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Sidewalk Closed: Group Says D.C. Not Focused Enough On Pedestrian Safety

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D.C. has a higher pedestrian fatality rate than the national average.
Sam Howells/WAMU
D.C. has a higher pedestrian fatality rate than the national average.

When Joe Riener drove around D.C. Sunday morning looking for sidewalks blocked by construction sites, he did not have trouble finding them. The retired school teacher turned safety advocate found 10 places with a big "sidewalk closed" sign.

“In most places there were no provisions for sidewalks. Pedestrians had to walk in the street,” he said.

Riener is a founding member of All Walks D.C., a pedestrian rights group made up of ordinary citizens and professional advocates whose aim is to cajole the District to pay closer attention to all aspects of pedestrian safety. Blocked sidewalks are just one problem.

“If there is in fact a law that specifies that construction companies cannot block a sidewalk then what we need is the Department of Transportation to enforce this law,” Riener said in an interview in the 4400 block of Connecticut Avenue Northwest in Van Ness, where a long stretch of the sidewalk on the eastern side of the avenue is entirely blocked by construction without the required “safe accommodation.”

D.C. streets ‘not safe enough’

Washington has the third lowest pedestrian and bicyclist fatality rate among large U.S. cities, according to a report by the D.C.-based Alliance for Biking and Walking. However, those deaths make up a high percentage of all road fatalities, about 36 percent.

A separate report by the group Smart Growth America determined 133 pedestrians were killed in the District from 2003 to 2012. D.C.’s pedestrian fatality rate is higher than the national average (2.2 per 100,000 residents compared to 1.5 nationally).

All Walks D.C. hopes to convince legislators, transportation planners, and residents that the only acceptable number of roadways deaths is zero. Just because the roads are congested does not mean they have to be deadly, Riener said.

‘MoveDC’ looks to Vision Zero

The District’s 25-year transportation plan, MoveDC, has as one of its goals "Vision Zero," which means to eliminate all pedestrian deaths. The plan revolves around the three E’s: education, enforcement, and engineering.

Safety advocates contend major streets in the city were designed primarily to move cars as fast as possible, making them ‘dangerous by design’ for walkers and bicyclists. They argue relatively simple, inexpensive changes to the ‘road diet’ can slow down vehicular traffic. But officials say engineering usually is the slowest of the three E’s to change.

“Enforcement and education are about culture changes, about changing behaviors. Engineering sometimes takes a little bit longer to respond, design, and construct something,” said Sam Zimbabwe, the director of planning, policy, and sustainability at the District Department of Transportation.

Zimbabwe says DDOT is proactive about pedestrian safety, and he argues D.C. has “some of the best pedestrian conditions and highest rates of walking in the country.”

The statistics are on his side, but he concedes relatively low fatality rates are cold comfort to those who have lost loved ones in crashes.

“Every year we do a crash study and look at where crashes take place. We try to develop work plans that address those. When we do our strategic highway safety plan, we look more broadly at not just specific locations but overall trends, like at what times of day crashes take place and what are the contributing factors, like alcohol,” he said.

All Walks D.C. not waiting on DDOT

All Walks D.C. does not intend to wait for DDOT engineers to address roadway design flaws without raising their voices. The group’s founders believe they must keep pressure on the agency to tackle pedestrian safety.

For example, they can point to the Maryland Avenue Northeast corridor in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington.

DDOT had been studying safety improvements there for three years, but only after a librarian was run over by a taxi at Maryland Ave., 7th St., and D St., an incident that received fairly intense media coverage, did DDOT respond to the public outcry and promise to follow through on the long-planned changes this summer.

“We are very glad that MoveDC is moving in this direction. We like their language. We are after not only language but also results,” said All Walks’ Riener.


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