Routes To Safety
Data-Driven Infrastructure Projects Aim To Reduce Global Traffic Deaths
TOP AND BOTTOM LEFT PHOTOS BY THINKSTOCK. BODEGRAVEN PHOTO COURTESY OF HIG
People and cars have a deadly relationship.
Nearly 1.3 million people die as a result of traffic accidents each year, according to the World Health Organization. Half of those deaths are “vulnerable road users”: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. And fatalities are rising. In the United States, for instance, roadway deaths jumped more than 10 percent in the first half of last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Similarly, pedestrian deaths rose 10 percent year-over-year in 2015, according to the agency.)
Nearly 1.3 million people die as a result of traffic accidents each year.
Source: World Health Organization
Looking to curtail this deadly uptick, the United Nations announced an ambitious goal of halving the global number of traffic deaths and injuries by 2020. Many governments are now launching infrastructure projects to better protect and accommodate pedestrians and bikers.
But can a finite project reshape ongoing behavior? Madeline Brozen, associate director, Institute of Transportation Studies and the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, University of California Los Angeles, thinks so. “People's behavior is reflective of the design and space in which they're operating,” says Ms. Brozen, Los Angeles, California, USA. “If the project plans can get the design right, the road system itself may largely encourage people to drive safely—and traffic deaths can be prevented.”
Infrastructure projects rather than public safety campaigns are what actually move the needle, says Beth Savan of the Cycling Think and Do Tank at the University of Toronto in Canada. “In the countries where they've dramatically reduced road fatalities and injuries, it didn't happen because they educated people,” she told Metro News. “It's because they redesigned things. They've set up a situation where high-speed collisions that cause death are unlikely.”
Bodegraven, a town in the western Netherlands, recently completed a pilot project to protect people from themselves—and their smartphones. The project team installed strips of LED lights along the edge of the pavement that flash green or red to refocus the attention of distracted pedestrians. In a similar fashion, the German town of Augsburg installed lights on tram crossings that flash red when a train approaches. And Chongqing, China has created “cellphone lanes” in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic to accommodate distracted walkers.
Data-driven site selection can help project teams maximize the completed project's impact and make effective use of the project's budget, says Ms. Brozen.
“Using the information about where these collisions occur, these programs can target the most dangerous places first and prioritize those—and then it's up to the city to continually evaluate the effectiveness of the particular strategies that any city is taking,” she says.
LED lights flash green or red to refocus the attention of distracted pedestrians in Bodegraven, the Netherlands.
New York, New York, USA kick-started its Vision Zero program in 2014—and reached a record low of 229 traffic-related deaths by 2016. The program is slated to spend an additional US$1.6 billion over the next five years, creating more pedestrian islands (raised platforms between lanes of traffic), improved signal lights and raised medians across the city.
Last year, Washington, D.C., USA began its own Vision Zero program. (The Vision Zero movement, which began in Sweden in 1997, aims to build a road system with no fatalities or serious injuries.) After studying the lessons learned by other cities’ project teams, the D.C. government team focused on tailoring its project plan to the city's unique traffic needs, says Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer, District Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., USA.
Project teams must understand dangerous behavior to protect people from themselves.
of U.S. adults feel distracted walking is a “serious” issue. But only 29% say they are part of the problem.
of U.S. adults say they've seen people walking while talking on the phone. But only 37% admitted to doing it themselves.
Increase in roadway fatalities in the U.S. in the first six months of 2016 (compared to the same period one year earlier)
Sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
For instance, many people on the city's roadways aren't residents. “On an average weekday during rush hour, about two-thirds of the cars on the streets are Maryland or Virginia vehicles,” he says. That means the District must expand its outreach to other regional jurisdictions, and everything from traffic patterns to road signage to bicycle lanes must account for users who are less familiar with local roads and regulations.
To make the biggest impact, the team created an open database that includes more than five years of crash, violation and roadway information data. The database is at the heart of a new project, now underway and slated for a December completion, to develop a risk-analysis model that will help prioritize safety improvements. “That will allow the program to move from identifying the high-crash frequency locations to analyzing the risk factors,” Mr. Zimbabwe says. And then the team can start targeting those risks, one by one. —Kate Rockwood
“People's behavior is reflective of the design and space in which they're operating.”
—Madeline Brozen, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA