Along with a host of other policy and infrastructure strategies, reducing speed limits on main roads simply saves lives, Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network told the Rivard Report.
But Americans have accepted that cars just kill people, she said. And the faster they are going, the more lethal they are to pedestrians and bicyclists, research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows.
There are were about 40,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. last year, she said, and speeding alone kills more than 10,000.
"It doesn't have to be this way," Shahum said during a phone interview last week ahead of the all-day Vision Zero Summit that took place Friday at the Phil Hardberger Park Ecology Center.
San Antonio signed on to the Vision Zero initiative in September 2015 at the urging of Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), becoming part of a nationwide effort to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2040, deaths that advocates such as Shahum believe are preventable. The local initiative has raised awareness about pedestrian deaths and advocated for more research and funding to support infrastructure for traffic-calming and protection of pedestrians and cyclists. Recently the City's Vision Zero initiative paired with USAA to launch a safe driving contest.
"The crux of [Vision Zero] comes from an ethical imperative" to save lives, Shahum said. "In a civilized society, people have the right to safe mobility. ... [But] our planning engineers still design roads for speed that can kill people."
She brought that same message to more than 150 people, many of whom were urban planners and cyclists, who gathered to learn more about what progress the Vision Zero initiative has made.
A pedestrian struck by a car moving at 20 mph has a 90 percent chance of survival, Shahum said, but only a 10 percent chance of survival if hit by a car going 40 mph.
In San Antonio, about 80 percent of severe or fatal crashes occur on main, arterial roads with speeds posted at more than 35 mph, said Allison Blazosky, regional transportation planner for the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO).
"MPOs are funding projects based on a long-range transportation plan," Blazosky said, so it makes sense for the AAMPO to take into account Vision Zero practices, but "no single jurisdiction is going to make a dent in this data alone."
There has been a general perception that vehicle-versus-pedestrian collisions are random occurrences, said Greg Reininger, a senior transportation planner at the City's Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) department. But an analysis of crashes that occurred from 2011 through 2015 within a half mile of another found 76 "severe pedestrian injury areas" in the city.
"It's really not as random as we think," Reininger said. The City's analysis of these areas also found that the worst areas were arterial streets where the posted speed was 40 mph.
Asked if she thinks the City could reduce speed limits, Gonzales said, “I think it has to because of the number of fatalities. We are doing as much as we can and we are making a lot of strides [in infrastructure funding] ... but really the determining factor is speed. So we need to seriously consider reducing our speed limit."
Existing methods of slowing down traffic, separating traffic, and installing more protective infrastructure should continue as well, she said. "Traffic-calming is a much better option even than reducing speed limits," she said, because it reduces speed in a more organic way by avoiding wide lanes that give drivers the sense that they can drive fast.
Gonzales said she expects to encounter resistance.
"It's mostly a political issue, and we use the data to try and encourage our elected [officials] to respond because it's hard to deny," she said. "We've been an automobile-dependent city for over 70 years."
The five-year, 2017 bond included $445,263,000 for street, bridge, and sidewalk improvements, and next year's budget could include up to $110 million for street maintenance. It's unclear if streets will receive quite that much, but City Council generally expressed support for Mayor Ron Nirenberg's suggestion to increase funding this year from $99 million.
Improving infrastructure, especially in high-risk areas, is a critical step towards achieving zero traffic deaths, Shahum said, but "it's the speed that kills."
The "default speed" in Texas is 30 mph, she said, and it would take state legislative action to change that – as is the case in many states. Other cities have lobbied successfully for a decrease from 30 mph to 25 mph, including Boston, New York, and Seattle. Some cities have tried instituting a pilot program to lower speed limits, she said, so states can ease into the concept.
The Vision Zero Summit on Friday hosted several speakers, including Shahum; Gabe Klein, co-founder of CityFi and former Commissioner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., Departments of Transportation; local officials, urban planners, and others from across the U.S. such as Lilly O'Brien, deputy of communications for Vision Zero Los Angeles.
As she begun her presentation for the "Data-Driven Performance Management" session, Blazosky reminded the audience of what she said was the most critical piece of information.
"Though this is a session about data and numbers, these numbers are people," she said.