Uyen Dang oversees the City of West Palm Beach, Florida’s transportation elements, including its Vision Zero work. Uyen is a mom, an engineer, a children’s book author and a National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Leadership Fellow. In this People Behind the Progress, we’re talking with Uyen about her leadership in West Palm Beach’s Vision Zero work.
Vision Zero Network: We know that Florida is the most dangerous state for people walking. What is the most important thing you are working to do to reduce serious traffic crashes in West Palm Beach and to make the city more walkable?
Uyen Dang: In West Palm Beach, more than 50% of crashes are on State and County roads. We know that most severe injury crashes happen on multi-lane, fast-moving State-owned roads, so we’re redesigning those streets to a lower target speed. Lane elimination projects are difficult because of the complex coordination with the State departments and community engagement. I spend a lot of my time working on lane elimination projects because I know that these projects will make a big impact in the long run.
We want everyone in the City to understand that safety is a priority. For instance, all new employees must go through Vision Zero training during orientation. This help builds a culture around safety as City employees are ambassadors of the Vision Zero plan. During COVID, I host a bi-monthly “Transportation Tuesdays” webinar on different Vision Zero initiatives, such as Traffic Calming 101. This webinar is publicly available – livestream on Facebook and archived on the City’s YouTube channel. I also invite local non-profits to participate with us and recruit residents in low income neighborhood to be guests on the webinar. Not only we were able to connect with residents during this unconventional time, but we were able to create a safe place for those who don’t have access to the internet. This personal connection creates a community dialog about Vision Zero and helps the City prioritize investments. Even with all the qualitative data, listening to residents’ concerns can fill missing gaps in our analysis.
VZN: The Vision Zero Task Force in West Palm Beach is one of the largest in Florida. We’ve been impressed with your focus on internal culture change – growing awareness of and buy-in for Vision Zero and the Safe Systems approach. In our “Not Just Big Cities” Webinar, Franz Loewenherz also spoke about Bellevue, Washington’s work building a strong internal culture supporting Vision Zero. What have been the most effective ways you’ve done that in West Palm Beach? What would you recommend to others trying to shift internal culture around traffic safety issues?
UD: In West Palm Beach, new employees are introduced to Vision Zero during employee orientation. The Vision Zero Task Force includes representatives from almost every City department and County and State representatives. We have 50 people engaged to help Vision Zero efforts in our City of 120,000 residents. This level of engagement help develop cross department and interagency collaboration. For example, when looking at debris removal in bike lanes, we found the utilities department was open to changes if we were able to fund the asphalt and concrete. We were able to work together and share the cost of construction with our utilities department to do a raised bike lane as part of a major drainage reconstruction.
VZN: Vision Zero is based on the premise that all people have the right to move about their communities safely. In 2017, we wrote Vision Zero Equity Strategies, a resource to help Vision Zero cities recognize and commit to the equity implications in their work, and to prioritize equitable planning and outcomes in their Vision Zero work. You helped the City get grants to discourage distracted driving using education rather than tickets and traffic stops. What can you share with other cities about this effort? And about shifting the focus away from traditional enforcement to more equitable strategies?
UD: It’s very common for many people to fear the Police, especially in low income neighborhoods; this is where the severe crashes occur in West Palm Beach. In West Palm Beach, nearly 30% of pedestrian and bicyclist crashes occur in low income neighborhoods, where fines disproportionately impact residents. In low income neighborhoods, our Police Department focus on education instead of enforcement. Instead of ticketing someone for biking on a sidewalk, our Police Department gives out bike lights and remind residents to cross at a signalized intersection. I think this creates a positive dialog and creates trust with our Police Department and the communities they serve. We are working towards better street design and lowering speed, and if we do this right, the infrastructure can influence safer behavior so we don’t need to punitive enforcement.
VZN: You have also extensively coordinated with leaders from the fire department and emergency response teams to understand their concerns about changes to the streets and concerns for their response time to emergencies. What most surprised you about interviews with the fire department? And how has that influenced your engineering work in West Palm Beach?
UD: In one of my first conversations with the Fire Department about Vision Zero, they said “this will never work”. I knew there was a lot of work to be done to build relationships. I had a direct conversation with the assistant Fire Chief and requested a meeting and a “ride along” to better understand their perceptions of what type of road designs increase response time. The team timed and observed fire engine movements as the firefighters drove through different city streets. To my surprise, potholes and tree canopies added to emergency response times. More importantly, the Assistant Fire Chief preferred bike lanes over on-street parking. When I learned that many of our goals were aligned, I wanted to cry because I was so happy. This coordination was very productive and resulted in better engineering standards for all road users. We changed our process and now consult one-on-one with our Fire Department, Police Department, and other City departments such as Public Works at the preliminary design stage. We don’t always agree but we are finding value in this work together.
VZN: Alongside this coordination, and perhaps because of it, you have been successful at quick build efforts and strategies to reduce speeds. What strategies have been most effective overall? And which West Palm Beach road safety project do you think has had the biggest bang for the buck?
UD: To be honest, there’s nothing quick about City government. What was quick was strategic planning such as bring on an annual construction contract and having sufficient capital funds. On the Olive Avenue Project, the scope of work was to reduce the design speed, install bike lanes, add more crosswalks, and improve ADA accessibility. We were able to complete the project from design to construction within 3 months. Since I am a roadway engineer, I can sign and seal my own plans as the construction contract is getting executed. I’m also very fortunate because I have an excellent construction project manager that believed in this project. We saw an 8% reduction in 85th percentile speed on Olive Avenue within 3 months of installation.
VZN: What motivated you to write I Love Mobility, a picture book about transportation? What do you hope kids take away from it?
UD: I was frustrated that all the children’s transportation books are about fast cars and airplanes. I wanted to connect with my son in a meaningful way and wanted to create a forum to talk about complete streets and alternative modes of transportation. I wanted kids to know that there are many ways to move around and we don’t have to drive to get to our destination.