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Ordinance would make ending traffic deaths the primary focus of road design in Louisville

Dixie Highway is one of Louisville Metro’s busiest, widest and most dangerous transportation corridors. Its fatality rate is more than three times the rate of similar highways.
Dixie Highway is one of Louisville Metro’s busiest, widest and most dangerous transportation corridors. Its fatality rate is more than three times the rate of similar highways.

Louisville Metro Council is debating a proposed ordinance that would commit the city to a goal of eliminating roadway deaths by 2050, an initiative known as Vision Zero. 

The ordinance, sponsored by Democratic District 21 Council Member Nicole George, would make Louisville a part of the Vision Zero Network alongside other large and mid-sized cities such as Chicago, Charlotte, N.C. and Richmond, Va. It would also require city agencies like Public Works and Louisville Metro Police to create an action plan for reducing fatal collisions and provide Metro Council with an annual update.

More than 900 people have died from crashes on non-interstate roadways in Louisville since 2014, according to city data, including 185 pedestrians. That’s equivalent to about one traffic death every three days. 

“That’s a significant number of people and that doesn’t even account for the impact of crashes in general,” George said. “Whether it’s other countries or other cities, they’ve moved the needle on this and we have an obligation to do so as well.”

George said she’s proposing the ordinance after seeing how unsafe roads have impacted her constituents. Preston Highway runs right through her district, which includes the Lynnview and Newburg neighborhoods. It has the third-highest number of crashes of any street in Louisville, based on data going back to 2014. 

She said she was also inspired by the advocacy work of District 21 residents like Janet Heston, who lost her son, Mathew Egger, in 2020 after he was killed by a driver near Iroquois Park. 

Egger was attempting to cross Newcut Road around dusk in order to get to a mid-block bus stop. Police said a driver struck the 30-year-old, sending him over the windshield of that vehicle and he was then hit by another vehicle.

“His body was so badly damaged that they had to fingerprint him,” Heston said. “He was missing for days. I was trying to figure out where he was until, finally, the deputy coroner showed up at my house.”

Since Egger’s death, Heston has advocated for safety improvements along the Taylor Boulevard-Newcut Road corridor, including better street lighting, medians as pedestrian safe havens and narrowed traffic lanes. She said she’d like to see these improvements across Louisville, and sees the Vision Zero ordinance as a step in that direction.

“If we know that, in a city where we have a totally unacceptable number of premature deaths, that we can put these measures into place and prevent loss of life, why aren’t we doing it?” Heston said. “Why isn’t this our focus?”

What would Vision Zero mean for Louisville?

Supporters of the ordinance say its passage would formalize the city’s commitment to improving the safety and accessibility of Louisville’s roadways, and open the door to more state and federal transportation funding.

This wouldn’t be Metro Council’s first attempt at addressing these issues. In 2008, the body passed a “complete streets” ordinance that requires all city-owned streets and bridges to be accessible to “users of all ages and abilities.”

The Vision Zero approach is to assess roadway design rather than blaming individual drivers or pedestrians. It puts the onus on city planners, public health officials and policymakers to prioritize safety when constructing new streets or reconfiguring old ones.

Chris Glasser, director of the local nonprofit advocacy group Streets for People, said in practice, that looks like implementing traffic-calming measures that cause drivers to slow down, rather than relying solely on a posted speed limit.

“You can set the speed limit at whatever you want,” he said. “But if you have wide lanes and big, open roads with few trees, then people are going to drive faster.”

Glasser said the planned redesign of Bardstown Road is a great example of the kind of approach Louisville Metro can take elsewhere in Jefferson County. The redesign includes curb extensions and tree planting along the road, which narrows drivers' range of focus and slows down traffic. Some crosswalks will also be widened and repainted to be more prominent. 

Bardstown Road is one of the three most dangerous roads in Louisville, according to public crash data, along with Dixie Highway and Preston Highway. All of them are maintained by the state, not Louisville Metro. 

Glasser said that while the proposed Vision Zero ordinance would acknowledge Louisville has a problem and lay out potential solutions, actually acting on the changes it proposes will require buy-in from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC).

“If you look in their budget and do a search for ‘road widening’ you’ll find I don’t even know how many projects, but if you search for ‘calming’ or ‘narrowing’ you’ll find like one project,” Glasser said. “Louisville can do all it wants to, but KYTC is the one that controls our most dangerous roads. They need to embrace this.”

Jim Hannah, a spokesperson for KYTC, said in a statement that the cabinet supports Louisville’s traffic safety goals and is part of the Vision Zero Louisville Coalition, an informal group set up in 2018 not affiliated with the national Vision Zero network.

“The cabinet is actively working with the city on safety initiatives based on information contained in the report as well as other sources,” Hannah said.

Supporters of the Vision Zero ordinance also say adopting these goals could help Louisville Metro in applying for grants to do roadway improvements. 

Amanda Deatherage, the transportation planner supervisor for Metro Public Works, said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law recently passed by the U.S. Congress has opened up a number of new programs for local governments. Deatherage told a Metro Council committee this week that the city plans to apply for a Safe Streets and Roads for All grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We are now learning what U.S. DOT wants in applications for that grant,” she said. “They call out Vision Zero or Vision Zero-related strategies by name.” 

Safety at odds with business?

Some Metro Council representatives are opposing the Vision Zero ordinance and have publicly questioned the initiative’s effectiveness at reducing roadway fatalities.

District 19 Council Member Anthony Piagentini, who heads Metro Council’s Republican caucus and represents a suburban area, said he believes Vision Zero overlooks the economic costs of measures that slow down vehicle traffic and increase safety.

“Shelbyville Road runs through my district and there are traffic accidents on it,” he said during the committee meeting this week. “We could reduce that to zero by making it one lane in each direction and making it windy. You might as well shut down every business on Shelbyville Road and destroy the entire economy of Middletown by doing that.

Piagentini also said he was wary of spending millions of dollars on roadway redesigns because of “bad drivers” who choose to speed or drive recklessly. That sentiment was echoed by Council Member Brent Ackerson, a Democrat representing District 26.

Ackerson, who is a personal injury lawyer that represents people involved in roadway crashes, said he believed legislation will not change what he called “the stupid factor.”

“The issue is you have a small population of people out there that are going to disregard safety,” he said. “They’re going to drive 40 miles per hour through a school zone, and they’re going to roll through stop signs. There’s going to be people that drive impaired.”

Ackerson said he would prefer Metro Council fund more traffic safety officers for the Louisville Metro Police Department, although he acknowledged that LMPD is currently short-staffed despite receiving more funding in recent years.

District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander, a Democrat whose district includes the Clifton and Crescent Hill neighborhoods, said at the meeting he doesn’t believe there is a conflict between businesses and traffic safety. He said business owners along Frankfort Avenue have complained to him about dangerous conditions.

“They tell me all the time that they would love to see that street modified because they don’t think it's safe for pedestrians to be walking on Frankfort Avenue or crossing Frankfort Avenue,” Hollander said.

He also noted that nothing in the ordinance prevents Louisville Metro from increasing traffic enforcement while also prioritizing safety in designing streets.

The ordinance is expected to be debated again at Metro Council’s next Public Works Committee meeting on June 14.

This story has been updated with a comment from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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