How we can end the carnage on Charlotte roads for bicyclists

Police examine evidence after a bicyclist was hit by a vehicle near Eastland Mall in March.
Police examine evidence after a bicyclist was hit by a vehicle near Eastland Mall in March. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The recent deaths of bicyclists Al Gorman and Charles “Moe” Adkins are tragic reminders of the continuing risks to life and limb which seem inevitable on Charlotte streets. Fortunately, a growing list of cities have decided it’s time to stop tolerating such alarming levels of death and injury. The new approach they have embraced marks a radical departure from the status quo.

The overall picture for traffic risk continues to look bleak. In Mecklenburg County alone there were 157 fatalities in 2013. Collision totals have been in the 23,000 range per year – a horrific level, approximating one collision for every 40 local residents. One hesitates to imagine how many of these collisions actually resulted in serious injuries, or how many occurred because a motorist exceeded the posted speed limit, a fairly common practice on our heavily trafficked roads, especially during rush hour. One can never truly determine how many crashes have been caused by distractions, especially cell phones. For the U.S. as a whole (discounting death by disease), fatalities by motor vehicles are surpassed only by deaths from firearms.

The phrase “Vision Zero” aptly signifies this breakthrough concept whose genesis dates back to its endorsement by the Swedish parliament in 1997. What makes Vision Zero so radical is that it derives from the fundamental ethical premise that: “No loss of life is acceptable.”

Sweden’s initiative requires that fatalities and serious injurious be eliminated by 2020. All new roads are to be built to this standard and older roads are to be modified. As described by Swedish engineer, Roger Johansson in the journal Safety Science, “The Vision Zero approach ... recognizes the simple fact that we are human and make mistakes. The road system needs to keep us moving. But roads must also be designed to protect all users, not just those behind the wheel. Taking the Vision Zero approach means that paying attention to human life and health is an absolute requirement in the design and functioning of any road transport system.”

Since 2012, 11 American cities have signed on or have seriously considered their own versions of Vision Zero. Last June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors Passed a Vision Zero resolution at its annual meeting, recognizing that “traffic fatalities are not inevitable.”

The website of the newly formed Zero Vision Network cites some of the strategies that can help pave the way. They include lowering speed limits, implementing meaningful behavior change campaigns (also known as “traffic demand management”) and enhancing data-driven traffic enforcement. To some extent, such priorities have been addressed locally, and the Charlotte Department of Transportation is discussing applicable opportunities.

Next week marks a convergence of events in Charlotte designed to promote how bicycling, walking and the use of public spaces contribute to better health, cleaner air, social equity and other pressing quality of life issues. The Knight Foundation is helping bring Gil Penalosa to town for a series of workshops and tours. Participation is expected from the health community, AARP, Clean Air Carolina, Sustain Charlotte and other civic entities.

Penalosa is the founder of “8 80 Cities.” He was also the Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for Bogotá, Colombia during its transformation of the late 1990s. On Oct. 17, Nick Tennyson, former mayor of Durham and newly appointed Director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, will be a speaker at the 4th annual BikeWalk North Carolina conference at UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus.

Streets function as the healthy arteries of all great cities. Maybe this week will afford the opportunity to ramp up the conversation on the role Vision Zero can play in making Charlotte’s streets safe, convenient and welcoming for everyone who depends on them. This might be the right time to pledge an end to roadway carnage.

Martin Zimmerman is the former Executive Director of the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance and currently serves on the Transportation Choices Alliance advisory council.