U.S. Cities Want To Totally End Traffic Deaths–But There Have Been A Few Speed Bumps

U.S. cities have eagerly embraced the Vision Zero plan for a safety-focused redesign of city streets. But reaching the final goal will require overcoming a host of issues, from NIMBYism and racial tensions to tight city budgets.

U.S. Cities Want To Totally End Traffic Deaths–But There Have Been A Few Speed Bumps
[Photo: Andy Ryan/Getty Images]

In San Francisco, it was two pedestrians–a 6-year-old an an 86-year-old–dying in one day in separate car crashes on New Year’s Eve. In New York City, it was an organized group of grieving families who wouldn’t leave a promising mayoral candidate alone. In Montgomery County, Maryland, it was after a drunk driver hit and killed a police officer while on DWI enforcement duty.


From 2003 to 2012, more than 47,500 people in the U.S. died while walking on the street, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition. Finally, after enough pressure, politicians have started to say enough is enough, and begun to rethink the planning of their cities so that car crashes don’t kill so many of their citizens. But while the planning and rhetoric have been ambitious, in many cities and neighborhoods, the results are often something less.

In the last three years, at least 18 cities have set goals to stop all traffic deaths within the next one or two decades as part of Vision Zero, an ambitious traffic safety movement that has spread quickly across the U.S. Relatively pedestrian-heavy cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were the earliest adopters. Now others are coming on board, including San Antonio, Fort Lauderdale, and Sacramento. Many more cities are now considering a Vision Zero goal of their own, and advocates of the policy have also set their eyes on policies at the state and national level.

[Photo: Zach Inglis via Unsplash]

Sweden adopted the first Vision Zero concept in 1997. At its most basic level, it requires that governments set a goal and strategy to do what seems impossible: end all traffic fatalities and serious injuries, within a certain time frame. But the entire premise of Vision Zero is that achieving this goal is actually not impossible. Its philosophy is that traffic deaths are not accidents but, instead, the products of design flaws in the traffic system. Fix the system, and while you may not prevent all crashes due to human error, you can prevent the fatal ones.


In the last 20 years, Vision Zero has been adopted by cities around the world, but, until recently, it hadn’t yet penetrated the United States. But since 2012, when it was adopted by Chicago, it has taken hold rapidly, and it’s easy to see why. The idea is a political winner that unites frequently warring road-user factions–cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians–behind a common moral goal–saving lives–that is hard to oppose.

Yet setting a Vision Zero goal is the easy part. For Vision Zero to be more than a catchy name, a fundamental shift in how cities plan and design their streets is now required. Safety has to come before convenience, and design and data have to come before reflexively blaming crashes on reckless road users.

Vision Zero cities, courtesy of the Vision Zero Network

Has it? American cities have been encouraging more people to walk and bike for many years, but in most cases the safety of these most vulnerable road users is still not a priority. Despite a lot of excitement about Vision Zero, in many early adopter cities, the answer–due to insufficient funding and political momentum–is no. At least not yet.


“This is really a fundamental cultural shift–and in some respects it hasn’t really started,” says Gregory Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

[Photo: Flickr user Edward Blake]

The missing political will–and money

As its heart, Vision Zero is about cities putting responsibility for safety on the system over the individual–about not accepting that crashes are an inevitable, tragic part of living in a city. (Media and activists have even stopped using the term “accident” to describe a road death, because it implies that no one is at fault.)

Vision Zero policies accept that humans are fallible and will make mistakes on the road–and it is the design of that road that makes all the difference when they do. A pedestrian hit by a car at 20 miles per hour has a 90% chance of surviving a crash. At 40 miles per hour, the studies vary, but there’s anywhere from a 50% to 90% chance of death for an average pedestrian. By managing speed through “traffic calming” road features, like speed bumps and fewer driving lanes, and by separating bike and walking lanes when cars go too fast regardless of the speed limit, policy makers and engineers can make sure crashes are less deadly.


