A City Safe to Walk In: Neighborhood action and Vision Zero aim to make the streets safer

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that looks at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

Marlowe Avenue runs east and west off of Hamilton Avenue in the heart of the College Hill neighborhood business district. A few years ago, Julie Brown, who lives on Marlowe, had a depressing revelation. “I’m not going to be able to teach my daughter how to ride a bike,” she remembers thinking.

When she was a child, Julie learned to ride a bike on her street. But Marlowe Avenue is a cut-through for impatient drivers who want to bypass the congested traffic through the College Hill business district. It just wasn’t a safe place for a fledgling bike rider.

Unfortunately, the simple pleasure of riding a bike or crossing the street takes an act of courage. The streets of our urban neighborhoods have too often turned into scenes of mayhem for people who get around without a car. City neighborhoods are prized for their walkability and their density, but increasingly, traveling on foot or by bike takes nerves of steel.

This summer was particularly dangerous:
  • Gloria San Miguel was riding her bike on a Saturday morning in Covington when she was struck and killed on the 11th Street Bridge. The driver kept going.
  • A 56-year-old pedestrian was crossing McHenry Avenue in Westwood in August when he was hit and critically injured. Police said the driver of the SUV may have been impaired.
  • Three pedestrians in their 20s were injured, one critically, after a hit-and-run in Hyde Park in late August.
  • John Miller, a 26-year-old described as “a son, brother, dog dad to Murphy, teammate, and true friend to many,” was struck and killed while walking on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills in July. The driver fled the scene, police said.
  • A child in a crosswalk at Sharon Road and Waycross Road in Forest Park was struck and critically injured in late August.
Nationally, there’s been an alarming increase in crash-related deaths. Traffic fatalities were up more than 10% in 2021, and through the first three months of 2022, were up another 7%. In Cincinnati, the number of pedestrian-involved crashes increased 5% from 2020 to 2021. Even more disturbingly, they’ve gotten more serious. So far this year, fatal and severe crashes involving pedestrians are up 50% from the same period in 2020, according to city stats, and 15% from last year.

There’s several reasons: drivers distracted by their smartphones; supersized vehicles too large for city streets that were designed a hundred years ago; and a surge in crashes since the pandemic, possibly due to an increase in alcohol and drug use, impulsive behavior, and aggression.

The trend has been worse in neighborhoods populated by lower-income residents, where the streets are often busier and more people get around on foot, without the benefit of owning cars.

The Vision Zero plan
But there’s a growing effort within City Hall and in the neighborhoods to make the streets safer and protect pedestrian and bicyclists and slow traffic speeds. The city has adopted a “Vision Zero” goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries. Begun in Europe in the ‘90s, the Vision Zero movement has gained momentum in the U.S. since 2014, as more than 50 cities, counties, and other organizations have committed to the strategy.

In Cincinnati, Vision Zero entered the discussion seriously in 2016 following the death of Sarah Cole, the owner of Northside’s Tickle Pickle restaurant, who was killed while crossing Hamilton Avenue to get to her place of business. The Department of Transportation and Engineering asked city planner Mel McVay, who was working on the city’s bike program at the time, to take the lead on Vision Zero. She remains the only city employee fully dedicated to the program, although she works with other departments and the budget for the effort has grown.

“We are committed to the goal of zero traffic fatalities and injuries,” McVay says.

Although other cities have included car-to-car crashes in their programs, “We’re initially focused on pedestrians and bicycles, because those are what we consider to be more vulnerable users,” McVay says.

She’s experimented with a variety of strategies and tools to bring injuries and deaths down. Adding crosswalks in neighborhoods, rapidly flashing lights at some crosswalks, and orange flags meant to be waved by pedestrians while crossing the streets were some of the first methods tried. But they proved to be limited in their effectiveness.

“We realized pretty quickly those were not terribly effective tools,” McVay says. They did little to affect the number-one factor in pedestrian injuries – speed.

She’s now settled on a tool that will be showing up on Cincinnati streets over the next year – speed cushions. “Our best tool is a speed cushion,” she says. “The pilot project we did showed they were incredibly effective.”

Speed cushions are speed humps with wheel cutouts that allow emergency vehicles, which typically have wider wheelbases than passenger cars, to pass through without slowing down.

