A short history of Safe Streets efforts

Bicycling and pedestrian fatalities in the United States are skyrocketing. The National Safety Council reports that 1,260 bicyclists were killed in 2020, an increase of 16% from 2019 and an increase of 44% over the past 10 years. According to 2023 estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, cycling fatalities rose another 5% in 2021.  

Four years in the making, The Street Project documentary looks at how we got here, including the history of street use and how it has changed, what makes effective street design, how the automobile changed the way we use our streets, the impact of zoning laws on street transportation, and much more.  

Last Wednesday, residents of the DMV piled into the Adams Morgan Community Center for a documentary screening of The Street Project. The room quickly reached capacity, and people started sitting on the floor and standing in the back, indicating the importance of the film topic.  

“America’s streets started out as bicycle and pedestrian friendly; however, the advent of the car-culture changed everything,” said the film’s Director and Executive Producer Jennifer Boyd. “More recently, we have experienced a reawakening of sorts due to the massive spike in fatalities, the pandemic lockdowns that forced our communities to rethink how they use their streets, as well as the passing of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which makes the safety of all users, including cyclists and pedestrians, a priority. We created The Street Project to raise awareness that cars, pedestrians, and cyclists can coexist, and that we need to examine our history so we can create a future with better alternatives.” 

While the safe streets campaigns have had a global uptake in the past ten years, the efforts can be traced back to the 1920s in America when automobiles were popularized in America In the 1950s and 1960s, concerned mothers became particularly interested in the cause on behalf of their children. Communities wanted infrastructure, such as sidewalks, traffic lights, and crossing guards, and individuals would often block an intersection in protest. Oftentimes, advocates would protest alongside their children and a vacant or not-vacant baby carriage, evoking the name “Baby Carriage Blockades.”  

Moreover, European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands were not always the transportation utopia they are today. In the 1970s, advocates in the Netherlands a campaign called “Stop de Kindermoord”–otherwise known as “Stop the Child Murder”–in response to the rising rates of car-centric design and unsafe streets for children. In 1975, the traffic death rate in the Netherlands was 20 percent higher than in America, but by 2008, it was 60 percent lower. Denmark went through a similar transformation. Sparked by the oil crisis in the 1970s and consequent record high gas prices, the people in Denmark took to the bike. However, after decades of removing bike and pedestrian infrastructure to make room for cars, people on bikes were getting killed in record numbers. In the 1990s, Denmark went all-in for a bike-friendly, people-first transportation system that it is known for today.  

In the same decade, Denmark’s neighboring country Sweden was having a similar revolution. In response, Sweden established the Vision Zero campaign, founded upon the principle that traffic deaths are preventable. Traffic engineers and planners accepted that humans make mistakes when using the road. Instead of relying on an individual to use the system perfectly to ensure safety, designers started accounting for human error in the design process. Hence, the safe system approach was formed (for more information about the safe system approach in DC, here is a shameless plug to read the October blog post. Or, use your favorite search engine to learn more!).  

DC committed to the Vision Zero pledge in 2015, and the city’s Vision Zero campaign currently has an international reach. This Vision Zero plan outlines an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to the Vision Zero campaign in which government agencies, non-profits organizations, school administrators, traffic enforcement agencies, and more work together on the DC Vision Zero campaign. At the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, we have two full-time staff members dedicated to the campaign, Sarah Haedrich (sarah.haedrich@waba.org) and Michelle Shin (michelle.shin@waba.org). Please feel free to reach out to Sarah or Michelle if you have any questions or suggestions regarding WABA’s initiatives to support the city’s Vision Zero efforts.  

The Street Project is A Boyd Productions film. Director/Executive Producer: Jennifer Boyd; Producer/Writer: Lindsay Thompson; Director of Photography: Joseph Brunette; Editor/Writer: Chad Ervin; Composer: Michael Bacon, Motion Design & Animation: Rena Debortoli & George Sherman.  

Major funding for The Street Project is by Travelers, with additional major funding by GM and 3M.  

About Boyd Productions:  

Boyd Productions, LLC, is a documentary production company that prides itself on creating films that spark curiosity, connectivity and societal change. Founded by Jennifer Boyd, the multilingual, female-led team has more than 20 years of experience in filmmaking, music television and journalism. Boyd has produced some 25 documentaries on topics ranging from climate change to gun control, accumulating nine EMMY awards. Recent projects include 3 Seconds Behind the Wheel, which exposed the often-hidden behavior of distracted drivers. The film was assisted in production by MIT, Google, and the University of Connecticut and was distributed through PBS International, APT and Amazon Prime Video. From 2008-2016, Jennifer created, executive produced and series produced two national public television music series, Infinity Hall Live and The Kate, with over 40 episodes in the series featuring major artists such as Melissa Etheridge, Tori Amos, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Jane Lynch, Rita Wilson, Darlene Love, Ann Wilson, Rickie Lee Jones, and many more.  

Works Cited: 

The Baby Carriage Blockades by Peter Nortan 

The Street Project Documentary by Boyd Productions 

The Origins of Holland’s ‘Stop Murdering Children’ Street Safety Movement by Ben Fried