CINCINNATI — It has been eight months since a hit-and-run driver struck 15-year-old Gabriella Rodriguez as she was crossing Harrison Avenue to catch her Metro bus to school. Rodriguez died from her injuries later that day, and in those eight months since, police have not succeeded in identifying or locating that driver.
Rodriguez's parents, Eduardo and Shawna, have become outspoken advocates for pedestrian safety, lobbying Cincinnati police and the City Council to accelerate their efforts to make the city's streets safer for people walking through their neighborhoods.
"Was it my daughter's fault for jumping on the road? Absolutely, it was," Eduardo told the council's Law and Public Safety Committee earlier this year. "But who's going to be responsible, who's going to be accountable for her crossing the road to get on the Metro?"
The questions of responsibility and accountability when it comes to walking safely along Cincinnati streets will be the focal point of a pedestrian safety summit scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Evanston Recreation Center.
City Councilman Greg Landsman organized the event.
"An emerging core service is around pedestrian safety," he said. "We need to look at everything we can do to eliminate the pedestrian fatalities."
How far we've come
The city's focus on making its streets more walkable began in earnest not quite two years ago, when City Council for the first time included a "Pedestrian Safety Fund" in the municipal budget. The council earmarked $500,000 for pedestrian safety improvements for fiscal year 2018 and renewed that fund for the next.
The fund made its way through council less than a year after the first in a string of high-profile pedestrian deaths in Cincinnati: In October 2016, widely known restaurateur Sarah Cole was crossing Hamilton Avenue outside her Northside burger joint, Tickle Pickle, when a driver struck her, leaving her with fatal injuries. In the months and years to follow, the public shifted more of its attention toward serious and fatal crashes involving pedestrians.
A WCPO investigation earlier this year found that pedestrian-involved crashes in Cincinnati have increased steadily since 2013 — the earliest year with comprehensive Cincinnati Police Department traffic crash data. An earlier investigation also found that traffic enforcement by CPD had steadily declined between 2009 and 2016.
In 2018, Lt. Col. Paul Neudigate, who heads the department's Patrol Bureau, acknowledged the decline in traffic stops as a result of an increase in the department's focus on violent crime.
"I don't want to say we took our eye off traffic but did focus heavily to reduce violent crime," Neudigate told the City Council in May 2018. "Honestly, we have to be able to do it all."
Last fall, Neudigate initiated two traffic enforcement blitzes: one during the last two weeks of October, and the other between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. Combined, the efforts yielded more than 1,500 citations — nearly 1,100 of which were speeding violations.
In a May 8 memo, City Manager Patrick Duhaney said these blitzes contributed to an overall increase in dangerous driving enforcement by nearly 21 percent between 2017 and 2018, but they did not have the impact the department had hoped.
"Unfortunately," Duhaney wrote, "this increase in traffic enforcement for moving violations had no direct effect on reducing reported injurious/fatal crashes."
The department recorded a 1 percent increase in total crashes in that time period.
Shortly after the City Council created the Pedestrian Safety Fund, the Department of Transportation and Engineering received hundreds of infrastructure improvement requests from the city's 52 neighborhoods: Some were small requests, such as new lighting or signage. Others had bigger improvements in mind, including reconfigured intersections, curb bump-outs and narrower streets with wider sidewalks.
DOTE implemented more than 80 street improvements in 2018 and is set to implement more than 60 others in 2019.
One of those requests that stands out as a success was implementing 24-hour on-street parking along Hamilton Avenue in Northside's business district. In the seven months the city tested the new traffic configuration, the stretch saw a 70 percent reduction in crashes during the morning and evening rush hours.
In 2019, the administration will test a similar reconfiguration of rush hour parking rules on Harrison Avenue between Montana and Boudinot in Westwood.
For a full list of pedestrian safety projects completed in 2018, scroll to the bottom of this story.
Miles to go
These efforts notwithstanding, traffic crashes involving pedestrians continue to hover at record numbers. So far in 2019, more than 140 people have been involved in a crash while walking on city streets. The average number of people struck through the first two weeks of May over the last five years is 138.
"We know it’s a very complex problem. It’s not just one set of solutions that’s going to work here," said traffic safety advocate and retired police officer Derek Bauman. Since retiring from the Mason Police Department in 2017, the Over-the-Rhine resident has become an outspoken advocate for alternative modes of transportation, including walking, biking and riding transit.
"We want to speed this up," he said. "We want the city of Cincinnati to truly embrace a new way of doing business on our streets so that there is fair and equitable treatment for everyone that’s using them, not just the cars."
Following last fall's string of crashes involving Cincinnati Public Schools students, the City Council seemed to kick its efforts into higher gear: In December, Councilmen P.G. Sittenfeld and Christopher Smitherman accelerated plans to install new LED lighting outside Western Hills University and Gilbert A. Dater high schools — a hot spot for student-involved crashes. The next month, Landsman introduced a motion calling for the administration to study multiple solutions, including introducing officer-operated speed cameras as a new enforcement tool.
Landsman said these cameras' potential impact could not be understated.
"The biggest game-changer in all of this is to do what other cities have done, which is to allow the police department to use new technology — cameras that they use, they hold, to reduce speeding." Landsman said. "Hopefully (Tuesday) night people will say, ‘Yeah we want to see that on the ballot.’"
The cameras would require a voter-approved amendment to the City Charter in order to implement.
Another lingering project that has made modest progress in recent weeks: the Liberty Street road diet. Earlier this month, the City Council finally approved a plan to redesign the seven-lane corridor cutting through the heart of Over-the-Rhine. Supporters of the plan said a narrower Liberty Street not only would mean safer conditions for people walking along and crossing Liberty, but also it would stitch together the yearslong divide between north and south OTR.
Even this project lacks luster for supporters who initially lobbied for a reduction from seven lanes to five lanes: The only way the City Council could pass the road diet plan was to settle on a six-lane configuration that only narrows the 90-foot-wide road by 5 to 10 feet.
Other pieces of this puzzle are aligning, though. In that same memo, Duhaney said "it is feasible to increase the severity of the penalties" for dangerous driving offenses like speeding, failure to yield, texting while driving and other behaviors behind the wheel.
All of these efforts fall under what Landsman said is a goal of his tenure on Council, to adopt a "Vision Zero" set of policies and procedures, all in the effort to reduce pedestrian fatalities on the city's streets to zero.
"It's a strategy to not just reduce these accidents and fatalities, but to eliminate them altogether," Landsman said. "
In the memo, Duhaney also announced the appointment of a new Pedestrian Safety program manager position within DOTE. Senior transportation planner Melissa McVay will assume that role. McVay formerly managed the city's bike transportation program and has organized the bulk of the pedestrian safety improvement requests received by the department so far.
Duhaney will formally announce McVay's appointment during Tuesday evening's summit.
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Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (pat_laFleur), Facebook, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.