Officials and activists in Portland celebrated the opening of a new road diet. Hours later, a pedestrian was struck and killed in it.

The Foster Boulevard road diet in Portland, OR.

Vision Zero is premised on the notion that there are no such thing as traffic “accidents.” Instead there are “collisions,” or “crashes.” The theory goes that accidents are random occurrences that cannot be prevented. Collisions, on the other hand, are foreseeable and therefore preventable through roadway design, engineering, big data, and enforcement. It may seem like a vague argument over semantics, and it is. Nevertheless, the vaporous non-distinction is central to the whole Vision Zero endeavor. If a collision is just one sort of accident, by definition the whole house of cards falls apart. If, as Elvis Costello sang, “Accidents will happen,” Vision Zero is premised on a lie.

Every lie is eventually laid bare for all to see. The Vision Zero lie has been exposed repeatedly around the country, from West Los Angeles to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was exposed yet again, in the most tragic way possible, on the evening of June 13. An 82-year-old woman from Portland, Oregon named Louanna Battams was hit by a car while crossing the street in her neighborhood. She later died of her injuries in hospital.

Her accident and death came mere hours after officials and bike activists celebrated the city’s newest road diet, on Foster Road in the southeast part of the city. The road diet had been planned for several years, yet like so many in the country it had been held up by resistance from some members of the community who worried about impacts on traffic and safety. Turns out their concerns were well-founded.

According to news reports Mrs. Battam had lived in the area for many years. Her son said she was likely crossing the street to get a newspaper. Could it have been that the sudden reconfiguration of a familiar roadway contributed to her death? Local news reported that Mrs. Battam was struck while crossing the street in an “unmarked crosswalk.”

A what?

We have seen road diets sow confusion and traffic chaos in countless places. The new configurations rarely conform to standard road markings and often are made up as planners go along. Markings change from block to block, confusing drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.

This is not a safe street. This is chaos.

Road diets can even confuse first responders: As we previously have reported, Oakland, California Fire Captain Henry Holt said that he found out about a road diet one block from his station when he arrived for a shift one morning. “I wasn’t even sure if I was supposed to drive in the new green [bike] lanes myself,” he said. Firefighters around the country have expressed similar frustrations, including Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. Indeed, road diets often are more dangerous than the configurations they replace. A firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department who is a self-described bike nut told the all aspect report off the record that, “The one place I never ride in L.A. is in a bike lane.”

It remains speculation at this point, but based on stories from around the country it is reasonable to ask whether the Foster Avenue road diet contributed to Mrs. Battam’s death. She had crossed that street for years without incident. At the very least, the “safer” configuration wasn’t safe for her. If a road diet – in Portland, of all places, the bike capital of the country – can’t protect an elderly woman, then what are we doing?

Of course the activists will accuse us of victim-blaming, or worse exploiting a tragedy (then again no one knows more about exploiting traffic deaths than the activists, with their “ghost bikes,” memorial rides, and candle light vigils).

But the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Battam’s death is just the latest example of Vision Zero’s unintended consequences nationwide:

  • Denver: Since the city launched its Vision Zero program in 2016, traffic deaths have spiked, reaching a 13-year high in 2018 despite aggressive implementation of road diets and other changes.
  • San Francisco: A recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Traffic fatalities soaring despite effort to make city streets safer.” Three years into Vision Zero the city is on pace to record the highest level of pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 12 years.
  • Los Angeles: After three full years of Vision Zero projects, pedestrian deaths are up by more than 80%. Overall accidents have increased more than 10%.
In Los Angeles, Vision Zero is failing, and more people are dying.
  • New York: The Big Apple initially saw a substantial drop in traffic fatalities under Vision Zero (though hit-and-runs increased). The trend reversed this year, with a 30% increase in traffic fatalities over the same period in 2018.
  • Washington DC: Thanks to law enforcement’s focus on drunk driving and seat belt use, DC reached an all-time low of 19 traffic fatalities in 2012, down from 70 a decade earlier. However, since the city rolled out its Vision Zero program in 2013 traffic fatalities have increased each year, nearly doubling to 34 last year.
  • Austin: The Austin Police Department reported last month that traffic fatalities are up 30% compared to last year.
  • San Antonio: 26 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed so far this year, up from 22 at this time in 2018. The local Fox affiliate called it, “A noticeable trend going in the wrong direction for Vision Zero.
  • Denver: Since the city launched its Vision Zero program in 2016, traffic deaths have spiked, reaching a 13-year high in 2018 despite aggressive implementation of road diets and other changes.

Vision Zero, road diets, “complete streets,” “livable streets,” and all the other euphemisms cannot airbrush the reality that more people are dying on our streets. In fact, according to a report last week by PBS, overall pedestrian deaths in the United States are at a 30 year high.

No wonder more and more locales are reexamining and even rolling back their Vision Zero programs.

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