Walking the Road to Zero

This is a guest blog post by Sarah Shaughnessy. Sarah is the Community Health Planner for the Richmond City Health Department and a member of the 2018 Road to Zero cohort. She received a Master’s in Public Health and a Master’s in City and Regional Planning, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is particularly interested in the impact of neighborhood design on health equity and chronic disease prevention.

Richmond, Virginia is a fascinating city. I recently moved here for a job with the city health department as the organization’s urban planner and so far, I’ve gotten to know Virginia’s capital best by traversing it on foot.

Richmond really isn’t all that big. The city spans just over 9 miles from east to west, and as a consequence of its age and history, much of the city’s core to the north of the river is arranged on a compact grid. From my apartment in Church Hill, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods over on the eastern edge, I can walk over brick roads, passed rows of antebellum townhomes to St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry delivered his famous words, “give me liberty or give me death.” From there, it’s not far to Libby Hill Park with its nameless confederate soldier towering over the downtown skyline – a much smaller replica of the Statue of Liberty stands guard, ironically juxtaposed in Chimborazo park two blocks to the east – and down to Shockoe Bottom, where I can wander passed the massive tobacco warehouses recently converted into loft apartments, and then along the James River, receiving both subtle and explicit reminders that this was once the capital of the slave trade, and later, of the Confederacy.

There are also visual reminders of how the city is adapting, and coping with its rich and often fraught history. Area that once docked slave ships has been converted into a park with signage marking the Historic Slave Trail, walls across the city are decorated with murals and community-driven public art, and most recently, the City Council voted to rename one of Richmond’s major streets after Arthur Ashe, an African American tennis champion and Richmond native.

Walking any city reveals the tangible imprint left by human history, society, and culture on the urban landscape, something that originally attracted me to the field of urban planning. Conversely, patterns in urban infrastructure can be informative examples of deep and complex social issues. In Richmond, this is abundantly clear on our streets.

For one thing, some neighborhoods are more walkable than others. This disparity is largely the result of planners, themselves purveyors of societal norms, shifting their focus from human- to vehicle-scaled development, and of abandoning urban amenities to cater to suburban desires. Newer districts, and those that have been redesigned, are dominated by larger blocks. Major thoroughfares cut through what were once mixed-use and residential neighborhoods. Connected sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian amenities are noticeably absent.

This infrastructure has a clear impact on public safety. Until recently, traffic fatalities in Richmond were increasing at an alarming rate. In 2017, 22 people died on Richmond’s streets. Eleven were pedestrians. The number has decreased since, with 15 traffic fatalities, 2 of them involving pedestrians in 2018. But 15 is still too high. Two is still too high.

This idea, that any number of traffic fatalities greater than 0 is unacceptable, is one of the key tenets of Vision Zero, a campaign to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries. Born in Sweden in the 1990s, Vision Zero has since been implemented in cities throughout Europe and across the United States. As a strategy, Vision Zero represents a departure from the traditional approach to traffic safety, acknowledging that traffic deaths are preventable, rather than inevitable; that road design should account for human fallibility rather than assume perfection; and that traffic safety should be approached at a systems level, rather than the level of individual. In 2017, Richmond committed to its own Vision Zero Initiative, with the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.

For the past 6 months, the Richmond City Health Department has joined 12 localities across the country in a program co-facilitated by America Walks and the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center called Road to Zero. The program is structured around a series of online lectures, resources, and discussions designed to help participants implement their local vision zero initiatives. Road to Zero culminates in a community project, intended to be an application of the lecture information and a step toward increasing pedestrian safety on a broader scale.

The program has provided a wealth of resources ranging from strategies to gain political support for Vision Zero projects, to identifying location-specific countermeasures to increase pedestrian safety, to methods for evaluating existing infrastructure.

I’ve found our discussions around equity (see this PBIC white paper and this report from Safe Routes to School) and multi-sector collaboration particularly valuable. Not only do Richmond’s data illustrate disturbing trends in traffic fatalities citywide, they also reveal patterns of persistent inequity. We see a disproportionate concentration of crashes in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. This pattern is a consequence of infrastructure decisions that put high volume corridors through historically black and working class neighborhoods, as well as a history of disinvestment that depleted funds for maintaining roads, sidewalks, and community facilities.

A key component of Vision Zero is equity, both in process and in outcomes. This means establishing an inclusive and representative process for planning and implementing transportation improvements. It also means acknowledging disparities in traffic injuries and fatalities and using data to identify and prioritize most the vulnerable areas for evidence-based solutions.

A second key component is multidisciplinary collaboration. The roots of Richmond’s urban infrastructure run deep, and its effects reach wide. As such, implementing Vision Zero requires collaboration and communication across disciplines.

Our Road to Zero project centers on both of these principles. As part of the city’s commitment to Vision Zero, Richmond has adopted a Vision Zero Action Plan and established an inter-agency Vision Zero task force to support its implementation. Across the city, there are a number of similar coalitions and commissions with visions for increasing traffic safety and promoting active transportation. However, because these bodies tend to operate independently, they are not as effective as they could be with enhanced communication and collaboration.

These siloed operations have resulted in numerous related but separate, often redundant plans for achieving complete streets objectives as well as a lack of consistent and comprehensive data for evaluating and guiding transportation planning decisions.

To address these inconsistencies, we are in the process of compiling traffic safety data, as well as integrally-related health, social vulnerability, transportation, and land use data into a single geospatial database to assist with the implementation of Vision Zero goals. We hope this project will be the first phase of a larger project that will inform recommendations for location-specific measures as well as processes for project prioritization in the future. The project is also intended to initiate better collaboration among partners and integration of plans by creating shared, centralized resources. We need investment in physical infrastructure, but we shouldn’t overlook investing in our human infrastructure either.

I plan to keep walking through my neighborhood and I hope in the next few years, it becomes easier and safer for others to do so across the city.