Fearer: Incrementalism in traffic safety is literally killing us

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” –Traditional

I’ve advocated in a number of ways for safer streets across the country for more than a decade now, both personally and professionally. None of this prepared me for April 19. On that morning nearly two weeks ago, my friend Dave was riding his bike just two blocks from my old house in DC when a driver killed him.

Sitting with my grief since then, and following from afar the calls to action my friends have helped organize, has further clarified the purpose of my work, and that is to push for action, no matter how uncomfortable that push might be. We are talking about the difference between life and death, and the sense of urgency on this issue here in San Jose is all but nonexistent. For more than 10 years I’ve assumed that political leaders see the pressing need to do everything possible to save lives. I realize now I was wrong.

Last year in San Jose, 52 of our neighbors were killed on our roadways, while we had 24 homicides. At deadline for this column, 14 people have been killed so far this year in crashes, and 10 of them were killed while walking. Four of those 10 have been hit-and-runs. All of this is unconscionable.

Department of Transportation staff have done a great deal of heavy lifting since 2015 to assess the most deadly streets in the city’s 2,400-mile roadway network, to apply for grant funding for safety improvements on corridors and in neighborhoods across the city, and to integrate “complete streets” redesigns into the annual pavement maintenance program. Relying on grant funds for the bulk of the city’s traffic safety improvements, however, reinforces an incremental and disjointed approach to saving lives.

In the end, these efforts aren’t enough. We simply tread water against what we know is killing us by failing to address traffic violence with urgency in a systemic and strategic manner.

If we continue to chip away at transportation safety in a piecemeal way, we will continue to fail in attempts to reach a “Vision Zero” goal of zero deaths and zero serious injuries on our roadways. One of the core elements for Vision Zero communities is public, high-level, and ongoing commitment:

The Mayor and other key elected officials must set the tone and direction for Vision Zero and back up their words of commitment with action, reflected in spending decisions, policies, and practices that prioritize safety (even when this means a shift from the status quo). –Vision Zero Network

San Jose’s political leadership has enabled this failure since the city first declared its Vision Zero policy in 2015 because it is essentially an unfunded mandate. Words won’t save lives.

On May 6, the councilmembers who comprise the city’s Transportation & Environment Committee will have the opportunity to shift us from the status quo when staff present the “Annual Transportation System Safety Report and Vision Zero Update.” Here’s the public comment I would love to see, over and over and over, until it sinks in:

I’ve also come to realize over the past couple of weeks that I have been complicit in this incrementalism. I have trusted the art of “compromised half-measures” over the years, and I’ve put too much faith in small changes that haven’t moved the needle in any significant way.

Dave would be the first to challenge me on my tactics, and I owe it to him and to everyone who is killed and injured in crashes here in San Jose to push harder and to demand action and accountability.

Mayor Liccardo and Councilmembers: I challenge you to be bold and to live up to the promise of the words you adopted in 2015 when San Jose became a Vision Zero city. Do not continue to put your staff in a position of compromise when you have the power to mandate urgency, to mandate action, and to mandate the resources to follow through on a promise of zero deaths and zero serious injuries on our roads.

Step up and budget dedicated funding for additional staff, proactive planning, a rapid-response team and Vision Zero-focused capital improvement projects, all of which can save lives. It is incumbent on you to set this city up for success, not failure, and to enable San Jose to be a national leader when it comes to traffic safety.

So far this year, the following neighbors have died in crashes:

  • Unidentified male, 55: Killed while walking
  • Jose Sandoval, 83: Killed while walking
  • Steve Riley, Jr., 44: Killed while riding a motorcycle
  • Margaret Urueta, 59: Killed while walking
  • Unidentified male, age unknown: Killed while driving
  • Robinder Bhurji, 57: Killed while walking
  • Dung Quoc Nguyen, 65: Killed while walking
  • Mary Lo-Wong, 62: Killed while walking
  • Ryan Hays, 31: Killed while walking
  • Tuyen Vu, 78: Killed while walking
  • Unidentified male, 64: Killed while driving
  • Patrick Montgomery, 17: Killed while walking
  • Marianne Natividad, 48: Killed while walking
  • Douglas North, 83: Killed while driving (passenger)

We can’t bring them back or heal the pain their family and friends carry with them. What we can do is fight for those we haven’t lost yet. The best time for us to rebuild our roads to save lives and enhance accessibility and mobility was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

If you’ve lost a loved one or have yourself been injured in a crash, I invite you to reach out to the San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets for support, resources and advocacy opportunities.  

San José Spotlight columnist Jaime Fearer is deputy director of California Walks, the statewide voice for pedestrian safety and healthy, walkable communities for people of all ages and abilities. Her columns appear every first Thursday of the month.

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