With over 1.4 million people, Hillsborough County, Florida is larger than Rhode Island, has a greater population than 12 U.S. states, and, unfortunately, also has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the country. Beth Alden is the Executive Director of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) serving Tampa and surrounding areas, and she is a leader in the Vision Zero movement in the U.S. In this profile, we talk with Beth about what it is like to manage an MPO, how MPOs can lead on Vision Zero, and how to turn the tide toward safety in Florida.
Vision Zero Network: While some of our readers work at Metropolitan Planning Organizations, some might not know what the acronym MPO stands for. What is the most interesting challenge you have leading an MPO? Who are your biggest collaborators?
Beth Alden: If you’re not familiar with MPOs, you can think of them as a kind of council of governments with a specific purpose: to help local governments work together on the transportation issues affecting their area. Before federal dollars can be spent on road or public transit projects in any large town or city, there has to be an agreement among the local governments in that area that the project is a priority. The agreement is in the form of a long-range transportation plan and a short-term transportation improvement program, adopted by the council with public notice and opportunities for public feedback.
So how do we, the staff to a council of governments like that, help the members agree on the biggest transportation issues and how to address them? When you ask most people about transportation, they tell you about the bottleneck on the road near their house. But there are a lot of things people don’t think about. Most people don’t know how dangerous their roads are, compared to other areas. Most people don’t understand why the bus system doesn’t meet their needs, or why there aren’t routes to the park, school, or shopping where they feel safe to walk. And they’re not thinking about how these things are interrelated— it may not be easy to picture how widening that bottlenecked road will make the walking and transit problems worse – and then the fact that they’re trapped in their car ends up having a negative effect on their health in the long run.
So, communicating about long-term effects of near-term choices ends up being a lot of my work. Occasionally it feels like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, but luckily there are many other groups working in this space, from local governments addressing their communities’ needs, to public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, to advocacy groups like Strong Towns and, of course, the Vision Zero Network!
VZN: Wow – you are rolling a big boulder. Given all these demands on an MPO, how does Vision Zero fit in with your work? The Federal Highway Administration describes Hillsborough MPO’s noteworthy practices to incorporate safety, including low-cost retrofits and culture change. Have you found synergies with these efforts and other MPO work? Tell us about one…
BA: All MPOs are required to consider safety, as they prepare long-range plans. But they’re also required to consider a lot of other things too, everything from traffic congestion to technology, security, tourism, social equity, environmental impacts — too many topics to be able to do a deep-dive on them all. So the level of effort that goes into safety planning varies a lot, from place to place.
Increasing the focus on safety doesn’t happen overnight. In Hillsborough, we started with walk and bicycle safety because it’s a disproportionate share of the deaths on our roads. But then we started looking at all deaths, and found that we’re high there too, in comparison to other cities our size. We are asking why; and focusing some of our planning resources every year on digging into the problem.
People sometimes get frustrated that change happens so slowly—they want to see improvements built now, not wait for plans and studies to be done. But plans and studies can be the most important tools. Here’s an example. Let’s say it’s obvious to you that there should be a protected crosswalk at a particular spot. You can spend a lot of time and energy advocating for that one project, and if you’re lucky and persuasive, maybe your local government agrees to build it. But what if your goal is bigger than just one crosswalk? What if you want safe crosswalks on all the major routes to local schools – including and especially where they’re most important, where the kids have to cross multilane roads. You have to shift the expectations not only of the road designers, budget officials, and traffic enforcement officers, but also the public in general. A lot of us have come to believe that drivers just won’t stop, and so even parents and school principals will claim that building a crosswalk encourages kids to put themselves in danger.
This is where a planning study can help – it’s a way to draw attention to the facts of the problem, and engage civic leaders and roadway engineers in looking at options. We sponsored that kind of a study two years ago, focusing on crashes around schools; and in our case, the facts included that there are already kids crossing multilane roads to/from school, and in some cases being hurt or killed. We hired a safety engineer to lead our School Transportation Workgroup through the process of flagging the most problematic areas and conducting field reviews of what can be done. Parents and School District staff were part of it, along with law enforcement, public works staff, and health professionals involved in outreach and education. The City of Tampa and Hillsborough County embraced the study, and we now have a list of broadly-supported, specific improvements to be made around the top twelve schools, with construction dollars assigned to them! And since then, staff of both the City and County have asked us to expand our studies and help them look at more high-crash areas.
VZN: We read in your State of the System Report of 2019 that Hillsborough County has the second highest fatality rate of Florida’s major metros, and Florida itself has a high rate statewide. Many reports, including Dangerous by Design, describe how roads, especially in sunbelt states, are being built for higher speeds, making them particularly dangerous for people walking and biking. We understand that you are working on a speed study. Can you tell us why you focused on speed and what you are learning?
