The capital, like many places across the country, has seen a rise in traffic deaths over the past two years, particularly in Wards 7 and 8. The county also grapples with racial disparities in policing practices, including in traffic enforcement. Local policy makers have taken steps to improve traffic safety, such as committing to the Vision Zero initiative, funding road safety initiatives, increasing enforcement in schools, expanding the use of speed cameras, and reducing speed limits. Other proposals include a new bill to stop revocation of licenses for outstanding fines of more than $100, and recommendations to transfer traffic law enforcement from the Metropolitan Police Department to the Department of Transportation.
While these efforts may affect traffic safety, some of them may also exacerbate racial disparities. Despite promises of impartial law enforcement, drivers in the capital’s predominantly black neighborhoods receive more tickets and higher fines than drivers in other DC neighborhoods. To achieve both safety and equity, the district could focus on changes to street and neighborhood design, which would improve traffic safety while addressing racial disparities in enforcement.
Neighborhoods and streets in the capital are not created equal when it comes to traffic safety. Some neighborhoods have well-marked small streets, lower speed limits, bike lanes, and footpaths—all designs that promote safe driving. Other neighborhoods have wide streets that lack clear signs and pedestrian paths. Legacies of racism in the area affect neighborhood segregation today, and this history of racism and segregation, combined with a lack of investment in the past and present, has left some communities with streets not designed for the safety of residents.
Here are six ways that policymakers in the capital can improve street design to enhance traffic safety and reduce racial disparities in traffic enforcement:
- Add road signs and pedestrian crossings. These facilities are a low-cost first step to improving traffic safety, but they are not evenly distributed throughout the city. Failure to meet these needs has resulted in unnecessary deaths in traffic accidents. In fact, after a traffic accident that could have been prevented, two residents of the southeast of the capital took it upon themselves to paint the pedestrian paths near the place of death. Research indicates that road markings encourage safer driving, and pedestrian lanes—marked or otherwise improved—can also improve traffic safety.
- Design entire streets with all users in mind. This design approach enhances safety and ensures that the streets support the needs of all users regardless of transportation method, age or ability. This approach can look different in different areas depending on the needs of the community. It might look like a street with well-maintained sidewalks on both sides and a bike lane or pedestrian plazas rather than large multi-lane roads. Evidence shows that changes to environmental design such as full streets can reduce crashes and fatalities and promote active use of neighborhood environments.
- Expand traffic calming initiatives. Traffic circles, stretches of sidewalk, and elevated driveways can reduce available street space and force cars to make careful movements that lead to slower speeds. Traffic calming strategies have been shown to help reduce speeding and accidents. Some DC neighborhoods have implemented these designs, but traffic calming assessment petitions with a 75 percent block agreement are required to put them into practice. Communities that are not familiar with these protocols may miss opportunities to improve road safety.
- The way diet application. These are often used to modify undivided highways and involve making changes to existing streets by redesigning redundant spaces, often at low cost. These changes can improve safety by reducing speeds and increasing mobility, which in turn reduces crashes. A diet of wide streets with many lanes for parking can be done by converting lanes into protected bike lanes or bike paths, modifying parking lanes, or making space for large sidewalks. These types of lane reductions are slowly becoming more prominent in the area, but these strategies can continue to be used to increase safety and make the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
- Adjust signal timing and phases. These improvements can improve safety and reduce the chances of accidents. Ensuring that each intersection has the appropriate amount of crossing time is clear and displayed can also help drivers and pedestrians interact safely. Consistent timing can also deter drivers from feeling the need to speed through intersections and help them anticipate stopping better. Evidence suggests that these improvements can reduce pedestrian injuries as well as vehicle-to-vehicle crashes.
- Involve the members of society most affected by traffic safety issues. Listening to residents’ concerns and collaborating to identify solutions is an essential step to improving safety. Many capital safety changes require filing or completing forms with petitions. This practice ensures that only neighborhoods with high community participation can make changes. For policymakers in Washington, D.C., seeking community leadership support can ensure that residents are encouraged to share their ideas and participate in the process. Decision makers who first identify where risky and hazardous driving is most affected, and then engage with those communities to identify problems and brainstorm, will be able to make lasting and meaningful changes.
Improving street design is a vital component of improving safety. While changes to laws in response to dangerous driving behaviors have been the norm in the capital, street design changes will allow the city to address traffic safety and racial disparities together. These types of environmental changes are supported by a growing evidence base and can also improve outdoor spaces for communities. And by communicating with residents to better understand their needs, their perceptions of neighborhood safety, and ideas, decision makers can ensure that they receive the necessary consent and input to facilitate change.
Lily Rubin and Susan Nimbard are research associates in the Center for Justice Policy at the Urban Institute.