The fire crew in Baltimore were trying to make a point. Last summer they sent a nine-minute video to the city council, which subsequently was leaked to local media. According to a story in The Baltimore Fishbowl, the video showed the crew struggling to stage a tiller (hook-and-ladder) truck on a street that had been given a road diet. The city had reconfigured Maryland Avenue and Cathedral Street with protected bike lanes – meaning parallel parking spaces are offset from the curb as buffers. In theory the configuration makes it safer for cyclists.
In reality these sorts of configurations create huge public safety hazards. Speaking on condition of anonymity members of the BFD said that not only did their warnings go unheeded, the crew who made the video received an official rebuke. Astonishingly, the Baltimore City Council subsequently voted to scrap provisions of the fire code related to street clearances for fire apparatus. Those provisions are based on the International Fire Code and are the standard in the vast majority of cities and states.
The Baltimore crew aren’t alone: First responders around the country report that road diets are making their jobs harder, and sometimes impossible. In New York City, firefighters speaking off the record are adamant that road diets make it impossible to stage heavy equipment such as turntable ladders, towers, and tillers. A firefighter in Queens, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that thanks to road diets on Skillman Avenue and 43rd Street, “If you’re on the fifth or sixth floors, we can’t get to you.” And a senior official from the Los Angeles Fire Department said, “Taking away traffic lanes, and drivers’ ability to pull right, impedes emergency response times.”
People around the country have posted images and videos to social media showing emergency equipment bogged down on streets supposedly reconfigured for safety. In one video from Queens a woman exclaims, “It’s been four minutes since my last video, and he hasn’t moved!” In Los Angeles’s Mar Vista neighborhood, these kinds of delays happen literally every day, often multiple times.
What’s more, even as road reconfigurations increase emergency response times they may also be causing more pedestrian deaths. Since Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Vision Zero in L.A. pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled, from 84 in 2015 to 135 in 2017. New York has seen a similar increase in roadway fatalities.
Perversely, politicians and activists use these numbers to argue for more road diets and more bike lanes. They are doubling down on these deadly ideas even as firefighters, cops, and EMTs speak out against them. It’s all the more outrageous considering that many fire departments, including L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, are being actively silenced by elected officials who’ve imbibed the Vision Zero kool-aid.
It isn’t just first responders. Residents around the country are pushing back against the program. The list of communities resisting Vision Zero grows seemingly by the day. Coalitions include Queens Streets for All in New York, Keep Waverly Moving in Iowa, Save 43rd Avenue in Seattle, and Restore Venice Boulevard in L.A., to name a few. With virtually no funding – in contrast to the deep-pocketed activist groups and politicians behind Vision Zero – they are giving voice to the people. Indeed, the resistance to Vision Zero has become a rare example of unity in our divided times, bringing together Manhattan progressives, midwest libertarians, and southern conservatives. Opposition to road diets bands together people who voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with those who cast ballots for Chuck Grassely.
Vision Zero zealots claim the program saves lives and reduces accidents. The actual data tell quite a different story. For example, the Los Angels Department of Transportation claims that the road diet on Venice Boulevard has reduced accidents. Data from the California Highway Patrol SWITRS database debunks that claim: Accidents actually have increased. They were up 19% in the 12 months after the road diet when compared to the 12 months before. Injury accidents were up by a staggering 25% in the same time period. Using the Federal Highway Administration formula to account for the drop in traffic volume attributable to the road diet, accidents increased by 36% and injury accidents increased by 44%. Looking back 5 years accidents were 24% higher than the historical average. Injury accidents were up by a whopping 33% over the 5 year average. Numbers from other cities are similar.
A series of fires ravaged Paradise, Magalia, and surrounding communities in northern California in 2008. As 40,000 residents fled, evacuations ground down to gridlock. Some 600 structures burned and at least one death was attributed to the fire. In the aftermath, a Butte County grand jury recommended widening roads in the area. Unfathomably, the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG) released a report called the Skyway Corridor Study, which recommended a series of road diets in Paradise. Instead of widening roadways the County narrowed all the main evacuation routes, including the only four-lane highway connecting the mountain communities with the city of Chico.
The result was as tragic as it was foreseeable. During last year’s Camp Fire, the largest in California history, road diets turned Paradise into a kill zone. Interviews with dozens of survivors confirm that thanks in part to the reconfigurations, thousands of people became trapped on the roads as they tried to escape. Jennifer Porter, an emergency room nurse, relates a horrific scene in which she had to abandon her car and literally run through the flames. A woman who had seen it all in her job broke down in tears describing watching several people burn alive in their cars. Paradise city councilman Michael Zuccolillo had spent two years before the fire trying to reverse the road diets, to no avail. Another survivor said of the road diets, “We wondered what on Earth they were thinking.”
The Camp Fire was the perfect firestorm, and road diets were not what lawyers would call the “but for” cause of deaths. Survivors agree, however, that the narrowed roads absolutely contributed to the carnage.
In the face of overwhelming evidence and statistics politicians and activists nevertheless continue their Vision Zero campaign in the name of safety. In Sonoma County, California, officials have approved a series of road diets on the very thoroughfares thousands of people used to escape the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Shasta County is dieting roads used as evacuation routes during the Thomas Fire. Perversely, the program is called “Shasta Living Streets.”
There is a war for the streets of America. On one side are firefighters, cops, EMTs, small business owners, and average citizens. On the other is a tiny but extravagantly funded cabal of paid activists, politicians, property developers, and corporations. Under the mantle of progress they want to revert the country – for that matter, the world – to 19th century modes of transit like trains and bicycles. Yet the outcomes of their ideology are precisely the opposite of what they promise. Instead of safety they cause death. Instead of reduced emissions they create pollution and smog. Instead of mobility they cause gridlock.
People around the country are waking up to the reality of Vision Zero. It’s a bad idea whose time will be fleeting. The only remaining question is how many more people will suffer.