Vision Zero has had many early successes in U.S. cities. A key first step has been planners collecting much better data about where and why serious crashes occur and using this data to pinpoint streets and intersections that are trouble spots. Vision Zero programs have also brought together city agencies that might not normally think about road safety. For example, Washington, D.C.’s recent Vision Zero action plan involved 20 departments, from the public schools to the DMV to the Office of Aging. But it will take more education for it to percolate down to the police and planners and drivers doing work everyday, says Billing.

“It’s definitely disheartening to go to a public meeting and a traffic engineer doesn’t even know what Vision Zero is or can’t articulate how it affects his work,” he says.

Other cities are struggling to move beyond a splashy goal. Chicago, which in 2012 set a goal of zero deaths by 2022, was an initial Vision Zero leader. But it hasn’t yet released an action plan containing short-term objectives and metrics. Nor does it have dedicated funding for safety projects in dangerous corridors, says Kyle Whitehead, government relations director for Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance. Instead, the city is cobbling together funds from existing walking and biking plans.


“A big factor there is the political buy-in from the mayor’s office,” says Whitehead. “As soon as you move beyond that commitment, the question becomes: ‘What does this actually look like and how do we fund it? How are we going to hold people accountable on this?’ The answers are always complex.”

In San Francisco, the city has been making quiet progress. For example, at an intersection where a senior citizen was killed, it installed a “pedestrian scramble” that stops all cars at once and gives pedestrians free reign to cross in any direction, allowing slower walkers more time to cross. And on Golden Gate Avenue, which was designated a “high injury corridor” after 48 pedestrians were struck by cars there in the last five years, the city plans to add a buffered bike lane and slow traffic by removing one traffic lane and narrowing the remaining two. A ballot initiative in the city up for a vote in November would direct a portion of the city’s sales tax to street safety funding.

[Photo: stonena7/iStock]

But Walk San Francisco executive director Nicole Ferrara says the government needs to be bolder. Traffic fatalities have yet to decline in the city, and the average person on the street is unlikely to have heard of the program, symbolizing its relatively low priority.


“The challenges are mostly around doing more, quickly,” she says. “The city of SF loves to listen to every voice, which is important, but we also need our city to have the kind of guts to build the projects that will ensure people’s safety despite neighborhood opposition.”

Most advocates are looking to New York City, the biggest Vision Zero success so far. Partly that’s because it was high profile from the start: During the last mayoral race, a group of traffic victims and grieving families, Families for Safe Streets, successfully convinced soon-to-be Mayor Bill de Blasio to make Vision Zero the major transportation platform of his winning 2013 mayoral campaign. As a result, after he assumed office in 2014, his new administration quickly set up a task force and released a 63-point action plan. In its first two years, the administration won a lower speed limit (25 miles per hour) from state lawmakers in Albany as well as 140 automated speed enforcement cameras, which are installed close to schools and send $50 tickets to drivers who go more than 10 miles above the speed limit within school hours. It plastered city neighborhoods with advertising (one slogan: “Your Choices Matter”) and on-the-street outreach teams. It completed 137 street safety projects in two years, a faster pace than usual, according to a presentation given by a Transportation Department official.

The result: In 2014 and 2015, the city saw a historic drop in traffic fatalities by 22%, with pedestrian deaths down 27%.


“What’s remarkable is that the reduction in traffic fatalities has been achieved without much effort,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that has been a major force behind Vision Zero.

Example of New York City PSA for Vision Zero

Making further cuts to fatality rates will be harder, he says. While any year’s traffic death statistics are bound to fluctuate, it’s not promising that in the first half of 2016, traffic deaths have actually increased, especially for cyclists. At the current rate, the zero fatality goal won’t be met until well after 2050, the group says. One reason is there’s not enough funding: In 2016, the mayor allocated $115 million to capital projects for Vision Zero, which would be used over four years. But Transportation Alternatives estimated that at least $1 billion over four years would be needed to fix the most dangerous streets and come anywhere close to New York City’s 2024 Vision Zero goal of zero deaths.

