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Roads


DC's traffic cameras could reduce deaths if they were more swift, certain, and fair

This is part 2 in a series on traffic enforcement. Read part 1 on DC's proposed fines.

DC plans to raise traffic fines as part of its Vision Zero plan. But criminology research says that "swift, certain, and fair" punishments work better than infrequent, highly punitive ones. Traffic cameras offer a way to make enforcement work, if done correctly.


Speed camera image from Shutterstock.

Street safety is a big problem, but there's a lot of reason to doubt that raising a fine from $50 to $500, when people rarely get a ticket for the infraction, will actually do much. There's also reason to worry that getting police to make more traffic stops could exacerbate existing racial disparities in traffic stops (aka "driving while black").

However, the status quo isn't the answer either. We need to find ways to eliminate traffic deaths. Is there a way to enforce traffic laws that's "swift, certain, and fair"? More traffic cameras in more intersections could achieve the "swift, certain, and fair" enforcement.

However, DC would have to change a few things; right now, the cameras are anything but swift, and could also be more certain and fair.

Make tickets come faster (swift). Our household recently got a ticket for speeding in the K Street underpass under Washington Circle. We've signed up for automated emails from the DMV about tickets. The speeding happened on October 21; the email arrived on November 5. The paper notice took even longer to arrive in the mail.

This misses a lot of the opportunity to change behavior. There doesn't seem to be a good reason the tickets couldn't be issued much faster, like the same or next business day, and emailed and mailed out right afterward. The consequence of this is that people will have long forgotten what they were doing by the time they got the ticket, and plus, people might get many tickets before finding out what they've done.

Add more cameras (certain). A few spots around the District aren't enough to let people know that speeding or other violations will actually lead to a ticket. Now, it's too easy to just memorize the few places to watch out, like in the underpass, and then speed everywhere else.

Yes, there is a privacy concern with ubiquitous cameras which is important to address, but that's a concern that's already relevant with parking enforcers logging every license plate and other automated readers already out there.

Lower fines and more neighborhood cameras (fair). Hitting people with a little fine many times will do more than one big one. This is a debate the District has had many times before, but it's always been a tradeoff just between lower fines and few cameras, and higher ones and few cameras. More, less punitive enforcement has never been on the table.

The cameras also don't need to be in places like the K Street underpass where there are no pedestrians and few crashes. Those spots only embolden opponents of any enforcement. The cameras in neighborhood danger zones don't make as much money, but they're doing important work to make that neighborhood safer.

Cameras are also more fair because they don't racially profile. As long as police put the cameras equally in black and white areas where roads are dangerous, there shouldn't be a disparity between the rate of offenses and the rate of tickets.

Will any of this happen?

While these changes seem like clear ways to improve a messy situation, there hasn't been the political will to do it.

MPD has added cameras, but slowly. Each new purchase requires long procurement lead times and then the cameras themselves take a long time to deploy. Such things can move faster when the government wants to make them a priority, but that hasn't yet been the case.

The revenue from cameras has gotten built into the budget, and reducing fines would create a budget gap. If DC is raising some fines, that might be an opportunity to lower others, or automatically lower fines as more cameras come online.

In 2012, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened a task force to discuss these issues and wrote a bill to lower fines and dedicate revenue to safety. But Chairman Phil Mendelson modified the bill in a way that eliminated most of the good reforms and even would make streets more dangerous. Mayor Gray ultimately reversed most lower fines in a subsequent budget as well.

Speeding up the notification process is doable. Some councilmembers could start by asking why this takes so long during next year's oversight hearings. Legislation could force a speed-up by setting a short maximum lead time, though this would likely reduce revenue in the short run; it would be best to couple it with other reforms that balance out that effect.

This is part 2 in a 3-part series. Read the next part about a man whose reckless driving killed four people, and whether a long prison sentence is actually worthwhile.

Transit


Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Transit


Muriel Bowser calls for "Vision Zero," more equity, Metro investment, and new task forces for transportation

On the heels of the release of David Catania's detailed platform, his rival for mayor, Muriel Bowser, has put out her own platform. Here are key parts of the transportation section.

Road safety: Muriel will lead the District's effort to join other cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York in adopting "Vision Zero," a transportation safety approach that focuses on key areas including engineering, education, enforcement, and policy formulation, to eliminate dangerous behavior on our roadways, in all communities.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Transportation equity: From Capital Bikeshare and the Circulator to the DC Streetcar, the District continues to invest in innovative efforts to link our vibrant neighborhoods. Unfortunately, some efforts and policies have failed to address the needs of certain neigh­bor­hoods, particularly in underserved parts of the District.

Muriel Bowser will designate a senior District Department of Transportation (DDOT) official to be the agency's Transportation Equity and Inclusion Officer. This official will ensure that the agency's policies and plans address the needs and concerns of all residents, particularly those in the District's most underserved communities. This official will also coordinate with other agencies to ensure that all city services include accessibility as a priority.

