Talking with Barb Chamberlain of Washington State Department of Transportation

Photo courtesy of Laura Kaye Chamberlain

For this month’s People Behind the Progress, we’re talking with Barb Chamberlain, the Director of Washington State Department of Transportation’s Active Transportation Division. Barb has an impressive background in advocacy, communications, and was the youngest woman ever elected to the Idaho state legislature. If you want to learn even more from Barb – join us for the Words Matter: Effective Vision Zero Messaging webinar on May 5, 2020.

Vision Zero Network: We are talking with you as people around the world are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. Here in San Francisco, where we’re based, we are sheltering in place. The Public Health order is encouraging walking and biking (alone or with appropriate social distance), and bike shops are essential businesses. Driving is down and telecommuting is way up. City budgets and small businesses are taking a huge hit, as are many people’s job stability, as society is adjusting to try to protect community health. At the same time, we are seeing people clamor for more safe, public space to be physically active, as well as taking this opportunity to plan for a future that is less car-centric and more people-focused, safe and healthy. What has your experience been in Washington State, so far, in terms of how the pandemic is impacting mobility and public space.

Barb Chamberlain: Washington State defined bike shops as essential business and our governor encouraged people to walk or bike for healthy activity when he announced the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. We have real leadership and you can see the difference in the results.

The pandemic has definitely raised awareness about the distribution of space: how much is allocated to the movements of people in cars, how little for people walking or rolling. People who rely on active transportation already knew this, but now more and more people are experiencing their neighborhoods and streets differently.

Drivers taking advantage of emptier roads to drive at outrageous speeds tells us a couple of things. One, of course, is that they’re not thinking about the burden on the health care system they could create if they crashed and the lives they could end. The other, looking ahead, is that we can unpack what this tells us about street designs. If the design invites you to speed and you respond to those cues, that’s something we can change.

One of the more interesting outcomes is increased understanding that trails provide essential transportation links. Even if they were initially described or funded as “recreational,” people use them to get places. King County briefly closed all their trails, then changed the wording to refer to using them for essential transportation. That’s a big relief for people who rely on them and was a really important thing for the County to do.

VZN: We are so impressed by Washington State’s Target Zero: Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which was approved in October 2019. Unlike most state transportation plans, yours elevates the importance of a Safe Systems approach, developing a Traffic Safety Culture, prioritizing health equity, and communicating strategically about safety efforts. What motivated this approach? How does it differ from the traditional state-planning approach?

BC: Equity is raised in every transportation conversation I’m part of. I’m lucky to be in an agency and in a state where that’s encouraged. We talk directly and openly about how past decisions, like redlining neighborhoods, created today’s safety problems and barriers to safe walking and rolling. We have leadership at the local, regional and state levels. Agencies like City of Seattle and King County Metro have transportation equity frameworks and programs.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has started investing in this traffic safety culture approach and bringing training. The idea is to focus on positives and invite people to take action to be part of a stronger, healthier community, rather than browbeating or scolding. This is a new communications framework and it will take time to sink in, but I like giving people hope and a call to action.

Washington State has had a Complete Streets grant program for several years (although a recent initiative cut the revenue so it’s on hold), and 139 cities and counties have a Complete Streets policy. We have a Neighborhood Safe Streets Law passed when I headed the statewide advocacy nonprofit Washington Bikes that lets cities lower residential street speeds to 20mph without a traffic engineering study. We’ve been putting the policy tools in place.

All of this feeds right into the Safe Systems Approach. It’s a proven approach. It looks at the context within which people make choices and decisions, and it will be the smartest approach over the long run because we can reduce the chance that crashes occur. That’s a new chapter in Target Zero and it’s going to take time to embed that thinking into the strategies and tactics, but we have a start.

We have leadership from the top with WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar putting safety, especially for vulnerable road users, on the short list when he talks about agency priorities. My colleague John Milton, the state safety engineer and director of our transportation safety and systems analysis division, is a leader in this work in American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Transportation Research Board, and the World Road Association. In the AASHTO Council on Active Transportation, where I’m on the executive committee, we built this kind of systems thinking into our founding charter.

VZN: What parts of Washington’s plan do you hope other states will emulate and why?

BC: We need safety built into all plans and our definitions of success, not just the State Highway Safety Plan. What’s especially important in both the Target Zero Safe Systems approach and the state active transportation update that we’re working on is the multidisciplinary approach we’re taking.

Transportation agencies have a tendency to be very siloed and “safety” simply can’t be accomplished separate from everything else. For active transportation, mobility and safety really are the same thing: A continuous, comfortable connection enables you to get where you need to go, and at the same time it reduces the chance of a deadly crash.

