Mayor Hancock on Vision Zero: “It’s Not If, But When”

MBAC Vice Chair Kevin Williams, left, asks Mayor Michael Hancock to commit to safe north-south connections for people on bikes and safety improvements for intersections. Photo: David Sachs

Mayor Michael Hancock told members of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee yesterday that it’s just a matter of time before the city adopts a Vision Zero strategy to eliminate traffic deaths. But the mayor said the city needs to be better prepared before taking on the goal of zero deaths on Denver’s streets.

Here’s how Mayor Hancock responded when Streetsblog Denver asked him why the city hasn’t committed to a Vision Zero policy yet, and what MBAC, the group of bike advocates charged with advising him on bike issues, can do to help:

It isn’t the why, it’s the how for us, really, so that we don’t go into it half baked. What can we do that’s really substantive and gets beyond just rhetoric… It’s not so much how do we talk about wanting to minimize deaths on the road. No, we don’t want deaths on the road. We want zero. We want a commitment to saying everyone is going to be safe on these roads. And so the question is how do we do that… how do we really walk our talk? What are the measures we need to put in place to do that? How do we build roads that really facilitate that safety aspect of it. And so that’s what we’re taking a look at right now.

It’s not if, it’s when, and then how do we enter it with something real substantive so that we’re all on the same page and focused.

I think we’re living in some amazingly transformative times in our city… not only economically but our city is transforming physically as well. And there’s greater demand on our streets than we’ve ever had before, and not just by car, which is a beautiful thing. Bicyclists and pedestrians are… requesting and demanding that our streets serve everyone.

Hancock’s remarks are a step up from “taking a hard look” at Vision Zero. And he’s right that adopting the goal of zero deaths has to be backed up with substantive action, not rhetoric. At the same time, he could be staking out a firmer commitment to street safety right now, before the city comes up with a detailed plan.

That’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio did in New York, declaring that his administration would pursue a Vision Zero goal and pulling together a multi-agency working group to hash out a strategy just a couple of weeks after taking office. The outline of a plan came several weeks later, and the details of implementation continue to evolve.

Hancock could commit to Vision Zero now and say that in a few months, his administration will release a strategic plan to achieve it. That would be a much stronger signal that he is serious about street safety. As it stands, advocates are still waiting for action on the mayor’s verbal commitment to safer streets earlier this year.

In terms of more immediate goals, safe north-to-south connections for people on bikes and making intersections safer for bike riders are top priorities when it comes to infrastructure, MBAC Vice Chair Kevin Williams told Hancock.

“You have cars, you have people, you have bikes, you have people doing things that they shouldn’t be doing, whether it’s bicyclists running red lights, whether it’s cars not looking where they’re going, whether it’s pedestrians jaywalking,” Williams said. “So as you can imagine most accidents happen at these intersections and… we feel that any intersection that has a bike facility essentially needs to have the most state-of-the art safety and design and infrastructure piece that it can have.”

Hancock said he gets it, having just visited San Francisco on a fact-finding trip where he experienced dangerous, intimidating streets while riding a bike. But later he singled out bike riders for running red lights.

“It just makes you bite down your lip and really worry,” Hancock said. “Recognize that if we’re really going to move into this culture, that we’re going to have to be serious about really educating everyone about how we share the streets. And it’s not just motorists, but bicyclists as well.”

People on bikes often break the law to stay safe on streets designed solely with cars in mind, according to researcher Wes Marshall. On a bike, it’s often safer to pull in front of a car at a stop light and establish yourself in a lane, for example, than fight for space with a 3,000 pound vehicle. The best way to prevent people on bikes from breaking the law is to put as much thought into bike infrastructure as engineers have given to car infrastructure. It’s not clear that Mayor Hancock sees that yet.

At the meeting, Hancock also pledged his commitment to complete streets during the upcoming budget process, calling safe streets and housing his top priorities. We’ll see.