The pilot project last year on Winneste Avenue in Winton Hills showed results. Winneste was chosen because it’s a densely populated neighborhood occupied by public housing, a community room, a recreation center, a church, and a school. It’s also the scene of a lot of crashes – about a dozen in the last two or three years, McVay says.

When the speed cushions were in place, the average speed on Winneste, which has a posted 25 mph speed limit, dropped from 39 mph to 20. Before the cushions, nearly all the vehicles traveling Winneste—95% -- exceeded the speed limit. After the cushions were installed, only 11% did, while the percentage of vehicles traveling faster than 40 went from 25% to zero.

“The community loved it,” McVay says. “That will be our main tool now that we want to implement throughout the city.”

She’ll also been piloting something called “centerline hardening,” which involves installing rubber barriers at the center line at crosswalks, requiring drivers turning left to make slower, squarer turns, rather than cutting the corners. It’s a small, inexpensive change meant to slow down speeds at crosswalks and reduce the potential for people walking across the street to be hit.

In Washington, D.C., hardened centerline installations were associated with a 70.5% reduction in conflicts between left-turning vehicles and pedestrians, and a 67% reduction in the odds of a left-turning vehicle exceeding 15 mph.

The city will also install more curb extensions in coming months. They extend the curb into the roadway, forcing cars into one lane and slowing them down. Extensions made of concrete cost about $100,000 a pair, but the city is testing extensions made of plastic and some of fiberglass, which are considerably cheaper, although not as durable. The value of the plastic type is they can be quickly installed and cheaply installed, as they were at Hamilton and Pullan in Northside after a woman and her father were struck while crossing Hamilton Avenue in July. The woman died earlier this month from her injuries.

Curb extensions at Hamilton and Pullan in Northside.Longer-term safety projects are in the work in some of the city’s poorest communities. Beekman Avenue, which runs through South Cumminsville and the Millvale public housing site, is on the list for a complete redesign. It’s now four lanes wide, a design that practically invites drivers to hit the gas.  “We’re going to right-size the street,” McVay says. One lane will be eliminated and a center turn lane will be created, resulting in only one lane of traffic in each direction. “It won’t eliminate speeding, but it does tend to reduce speeds,” McVay says.

The six lanes of Linn Street in the West End are also on the drawing board for right-sizing, and the intersection of Eighth and State in Lower Price Hill is also scheduled for safety improvements.

“My goal is to give every neighborhood the tools they need to get what they need to make their neighborhood safer,” McVay says.

Neighborhood activists
She works closely with neighborhood councils, gathering their requests, and scoring then prioritizing them for funding, and advising them on how to work with City Hall. The neighborhood of College Hill, whose business district begins at the intersection of two of the West Side’s busiest streets, Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road, has been especially active recently.

Some of the neighbors got involved in late 2021, after a series of high-speed accidents. The neighborhood’s business district is undergoing rapid development, including a 171-unit apartment building that is soon to open,  a development certain to increase traffic. A traffic safety committee was formed that now numbers more than a hundred people. Grants have been won from the Devou Good Foundation and the city, and the residents began speaking up. After her revelation about Marlowe Avenue, Julie Brown successfully petitioned the city to install speed humps in the street. That small success has led to more, and Julie was elected chair of the neighborhood’s traffic and pedestrian safety committee.

Julie Brown and her neighbors have taken it to the streets.“We’ve had a number of small wins with big impact,” Brown says.

A school crossing guard successfully appealed to City Hall for a four-way stop at the intersection of Cedar and Lantana. Another resident organized a 5K race that raised $2,000 for a safety fund.

Another organized direct citizen action to raise the awareness of drivers to crosswalks in the business district. For the fourth time in September, neighbors gathered to walk the five crosswalks in the College Hill business district, carrying signs that said “Slow Down,” “Prepare to Stop,” and generally enforcing the notion (and state law) that pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks. The College Hill team is planning another crosswalk action on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Their example was noted by their neighbors to the south in Northside, who organized their own crosswalk march in their Hamilton Avenue business district earlier this month.

With City Hall and neighborhoods working together, perhaps the city streets will become places they were meant to be, safe, common ground for all to use and enjoy.

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.