Bus service: Muriel Bowser will continue to focus on strengthening options for residents that utilize Metrobus by improving transportation services provided to individuals with disabilities, adding capacity to underserved transit corridors, and encouraging the use of dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority, and real-time arrival screens at stops.

Metro: While Metro continues to be one of the highest quality transit systems in the United States, it faces ongoing challenges due to a lack of dedicated funding. As Mayor, Muriel Bowser will seek additional investments from local, regional, and federal partners to ensure that the system's infrastructure can effectively serve the region's needs today and into the future.

Streetcars: District residents have been rightfully concerned about the [streetcar] project's excess costs and delays. As Mayor, Muriel Bowser will lead a comprehensive assessment of the DC Streetcar project to learn from missteps made, correct planning and operational deficiencies by reforming the District's procurement apparatus, and responsibly and confidently move forward with an expansion of streetcar service in a way that meets the needs of District residents and visitors.

Bicycle infrastructure: Muriel Bowser will continue efforts to expand bicycle lanes throughout the District to ensure that bicyclists have a safe space to ride and pedestrians and drivers alike have more predictable streets and traffic patterns.

Muriel will also expand the Capital Bikeshare program to more neighborhoods, including those that have been historically underserved by public transit, increase educational outreach to promote bicycle safety, and dedicate the appropriate resources to complete the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT).

Parking and congestion: While the District is committed to long-term strategies that make it easier to travel the city without a car, many District residents continue to rely on their cars as a primary mode of transportation.

Muriel Bowser will create a Parking and Congestion Task Force to identify and recommend legislative and regulatory solutions to ease congestion and address the long-term parking needs and concerns of District residents and visitors. (e.g. accommodating parking near city churches).

Governance: Muriel Bowser will convene a cross-agency team of government officials to review the District's model of transportation governance, with the goal of identifying potential savings and/or efficiencies that could be realized by increased collaboration or consolidation.

Innovation: Muriel Bowser will encourage and promote transportation innovation by convening a working group comprised of transportation policy experts, thought leaders, inventors, and local residents, to identify efficiencies and technologies that can be utilized to expand and improve transportation access [w]ith a broad focus to include mobile application advances, roadway design, and the expanded use of electric vehicles, among other things.

Traffic cameras: Recent studies have shown that the [Automated Traffic Enforcement] program has resulted in fewer collision-related fatalities and injuries, and it has reduced speed-related traffic collisions across the District, even as the city's population has increased. Nonetheless, a recent Office of Inspector General report found that the program needs to be re-focused on public safety, with less emphasis on potentially unfairly profiting from District citizens.

Muriel Bowser will improve the administration of the program by preserving the utilization of speed enforcement cameras deployed in a manner that is supportable by data showing a reduction in driver speed and an increase in pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist safety.

In the platform, Bowser also says she wants to "appoint an experienced, energetic, innovative leader to run DDOT," which echoes one of Adrian Fenty's leadership practices of trying to find outside-the-box choices to run agencies. In his cabinet picks, including for DDOT, Mayor Gray tended to just elevate a number two or other insider at many agencies.

How do you think this compares to David Catania's platform?

Roads


The war on Dana Milbank's car

"DC doesn't deserve self-rule until it... lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws." That's the message from the Washington Post's columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruption—most recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal gifts—many say the District doesn't deserve autonomy because there's a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today's Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he's broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a "startling abuse of power," an "appalling overreach," and "like a banana republic."

The column is also a new low in the tired "war on cars" meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region's local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they're being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don't attack all enforcement

That's not to say DC's camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District's Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn't tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn't happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren't, they shouldn't give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn't saying he's been the victim of any of these errors. He's not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperly—and if true, that's also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, "The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected."

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they're going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people's behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn't a real safety issue. WTOP's Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren't that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA's John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. "Complete cessation of movement" is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it's hard to draw a line other than "actually stopping" that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it's only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you're going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, "I didn't see him" is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren't necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they've been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There's always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn't dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They'll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it's not their fault. They'll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn't deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is "like the Soviet East" because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central government—wait, what?

What's that about statehood?

But Milbank's statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn't pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one's own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It's not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it's that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it's more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the District—so they don't have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.

Politics


David Catania's platform supports Metro, streetcars, bus lanes, bike lanes, transit-oriented development, and more

Mayoral candidate David Catania released a 66-page platform today, chock full of positions on issues from education to jobs to seniors. It includes strong statements on transportation and the environment.


Catania at a DC Council hearing.

Here are a few key quotes from the platform:

Metro: To ensure that Metro Momentum becomes a reality, the entire region will need to prioritize the plan's funding. As Mayor, David will ensure that the District leads the effort with our regional and federal partners to create a dedicated funding mechanism for this vital investment in our collective future.

