In mid-June, the city finally released the Vision Zero Action Plan, which lays out its strategy to eliminate serious and fatal traffic crashes. It arrived about six months later than originally planned—and years after peer cities launched similar programs. But it could not have come a moment too soon; more than 2,000 people per year are killed or seriously injured in collisions in Chicago, with an average of one fatality every three days. The plan, which was crafted by the Chicago Department of Transportation with input from a dozen city departments and agencies, has the stated goal of achieving zero serious and fatal crashes annually by 2026.
The new plan covers the next three years of the decade-long safety push. By 2020 the city seeks to reach several ambitious benchmarks, including reducing deaths from traffic crashes by 20 percent from the 2011-2014 average of 111 per year, and serious injuries by 35 percent, from the four-year average of 1,896.
As part of the planning process the city used crash data to identify 43 high-crash corridors and eight high-crash areas. All of the high-crash areas, save for downtown, are located on the south and west sides. (The plan attributes the higher-than-typical rate in the central business district to the greater population density and large amounts of vehicle and foot traffic.) The city’s goal by 2020 is to reduce the number of serious collisions in both high-crash areas and corridors by 40 percent.
The plan outlines a number of strategies to reach these benchmarks by the three-year deadline. CDOT plans to improve 300 intersections across the city to improve pedestrian safety, using more than $1 million in ward menu money earmarked by aldermen to fund the infrastructure. The department will also work with the CTA to upgrade safety and walking access to 25 el stations.
The document also calls for phasing in the installation of truck side guards, which help prevent pedestrians and bike riders from falling underneath the vehicles, and convex mirrors on city fleet vehicles and other commercial trucks. That’s especially welcome because last year half of the six Chicago bicycle fatalities involved right-turning flatbed truck drivers striking young adult cyclists, who were then crushed under the wheels. On June 28, Emanuel introduced the Large Vehicles Safety Equipment Ordinance, which will require city contractor vehicles to install the safety equipment starting in July 2018. The city fleet will begin adding the gear as well.
The lower-income areas most heavily affected by traffic violence will be prioritized for safety outreach and education, beginning with a pilot program this summer in Austin, North Lawndale, and Garfield Park, funded by a $185,000 grant from the National Safety Council. The summer initiative focuses on working with local community groups and residents “to identify barriers to safe mobility and equitable solutions to improving traffic safety,” according to CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey. (A separate outreach process for the downtown high-crash area is slated to begin in late summer or early fall.)
The phrase “equitable solutions” to reducing crashes means strategies that don’t involve racial profiling or unfairly targeting these AfricanAmerican communities for a ticketing surge. (The issue of police unfairly stopping motorists of color is well documented in Chicago—the ACLU reported that in 2013 nearly half of the drivers detained by Chicago police were black, even though African-Americans make up only 32 percent of the city’s population.) In February the Chicago Tribune‘s Mary Wisniewski reported on the topic of “biking while black,” including wild discrepancies between the number of biking tickets written in African-American communities and majority-white ones. Black bike advocates I interviewed said they believe zero-tolerance policing of cyclists in communities of color is used to justify stop-and-frisk searches. So it’s important that Chicago’s Vision Zero Action Plan acknowledges the need for equitable enforcement, an issue that was previously raised by civil rights activists in Vision Zero cities such as New York.
However, my writing partner Steven Vance has argued that the city of Chicago may have gone overboard in its efforts to avoid accusations of an unfair crackdown by minimizing the role of traffic enforcement in the plan. “This #VisionZero plan is crap,” he wrote at the beginning of a tweetstorm on the day the document was released. “Goals are appropriate, but little commitment as to how.” One of his main beefs was what he saw as a lack of emphasis on enforcement. “The role of police is downplayed. A lot.”
Vance noted that the plan states that it “does not use increased traffic citations as a measure for success.” He argued that increasing the number of citations for reckless driving would be a way to change the city’s safety culture. Vance added that you can count on one hand the number of times the word “enforcement” appears in the 88-page document.
When I raised the issue at last month’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, CDOT’s Vision Zero manager Rosanne Ferruggia argued that while ticketing isn’t being used as a metric for success, that doesn’t mean the police don’t have a key role to play. “We’re not saying that we’re not going to enforce traffic laws,” she said. “What we’re saying is that we’re not going to start ticketing people without talking to you first.”
Ferruggia underscored the importance of getting community input and buy-in before launching new traffic enforcement strategies. “We’re going to be going out and having conversations about what the priorities are, what’s fair, what’s just, and what do we need to be working on,” she said. “There are a lot of priorities in those areas. . . . So we want to make sure we’re coming in and listening to what is happening in the communities before we prescribe something that could have an adverse effect on the residents.”
At the meeting CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld added that the plan’s focus is on “education and engagement,” including enforcement stings that involve officers warning motorists about dangerous behavior, such as not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, rather than ticketing them for it. Along with better street design, “that’s where we think we have the opportunity to really move the needle,” Scheinfeld says.
As the CDOT staff acknowledged, enforcement needs to be a piece of the puzzle for reducing Chicago’s unacceptable traffic violence numbers, which disproportionately impact black communities. But there’s also the challenge of respecting citizens’ rights to move freely through public space, regardless of their skin color or where they live, especially in light of the CPD’s dismal record on civil rights. Achieving both of these goals is definitely going to be a balancing act. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.