A lot of traditional traffic safety work focuses on the behavioral side and their plans reflect that. But planning, design, operations, and maintenance—and how we program funds to do those things—are the context creators. Policy makers fund engineers to design streets and all that creates and constrains the range of options available to you. All of this shapes your decisions and actions.

Source: Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan 2019

I’d like to see more agencies apply the Hierarchy of Controls concept that we’ve included in Target Zero. I brought that into the conversations in the safety advisory councils the legislature created around active transportation and we made it part of those official reports, then rolled it up into the SHSP. We need funding to make changes, so it isn’t an overnight solution but we’re heading the right direction.

The whole idea is to point us to proactive strategies that are most broadly effective, not focus on the last line of defense when bad things have already happened. For instance, the focus on personal protective equipment diverts attention from investing in changes that will be there all the time for everyone on the road. It also really ignores the equity issues by saying you need to buy things as the fix.

If a traffic safety campaign tells you that you need to buy a special coat to “be visible,” but, meanwhile, no one is making sure the shrubbery is trimmed to allow good visibility, or that street lighting enables a driver to see you getting ready to cross, or that the crosswalk is appropriately marked or controlled, or the speed limit and street design are set so the driver is going at an appropriate speed with enough time to stop—then, tell me again why we spent money on that education campaign instead of maintenance and operations? Investing in those context changes would make a difference 24/7/365.

If you apply Safe Systems principles, especially speed management given the kinds of road we built in the past, you’ll start to change the roads to change behavior, not just tell people to behave. When you change that design context, you change the road for everyone using it.

This saves lives for people using every mode, not just walking or bicycling. And as we’re witnessing now with the pandemic, when we leave other modes, we’re still going to be using active transportation. Making your system safer for walking and bicycling makes your system more resilient for these larger shocks and challenges.

At Washington State DOT we’re very focused on those systemic issues. We analyze crash data to understand the posted speed and the types of roadways people are dying on. We disaggregate the data to understand demographics of the places where crashes occur out of proportion, and it’s very clear that we need to focus investments to address past inequities.

For our State Active Transportation Plan we’ve developed new methodologies to give us decision-making tools, with the goal of connecting complete, comfortable networks.

We’ve analyzed all state right-of-way in terms of the level of traffic stress for walking or rolling; we’re only the third State DOT to use this approach, after Colorado and Oregon. This gives us a very different way of understanding the role of state routes in an integrated, multimodal, sustainable transportation system. State routes need to help all the partners complete and connect the network across jurisdictions. Roads continue and connect so a driver can travel door to door without thinking about whether the network exists; sidewalks, bike lanes and trails need to continue and connect.

VZN: The Washington State Highway Safety Plan also sets clear goals and strategies for state and local coordination, including proposing legislation to meet policy goals, including the call to Expand the Use of Automated Traffic Safety Cameras. We couldn’t agree with this more, given much data showing the effectiveness of safety cameras in slowing people down. We have been impressed by Seattle’s work to include the use of traffic cameras in bus lanes and crosswalks. The importance of this work and its relationship to equity is shown in this Rooted in Rights video. Can you share why speed management – and cameras in particular – are prioritized in Washington’s new plan and how you aim to advance these strategies?

BC: We know from our crash data analysis that more fatalities occur at higher impact speeds. That’s the physics. We also know fatalities occur on state routes out of proportion to the number of lane miles they represent. Our role as the state agency is both to examine how we design and operate roads we’re responsible for, and how we can provide model policies and leadership to smaller agencies with fewer resources.

We have nearly 2,000 miles of state routes that pass through population centers. We can predict people will walk and bike more in these locations. And many of these roads, probably most of them, were built when people weren’t living there. Retrofitting to make them work as main streets needs to be a priority for safety, and speed management is a really critical element.

The good news is that this can be made part of the maintenance and preservation work that every state is working on. We just need to define the purpose of these roads to serve all modes and we can improve them for all users.

Right now, we’re working on a speed management policy with injury minimization as the guidepost for how we choose the desired operating speed. This is a different outcome to manage to than “let drivers get through fast.” I know some other states are having conversations around this as well and it’s really essential. If we say safety is our top priority—and most agencies do—then we need to measure that and work to accomplish it.

It’s going to take time to get the funding and make the design changes that will make roads more self-enforcing. Camera enforcement can help address concern about police bias, although we need to be aware that where the cameras are placed can still reflect past investment inequities. Those streets that invite speeding can be the streets passing through poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. The people living there didn’t ask for those streets; society made deliberate decisions about where low-income housing and wide streets or highways would be placed. Back to our active transportation plan, our statewide needs assessment includes evaluation criteria that embed both safety and equity to address this over time.

