How Much Progress is Cincinnati Making When it Comes to Pedestrian Safety?

Cincinnati officials laid out what the city is doing and big plans to come, including new leadership, a proposed change to the city's charter and rollout of a sweeping initiative called Vision Zero

click to enlarge A safety paddle in Northside near where a car hit Sarah Cole  in 2016 - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
A safety paddle in Northside near where a car hit Sarah Cole in 2016

Cincinnati has seen an alarming number of injuries and deaths from cars hitting pedestrians over the past few years.

Now, spurred by public outcry about those incidents, local officials say they're rolling out big efforts to try and reach zero traffic fatalities.

Those initiatives, part of a project called Vision Zero, boil down to a few key points: new leadership, increased traffic enforcement, infrastructure improvements, a sweeping plan to change the way the city approaches traffic safety and a proposed charter amendment that would allow police to use hand-held cameras to ticket speeders.

Cincinnati City Manager Patrick Duhaney, Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac, Cincinnati Department of Transportation and Engineering Director Joseph Vogel and the city's new Pedestrian Safety Manager Melissa McVay and others spoke to a full house yesterday in Evanston at a pedestrian safety summit organized by Cincinnati City Council member Greg Landsman. 

Officials said they hoped the multi-pronged approach would help prevent crashes like those that took the lives of Sarah Cole in Northside and Khloe Pitts in Avondale in 2016 and Gabriella Rodriguez in Westwood in 2018. Rodriguez, whose parents attended the summit, was one of 425 people in Cincinnati hit by cars last year, and one of seven who died in those incidents. Over the past five years, incidents in which cars have hit pedestrians have increased 50 percent.

Some efforts are already underway. CPD stepped up enforcement last October in a number of speeding hotspots around the city, writing 773 citations, and a dedicated traffic unit increased moving violation enforcement by almost 21 percent throughout the year. However, crashes still rose significantly last year.

Isaac said the city simply doesn't have enough officers to enforce traffic the way it would like. But if voters approve an amendment to the city's charter Landsman is championing, CPD could use speeding cameras to automatically ticket drivers via their license plates.

Mackenzie Farmer Low is on Pleasant Ridge's community council. She says the community is on board for the traffic cameras, but said that alone wouldn't be enough. 

"It's not just speed," she said. "It's yielding to pedestrians, stop signs, running red lights. How will the police force not just lean on these cameras to be the sole answer for long-term change? Vision Zero is about changing the culture of driving in this city, and I really think that's what residents want — for drivers to respect pedestrians."

CPD's Isaac agreed.

"Enforcement alone is not going to solve this issue for us," Isaac said. "But we remain committed to enforcement efforts, including exploring some additional traffic control measures." 

Cue other efforts.

The Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) has already approved 65 pedestrian safety improvement projects in about half the city's neighborhoods that will start this summer, from new crosswalks and pedestrian signage, sometimes with lights, to larger improvements. 

One coming city-wide initiative is an online, interactive map where users can both see and input data about dangerous traffic conditions and streets that aren't ideal for pedestrians. That should go live in the next few weeks.

Longer-term moves include tapping DOTE veteran McVay as the city's pedestrian safety manager. McVay will oversee efforts to improve the city's traffic infrastructure, data collection and the launch of Vision Zero. 

"This is a new way of looking at traffic safety," she said. "It's a philosophy that emphasizes that all traffic deaths are preventable. Our plan will include things like engineering and looking at street design, but also enforcement, education and policy changes. And community engagement will be the thing that brings it all together." 

Street narrowing, 24-hour parking, more traffic safety enforcement blitzes along corridors with speeding problems, higher penalties for speeding, educational initiatives with Cincinnati Public Schools and Cincinnati Recreation Centers and more could all be part of the plan, which will be drawn up with multiple community engagement sessions. 

CPS hasn't waited to start teaching students about traffic safety. A highlight of the summit in Evanston was an appearance by four students from Covedale Elementary, who performed Rap songs featuring lines like, "it's lit not to get hit" and asking both drivers and pedestrians to pay attention. The students won a national competition for a video they made featuring one of those songs.

"Thirteen students in our district have been hit by cars," one of the Covedale students told the crowd at the summit. "Five of those students went to our school, and one was in our grade. I knew them. Another student, Gabby, died. She was a high schooler at West High. If we could get zero kids to get hit by cars, that would be great."