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Safer roads in cities are possible, but politics holding us back, says report

A new World Resources Institute report study explores the barriers to reducing road fatalities

Bogota, Colombia, was highlighted as a city that enacted a successful, holistic approach to traffic safety.

Released the same week a fatal Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona highlighted questions of road safety and design, a new report suggests that politicians and policymakers often have the solutions to safer streets, yet lack the political will to create meaningful change.

Cities Can Have Safer Roads; The Misperception That They Can’t Is Killing Us,” a joint product of the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), examined the political obstacles to building safer streets and enacting broader, pedestrian-friendly reforms. One of the core issues researchers found in cities across the globe was prioritization.

Every year, 1.25 million people are killed and 50 million are injured in traffic collisions, mostly poor, working-age males in lower income countries walking, biking, or cycling to work. According to World Health Organization data, road fatalities are the leading cause of death for those age 15-29 across the globe.

In response, planners and policymakers in many cities have devised so-called Safe System, or Vision Zero, plans to prevent these deaths and make roadways more secure. Yet, as the report detailed, the issue of safe streets often remains a low priority, sidelined in favor of politically expedient campaigns to build new roads, and even considered a barrier to efforts to reduce gridlock, congestion, and drive times.

Bogota, Colombia

The report suggests that the idea of having to choose safety over other issues is a false choice. It’s one that often made based on an incorrect narrative, specifically blaming individual users, as opposed to a holistic approach that questions design, policy, and planning. Victim-blaming normally takes precedence over asking why infrastructure and safety features are lacking.

“We are increasingly equipped with better knowledge about the types of interventions that can reduce fatalities and serious injuries caused by traffic collisions,” said ODI researcher Daniel Harris, one of the report co-authors. “These deaths and their enormous social and financial tolls are not inevitable, yet we have seen little progress.”

A companion to a study from earlier this year that looked at the scope of the road safety crisis, this report concluded that safer roads are a very achievable goal held back by politics and policy.

To truly create safer streets and reduce pedestrian deaths, the report suggests reframing the way leaders talk about road safety, declaring it a public health issue and linking it with issues like economic growth and job access, equality, and education. Road safety should be an integrated part of tackling other tricky transportation challenges, such as congestion, and research should be expanded to support a data-driven approach.

And to truly make a difference, local governments also need to form alliances for regional and national leaders, and make sure to create plants with short-, medium-, and long-term objectives to build momentum and show constituents that changes to transit infrastructure are paying off.

“It’s clear that there is a political dimension to reducing road deaths,” said author Anna Bray Sharpin, transportation associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “It is important that those trying to improve road safety focus as much on building the political case as on the technical solutions.”

The report delves into the story of three cities trying to tackle road safety issues: Nairobi, Kenya; Mumbai, India; and Bogota, Colombia. All of these cities have significant traffic safety issues, and in every one, pedestrians account for half of road deaths.

Bogota’s success may be the most dramatic, and the case studywith the most relevance to U.S. policymakers. By reframing road deaths as a public health issue, and creating an integrated approach to managing and designing roads, as well as building out pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, Colombia’s capital made getting around safer and more efficient. The city’s concerted effort cut traffic fatalities in half between 1996 and 2006.

During the decade where road deaths dramatically decreased, Bogota officials integrated transit safety advocacy with numerous programs and public advocacy campaigns. One such campaign, called Life is Sacred, directly addressed the pedestrian-blaming narrative. Another linked traffic fatalities with murders, sending the message that both are avoidable deaths that have systemic solutions. Public transit overhauls gave pedestrians simpler, safer ways to get to work or school.

Bogota still faces traffic issues and safety challenges, and the dramatic decrease in fatalities between 1996 and 2006 has not been matched since. But as one of the first middle-income cities to truly incorporate a safe system approach, it shows the possibilities of integrated action to curb traffic fatalities.