Another problem is that, too often, the administration won’t overrule local opposition to projects from drivers and businesses that tend to oppose the loss of parking spaces and driving speeds that safety design changes bring. Historically, neighborhood opposition has been enough to kill safety projects, including bike lanes and wider sidewalks, because these provide less space for cars to park or may contribute to more car congestion.

[Photo: Flickr user Billie Grace Ward]

Steely White hopes New York’s administration is becoming more politically committed. In April, the mayor directly overruled a local community board that rejected a safety improvement project, which included bike lanes, on a major Vision Zero target–Queens Boulevard, a street that has become known as the “Boulevard of Death.” (In rejecting the bike lanes, the community board chief had said the street “is not a park, it is a very heavily traveled vehicular roadway,” reflecting a cars-first attitude.)

What might be needed is more of a “public works mentality” that makes proven street safety designs the default engineering decision: “We wouldn’t allow compromise on safety standards in our water,” Steely White says. “We need to take these improvements out of the NIMBY realm.”

[Photo: Oktober64/iStock]

What would Sweden do?

This points to the problem of basing a U.S. policy on a country like Sweden. Its streets are now the safest in the world. It has overhauled its roads, building 900 miles of streets that allow for more orderly traffic lane switching and creating 12,600 safer crossings with roundabouts and other features, and implemented tough enforcement.


But Sweden is a small homogeneous country about the size of California. Vision Zero was very much a “top down” strategy pushed by the federal government down to the city level. (The country managed to reduce the speed limit to 18 miles per hour in most urban areas.) Its culture is also often focused on safety, morality, and ethics–it is home to the company Volvo, a brand known for auto safety, after all. And even with this, its government struggled to convince economists to throw cost-benefit analysis–the idea that there is an “optimum” number of fatalities that societies should accept–out the window in favor of a zero death goal.

Leah Shahum, director of the Vision Zero Network, an organization recently launched to conduct research, education, and advocacy in the U.S., says the policy has evolved differently in this country. In the U.S., cities more immersed in local politics are the early adopters, making cross-cutting collaboration more important and necessary. “In a lot of communities, we’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” she says.

But if Sweden’s experience teaches U.S. traffic planners one lesson, it’s the importance of engineering and design. Traditionally, U.S. transportation agencies have thought about “three E’s”: enforcement (writing more traffic tickets), education (an advertising campaign about, say, drunk driving), and engineering (adding crosswalks and pedestrian islands). But this framing can put a mistaken equivalence on all three being equal. Shahum says the European experience shows that road designs that control for speed and separate protected (drivers) and unprotected (pedestrians and cyclists) road users are by far the most important factor to preventing accidents.


“If you design streets that encourage people to go fast, you’re going to go fast. You can’t educate or enforce your way out of that problem,” she says.

But building new physical infrastructure is often more costly than education and enforcement campaigns, and this also take time. It can take decades to redesign a city’s road network–it’s not something that happens overnight. And that is the lesson that Sweden is learning, too: Though it has the lowest crash rate in the world, it has not actually decreased its deaths to zero yet and will miss its 2020 goal. Though it has cut fatalities by 50%, in 2013, 263 people nationwide were still killed in traffic incidents. Zero is still aspirational, even in Sweden.

[Photo: Flickr user Jaysin Trevino]

Can Black Lives Matter and Vision Zero Work Together?

There’s also another major way the U.S. isn’t Sweden: its history of racist street design and traffic enforcement.


In the U.S. today, only 49% of low-income neighborhoods have sidewalks, and African- and Latino-American pedestrians are 60% and 43%, respectively, more likely than whites to be killed by cars while walking on the street. In many cities, from New York to Chicago, high-speed roads have historically been built through communities of color.

So on the one hand, because of Vision Zero’s data-driven focus, the policy promises to improve long-neglected infrastructure in these neighborhoods. Many high-crash corridors designated in Vision Zero cities are, in fact, in neighborhoods dominated by minorities–and they have finally been the focus of transit investments.

