Chapel Hill seeks to eliminate pedestrian fatalities

The Homestead Road construction project will require some lane closures and delays before it wraps up in 2024. Photo courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill.


By Fraser Sherman

Chapel Hill wants to lower vehicular deaths and serious injuries on town streets to zero by 2031.

“We know mistakes are going to happen,” Chapel Hill Complete Streets Specialist Ian Baltutis says, “but we can reduce the likelihood they result in injury or death.”

In 2021, the town adopted a resolution committing to the zero-deaths goal. To achieve it, Chapel Hill is following Vision Zero, a 25-year-old European program for minimizing the consequences of vehicle accidents and driver error. Baltutis says a change as small as placing bollards down the center of a road can slow drivers and reduce injuries in accidents.

Mayor Pam Hemminger says work on Vision Zero began before her time in office. The town has been better able to tackle the program during her tenure because “we really had enough staffing to focus.” That staff includes Baltutis, the former mayor of Burlington. It helps, Hemminger said, that the state has also been working on Vision Zero.

Sweden launched the original Vision Zero program in 1997. Bloomberg says the program cut Swedish traffic fatalities in half over two decades, bringing road deaths to under 200 in 2021. Other European nations have had similar success.

During the past decade several American cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have adopted Vision Zero but the results haven’t been as good. Despite the pandemic keeping many people off the roads, U.S. traffic deaths in 2021 hit their highest level in 16 years. Part of the problem is that American traffic engineering focuses more on moving cars fast than on safety. Another part is that people who like Vision Zero in theory change their tune when it affects their morning commute.

According to Chapel Hill’s resolution, from 2016 to 2020, three people died walking or biking on Chapel Hill Streets, five suffered serious injuries and 135 experienced minor injuries.

The town’s Road to Zero task force developed a pedestrian safety action plan in 2019. Baltutis says planning for pedestrian and bicycle safety is the first Vision Zero step, so in 2021 the city began studying data on town roads as the basis for that planning.

Putting Vision Zero into action doesn’t require massive road renovations; smaller changes can produce big results.  Baltutis said, for example, that placing bollards down the center of part of Martin Luther King Boulevard creates the illusion the lanes have narrowed. That slows drivers down and discourages them from shifting lanes, making it easier to avoid pedestrians.

Bollards at road intersections, Baltutis said, create the same illusion, encouraging slower driving, increasing pedestrian visibility and putting more space between cars and people on the side of the road. The bollards do this without interfering with resident parking or blocking emergency-vehicle access.

Another simple step, Hemminger said, would be to install pedestrian-activated flashing lights on city crosswalks.

Increasing space between cars, pedestrians, and cyclists reduces the number of accidents. Slowing cars down means that even if a vehicle does hit a pedestrian or a bicycle, the injuries aren’t as brutal.  Baltutis said Chapel Hill is testing several future projects, such as marking out possible sidewalks with duct tape, then soliciting pedestrian feedback. Other projects are already under way.

The current construction on Homestead Road, for instance, will add bicycle lanes and sidewalks along parts of the road and extend a turn lane from Weaver Dairy Extension to Seawell School Road. Hemminger said Chapel Hill will keep incorporating Vision Zero ideas as they add new roadways and bike paths, so it’s an ongoing process.

Baltutis says Homestead is a good example of how Vision Zero shapes the town’s thinking. “We’re looking at how we cater to drivers but also to transit, pedestrians. How do we create a safe system? We take a look at each street and try to come up with a cost-effective safe solution. That doesn’t mean we need to do work on every street, but looking at it as a network system is important.” Homestead Road, for example, is an important route to a nearby school.

Baltutis adds that the core of Vision Zero isn’t the specific changes, “It’s really about ingraining that Vision Zero mentality into everything the city does.” He said the city has seen some pushback when residents and drivers realize the changes affect their driving routines, but the changes are so modest, before long “most folks stop noticing that it’s there.”

The greatest challenge to success, Baltutis says, are “factors that are bigger than Chapel Hill.” For instance there’s the trend toward bigger vehicles, which do more damage if they hit someone and create larger blind spots for drivers. Distracted drivers are another factor.

Hemminger adds another issue: most of the town’s roads are under North Carolina Department of Transportation jurisdiction rather than local government. Changes to state roads require NCDOT sign off on them. “Usually they’re cooperative,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a reluctance to implement quickly.”

However, the mayor added, she’s excited that the city’s implemented the program, even though it won’t be finished until after she’s left office. “The good work will continue regardless of who’s in leadership,” she said, “but we put good things in motion: we’ve got a plan, we’ve got the people, we’ve got the resources.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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