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Column: A recent audit confirms what I already knew: D.C.’s Vision Zero plan failed.

There was zero vision behind Vision Zero, D.C.’s plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities in the city by 2024. The program “lacked the infrastructure, funding and oversight,” to engineer safer roads in the city through the District Department of Transportation, according to a report by the Office of the D.C. Auditor released earlier this month.

The audit specifically focused on how DDOT’s management of the city’s roads has affected traffic fatalities, while a second audit will take a closer look at how the city enforces traffic safety. But to anyone who knew where to look, it was clear Vision Zero’s major objective had already failed from the outset in 2015.

This report has been a long time coming. Over 200 District and area residents concerned about rising traffic fatalities and the cost to D.C. taxpayers requested an audit in October 2018. Dave Salovesh, a member of D.C.’s cycling community and advocate for cycling infrastructure, was one of them. Six months after he signed the petition, the driver of a stolen van struck and killed Salovesh. He was one of 27 people to die in a traffic collision that year.

Before Vision Zero began in 2015, traffic deaths fell from 54 in 2007 to a low of 19 in 2012 before climbing back up to 26 in 2014. Since the initiative’s 2015 launch, 224 people had died through 2021 while the auditor’s report was authored. That number has since increased to 259 people – drivers and passengers, pedestrians and cyclists, parents and children who have died on the city’s streets since the conception of the city’s initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. And except for 2019 and 2022, traffic fatalities in the city have actually increased year-over-year during that time span.

But that increase isn’t equal across the entire District – traffic fatalities disproportionately occur in the city’s lower-income communities. There were 41 and 48 traffic fatalities in Wards 7 and 8, respectively, out of 213 fatalities citywide between 2017, the earliest year on record for D.C.’s Fatal and Injury Crashes Dashboard, and 2023. There were only six traffic fatalities in Ward 3 in the same period.

Now, it’s not as if Vision Zero has made the city’s streets more dangerous. Those rising death tolls mirror national trends, especially during COVID-19. But the program hasn’t made it any safer to travel around the District – which is precisely the one thing it was meant to do.

Vision Zero was and is the “Green New Deal” of transportation policy. They’re both grab bags of much-needed, transformational ideas tied with a bow of memorable messaging, but neither are impossible to achieve.

While Hoboken, New Jersey’s 60,000 residents pale in comparison to the 700,000 people who call D.C. home, there wasn’t a single traffic fatality in the city between 2018 and 2022. Mayor Ravi Bhalla inaugurated Hoboken’s Vision Zero plan in 2019, working with local officials, community members and advocacy groups to eliminate traffic deaths in the city by 2030. Under Bhalla, Hoboken has installed flexible posts to prevent cars from parking too close to crosswalks, slowed vehicle traffic with larger curbs and narrower streets and given pedestrians more time to cross the street ahead of cars.

Closer to home, the District has successfully identified and improved roadways with the most deaths and injuries throughout its “High Injury Network.” Though city officials lowered the city’s default speed limit to 20 mph and added traffic cameras and stop lights in 2020, they balked at fully funding Vision Zero. D.C.’s chief financial officer estimated the program would cost approximately $41.7 million in fiscal year 2021 and $171 million over the next four years, waylaying more expensive plans – like including sidewalks on both sides of any road DDOT improved – in favor of low- to no-cost policies.

From the time Vision Zero set out to eliminate all traffic fatalities in D.C. to now, just a few months before its target to do so in 2024, there has not been much to celebrate. The city’s progress on the initiative was too little, too late and too slow.

Though Bowser has proposed and the D.C. Council has approved millions in spending for Vision Zero through city agencies since 2015, it’s still fallen short of what the program actually needs to achieve its mission. DDOT’s internal division of Vision Zero, which was supposed to develop the traffic safety strategies and analyze the data at the core of the program, wasn’t created until fiscal year 2019 and didn’t receive a dollar of funding until fiscal year 2020. And it doesn’t make it easier to track D.C.’s total financial commitment to achieving Vision Zero when the city’s transportation and traffic policy is split between DDOT, the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. Department of Public Works and countless divisions within all three agencies.

And now, D.C. seems poised to enter a period of austerity to address growing expenses and falling revenues. The mayor also wants to use more than $500 million of fines from traffic cameras – money that’s supposed to fund traffic safety improvements in line with Vision Zero – to balance the rest of her budget.

I don’t know what the future of Vision Zero will look like. But I do know you can see where Vision Zero failed in roadside memorials like the one on 21st and I streets. And you can hear its unfulfilled promise in the wailing of sirens in the night. Accidents happen – not realizing Vision Zero to its fullest potential was one of them.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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About the Contributor
Ethan Benn, Opinions Editor
Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.
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