BA:Yes – it turns out that speed is one of the most important factors in our high rate of severe crashes. Our losses include not only nearly 200 deaths a year, but also seven times as many people with severe and incapacitating injuries. This is a terrible toll, and way out of proportion to our population. I was recently talking with planners from the Portland, Oregon MPO – which serves the same size population and geographic area as my MPO – but has a third the number of traffic deaths per year.
So, yes, typically in sunbelt cities, a lot of the city has been built in the era of the automobile, post-World War II. In many of our communities, there never was a Main Street or an Elm Street, only a commercial strip or shopping plaza, and the land in between the commercial strips gradually filled in with housing developments. Unlike pre-WWII communities, the low-speed local streets in the housing developments don’t often connect with each other, so everyone who wants to go anywhere has to get on to the commercial strip arterial road. People get frustrated with the traffic on that road, and get it widened, and it becomes a monster – an eight-lane parking lot at rush hour and a raceway at all other times of the day, with a tiny sidewalk and few, far-apart traffic signals that don’t line up with the bus stops, apartment entrances, grocery stores, and other things people typically walk to.
Fifteen of our top 20 severe-crash roads are roads like that. Fourteen of the top 20 have posted speeds at least 10 mph above the national guidelines recommended by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Many are posted at 45 mph when the guideline is 25-35 mph.
On these top 20 severe-crash roads, fully 71% of the fatal crashes involve speeding or other careless or reckless driving. Also, a stunning 83% of the fatal crashes don’t occur during rush hours. In other words, our problems are when the traffic loosens up — there are plenty of lanes available, and people feel like they can drive even faster than the already high speed limit, perhaps not even looking for others on the roadway before they make turns or lane changes or race towards a yellow light.
And unfortunately, our top 20 roads are a microcosm of our county’s problems in general. Three quarters of our fatal crashes countywide are on roads with posted speeds 40 miles per hour and up.
We’re starting to make progress by reworking – you might say renovating – some of these roads. One example is six-lane East Busch Boulevard through central Tampa. A little less than a mile south of one of Florida’s major universities, the road is lined with a jumble of parking lots, and there are a lot of people walking, biking, and riding the bus. Over a five-year period, there were 15 fatalities and 110 serious injuries, with the speed limit posted at 45 mph.
It is a state highway, and recently the Florida Department of Transportation has been putting a lot of effort into turning around East Busch’s track record. They’ve determined that maximum throughput of vehicles occurs at around 36 mph, and they’re adjusting the traffic signal timing to better manage speeds. They’re also tightening the turning radius at intersections and adding new signal-protected pedestrian crossings. A little to the west, they’re narrowing the travel lanes from 11’-12’ to 10’ wide. They hope to bring speeds down by 5 mph on average and eliminate 68 crashes in the next five-year period.
VZN: As we wrote about centering safety at MPOs in this resource, MPOs play important planning, funding, and policy roles. What are three things you’ve learned about your MPO work that will help us engage MPOs around the country in safety work?
BA: There are a few things I’d highlight about MPOs. First, they have discretion over federal grants from the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program. So, winning your MPO’s support to put safety projects at the top of the priority list is not just a feel-good gesture. Even small-dollar grants can go a long way when paired with other work. For example, when FDOT is repaving a road where there are known crash problems, we’ve worked with them to allocate STBG and other grant funding to cover the cost of enhancements that make the road safer and more comfortable.
Second, MPOs are mandated to involve the public in making decisions about their community’s transportation systems. Providing data is just part of it; ideally MPOs also bring best practices to the table and empower people to make a difference. We’ve been doing a lot of presentations to civic groups about our area’s crash record, and what public agencies can do to redesign roads and improve safety, with their citizens’ support. It turns out there are people who want to get more involved than just selecting safety as a top priority for government investment. People feel passionately about safe streets, and want to make a statement. We’ve helped several civic groups organize events where they paint bike lanes, crosswalks, intersections. We’ve printed a set of signs that civic groups like the parents of Macfarlane Elementary School have borrowed, to hold up at roadsides with messages like “Safe Speeds Save Lives.” We’ve also printed bumper stickers for Parent-Teacher Associations in high crash areas. It’s still a thrill for me when I see a car on the road with a sticker that says “I Brake for Chiefs!”, “#WalkBikeDriveBuschBlvd”, or “#VisionZero.”
Also, in the last few years, MPOs have been required to set one-year targets for improving crash rates and traffic deaths in their areas. This has been a difficult process for us at my MPO—no one wants to have a target of any number of deaths greater than zero—but you have to demonstrate you’re making progress towards your target, it has to be tied to the amount of funding for transportation improvements, and of course no one has unlimited funding. Some MPOs set hopeful targets of zero, which even they will tell you are unrealistic within one year. My suggestion is to remember that quote about not letting a crisis go to waste. If your MPO doesn’t focus on safety at any other time, at least use the annual target-setting to draw the eyes of the world to the conditions in your community and the opportunities to improve.