Streetcars: David will seek to build both the East-West and the North-South [DC streetcar] lines, believing that the system must be sufficiently expansive in order to serve as anything more than a novelty or tourist attraction.

Bus lanes: David will work with community members, bus riders, and transit agencies to increase capacity and implement priority bus lanes on major arterial roadways and key transit corridors.

Bicycle infrastructure: David will expand bicycle infrastructure to all areas of the city, particularly in communities east of the Anacostia River that have yet to see such investments. This expansion can take place in a way that does not displace other forms of transportation. Many District streets are particularly well positioned for installation of protected bike lanes while maintaining sufficient car parking and driving capacity. David will also support the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare.

Traffic cameras: There is little doubt that speed and red light cameras have contributed to the overall safety of our streets. However, in some cases the deployment of these cameras raises questions about whether the intent is purely to improve street safety or if the real motivation is to raise additional revenue through ticketing and citations. As Mayor, David will demand that the proper analysis is conducted to ensure that these devices are being used to target locations with street and pedestrian safety concerns—not simply as a means to raise revenue!

Vision Zero: David will pursue a street safety agenda in line with the Vision Zero Initiative. ... Vision Zero calls for the total elimination of traffic deaths—pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle passenger—through innovative street design, enhanced traffic management technologies, and education campaigns.

Transit-oriented development: The District's density is one of its greatest economic competitive advantages. Recent studies have found a clear connection between the higher concentration of residents and greater economic output. As Mayor, David will harness this economic potential in a way that creates healthy and livable urban communities, by focusing development around transportation hubs including Metro stations, bus lines, protected bike lane infrastructure, and Streetcar corridors.


Speck. Image from the Catania platform.
A lot of this reads like something a smart growth and sustainable transportation advocate might write. Maybe that's not such a surprise, as the section starts out with a big picture of Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City and a local smart growth champion. Jeff and Alice Speck are strong supporters of Catania, and probably suggested a few ideas.

There is a lot about the environment as well in that section, such as LEED buildings, tree canopy, and water quality, as well as on many more topics in the full document. What do you agree or disagree with in the platform?

Pedestrians


Life is too important to give speed cameras a loophole

Vehicle speed kills. Even a small increase in speed can mean the difference between life and death for a pedestrian. But laws limiting speed camera enforcement make them less effective at making our streets safer.

At 20 miles per hour, when a motorist hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian has a 90 percent chance of surviving the crash. At 30 miles per hour, the chance of survival has dropped to 50%. At 40 miles per hour, the pedestrian has a 90% chance of dying.


Graphic from PEDS Atlanta.

In Maryland, speed camera tickets can only be issued to motorists going at least 12 miles per hour over the speed limit. That severely blunts the effectiveness of the cameras for saving lives.

In my neighborhood on the east side of Greenbelt, the city has installed speed cameras on 2 neighborhood streets near Eleanor Roosevelt High School. One of the cameras is near a well-used, mid-block crosswalk that many students use. The speed limit in these areas is 25 mph, which means that drivers have to be going 37 mph before they get a ticket.

A collision at 25 mph would be less than 50% likely to kill a pedestrian. But a collision at 37 mph would bring an almost 90% chance of death.

On Monday, I witnessed a driver flying down the street, well above the speed limit. But I wondered if he was even going fast enough to get a ticket from the speed camera. Even on a quiet neighborhood street, drivers in Greenbelt can go fast enough to cause almost certain death for pedestrians without fearing a speed camera ticket.

That's the real effect of Maryland's speed camera restrictions: It allows drivers some leeway, but puts vulnerable road users at risk.

But it's actually worse than that, because the speed limit itself is actually determined using the arcane "85th percentile speed" in many places, including by the Maryland State Highway Administration. While that's not a factor on my street, it is on other streets nearby, and throughout the state.

Essentially, highway engineers look at how fast people drive. And they set the speed limit for what 85% of motorists drive. So, for example, on a street, if 85% of drivers go 40 mph, the speed limit is set at 40, even if circumstances (like the presence of a school) suggest that it should be lower.

And remember, that our highways are already designed for speed. The concept of driver forgiveness means that engineers try to design broad curves, wide lanes, and open spaces so that if a driver makes a mistake, it won't be fatal (for the driver). But these design choices also give subtle psychological hints to drivers to go faster.

And then they set the speed limits based on how fast drivers actually go. And then we limit automated enforcement to 12 mph over that. The result, of course, is that when a pedestrian is struck, the chance of survival is far too low. Especially in the suburbs.

Maryland could help by lowering the threshold for automated speed enforcement. In the District, there is no threshold for speed cameras. A driver can be ticketed for going just 1 mile per hour over the limit.

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