But this also raises a concern. The data also guides enforcement efforts. And in the era of Black Lives Matter, promoting more policing in neighborhoods that are already over-policed can be a thorny issue. Consider that in Minnesota recently, Philando Castile paid with this life during a “routine” traffic stop for a busted taillight, after having been pulled over 49 times in 13 years, usually for minor offenses.


Vision Zero is supposed to rely on enforcement, such as speeding tickets, only as a “last resort,” not a first, but that’s often not the political reality. In New York, police have significantly ramped up traffic safety policing as priority in Mayor de Blasio’s administration (though they are still shockingly unlikely to prosecute hit-and-run drivers and often spend time ticketing cyclists). And while the emphasis is supposed to be on dangerous violations, data show that the NYPD still focus on minor offenses. In Chicago, the dangerous streets that would be targets for more traffic safety enforcement are mostly on the South and West sides. In D.C., the government wants to increase speeding fines to $1,000.

“There is a real systemic problem in terms of wanting more traffic enforcement, when in fact we are dealing with a broken windows policing system,” says Naomi Doerner, a principal planner & equity strategist for Assembly, a justice-based planning group.

The transportation community, with its mostly white leadership, is now grappling with this issue. Communities in Los Angeles and Oakland have pushed back against Vision Zero because of concerns about enforcement, even as they support the overall goals. Shahum, in an introspective blog post written shortly after Castile’s death, questioned the movement’s lack of attention to the issue of over-policing: “We need police to be empowered to enforce traffic laws to save lives. But how can we be sure that we’re not contributing to a bigger problem?” she wrote.

Advocates say the answer to this challenge isn’t easy, but it is important to make sure Vision Zero policies make enforcement targets major violations that kill people, like speeding, rather than minor offenses. Automated speeding and red light enforcement cameras can help make justice “blind” to color, but even then, it matters in what neighborhoods and context the cameras are placed. High fines also hurt low-income people the most, and can ruin a person’s life if they can’t pay. In many states, automated enforcement cameras are restricted or illegal, due to controversies about their accuracy, privacy issues, or concerns that they are less about safety and more about raising revenues for cities. (California road safety activists are trying to overturn their state’s ban.)

“It’s a huge equity question,” says Billings. “As we do neighborhood safety audits, we need to engage and outreach. The last thing we want to do is increase issues with policing in communities. The ultimate goal of enforcement isn’t to be punitive. It should be educational.”

[Photo: Flickr user Ted Eytan]

Zero is still out of reach

Critics of Vision Zero, which have included some transportation engineers, question whether it is a realistic goal to aim for zero traffic deaths, given the investments required. Even Sweden hasn’t managed to save all lives yet. Certainly, if they’re not done right, these campaigns will be more style than substance.

“Vision Zero is supposed to represent a departure from business as usual on traffic,” says Steely White. “The danger is they simply rebrand their existing traffic safety efforts and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this great thing.’”

But there are many positives and important early progress as U.S. versions of the policy expands and cities experiment with what works. Under the Vision Zero banner, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is rethinking bus stops that are placed mid-block, encouraging people to jaywalk when they exit. Struggling to cut the pedestrian fatality rate, Portland, Oregon, has tried traffic safety “missions,” which are high-visibility enforcement sprees by the police at major intersections, and Boston is working to lower its speed limit (Update: Boston just successful lowered its speed limit to 25 mph). Los Angeles is conducting widespread community outreach as it crafts an action plan, and has installed a pedestrian scramble at Hollywood’s most tourist-trafficked intersection.

The Vision Zero Network is also working to sign on states and even the federal government on to similar initiatives and find permanent sources of funding, such as bond and tax measures, for urban efforts.

The broader hope, for many advocates, is that Vision Zero creates more bikeable and walkable cities in the guise of a focus on safety and morality. Says Steely White: “The best way to win a more bike-friendly city is to throw our lot in with everyone.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire


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