Fixing failure: Creating safer communities by designing safer roads

Photo of a pothole in Oakland, California
A large pothole is visible on 20th Street on July 12, 2017 in Oakland, California. Drivers in San Francisco and Oakland pay an estimated $978 per year to repair vehicle damage from driving on roads with potholes and uneven pavement. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 2019, 36,096 Americans died in traffic-related crashes. This is no fluke. There are systemic, chronic issues affecting our roadways, and road systems across the U.S. have been designed with the wrong assumptions, causing numerous costly failures.  

The better assumptions? We must make communities for people, not the vehicles we drive. No traffic death is acceptable. We currently design, operate and use transportation systems with faulty engineering choices for both vehicles and infrastructure. Let’s get real and design systems that anticipate human error and vulnerability while preventing crashes. 

Hope for the future: President Biden’s infrastructure plan

The Biden infrastructure platform is a solid list of progressive transportation proposals. It’s well researched and can set us on a safer, more equitable and sustainable course. President Biden’s focus on investing in transportation choices, improved infrastructure, advanced technology and proven federal programs like the Highway Safety Improvement Program can be especially effective for road safety. Biden’s plan understands that people need alternatives to get around, and a “multi-modal” focus is proven to reduce deadly collisions. This plan boldly proposes that infrastructure investment can help our economy recover faster. 

With 77 percent of roads controlled by local governments, local leaders across the country are eager to partner with the federal government to accelerate their “Vision Zero” efforts and build thriving equitable communities, create jobs and promote a cleaner environment. We’ve racked up a massive technical and societal debt related to traffic safety and it will take trillions of dollars to turn the tide. In Washington state alone, annual crashes cost $14.7 billion per year, more than 3.2 times higher than the cost of traffic congestion. 

Revitalizing our communities through safer roads

Thankfully, cities as diverse as Nashville, Tenn., Houston, Bellevue, Wash. and New York have created concrete plans to achieve #ZeroTrafficDeaths and many citizens have voted to fund this vision. 

For example, Nashville passed a $1.6 billion transportation plan in December 2020, an extraordinary achievement led by Mayor John Cooper when the city, like many others, is struggling because of the pandemic. Complementing investments in public transit and alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, they anchored their plans in ambitious infrastructure projects like the Jefferson Street corridor, supporting the revitalization of a historically significant commercial corridor serving as the main business district for the African American community in Nashville. This investment in safety and placemaking uses an innovative tool implementation called “Equity by Design” — capping the I-40 Interstate that has physically disconnected North Nashville residents from their commercial district to generate significant socioeconomic value for North Nashville.

End reactivity and create proactive safety plans

Biden’s plan calls for “roadway digitization” in communities to turn reactive transportation planning into a proactive, preemptive process. Bellevue, Wash. is a shining example of this. They recognize that crash data alone provides an incomplete picture of safety risks; at most locations, the number of crashes is subject to chance variations. New technologies are delivering safety value by converting raw video footage from camera networks into insights that are searchable, providing planners and traffic managers detailed information on near-miss frequency, traffic flow, speeds and other vehicle conditions, enabling a more timely response to traffic incidents. With increased funding, these systems can become the norm rather than the exception.

In Houston, leadership overlays mobility, resilience and equity from Mayor Turner’s Vision Zero, Resilient Houston and Complete Communities initiatives. Their Vision Zero action plan revealed that 60 percent of crashes happen on 6 percent of the Houston road network. Much like the Biden plan, Houston believes in a transparent and accessible approach to moving from transportation strategy to action. The resulting infrastructure improvements can simultaneously transform the safety, socioeconomic and environmental dynamics of the highest priority roads traversing Houston’s 660 square miles of neighborhoods. 

Community collaboration from all road users

In the New York area, the Vision Zero initiative acknowledges that road safety is a shared responsibility, including professional fleet operators. These organizations are the backbone of our economy and many have excellent fleet safety programs, but there is room for more collaboration. Because fleets are heavy road users, they will be important stakeholders in infrastructure improvements that can simultaneously save lives and create economic opportunity. The city’s new Fleets of the Future Network is a great step forward to establish lines of communication and best practices on issues of sustainable and safe fleet operation.

With so many competing priorities in our country right now, we do need to make hard choices. Investing in transportation infrastructure is not one of them. We can give our country a much needed economic boost, create safer, more equitable communities, modernize our road system and reduce our environmental impact at the same time. 

David Braunstein is the president of Together for Safer Roads and his leadership has helped scale and sustain the global coalition’s efforts to improve road safety and save lives. Prior to joining Together for Safer Roads, Braunstein was an Associate Partner and Industry Innovation Lead at IBM for 5 continents. He also held senior roles in strategy, analytics and innovation within eBay’s marketing services organization.

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