To reach zero traffic fatalities, advocates say funding must match Houston's Vision Zero commitment

Source: Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System/Community Impact Newspaper
Source: Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System/Community Impact Newspaper

Source: Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System/Community Impact Newspaper

In front of over 3,600 flags on Houston City Hall’s lawn, Lucy Lugo Ekpanya shared the story of her husband’s death when he was struck by a drunken driver.

“Even though it happened in June of 2016, that happens every single day, every single morning for me, because I wake up with the reality that my husband, my best friend and the person that I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with, isn’t here anymore,” she said.

Each of the flags behind her represented a life lost on Texas roadways in 2018. City and state officials and transportation leaders gathered Nov. 8 to promote the Texas Department of Transportation “End the Streak” campaign, which raises public awareness for safe driving practices and dangers facing Texas drivers.

The streak refers to the fact that since Nov. 7, 2000, at least one person has died on a Texas roadway every day, totaling over 67,000 lives lost. The department also committed in May to reduce traffic deaths on Texas roadways to zero by 2050, a goal known as Vision Zero. TxDOT pledged to spend $600 million for safety improvements over the next two years.

Committing to the same goal, Houston is in the midst of forming a Vision Zero Action Plan. Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order in August pledging to reduce Houston’s traffic deaths to zero by 2030. City leaders, including Police Chief Art Acevedo and Fire Chief Sam Peña, and community transportation advocates, gathered for the first time in October to begin the planning process for the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, set to be released in August 2020.

Both commitments represent a recent shift in thinking about transportation safety in Texas, said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Simply committing to the goals, however, is only the first step.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We have a Vision Zero city,’ whether that’s in Houston or anywhere else. I think we would all support that,” he said. “It depends on what actions you’re going to take at the end of the day. Zero means we’re going to look at things differently. We’re really going to try to implement a lot of safety countermeasures.”

Joining a movement

When Turner signed the executive order, the city became the fourth in Texas to join the international network of cities making the same promise. A vote from Dallas City Council to join the network is pending.

Texas’ car-dependent transportation infrastructure means the state had the highest number of traffic fatalities in the country in 2018, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In that same year, Houston saw 197 traffic fatalities, the highest number of any city in the state, TxDOT data shows.

“We are not willing to postpone,” TxDOT Commissioner Laura Ryan said. “I believe that the goal of zero deaths on our roadways is not impossible. It’s just like putting a man on the moon. People wonder why you’re an optimist, but it’s a different type of possibility.”

Looking to the other Texas cities in the Vision Zero network provides a roadmap for Houston’s foray into traffic safety policymaking.

In San Antonio, traffic fatality numbers have fluctuated since the city adopted Vision Zero in 2015 but had gone down 9% overall by the end of 2018, data from TxDOT shows. The city’s commitment to Vision Zero initiatives has included increased police enforcement and an $850 million city bond program passed in 2017 with $91 million already spent on road and sidewalk improvements.

“In Texas, public policy is changing sort of significantly, and it’s working,” said Jay Blazek-Crossley, founder of the transportation advocacy group Farm & City.

In Austin, however, an internal auditor’s report released in September found that the city will not reach its goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero by 2025 unless it makes changes to its approach. Key recommendations included better tracking of crash severity to help prioritize problem areas and the creation of a broader public awareness campaign. The city has spent $30 million in transportation bond funding collectively on Vision Zero-related projects, such as dedicated bike lanes with barriers, between 2016 and 2018, the audit reported.

“One of the big parts of what Austin is trying to figure out, as are a lot of cities—is there is not a lot of what they call a culture of improvements,” Blazek-Crossley said. “They just deployed a miraculous amount of resources just redoing an intersection with little white sticks. ... Some of the game is figuring out how to spend money on small interventions that are effective citywide.”

If Houston wants to learn from its Texan counterparts, the city needs a clear strategy and dedicated funding, transportation advocates said.

In Houston, support will come from a combination of the Houston Public Works budget, the Capital Improvement Plan budget and state grants, city and state officials said.

Unique challenges

Vision Zero—first developed in Sweden in the 1990s—has four pillars: safe streets, safe speeds, safe vehicles and safe people. Most of these will require some amount of funding either through new sources or through redirected funds, Blazek-Crossley said.

Over the next six months, city transportation, public safety and government officials will meet with transportation safety advocates to form the city’s action plan by August.

Enforcement will require input from Acevedo and a dedicated response from the Houston Police Department, which is already understaffed, a 2016 independent consulting report found. State grants currently help pay for traffic enforcement overtime, TxDOT officials confirmed. One member of the committee, Citizens Transportation Coalition Chair Dexter Hardy, said he is cautiously optimistic.

“In the past, the engineers would just say we can make the streets safer by making them more drivable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more walkable,” he said. “Now we can all be sitting at the same table.”

Houston’s success may rely from how much funding the city can allocate to the commitment, which may prove a challenge with Houston’s tax-growth cap.

“It’s more than just adopting a philosophy. It has to be adopting philosophy and putting your money where your mouth is,” Wunderlich said. “The Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner has taken really aggressive steps to do that.”

The passage of the $3.5 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County bond in November may help the city meet some aspects of the goal; however the commitment is long overdue, Blazek-Crossley said.

“An important element is that actually some of that money is planned to be spent on safe sidewalks and connections to transit, which I think is wonderful,” he said. “But it is just barely a start towards the kind of transit people deserve.”

The city could gain additional funds from state grants as well.

Even if most state funding does not go toward city roads, it could affect highways through Houston. This includes the controversial expansion of I-45, Blazek-Crossley said.

“I think it’s crucial that we fix and upgrade for better transit throughout. It’s crucial that we bring it up to safety standards,” he said.

Focusing on only highways, however, will not make the most significant difference, Wunderlich said.

“The arterial roadways and the big intersections are sometimes very complicated and very difficult for us, and we get higher rates of traffic deaths there,” Wunderlich said.

However the city moves forward, it is important to remember the shared responsibility of making Houston’s streets safer, Lugo Ekpanya said.

“Each of us has a part... It’s really simple. Wear a seat belt every single time. Slow down. Put the phone down, and avoid distractions,” she said.

3 ways to get involved

Concerned with transportation safety in Houston? Connect with one of these area grassroots organizations to learn more and have your voice heard.

The Citizens’ Transportation Coalition

Volunteer organization that advocates for public transportation and neighborhood-led transportation solutions in Harris and seven surrounding counties


LINK Houston

An advocacy group aimed at promoting equitable transportation options in Houston


Walkable Houston

Grassroots organization advocating for pedestrian safety and accessible sidewalks
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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