CINCINNATI — For the first time in recent memory, Cincinnati saw a substantial decrease in the number of people involved in traffic crashes while they were walking city streets, but the average number of drivers who collided with pedestrians remained at nearly one per day throughout 2019.
One of those people was 39-year-old Marquis Colbert, who died on Christmas Day after two drivers struck him as he was crossing Colerain Avenue in Northside two days prior. Police said the first driver fled the scene after the crash.
Colbert's death attached a somber asterisk to the end of a year that otherwise showed signs that city's first year pursuing "Vision Zero" might be having an impact. Vision Zero is a national coalition of cities committed to traffic design, education and enforcement policies in an effort to reduce serious and fatal crashes to zero.
Colbert's death was one of 45 fatal or severe crashes involving pedestrians last year, down from 77 the year prior.
"Less is better than more when you’re talking about dangerous pedestrian safety incidents, but the only satisfactory number is zero," said Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
Along with his colleague on Council, Chris Seelbach, Sittenfeld first introduced a pedestrian safety fund to the city budget in 2017. After 2018 saw more pedestrian-related incidents than any year since 2013 -- the first full year for which crash data is readily available from the Cincinnati Police Department -- fellow Councilman Greg Landsman introduced a motion on Jan. 7, 2019, calling on the administration to take further steps toward making the streets safer for pedestrians, including implementing Vision Zero.
While the number of pedestrians involved in crashes in 2018 exceeded 400, that number for 2019 dropped to 350, a 13-percent decrease. When it comes to fatal and serious-injury crashes involving pedestrians, the drop year-over-year is closer to 40 percent.
For Sittenfeld, public awareness of the growing problem sits at the heart of 2019's drop in crash incidents.
"This issue had people’s attention," he told WCPO. "I think there was a broader understanding of, ‘We need to do something about this.’"
One of 2019's most persistent voices for reducing pedestrian crashes was Shawna Rodriguez of Westwood. Rodriguez's daughter, Gabriella died Sept. 10, 2018 after -- similar to Colbert -- two drivers struck the 15-year-old while she was crossing Harrison Avenue to catch her Metro bus to Western Hills High School. Also like Colbert, one of those drivers fled the scene and remains at large.
"I think Vision Zero has made a good start. I think there’s a lot more work to do." Rodriguez told WCPO last fall.
Rodriguez's death -- along with roughly a dozen other Cincinnati Public Schools students being involved in crashes while walking to school that year -- galvanized an already growing demand for more pedestrian safety measures across the city's 52 neighborhoods. When officials with the Department of Transportation and Engineering solicited requests for street and signage improvements in the fall of 2018, they received more than 100 requests.
Using the city's $500,000 pedestrian safety fund, DOTE implemented 70 of those improvements between July and December of last year.
"We had tried to be very intentional in the allocation of funds and the implementation of policies in working collaboratively with the neighborhoods to say, ‘How can we make your streets, your neighborhoods, your sidewalks more friendly for a senior crossing the street or for a mother pushing her stroller down the sidewalk?'" said Sittenfeld.
In City Council's budget for fiscal year 2020, the pedestrian safety fund was increased to $750,000, and DOTE established a new staff position -- pedestrian safety program manager -- and appointed senior planner Mel McVay to lead the implementation of the neighborhoods' requests.
"We look at things like, have there been crashes in that area, or is the location adjacent to a school or recreation center or elderly housing," McVay told WCPO last summer, when the project rollout began. "In other words, are there vulnerable users trying to cross the street at that location? We also look at the speed of traffic that’s traveling by.
"Every neighborhood that made a request got at least one project implemented."
Cincinnati police began targeted speed enforcement in 2019, as well, according to CPD Lt. Steve Saunders.
"There are lots of different ways to make drivers and pedestrians aware,” he said, such as deploying speed wagons. Those are mobile electronic signs that measure and display passing vehicles’ speed to alert drivers they might be traveling too fast.
2019 also saw an increased push by CPS students to lobby district leaders to jump on the "Vision Zero" bandwagon. Working with parents and teachers throughout the district, Landsman asked the administration to facilitate a Youth Pedestrian Safety Task Force, co-chaired by Walnut Hills High School seventh-grader Jeremiah "JT" Thornton and Sands Montessori sixth-grader Madelyn Gerker.
Gerker made headlines a year prior when she hand-wrote a letter to Mayor John Cranley and City Council requesting a sidewalk for her walk to the Mount Washington elementary school. Thornton made headlines last year, too, when he and his classmates won a national contest for producing a pedestrian-safety PSA music video, "It's Lit to Not Get Hit."
"That really, I was like, ‘Wow!” Thornton told WCPO last fall. “People that I've known, people that are my peers are getting hit by cars."
"They're doing all kinds of stuff to get their classmates onboard, so that students are talking to other students and their parents," Landsman said.
In September, the CPS Board of Education voted officially to adopt "Vision Zero." After the vote, board member Eve Bolton spoke about the role of educating students in reducing these traffic crashes: "We want to begin to be much more proactive in educating our children about how you do cross the street or how you do drive," she said.
Landsman agreed, and said that outreach to students will continue to grow in 2020.
"I think you'll see more educational work with everyone, including young people" he said.
For Sittenfeld, the decrease is net-positive news, but he also said this is no time to rest on laurels.
"While I’m glad that the numbers are lower for 2019 than they were in 2018, no one is satisfied in saying the work is done," Sittenfeld said. "If we were at a crisis level, then maybe we’re at slightly lesser crisis level, but I don’t think this is any time for people to be diverting their attention from this issue."
Both Sittenfeld and Landsman indicated they will work to maintain -- if not increase -- the existing funding for pedestrian safety improvements. DOTE is still compiling its list of pedestrian safety improvement projects for 2020.
Meanwhile, people like Rodriguez, Gerker and Thornton won't be letting up any time soon.
"To be honest, my job will never be done until I’m in my spot next to Gabby," Rodriguez said.