Yesterday, on August 13, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order to direct the city to work towards Vision Zero, which calls for the elimination of traffic deaths and serious injury by the year 2030. Vision Zero promotes the idea that road and transportation design are keys to reducing the number of deaths.

Unfortunately, as Michael Scott learned, just because you declare something doesn’t make it true.

The initial action that has been directed by the order is to form an executive committee of city department leaders and regional leaders from Harris County, METRO, and TxDOT. They are to spend the next year developing a Vision Zero Action Plan.

There were several people at the signing with serious influence, but notably absent were most city councilmembers. Jack Christie (At-Large #5) and Karla Cisneros (District H) They will absolutely be required to be bought-in for a substantive change to happen.

Photo of the executive order signing mercilessly stolen from the Vision Zero Texas twitter account.

I’m not intending to demean what is a momentous occasion for the City of Houston, but after listening to the gnashing of teeth of city councilmembers at the prospect of having to valet park their truck in Midtown or increasing access to street parking for car-sharing services, I’m very suspect of city-wide supported changes.

So what can we do? What are other cities doing?

First, for context, the problem needs to be quantified. I highly recommend the Houston Chronicle’s special investigation ‘Out of Control’. It does a deep dive on the problem and how the 640 people per year die on the roads in the greater Houston area.

One of the key components of safety: speed. Reducing the speed of cars is the crux of a large number of fatalities. The chance of a pedestrian fatality jumps from 10% at 20mph to 25% at 30mph for an elderly or young pedestrian. It skyrockets to more than 50% at 40mph.

This data is from two federal studies from 1994-1998 and came from a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study.

One of the contributions to speed is the design of the road itself. You can put any speed limit you like, but unless there is extreme enforcement, then drivers will drive as fast as they feel comfortable.

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen is Westcott Street just north of Memorial Drive. With a posted speed limit of 35, a full 15% of drivers are driving 43 MPH or above according to CoH data. With drivers feeling comfortable driving that far over the speed limit, the results are potentially disastrous.

Blue = posted speed limit of 35mph. Red = the speed that 1:6 drivers are driving at or higher.

Elderly or young pedestrian fatality % jumps from 40% to 70% in one data set and it jumps from 55% to 80% in the other.

Westcott in this area is a 2 lane by 2 lane median-separated road with a borderline impassable sidewalk.

The speed data set is open to the public and accessible here in the City of Houston’s website. I plan on eventually profiling some of the streets where cars speed the most.

The organization Vision Zero Texas has a multi-faceted plan that they are trying to enact at the state level of which some may be possible to enact at the city level. These include:

  • Allow cities to lower residential street speed limits to 20mph (current limit is 25mph).
  • A consistent hand-free driving law.
  • Require drivers to stop for crossing pedestrians, not just yield.
  • Change the word ‘crash’ to ‘accident’ in the Texas transportation code. (read more about their reasoning on their agenda page, where these are from)

The Vision Zero Network website has resources for cities trying to enact Vision Zero, but also case studies from cities that have already implemented changes towards vision zero.

Implementing 25mph speed limits is something that we can do now. All of Downtown and Midtown should be zoned to 25mph and lights need to be re-timed immediately.

The additional time is minimal. A driver coming from the 59 Spur driving to Market Square Park on Louisiana travels 1.93 miles would take 3.86 minutes if they hit every green light. Dropping the speed limit to 25 would take 4.63 minutes, an addition of 46 seconds.

The important thing to do as a member of the general public is to stay involved. Join and connect with organizations like Farm&City (who run Vision Zero Texas), BikeHouston, The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the City of Houston Public Works Department, and the City of Houston Planning Department.

Sign up for the newsletters, follow them on Twitter, join the organizations, donate a few bucks even, and certainly email your city councilmember. Vision Zero is going to take a culture change, and the hundreds of people who die every year on our roads are counting on us.

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