Pedestrians and Cyclists Come First at D.C. Street Safety Hearing

“If we want to give meaning to multi-modal transportation … and if we want a vibrant city, then we must encourage safety for people who walk and bicycle.”

That was Phil Mendelson, the city council member in Washington, DC, who chaired a hearing on pedestrian and cyclist safety earlier this month (as quoted by TBD). Contrast his opening remarks with the intro to a hearing last December by New York’s own James Vacca, the transportation committee chair who considers sound bike policy a “tradeoff” between safer streets and more parking.

The DC hearing was marked by emotional testimony from victims and family members of DC residents lost in collisions with drivers. Several spoke of mistreatment at the hands of police. Among them was Ruth Rowan, the mother of Alice Swanson. In July of 2008, 22-year-old Swanson, riding in a bike lane on her way to work near Dupont Circle, was killed by the driver of a garbage truck. According to Rowan, shown in this video from David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, the investigation into her daughter’s crash was stalled by a detective who went to great lengths to blame Swanson for her own death, despite a mountain of contradictory evidence.

What is clear is that, whether in DC or New York, pedestrians and cyclists are routinely held to a model of care and responsibility not expected of their counterparts sheathed in glass and steel. Vacca has shown substantial interest in pedestrian safety, slowing down speeders, and opening up crash data, so maybe he would consider convening a council hearing that shines a spotlight on the vital issue of NYPD crash investigations, which all too often seem to reach conclusions before all the facts are in.

Given the current topsy-turvy climate, where cyclists and pedestrians are singled out for scorn and scolding while their killers are spared comparable scrutiny (at least two pedestrians dead in the last two days), it would be nothing short of revelatory to hear Vacca and other prominent council mems echo Mendelson, who — while issuing the obligatory call for enforcement “against pedestrians and cyclists as well” — at least acknowledged that, “If someone is driving a 2,000 or 4,000 pound machine, they need to be held to a higher standard.”

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Yesterday’s four-hour City Council hearing on Vision Zero featured testimony from families of traffic violence victims, discussion of NYPD’s enforcement priorities, and Cy Vance’s office weighing in on how district attorneys should be involved in traffic justice. But not all of the testimony fit neatly into a theme or narrative. Here are some of the highlights […]