We have an Active Transportation Safety Council that makes recommendations to the legislature each year. Right now an action team is putting together a white paper on automated enforcement to tee up the issues and potential next steps. I have to believe the pandemic has increased interest in no-contact enforcement tools so the context for this conversation has shifted in the past couple of months.

VZN: Given your experience as a statewide advocate for biking and walking when leading Washington Bikes, do you have advice for those working in the Vision Zero advocacy movement today?

BC: Highlighting how preventable traffic deaths are is an important element, and it needs to be personal. I see comments occasionally that it’s “inevitable” that some will die, that human life is somehow the inescapable price of mobility. If you ask them who in their family should be offered up to pay for someone else’s “I’m going to be late to my haircut!” driving, that’s a different conversation.

It’s too obvious that as a society we’ve embedded a terrible “hierarchy of human value” that we have to undo and overcome. PolicyLink just had a brilliant piece on this by Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee in the context of COVID19 that gave me this phrase. It applies in transportation, too—both directly in terms of race, which they’re speaking to, and in a modal sense that the time and safety of people inside vehicles is somehow more important than the time and safety of people outside vehicles.

That said, one message I don’t hear often enough is that making streets safer for people walking and rolling is good for people who drive, too. No one wants to go home at the end of the day knowing they killed someone. Few people understand how much the design and operations of the roadway give them unconscious cues they’re responding to when they blow the speed limit. They don’t think about how it would benefit them as drivers if the lighting were better so they could see someone crossing the street. They don’t realize that wheelchair user is in the road because the sidewalk on that block doesn’t have a curb cut at one end. If we want support for active transportation and safety to transcend all the divides in this nation, we need to be talking about the universal benefits of safer streets fully accessible for everyone.

We need to be clear about the legacy of those divides in our work. Advocates for safer streets need to broaden their understanding of what makes a street feel safe to someone who lives or moves through there. Vision Zero as a movement has grown and evolved in this regard. There’s more to do to create an equitable movement in which all are welcomed and feel their concerns are being addressed.

VZN: We find that there’s often a disconnect in the locally based Vision Zero work around the country and the policies and practices that exist at the state levels, which may be less reflective of on-the-ground safety needs, especially in cities, where more people are walking and biking. Are there strategies you recommend to encourage states to more fully embrace and institutionalize Vision Zero’s Safe Systems approach?

BC: First let me say the local actions create the context for changes at the state level. Speaking as a former state legislator myself, I can tell you legislators do listen to local elected officials, who in turn should be listening to their constituents. It’s a feedback loop and everyone should engage at the level where they want to enact change.

State DOTs can do a lot within the scope of their regular activities. Everyone likes to say their work is data-driven. Examining the data in terms of the types of roads where people die, the posted speeds there and the average operating speeds (which are likely higher than posted speed—sometimes much higher), should point us to the places that need to change to save lives. If the state isn’t doing that analysis, the local agencies and advocates can and should. The state is ultimately responsible for meeting the federal safety goals for reduction of deaths and serious injuries and it can’t do that without addressing state right-of-way.

However, there’s a problem with that reliance on data when we try to use it to justify active transportation investments. A place that’s too frightening to walk may have zero fatal crashes but that doesn’t make it “safe.”

We need to redefine system performance in terms of network completeness for active transportation. Defining the need for better connections based on people already being there is illogical when we have such a patchwork that you can’t get there in the first place. Yet how many corridor studies require walk/bike counts and then say there isn’t enough use to justify an improvement?

We need to look at what’s missing from the picture and the underlying assumptions and history. We can count people moving in vehicles because we built a network for them to use. No one went out and counted people driving on dirt roads to establish the need for the national highway system. They said, “People need to be able to get places” and they built a network. People used it when it became available. Identifying the overall network, where it makes sense to connect or cross, will highlight both existing use and the latent demand we can unleash if we truly make it work as well as for biking or walking as it does for driving.


Thank you Barb! We appreciate that you have made it your life’s work connecting people to information and inspiration for safe, healthy, equitable mobility. And, we are so grateful that you will share more about how Words Matter in the May 5th Webinar. We hope readers can join us, and Register here, and feel free to email jenn@VisionZeroNetwork.org beforehand if you have questions you’d like Barb to address in the Webinar.
Note to readers – you can read more about Barb in her Bike Style Life blog Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding, and her Bike to Work Barb blog “How I Came to Be a Bike Advocate”. And, to follow Washington State Department of Transportation’s Walk and Roll E-News, sign up here.

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