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How a New Jersey city has achieved 0 traffic deaths in 4 years

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What if you could get traffic fatalities down to zero? Well, the city of Hoboken, N.J., just across the river from New York City, seems to have done it. Nobody there has died from a collision with a car in four years. Ryan Sharp is here to explain how they made that happen. He is Hoboken director of transportation and parking. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RYAN SHARP: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: So according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 43,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. That is the highest number since 2005. So while numbers all over the country were going up, how did Hoboken get the number to zero?

SHARP: That's a great question. Hoboken has been playing a long game when it comes to traffic safety for a number of years, dating back before COVID, and playing the long game through incremental changes and improvements over a series of years.

SHAPIRO: So you're talking about incremental changes and improvements. Like, if you and I were going for a walk through downtown Hoboken, what are some of the specific things we would see that have made a difference?

SHARP: Well, a lot of the things that Hoboken has been doing to improve traffic safety are low-cost. They're quick implementation, but they're also high impact. So we know through our crash data that about 88% of crashes happen at intersections. So we have focused on trying to reduce conflicts at our intersections, especially in our high crash corridors, so things like trying to improve sightlines at corners by doing what we call daylighting. So that can be installing something as simple as what we call a vertical delineator post or a flexible bollard. These posts get installed within 25 feet of crosswalks, and they physically restrict cars from parking right up against a crosswalk.

SHAPIRO: So it's not a blind corner. If you're going to take a turn, somebody is going to see you. If you're going to cross a street, you can spot the cars that are coming.

SHARP: That's correct. It's a very simple, cost-effective thing you can do, but it has a big impact. One thing that you won't see is something called a leading pedestrian interval. And basically what that means is we've programmed our traffic signals to give pedestrians a few-second head start when they get into the crosswalk during their pedestrian phase without having to worry about turning vehicles.

SHAPIRO: Oh yeah, I've seen that here in D.C., too. The walk light turns on before the green light goes. Your plan seems to de-emphasize car ownership and create space for pedestrians and cyclists. How often do you hear from drivers who feel like you're squeezing them out? And what do you tell them?

SHARP: Well, the goal of the Vision Zero program is to focus on safety for all modes of transportation. What we know, though, through our crash data, is that pedestrians and cyclists in particular are the most vulnerable users of the streets in Hoboken. And that's pretty much the same for every city in the country. And so culturally, people elevate pedestrian safety in Hoboken at the top of the hierarchy. So even if you commute to work by car, at some point you're going to be a pedestrian in Hoboken. So we try to not pit any one mode against each other as much as possible.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of cities that have implemented Vision Zero programs to reduce traffic fatalities. But in places like Washington, D.C., deaths have actually increased since that goal was announced. What makes Hoboken different?

SHARP: Well, it's hard to speculate what's working well or not working well in other cities. But in Hoboken, an incremental approach over several years that includes more than just engineering, but also education and a focus on changing the culture. The simple improvements like daylighting or leading pedestrian intervals or adding curb extensions, these things are still in place, and they've been having a positive impact. And people have gotten used to seeing these things in town, and they ask for more. So it's continuing to build off its own success. And, you know, frankly, we've been fortunate so far not to have a setback, but that can happen any time, right? We're well aware of that. It's happened in other cities. So we're continuing to push ahead with new initiatives again and again to try to continue to keep that progress in place.

SHAPIRO: That is Ryan Sharp, Hoboken's director of transportation and parking. Thanks a lot.

SHARP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Megan Lim