Over the last 20 months, the spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated a series of public health crises in our city, including an abrupt increase in traffic safety deaths.
Although traffic volume in Philadelphia declined by nearly a fifth in 2020 because of the pandemic, the number of traffic-related fatalities nearly doubled when compared to 2019, with 156 people losing their lives after a crash. This spike in road deaths should have sparked a change in course from Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, but instead, they are offering more of the same inadequate steps — unambitious streetscape modifications and overhaul plans that move like molasses — that got us to this point in the first place.
Last year, city officials announced a series of proposals as part of their Vision Zero plan — a program founded in 2017 that is designed to eliminate traffic deaths in the city. Vision Zero calls for changing the design of streets to slow and restrict traffic flow where pedestrians are numerous and injuries and fatalities are common, rather than sticking to traffic engineering’s traditional focus on level of service. So far, in Philadelphia, these efforts have moved at glacial pace.
At a news conference last month to unveil the latest progress report on Vision Zero, Kenney blamed the rising deaths on motorists “driving like idiots.” Certainly, people driving like idiots is a part of the problem. But people have driven like idiots since they have had vehicles to drive. The point of adopting Vision Zero was not to sit on your hands and blame irresponsible motorists, it was to change the way we design our streets in order to make crashes — and especially fatal crashes — less likely to happen.
» READ MORE: Traffic deaths increased by 88% in 2020
The Kenney administration still claims that its goal is to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030, but it has so far seemed to do little to make that a reality. Already this year, the city has seen 89 traffic deaths according to an analysis by the Bicycle Coalition. Lowering those numbers requires actual, substantial changes that slow vehicles down. Put simply, we will continue to see carnage on our streets until the administration commits to actually doing something.
When it comes to that task, the city has failed to make much headway at all. Funding for street safety improvements has been cut, from an already low $2.5 million to a measly $1 million. After asking community organizers to provide hours of free organizing and canvassing, the city was supposed to deliver “slow zones” to neighborhoods earlier this year; these projects have not yet been completed. Also delayed: a decade-in-the-making repaving of Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, where changes were planned to clean up the chaotic mix of speeding, double parking, and improvised loading zones that the avenue is notorious for.
The city said that it delayed the Washington Avenue project to seek more public input, despite an already extensive outreach process that culminated in over 11,000 presentation views, 23 meetings with locals community and business groups, and 5,400 survey responses. Most respondents to the survey prioritized safety over traffic flow.
» READ MORE: Survey shows neighbors want a safer Washington Ave.
When the city rolled out slow zones, the feedback was also overwhelmingly in favor of safety over speed. From East Passyunk to Fairhill, Philadelphians welcomed the end of irresponsible motorists using the streets where our children play and walk to school as a ”NASCAR racing zone.”
Philadelphians have had enough. It’s time for the city to turn its traffic safety rhetoric into action. The Kenney administration and its transportation team may have to face the harsh reality that the biggest reason the city hasn’t made progress on its Vision Zero goals isn’t the pandemic or delays related to public engagement. The most significant obstacle may just be the members of the Kenney administration themselves.