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Kansas City Starts Initiative To End Traffic Deaths Despite Speedbumps Shown In Other U.S. Cities

Cars travel under a landmark railroad viaduct in Kansas City, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Cars travel under a landmark railroad viaduct in Kansas City, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

The pandemic might have kept many drivers off the streets, but it didn't put a dent in traffic fatalities.

More than 42,000 people died in car accidents despite emptier roads in 2020, the National Safety Council says. That's an 8% increase from 2019, and it doesn't seem to be getting much better in 2021.

Cities around the country are trying to tackle the issue. Kansas City, Missouri, is the latest to take on the "Vision Zero" plan, vowing to reach zero traffic deaths by 2030.

"We did have a little bit of a spike during the pandemic," Kansas City City Manager Brian Platt says. "We think because there was less traffic on the roads and an easier opportunity to engage in dangerous behavior."

Platt says a 20% rise in traffic fatalities and serious injuries over the last 10 years pushed city leaders to adopt the Vision Zero resolution. He helped announce thecity's initiative last month.

"It became all the more urgent when I arrived here about six months ago to put this at the top of the priority list," says Platt, who also helped launch a Vision Zero plan in Jersey City, New Jersey, as its former city manager and business administrator.

The city's action plan will include focusing on extending curbs into intersections and delaying red light traffic signals. Curb extensions shorten the distance pedestrians and cyclists travel and decrease the risk of coming in contact with a car. Adding leading pedestrian indicators (LPI) delays red lights and gives pedestrians and cyclists a little more time to cross intersections.

"A lot of the crashes occur right at the curb line where visibility is the lowest for vehicles and for pedestrians," he says. "Getting those pedestrians out into the center of the street actually makes them more visible to cars and reduces the chances for that type of interaction."

However, cities that have adopted Vision Zero strategies and plans have seen mixed results, with most seeing traffic fatalities rates take a turn for the worst.

In 2014, New York City became the first U.S. city to adopt the Vision Zero policy that was first implemented in Sweden, another primarily foot traffic location. The city vowed to see zero traffic deaths by 2024. The Federal Highway Administration deemed the first four years after the launch of New York City's Vision Zero as the safest period for traffic collisions. The city has an overall decrease of 26% in traffic-related deaths. However, it's since seen a surge, with 2020 being marked as its deadliest year.

Austin, Texas, adopted their Vision Zero policy in 2016 with an aim to have zero traffic deaths by 2025, a goal city auditors later determined was unlikely. Last year marked the highest number of traffic deaths for the city in the past five years.

"It’s hard to look at the high-level data [from] a city-wide perspective and see the change," Platt says. "That’s because a lot of these treatments occur at a very hyperlocal level. When you look at those intersections, the data is positive."

A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study found Black pedestrians are more likely to experience a traffic fatality death. Kansas City holds a similar disparity. Black residents in Kansas City make up 28% of the city's population, yet the police report Black pedestrians made up 35% of traffic fatalities in April 2021.

"We’re doing enough community engagement and feedback to make sure that we’re hearing from the people who are using the streets the most and understanding exactly where the challenges are in each particular neighborhood," Platt says.

But the question still stands: Is achieving zero traffic deaths even possible? Platt says it's a feasible goal but also an aspirational one. It will take the city a while to address every intersection, curve and angle of its 318 square/sq. miles.

"I don’t think there is a city out there that would say, 'Let’s set a goal of only 10 deaths a year or 20 deaths a year,' " he says. "I don’t think that anyone would ever want to set a goal that doesn’t quite get all the way there."

Kansas City's aim for zero traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030 is not too far into the future. But the ambitious Vision Zero plan focuses on redesigning street infrastructure to eliminate pedestrian death and injury — not one that relies on drivers to change their habits.

"We hope that these types of implementations and redesigns will be the new standard," Platt says. "That no longer will we have to go back to intersections and revisit them and make tweaks."

Xcaret Nuñez produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Nuñez also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.