Dangerous Streets Are a Public Health Crisis, and Vision Zero Is the Prescription

Image: NDCC
Image: NDCC

If a flesh-eating virus killed more than 40,000 people in the United States in a single year, every level of government would act decisively to stamp out the contagion and save lives. And yet, when 40,000 people lost their lives in traffic crashes in the United States last year, our collective response was little more than a shrug.

For the most part, our transportation policies continue to reinforce a deadly car-centric status quo that leaves Americans far more exposed to the risk of fatal crashes than residents of peer countries.

Denver is no exception. Between 2005 and 2016, 582 people were killed in crashes on city streets. Most people tend not to think about all this carnage as a public health issue, but public health professionals do.

Traffic injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in Colorado, and the second leading cause of hospitalization, according to the city’s recently released Vision Zero Action Plan. Traffic injuries accounted for 31 percent of paramedic encounters and 26 percent of ambulance trips.

When the city unveiled the action plan last month, I got to speak to Michele Shimomura, a public health manager with the Denver Department of Environmental Health who helped write it. She brings a perspective to the problem of traffic violence that doesn’t get heard enough, even in transportation policy circles.

“When fatalities and serious injuries occur on streets, that’s a very direct morbidity and mortality issue for public health,” she said.

Shimomura views street safety as an integral component of improving public through changes to the built environment. Streets that are too dangerous for walking and biking discourage physical behavior, and that can make us sick. High traffic volumes generate pollution that leads to elevated rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease, as in the neighborhoods bisected by I-70.

“What I’m always looking for in public health is where are the largest co-benefits, and how we can start directing resources to improve the environment where the most vulnerable people live,” Shimomura said. “From a health perspective, those are the people who have the most negative health outcomes. And so if we can offer them more support and more choices — if it’s safer to get around, safer to ride your bike, safer to be a pedestrian, safer to walk or bike to school — it increases physical activity and improves health outcomes.”

Too many policymakers treat redesigning streets for safe walking and biking as some kind of war between people who drive and people who do not. And our local media loves to run with that narrative of conflict. But there’s real harm to public health and safety embedded in Denver’s high-speed streets that cater to cars. Making those streets safe for people to walk and bike isn’t a zero-sum game — it can lead to big improvements in broad measures of public health.

“I think there’s always gonna be a certain amount of resistance to change, but people also take the options that are available to them,” said Shimomura. “If biking is easy for them, then they’ll bike, if it’s more difficult, then they’ll choose other options. If cars are the easiest option, people will take that.”

You can weigh in on the Hancock administration’s draft Vision Zero plan on the city’s website. As we wrote last month, the city should be setting more specific targets to address the public health crisis of dangerous streets.