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To hit Vision Zero traffic safety goals, Richmond needs a ‘cultural shift’

John Murden and Calvin get ready for school
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
John Murden gets ready for school with his son 10-year-old Calvin on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

The program seeks to end all traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries by 2030.

On a frosty January morning in Richmond’s Forest Hill neighborhood, John Murden is getting Calvin, his 10-year-old son, ready for school.

“The only con is that it’s really, really cold,” said Calvin.

But it’s not too frosty for Murden to take his son to school on a cargo bike, which are built to carry heavier loads like groceries or in some cases, kids. But dressing for the ride in cold weather can be tricky.

“We don’t really know how to dress. The difference between, like, 35 and 45 is immense,” Murden said. “Forty-five is comfortable, 35 is on the edge … and we won’t go under that.”

For eight years, Murden has been peddling his electric-assisted cargo bike to Calvin’s school in Bon Air. The roughly 8-mile trip takes them about 45 minutes, one way. That’s because even with new bike lanes on Forest Hill Avenue that run most of the route, Murden still has to get creative.

“Oh, my God, there's no great direct way,” said Murden. “There should be, right? We'll come out of here and go out Forest Hill for a bit, get past the highway.”

Murden said he rides over a variety of terrain to get Calvin to school, including hopping on Larus Park trails. But even if there was a direct route, he wouldn’t use it.

“I mean, there are bike lanes, they’re not separated [from vehicle traffic],” he said. “The speed limit’s 45. People are going faster than that. I'm comfortable riding there by myself. You know, with him on the back [of the bike], I'll be on the sidewalk.”

John and Calvin Murden are just two of the many Richmond residents who bike, walk and use the streets to get around — without a car.

John Murden and Calvin get ready for school
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
John Murden gets ready for school with his son 10-year-old Calvin on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Birth of Vision Zero

Back in 2018, Richmond was one of many cities nationwide to adopt a Vision Zero plan, based on a concept developed in Sweden during the 1990s. At its core, Vision Zero seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries for people using roads and sidewalks in any capacity.

Richmond’s plan hits the halfway mark this year with a target end date of 2030.

After its adoption, city officials created a task force made up of 30 department leaders, including representatives from the planning commission, the health district and the office of Equitable Transit and Mobility.

The city declined to specify how each task force member was chosen.

The officials unveiled a dashboard and launched an action plan in 2018. The task force advises the mayor, City Council and Richmond’s Safe and Healthy Streets Commission on safety matters, and recommends priorities and legislation to the General Assembly. It also seeks out federal and state funding for infrastructure upgrades.

Planning and development is done with a specific approach, said Mike Sawyer, a city transportation engineer.

“Within the bubble of people in the center, you want to have safe speed, safe roads, safe vehicles, safe people. And then when something does happen, you want to have the best emergency care that you can have,” said Sawyer. “We also know that road safety is a shared responsibility, not only to the people that build and operate and design it, but also the people that use it.”

Statistics on the total number of crashes and the number of people injured or killed beginning in 2015 are available on the city’s Vision Zero dashboard. The information can be filtered to identify annual numbers, multiyear averages or drill down to more specific incident types — like accidents involving motorcycles or bicycles, or accidents that occurred in work or school zones.

In an email to VPM News, Sawyer said 2018 was the last year that there were zero pedestrian deaths on city streets. He added that for the years 2020, 2022 and 2023, the city recorded no bicycle deaths.

“Serious injuries are still occurring in all categories each year (in-vehicle belted, unbelted, motorcycle, bicycle, pedestrian, etc.),” Sawyer wrote.

Halfway there: Richmond’s progress report

Speaking at a recent Safe and Healthy Streets Commission meeting, Sawyer offered some preliminary data for 2023.

In Richmond, there were approximately 4,400 traffic-related crashes that caused 23 deaths, as well as 2,400 traffic-related injuries — with 175 of those being classified as serious.

“So, that’s 198 people who experienced a life-changing injury or death,” he said.

The dashboard’s been updated since then to reflect 24 traffic-related in 2023.

“We understand that people make mistakes,” Sawyer said. “We also understand that the human body has certain physical characteristics or abilities to tolerate crash forces, and it's the impact speed that increases the risk of dying, significantly.”

John Murden and Calvin get ready for school
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
John Murden gets ready for school with his son 10-year-old Calvin on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Richmond — like other cities across the country — still has work to do. According to the Vision Zero Network, there are 45 cities in the United States that have committed to a comparable plan, but there’s one that’s made the program work.

Ryan Sharp is the director of transportation and parking for Hoboken, New Jersey, a city of about 60,000 people across the Hudson River from New York City.

“Hoboken is a walking community, first and foremost. It's also a transit-oriented community,” Sharp said. “And so, safe streets is something that the public really demands from public servants and from its elected officials as well.”

Hoboken’s last traffic-related death was seven years ago, according to Sharp.

To reach its Vision Zero goal, Hoboken put many of its streets on a road diet — infrastructure changes designed to slow down drivers. For instance, bump-out corners were installed, which allowed pedestrians a safer place to wait to cross while giving drivers a better view of pedestrians; right turns at red lights were banned; speed limits were reduced; pedestrians were given more time to cross; and more protected bike lanes were installed.

“If anybody in the community questions how serious we are about safe streets and about implementing the Vision Zero program effectively, you look no further than … the hard deadline that we kind of put into place,” said Sharp. “It sounds like it's the same for Richmond.”

What’s Richmond doing and what’s next?

Richmond has made some infrastructure changes similar to Hoboken's — and is continuing to make adjustments. Dozens of bike lanes have been added since 2015 and the speed limit has been reduced on some streets. In parts of the city, especially around Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus, right turns on red lights are no longer allowed.

But for Vision Zero to be achieved, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of BikewalkRVA, there needs to be more help from the state.

“State law will need to allow additional speed reduction tools, such as speed cameras in pedestrian areas,” he said.

Tyndall said several Richmond legislators put bills forward this year to do just that; some are headed to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk.

“If the state and Richmond do not double down on safe infrastructure and intensive reductions in speeding and distraction, it will not be possible to meet any significant fatality reduction goals,” said Tyndall.

Sawyer, the program coordinator, said that brief pocket of success back in 2018, when there were zero pedestrian deaths, showed that the goal can be reached. But there are still pieces of the puzzle missing — like better traffic enforcement.

“It takes engineering enforcement, education, [and a] cultural shift in everything to make it happen,” said Sawyer.

He said they’re also using more than $1 million in federal funding to install 200 speed tables around the city. The goal’s to have them all completed by summer.

”I think we're still on track,” he said about meeting the plan’s deadline. “We need to, as a community, to get there. That date needs to be 2030.”

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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