Phoenix switches gears toward Vision Zero traffic safety plan

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2022 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, January 27, 2022 - 9:43am

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Phoenix Street Transportation Department
Pedestrian crosswalk at Seventh Street and Highline Canal Crossing in Phoenix.

Three years after rejecting a new traffic safety strategy, Phoenix leaders are shifting gears. On Tuesday, council members started moving toward becoming a Vision Zero city. The change is due to new members, new funding and new statistics. 

Preliminary figures for 2021 show traffic fatalities in Phoenix increased 25% from 2020. Eight bicyclists were killed. Ninety seven pedestrians were killed. And 127 people in vehicles were killed.

“Phoenix is the worst large city nationally when it comes to traffic fatalities,” Kini Knudson, the city’s street transportation director, told the council.

He said now is the time to join the Vision Zero network because the recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes at least $5 billion in federal funding for communities to advance Vision Zero efforts.

“Although the specific details of this new part of the law haven’t been announced, it’s a safe assumption that it will be a connection between federal funding and those cities which have been embraced Vision Zero,” Knudson said.

Roosevelt Avenue
Phoenix Street Transportation Department
The start of a two-way protected bike lane that runs from Roosevelt Avenue to McDowell Road. It's expected to eventually continue north to Thomas Road.

The Vision Zero approach started in Sweden in the '90s and has spread to dozens of U.S. cities, including Tempe, San Diego and Denver. The driving philosophy is traffic crashes will never disappear because people make mistakes, but by prioritizing roadway safety, communities can eliminate deaths and severe injuries.

“It’s just another feel good proposal that’s going to do absolutely nothing,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio said.

"It’s just another feel good proposal that’s going to do absolutely nothing."
— Councilman Sal DiCiccio

He wants the city to prioritize three things: making yellow lights at intersections longer, adding street lights, especially to older parts of Phoenix where they’re lacking, and repairing roads.

“They are chock full of potholes. You sneeze, hit a pothole, you’re going to be airborne and hit somebody or something,” DiCiccio said.

He and Jim Waring voted against pursuing a Vision Zero designation, as they did three years ago. But the majority, with four newer members, voted in favor, including Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari. 

“I know oftentimes one of the biggest challenges we have as a city is, you know, passing plans but not having money behind those plans and this gives us that money,” she said.

Getting that money will require Phoenix to compete with other communities. The city will have to demonstrate it has a comprehensive roadway safety plan. Nearly a year ago, the council unanimously approved funding to develop a strategic plan, a plan that specifically avoided using the Vision Zero name. 

“We’ve got to do a better job,” said Councilwoman Debra Stark.

She said her colleagues too often get texts from police notifying them of traffic fatalities and praised city staff for work it started months ago.

“I think you have a great process before us and includes a lot of resident and business involvement, I appreciate that,” she said.

While talking with residents and council members and evaluating the data, Knudson said one thing is clear: the plan will not be a one size fits all.

“There is a difference between Maryvale and there’s a difference between Arcadia or Ahwatukee or Laveen and those areas and they have different needs,” he said. “And so our plan needs to work for Phoenix but also individually work for the areas within Phoenix.”

Phoenix Street Transportation Department
Workers upgrade a standard parallel line crosswalk to a high-visibility crosswalk at 19th and Fairmount avenues in Phoenix.

Some areas may need new lighting and sidewalks and updated traffic signals, while others may benefit more from better protected bike lanes and pedestrian crossings. Although speeding is the second most common contributing factor to traffic deaths — just behind failure to yield — there was no discussion of reducing speed limits in Phoenix.

Vision Zero’s website says success depends on managing speed for safety through street design, camera enforcement and speed limits.

Tempe lowered its speed limits around high schools and along a stretch of College Avenue since approving its Vision Zero plan nearly three years ago. The city has also repainted elementary school crosswalks and added turn lanes and traffic signals, and updated sidewalk ramps at key intersections.

“My first fatality in my district as a councilwoman was a young person who was crossing Broadway,” Mayor Kate Gallego said.

In that case, and another she mentioned, both pedestrians were killed after being hit by cars going too fast.

“The families just wanted us as elected officials to understand what a big deal this is. It’s easy to look at the numbers but these are all families that have empty seats,” Gallego said.

"The families just wanted us as elected officials to understand what a big deal this is."
— Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego

The council must still formally adopt the Vision Zero strategy for eliminating traffic deaths and severe injuries. Community meetings to gather input on a safety action plan will continue through February. An online survey is also available on the city’s website.

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