On New Year’s Day, Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, fractured his sternum and two vertebrae due to a traffic accident after colliding with an SUV while riding his bike.
Thank goodness he’s OK—but was it really an accident?
“Accident” is a word almost universally used to describe traffic collisions. That’s understandable. After all, it’s not like the nice person driving the Toyota Highlander started their day intent upon hitting Liccardo. But for those of us on the inside of the street-safety movement, the word “accident” perpetuates the notion that the crash was unavoidable, just an unfortunate incident that couldn’t be prevented.
The reality is, how we design our streets is no accident. Cities are full of engineers, planners, and public works professionals who go to school for years in order to plan, design, and build vital city infrastructure.
So what happened here? Is it right to call this an accident?
The mayor was pedaling east on Mabury Road, a route I ride at least once a week. Mabury is a thoroughfare that many recreational bicyclists use to get to the East Foothills because, comparatively speaking, it has a nice bike lane with good sight lines.
The mayor’s crash happened at Salt Lake Drive, where a driver was crossing Mabury. The driver says they did not see the mayor and, as a result, crossed the street directly into his path. Is there some way that this intersection could be changed that could have prevented this collision? Is the street overly wide? Does the on-street parking impact visibility?
First, a little background.
Traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for teenagers. On average, 35,000 people die in car crashes every year with an additional 2.5 million injuries. In San Jose, the good news is that fatalities on our streets have been declining. In 2015 there were 60 traffic deaths and in 2018 there were 52, 18 of which were drivers or passengers. To put that in context, that’s about 4.3 deaths per month on our streets. That’s everyone—cars, pedestrians and bikes. The bottom line is that our streets are not safe for anyone, regardless of transportation mode.
Is it an accident that our streets happen to be one of the most dangerous places to be?
The answer is no, and that answer has been taken up by a global movement called Vision Zero. Vision Zero is the bold goal that we will reduce to zero the number of major injuries and fatalities on our roadways. One of its main premises is that with better street design, our roads will be safe.
Design is no accident.
Take this orange couch, for example.
How many people will sit on it? The answer is two. Why? Because the couch designer made it with two seat cushions and in our brains, that signals that just two people will fit. In reality, however, the couch is big enough to comfortably seat three. If the designer made a version with three cushions, people would be more likely to fit three across.
This seemingly small design element impacts how we behave. The same is true of our streets. Wide roads with lots of lanes trigger us to think we can drive fast. Narrow the lanes down to 10 feet and we instinctively slow down.
Slower speeds equal safer streets. This is only one example of how design impacts safety.
San Jose is in the midst of a bicycle renaissance. Calling it the Better Bikeways Network, the city is rapidly designing and implementing a grid of protected and enhanced bike lanes downtown. But the changes are causing some confusion. People are asking why the city put those bollards on that corner like that? Why was that tan box painted there? And why can’t I drive my car all the way through on St. John Street?
There is intentional thinking behind all of this. Take the intersection of San Fernando Street and Almaden Avenue. There, the city has used paint and bollards to create a right turn that, for most drivers, is now a pain in the tuchus. This is no accident. Those bollards and paint have been arranged in a way that make it next to impossible to take that corner at high speeds. It forces drivers to slow down, making the roads safer for all.
These kinds of changes don’t come easy. Reallocating street space, slowing down speeds and placing greater emphasis on other forms of transportation typically faces strong resistance, despite the safety payoff.
But imagine this: a transportation system in which folks arrive at their destination with a smile, a system that doesn’t create stress, frustration, fear, obesity, or air pollution. This is what the city of San Jose is striving to do and what we at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition will continue to pedal toward.
We look forward to the mayor’s speedy recovery, and will continue to work aggressively with the city to create safe streets for all. Will you join us? Get involved here or sent a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shiloh Ballard is the executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. In addition to serving on numerous nonprofit boards and community commissions, she enjoys reading, cooking, growing vegetables and mountain biking. She lives with her long-time partner, Dan King, and their cats Lily and Butter in San Jose. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to email@example.com.