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Chad Swiatecki is a 20-year journalist who relocated to Austin from his home state of Michigan in 2008. He most enjoys covering the intersection of arts, business and local/state politics. He has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Daily News, Texas Monthly, Austin American-Statesman and many other regional and national outlets.
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Vision Zero reports detail progress; crash data mostly unchanged
A pair of documents delivered to city officials last week show that the plan to eliminate all Austin traffic deaths and serious accidents by 2025 is proceeding, and this year’s accident data suggests the effort hasn’t moved the needle in terms of reducing fatal accidents.
The two reports – the Vision Zero Report Card and Annual Report – detail the steps city staff has taken to implement the far-reaching plan to make Austin streets safer as its population continues to grow. According to Austin Police Department data there have been 41 traffic deaths through Aug. 23.
That puts the city on pretty much the same pace as the 44 deaths through the same time period last year, with 79 traffic deaths recorded by the end of 2016. The reports note that December is one of the deadliest months on Austin roads, so the crash data doesn’t track in a linear fashion.
Since 2010 Austin has averaged 71 traffic deaths per year, with a high of 102 in 2015.
Of the 84 action items prescribed in the Vision Zero plan, 73 are either ongoing or completed, with policy work and education remaining as the two areas with the most steps yet to begin. Major construction, signage or other work has begun or been completed at five intersections – Highway 183 at Cameron Road, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at I-35, Lamar Boulevard at Parmer Lane, Lamar Boulevard at Rundberg Lane, and Slaughter Lane at Manchaca Road – that were identified as most contributing to serious accidents.
“We’ve gotten feedback from the major intersection improvements like at Slaughter and Manchaca that these low-cost, high-impact solutions are making a difference,” said Laura Dierenfield, Austin’s manager of active transportation and street design. “There are a number of things that have been achieved early, like the integration of a custom analysis tool to establish a baseline of crash data, and the work that’s been done in engineering at major intersections.”
Dierenfield said the next year will see the start of a comprehensive public education plan aimed at changing bad driver behavior and the installation of more than 500 crosswalk timers, which are expected to reduce crashes by 25 percent. Next year’s budget could include $400,000 in Vision Zero operational expenses, including work with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to establish a regional safety plan, and $200,000 from a federal grant for the pedestrian-crossing timers.
Francis Reilly, the program manager for Vision Zero, said the program should demonstrate a significant effect on Austin’s streets once its many action items have been implemented, which requires some work from City Council.
“We’re looking at actions as short-, medium- and long-term and while the short-term steps are important, we also have to move forward on things like CodeNEXT and the city’s Strategic Mobility Plan that determines how things get built in the future,” he said. “When we looked at fatal accidents you see it’s not correlated with population growth, and there are larger cities than ours with far lower fatality rates. These steps set the foundation for the future, and by providing more transportation options you can increase safety.”
Chris Wojtewicz, a board member with the Austin urbanist group AURA, said the Vision Zero plan is well intended but he and his group’s members are concerned that suggested redesigns and traffic flow policies will be hampered by vocal residents who object to changes that could slow their travel times.
Wojtewicz pointed to the successes brought about by a 15-year plan to “right size”, or reduce the number of traffic lanes in many well-traveled streets, as an initiative that would be hard to put into action currently.
“We need to do more to demonstrate what a sub-20-miles-per-hour design looks like and how it can be successful, like how Second Street is one of the safest roads for pedestrians and cyclists in the city,” he said.
“The road diet has also helped on roads like Steck and Balcones, but so often you get a handful of people who come out and make noise and we wind up giving them veto power because they’re worried something is going to add 30 seconds to their commute. We need to think about what our priorities are, and if it’s making things safer and easier for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and transit, then there are places where things will have to move differently.”
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