Philly Takes Safer Streets Plan Beyond the Usual Urbanists - Next City

It would be hard to find a big U.S. city today without a small clique of hyperengaged urbanists and transit advocates who dominate local policy discussions, both in online forums and in-person meetups.

They’re either a blessing or a curse, depending on where you sit. On one hand, these networks form the backbone of a lot of advocacy efforts that end up leading to real, positive changes in the cityscape. On the other, they’re unintentionally good at annoying the piss out of a lot of layfolk, who find it easier to disengage completely than go head to head with the “know-it-alls” — which ends up strengthening the clique’s own grip on the debate of the day.

In Philadelphia, the officials who were charged with taking the city’s nascent Vision Zero plan to the public tried to thread the needle. They wanted input from the most passionate, plugged-in constituents, but they knew they wouldn’t have to try too hard to get it. So rather than convene a series of single-issue Vision Zero meetings, which might attract a self-selected group of advocates and not many others, they opened online comments to everyone and brought the discussion to community meetings, festivals, police district meetings and other events that were already in the works around the city.

“We wanted to go to places where people are naturally congregating … to get voices we wouldn’t normally hear from,” says Kelley Yemen, director of complete streets in the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS).

Vision Zero is the name for a loosely affiliated set of policies and plans aimed at treating traffic deaths as preventable rather than inevitable, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them completely. Vision Zero strategies have been adopted in U.S. cities from Seattle and Fort Lauderdale to Boston and San Diego. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an executive order creating a Vision Zero Task Force in November 2016. A draft action plan was released in March, and the final plan was issued last week.

Between March and July, city officials visited 44 community meetings and collected more than 23,000 responses on an online safety map, where residents could report dangerous behaviors they observed in the streets. In all, 85 percent of respondents said they don’t believe Philadelphia is a safe place for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists to share the roads, according to the task force. And the data suggest Philadelphians know what they’re talking about: 100 Philadelphians die in traffic incidents each year, 250 more are injured, and the rate of traffic deaths is 6 per 100,000, among the highest in the nation, according to the task force. Moreover, while pedestrians only account for 18 percent of the individuals involved in traffic incidents, they make up 41 percent of the deaths.

The task force’s engagement efforts were meant to solicit input from community members on how the city should approach safety improvements. But they were also designed to show people that Vision Zero is a mayoral priority, and to start drawing a sharper focus on the seriousness of street safety.

“People really see the importance of this when you frame it as saving human life or preserving human life,” says Charlotte Castle, Vision Zero and neighborhood programs coordinator for OTIS.

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