfigured for safety can also be designed to support faster and more reliable transit service.) Communities are stronger when neighborhoods aren’t divided by dangerous roads that keep people from sending kids to the park on their own, visiting a neighbor’s house, or strolling to the store. But fundamentally, left leaders can be motivated by a clear sense of public responsibility and justice: People shouldn’t have to put their lives in peril just to get around.

Making streets safer is an opportunity for the American left to be at our best: delivering broadly shared, tangible improvements to day-to-day life, while providing protection from fear, tragedy, and loss. The goals here are vivid and easily to explain: neighborhoods where kids can play outside without being injured or killed by cars, streets where it’s safe and pleasant to walk and bike without fearing for life and limb. As a new generation of progressive leaders comes to power, they should embrace a new dimension of a classic mantra —Take to the streets!


Ben Furnas (@bfurnas) is the Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Planning in New York City. The ideas expressed here are his own.

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