March 14, 2022 | Press Release

Hearing Remarks: Walk Withhout Worry & Safe Routes to School Expansion Bills

I have been looking forward to this hearing, and have had the pleasure of working with you and Councilmember Lewis George on these two important bills that continue to advance the Council’s response to eliminating traffic violence and fatal crashes.

It has been a tragic year on our roads, following tragic years of stalled progress on Vision Zero. 

My personal observations are that any prior success we had with bringing down road deaths were loosely held together by social norms that have broken down in real time. 

When we are clear-eyed about this issue, we have to admit that the only traffic calming the United States has ever accomplished at scale is traffic itself. 

The way we slowed drivers down is with traffic – with more drivers!  
We really need to acknowledge how completely insane that is. 

Once the pandemic changed travel patterns so substantially, we saw how tenuous this state of affairs was. Traffic went down, roads opened up, and as recent studies showed us, the people who continued to drive through 2020 and 2021 were on average those who were already driving more dangerously. I think a lot of us felt this anecdotally. 

As DDOT has said, the number of total crashes in DC has gone down compared to 2019, but the crashes that are happening have been significantly more fatal.  

Our response to people dying in greater numbers shouldn’t be “we need the traffic back.” We know all the negative externalities of that traffic. 
We need to be rise to this challenge and forge a new future that is more ambitious than any previous plans we’ve made.  
I want to talk broadly about our Vision Zero goal, which has often been the foundation of these hearings.
As the Walk Without Worry Amendment Act was being drafted, Nina Larson was killed in an unprotected crosswalk in Ward 1. That grief is still palpable in the community. As with many of these deaths, it happened in a place where neighbors and ANC commissioners have long called for better infrastructure that never materialized. I am reminded all the time of what government can and should be doing to prevent deaths like hers.  
I have to acknowledge that Ward 1 has far fewer fatal crashes than parts of the District that are more disadvantaged. The need to save lives is tremendous on streets like Southern Avenue and in neighborhoods across Wards 5, 7, and 8.  
I believe you can find a 12-month period in Ward 1 where we did not have any traffic deaths – likely because Ward 1 has a lot of traffic.  
If we call that Vision Zero mission accomplished, then I think we are missing something critical.  
Fatal and injury crashes are events we can count and classify. Near misses, close brushes, outright intimidation from drivers, getting yelled at – these are all basically unclassifiable, but so many residents experience it every day.  
Not everyone personally knows someone who has been killed in a crash, but I think everyone has experienced a driver buzzing them, sometimes intentionally. So many people have come to me with a legitimate fear that they or their children could be next.  
While we can count crashes, we can’t count what I can only call the daily microaggressions of a hyper-masculine car culture. I feel this pain in my constituents, like those who have to pass the crosswalk every day where Nina Larson was killed, and continue to experience dangerous speeding, double parking, and a street that is still not keeping people safe. 

For every death, there are dozens of injuries, and likely for every injury there are hundreds of moments that indicate to our residents that their lives are constantly at risk, and make it more and more challenging to experience our roadways with any sort of confidence, let alone joy.

That’s why the bill I introduced is called Walk Without Worry. We are saying not only that we need to end traffic deaths; above and beyond that, we need to strongly communicate our priorities in physical space. 
We should be giving drivers no choice but to slow down – not asking nicely – and be designing our public realm to prioritize pedestrians, particularly children and those with adaptive mobility needs. 

The power of something like a continuous sidewalk is that in addition to slowing traffic, it very clearly signals that a driver is entering pedestrian space, rather than vice-versa. For the United States, this is a revolutionary concept, but it doesn’t have to be.  

The core conceit of the Walk Without Worry Amendment Act of 2021 is to deeply incorporate the most effective safety interventions into DDOT’s standard practice by adhering closely to the agency’s pre-existing systems. We can’t get good at something unless we are intentional about doing it and making it a practice.  

It has been amazing to see the broad support from residents and ANCs on this bill, which would make the installation of continuous sidewalks and raised crosswalks and intersections standard practice across the District.
I agree with one common piece of feedback we’ve gotten, which is that the bill should include some kind of prioritization for installing these elements where they are most needed and to make that rollout more equitable.

I also suspect that the executive will testify in disagreement with doing this work through the paving plan. I am willing to negotiate on that, but only with the agreement that our goal is still to make something like a raised intersection unexceptional, an integral part of how we build our streets rather than something neighborhoods need to beg for.  

To clarify for the record – a continuous sidewalk matches the material of a sidewalk, whereas a raised crosswalk continues the appearance of a traditional crosswalk. 

I am so glad that in addition to the Walk Without Worry Act, we get to also hear CM Lewis George’s legislation on an ambitious expansion of Safe Routes to School. 

As any parent knows, children will naturally wander, something we should encourage. Sometimes that may mean them wandering into the road, because it's a part of their world.  
It is up to us to ensure that isn’t ever a fatal mistake.  
Adults should be made to drive on children’s terms. And whether a school is on a local neighborhood street or a major thoroughfare shouldn’t make a difference in this philosophy. 

DDOT’s safe routes to school program has done great work when they are given the resources to do that work, but it seems incredibly under-resourced. We don’t seem to have a universal way of analyzing and installing interventions around schools, and we know the inequities that can result from a lack of consistency and prioritization.  

A fundamental question for me that’s posed by both these bills is this: why can’t we be doing more ambitious traffic calming on arterial streets?  

It has been encouraging seeing DDOT make progress on installing speed bumps on local streets, which many including myself have requested for many years. However, we need to acknowledge that only slowing traffic on local roads means we’re missing the vast majority of streets where fatal crashes actually happen. 

Thank you again to my colleagues and our public witnesses for being here today. I specifically want to celebrate Councilmember Cheh’s record on advancing ambitious transportation safety legislation through her entire career on the Council. I hope before this year is over that you can add these two bills to that impressive legacy.