Working backwards from Vision Zero to improve road safety
This is a guest post by Franz Loewenherz, the mobility planning and solutions manager for the City of Bellevue, Washington.
“Working Backwards” clarifies the steps Bellevue staff and its partners should pursue to move Bellevue and other communities towards Vision Zero. (Image by City of Bellevue)
Amazon’s innovation process, known as the Working Backwards process, puts the customer at the center of discussions about designing a solution based on their needs. The Working Backwards process is gaining traction among outcome-focused public sector organizations tackling problems ranging from gun violence to cyclist and pedestrian road safety.
The City of Bellevue, Washington recently benefited from this practice through a workshop facilitated by the Arizona State University (ASU) Smart City Cloud Innovation Center (CIC), powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The CIC workshop provided clarity on Bellevue’s local road safety needs and how to best align its projects with national investment priorities.
Safe streets and roads for all
In 2021, more than 42,000 people died in roadway crashes in the US. Given this crisis, how can we achieve zero fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways? That’s the goal of Vision Zero, an international movement aimed at addressing one of the top ten leading causes of death worldwide.
In January 2022, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) unveiled the National Roadway Safety Strategy, and Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that includes a new Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program. SS4A provides new funding to support local initiatives designed to prevent transportation-related deaths and serious injuries on roads and streets. To be eligible to receive funding, USDOT posed that grant applications should identify how proposed projects address the identified safety problem.
Working Backwards to Vision Zero
To achieve its goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injury collisions on city streets by 2030, the Bellevue City Council developed and approved the Safe System approach. This approach recognizes that the way the city designs its streets, educates road users, and leverages technology partnerships can dramatically improve safety. To secure SS4A grant funding to better support its Safe System projects and strategies, Bellevue used Amazon’s Working Backwards innovation process to inform the development of the City’s SS4A grant application.
First, Bellevue organized a roundtable in Washington, DC, which brought together public and private sector leaders – including staff from the Washington State Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, and AWS. The Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board encouraged attendees to advance a “paradigm shift in how we’re addressing road safety.” Then, participants considered transportation safety challenges in Bellevue that are prevalent in other cities.
A follow-up workshop at Bellevue City Hall built upon progress from the roundtable. Transportation leaders at the workshop included staff from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Puget Sound Regional Council, and AWS. Workshop attendees engaged with city staff in a series of CIC-led Working Backwards exercises to develop various road safety strategies.
Identifying the core problems in road safety
Working Backwards revealed that safe mobility for vulnerable road users (VRUs)—people walking and bicycling—is Bellevue’s highest priority road safety challenge, given that 55% of fatal and serious injury crashes involve a VRU even though they represent just 5% of all crashes. Responding to this challenge, city staff proposed low-cost, high-benefit investments in Bellevue’s most densely populated neighborhoods of Downtown, Wilburton, Bel-Red, and Crossroads – which collectively represent 12% of the city geography but accounts for 62% of transit usage, 58% of jobs, and 48% of the High Injury Network.
Supporting safe mobility for VRUs is critical as these neighborhoods prepare for 30,000 new jobs and 27,000 new residents by 2025. In addition to this rapid urbanization, five Sound Transit light rail stations will open in 2024 in this area.
Making sure everyone has safe access to the light rail involves connecting Bellevue’s neighborhoods to stations with off-street pathways separated from high-volume traffic. Separated bike lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, and other proven safety countermeasures can enhance VRU safety. Finally, based on insights gathered from the Working Backwards process, the City of Bellevue proposed developing technologies like real-time conflict analytics monitoring at intersections and at street-level light rail crossings.
Building solutions through public and private sector collaboration
The Working Backwards participants recognized that scaling solutions requires synergy between the public sector and private industry. A shared sense of purpose to save lives is manifest in Bellevue’s SS4A grant submission, which includes financial commitments from the City, King County, Sound Transit, AWS, Advanced Mobility Analytics Group (AMAG), Miovision, T-Mobile, and Qualcomm.
For example, Bellevue is working with AWS to leverage cloud technology to address one of the major road safety challenges the City identified in their Working Backwards session. Crashes resulting from drivers failing to yield to pedestrians contribute to 41% of all pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries in Bellevue. AWS is helping Bellevue develop a solution with AMAG using machine learning (ML) and pedestrian trajectory data from video analytics at intersections. This solution can flag instances where a pedestrian has not completed their crossing in the allotted walk interval. In this scenario, the artificial intelligence (AI) platform can intervene – providing real-time notification to Bellevue’s traffic signal controller cabinet to extend the crossing phase until the pedestrian is safely across.
Using a Working Backwards process—which brought workshop participants closer to the source of the problem—Bellevue and its SS4A application collaborators identified projects that can lead to improved road safety outcomes. Having found utility in the process, Bellevue is intent on sharing this insight with other communities who are committed to safe, sustainable, and equitable transportation choices. A priority in Bellevue’s Safe System approach to Vision Zero is to serve as a catalyst for change in the nation so that everyone can move towards Vision Zero together.
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