Apr 18, 2024 - News

All eyes on Mayor Whitmire as Houston hosts Vision Zero summit

Photo illustration of John Whitmire with lines radiating from him.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios; Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Bayou City will soon host a week of forums on ending traffic deaths in Texas. But for some advocates, the forums are happening just as Houston's new mayor, John Whitmire, seems to be deemphasizing street safety priorities.

Why it matters: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's most recent data, Texas led the nation in traffic deaths in 2021. And according to the Texas Department of Transportation, that same year Houston saw the most traffic fatalities of any Texas city, with 330.

Catch up fast: Houston has a Vision Zero commitment to end roadway fatalities and serious injuries by 2030, which was enacted under former Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2020.

  • The plan calls for safer street designs, slower speeds and an equitable transportation network that works for drivers as well as those who walk, bike or roll.
  • The city pledged to redesign 10 dangerous intersections every two years, construct 50 miles of sidewalks and 25 miles of the Houston Bike Plan each year and prioritize making transit connections safer.
  • Houston saw modest decreases in overall traffic deaths and serious injuries from 2021 to 2022, according to the city's most recent Vision Zero report.

Friction point: To the frustration of street safety advocates, in March Whitmire removed Vision Zero as the city's "sole determining factor" for road improvements, instead making it "one of many tools" used in transportation planning, the mayor's spokesperson, Mary Benton, told Houston Public Media.

Threat level: At least one of those staffers was forced to resign after Whitmire took office.

What he's saying: "​​Vision Zero is important," Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle editorial board this month, indicating that he intends to keep some of Turner's plan in place.

  • As for removing the Houston Avenue medians, he said it was a matter of "common sense" after hearing from first responders that the new curbs made navigating the corridor difficult.
  • "As long as there's 2.3 million people in the city, you're gonna have traffic," Whitmire said. "Houston Avenue is an artery to get up on the freeway."

Driving the news: Texas nonprofit Farm&City, which leads the statewide effort to get local governments to adopt Vision Zero policies, will host its Texas Vision Zero Summit on May 3 in downtown Houston.

  • The Texas Pedestrian Safety Coalition is hosting its own annual Texas Pedestrian Safety Forum in the Memorial area around the same time.
  • Farm&City asked Whitmire to be its keynote speaker, but the mayor has a scheduling conflict, Benton tells Axios.

Zoom in: The Farm&City summit will feature panel discussions on how to end traffic deaths and make Texas streets safer, as well as a training for Houston-area officials on safe streets grant applications.

  • "We are excited by the opportunity to discuss all of our shared commitment to people not dying on the streets," the nonprofit's executive director, Jay Blazek Crossley, said, emphasizing the diversity of thought on how to achieve Vision Zero.

What we're watching: All eyes are on Whitmire as he mulls the city's transportation priorities during his tenure.

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