Fremont’s ambitious journey to zero traffic deaths
FREMONT – From redesigning intersections to increasing crosswalk visibility, Fremont has been doing a lot to try to lower its traffic fatalities. It’s all part of the city’s ambitious Vision Zero plan, an initiative launched in 2015 with the aim of eliminating deaths on the city’s roadways.
In the seven years since then, the number of traffic fatalities in the city has dramatically decreased, although higher speeds and reckless driving are on the rise, according to Fremont’s Public Work Director Hans Larsen.
“Zero fatalities is an ambitious commitment, but it takes a bold commitment to really make a paradigm shift,” Larsen said in an interview.
“We’re at about a quarter of the number of fatalities other communities around the country are experiencing, but, nationally, the numbers have been going up.”
On Dec. 2, Fremont recorded its seventh traffic fatality of the year, putting the city nearly on track to match last year’s total of nine traffic fatalities. However, before that, the city had cut its fatalities by 45% from 2015 to 2020, with less than five deaths occurring in 2020.
Larsen said the increase in the past two years is mostly due to an increase in speeding. “We are caught up in the current national trends of an increase in reckless speeding,” he said. “The issue has just become a new phenomenon since the pandemic. The roads are emptier, and people are frustrated and they’re driving recklessly.”
Fatalities have increased across the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency has recorded seven consecutive quarters of year-to-year increases since 2020, and estimates that 20,175 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2022 – an increase of about 0.5% from the first half of 2021.
Robert Prinz, advocacy director for Bike East Bay, a nonprofit promoting safety for bicyclists, said that his organization has also noticed an increase in speeds.
“Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been an increase in biking and walking crashes in most East Bay cities. We think that’s due to increased speeds, especially at points like crosswalks and intersections,” Prinz said in an interview.
“However, Fremont has been bucking the trend overall. We feel that their ongoing infrastructure investments have played a big part in this.”
Such investments have been part of the city’s Vision Zero campaign. Vision Zero is a national initiative where cities use data to address high-risk locations and behaviors. The plan focuses on redesigning roadways in a way that will reduce the risk of injury when crashes occur.
Fremont engineers have made a number of changes since the city signed on to the program, including improving lighting on roadways, upgrading crosswalks and adding more speed bumps to residential streets.
The narrowing of traffic lanes has also been a major part of the project. “Prior to Vision Zero, the travel lanes in our local street system were designed the same width as they would be on a freeway, which are designed for high-speed travel,” said Larsen.
“Studies have shown that the more space you give to cars, the faster they’re going to go. The contemporary best practice for urban settings is 10-foot lanes as opposed to 12-foot lanes. So, we’ve narrowed traffic lanes to slow down traffic and to free up space for cyclists. We’ve also narrowed intersections so that people approach them at a lower speed.”
Prinz said that this has been a particular help for cyclists and pedestrians. “It’s definitely having a big impact. Fremont has a lot of wide streets that were planned back in the days when everything was really focused on cars and no one really thought about bike or pedestrian traffic,” he said.
“Those wide roads make turning movements very fast and that makes it hard for a driver to see and react to a pedestrian or cyclist, even one with the right of way. By making the turn radius’ tighter at intersections, it can really slow down speeds and it gives everyone the chance to see each other.”
Many of the changes have been made in school zones. From 2013 to 2015, Fremont police recorded nine major collisions involving children aged 15 years or younger. From 2018 to 2020, only one such crash was recorded.
Fremont Boulevard, which runs through the city’s downtown, has also been an area of particular focus. “When we started our Vision Zero plan, half of our fatalities in one year had occurred just on Fremont Boulevard — a 10-mile corridor in a city with 500 miles of streets. So we’ve had quite an intense focus there,” Larsen said.
Upcoming projects in other areas include installing new traffic and pedestrian signals, adding more crossing signs at high-priority locations and upgrading bikeways by closing gaps in bike lanes, adding green pavement markings to highlight areas of conflict between bikes and vehicles, and installing vertical posts to create separated bike lanes.
Prinz said that all of the work has led to more people using bicycles in the city. “We’re seeing a lot of new people on bikes in Fremont – people who may not have gotten out there if it wasn’t for the better infrastructure. We’re also seeing older people getting out there more, especially with the popularization of e-bikes,” he said.
“The next big thing would be making sure that it’s all connected, because if you’ve got islands of safety but weak spots in between, those weak spots will often be how a person determines what route to use or if they’re going to bike at all. So, what we want to have is a connected and protected network that brings a low-stress, high-safety experience throughout.”