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Traffic deaths jumped 88% in Philly last year despite fewer cars on road

The big increase in fatal auto-related crashes in 2020 coincided with an 18% reduction in traffic volume.

The scene at 17th Street and Washington Avenue in July. The city's planned project to fix dangerous traffic problems along the corridor has been stalled.
The scene at 17th Street and Washington Avenue in July. The city's planned project to fix dangerous traffic problems along the corridor has been stalled.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Traffic-crash deaths in Philadelphia jumped 88% last year even though there were fewer cars on the road during the pandemic, a paradox that highlights the hard work ahead if the city government is to meet its goal of eliminating fatal crashes by 2030.

In 2019, 83 people were killed in city traffic crashes, while 156 lost their lives last year, according to the annual Vision Zero report, which tracks progress and was released Wednesday.

Data indicate no significant reduction in traffic-related deaths since the city’s Vision Zero program began in November 2016, despite several improvements designed to slow traffic and protect pedestrians and cyclists on dangerous corridors.

Many communities across the country experienced startling increases in traffic deaths during 2020, and researchers are combing through interconnected causes. But in Philadelphia, speeding and aggressive driving were identified as the top contributing factors in 42% of auto-related crashes that killed or seriously injured someone last year, the report said.

“People are lead-footing around this town … and they’re driving like idiots,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a news conference Wednesday. “The pandemic … has made people do things they normally wouldn’t do, like driving crazily fast and doing insane stuff with cars in Center City.”

The mayor was speaking at the site of a project to install raised medians, with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant cutouts for pedestrians at intersections on North Broad Street between Poplar Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

The North Broad project is a worthy achievement, said Randy LoBasso, policy director for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, but it was overshadowed by a horrific crash that killed a cyclist on Roosevelt Boulevard on Tuesday night, as well as Kenney’s analysis of the city’s drivers.

“It seemed like Kenney was missing the entire point of Vision Zero,” LoBasso said. “We know that people are driving like idiots already. The idea is that streets are set up to protect people from mistakes, because nobody can drive perfectly — or bike or walk perfectly.”

Vision Zero, which began in Sweden 24 years ago and has spread, including to many towns and cities in the United States, is based on a “safe systems” approach to street planning — designing roads and traffic controls to minimize crashes and reduce vehicle speeds so when crashes do happen, they are less harmful.

Examples include fewer lanes for vehicles, protected bicycle lanes, better-timed signals, and roundabouts at dangerous four-way intersections. Sometimes people call the approach “complete streets” or “smart streets.”

Kenney campaigned in 2015 on adopting Vision Zero and created the program in his first year in office. It is meant to concentrate investment on the 12% of Philadelphia roads that account for about 80% of traffic deaths and serious injuries.

For instance, the city and the Philadelphia Parking Authority have installed speed cameras at eight locations on deadly Roosevelt Boulevard, and speeding tickets dropped 93% between June 2020 and February 2021. The city has also installed a modern roundabout at the intersection of Frankford and Trenton Avenues and York Street in the northern part of Fishtown. The rotaries force traffic to slow down and also lead to less severe crashes because they change the angles at which cars hit each other.

“You can’t say the program is a failure. There are things the city is doing right,” LoBasso said, and the Vision Zero teams in the city’s transportation office and Streets Department are working hard to make it happen. Progress is hard because of political or institutional barriers “baked into the system.”

An ambitious plan to put the chaotic crosstown artery Washington Avenue on a traffic-calming “road diet,” for instance, is now on hold.

» READ MORE: Long-awaited safety overhaul of South Philly’s Washington Avenue is now delayed at least another year

In addition, the program absorbed budget cuts, as did other departments in the government. It was funded at $2.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year. And in the current fiscal year its budget is $1 million.