New Yorkers rally for slower speed limits outside Prospect Park.
How do you get from 38,000 to zero?
It’s a life-or-death question that has fogged minds, baffled and simply eluded policymakers, transportation professionals and the general public for years.
Thirty-eight thousand is the number of people killed nationwide in motor vehicle accidents, including pedestrians, in 2014. Typically, pedestrians account for between 4,000 and 5,000 of those deaths. In prior years the total number of fatalities has been as high as 47,000. Preliminary data indicates that 35,000 people died nationwide in car crashes last year. However, data indicates that the number of crashes during the first six months of 2016 is trending up by more than 10 percent.
An increasingly vocal coalition of activists united under the name Vision Zero, along with an increasing number of American cities, is advancing the notion that traffic deaths—be they of drivers or passengers, pedestrians or cyclists—should not be treated like other mobility challenges, such as traffic congestion, but rather like the plague that they are.
Vehicular violence isn’t a traffic jam. It’s smallpox. It’s one hundred hurricanes.
“More people were killed while walking on America’s streets than were killed by all natural disasters,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition.
Many, if not all, of those deaths occurred one or two at a time, at all times of day, and in every corner of the country. Vehicular violence diffuses its carnage, without the spectacle of an airplane crash or a domestic terrorist attack. And yet, on average, it is 10,000 times more deadly to Americans than the latter.
“Those numbers are much greater than other issues that we are rightfully spending time on,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network. “This is something that touches a lot more lives more directly, and I think we’re starting to see this shift where city leaders are stepping up.”
The Vision Zero movement seeks to construe all of these deaths as a single number and then to winnow it down if not to zero then at least to a comfortable level of insignificance. The movement began in Sweden in 1997 and gained gradual adoption in several European cities. The message did not officially reach the United States until 2014, when San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston and Austin all embraced versions of it.
That same year, the nonprofit Vision Zero Network was founded in San Francisco. On the one hand, it’s easy to wonder why cities took so long to prioritize safety. On the other hand, cities may have needed the catalyst of a brand name, and a clear goal.
“It’s really hard for someone to say they’re against that,” said Shahum. “Everyone is for safety.”
Nineteen cities have joined the Vision Zero Network, and roughly the same number are in the process of joining. The network requires members to adopt three basic principles: embracing the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries; a clear strategy for doing so; and engagement of key city departments.
North Plainfield is one of several municipalities in New Jersey working
to improve pedestrian safety through the Street Smart NJ program.
Though Vision Zero typically applies to cities, several states and the federal government have adopted kindred policies. A consortium of professional organizations related to highways has published a national highway safety strategy called “Toward Zero Deaths.” States including Colorado, Minnesota, and New Jersey have incorporated these principles into recent statewide plans.
Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently announced that the federal government too will pursue a “Road to Zero” by 2046.
“Vision Zero is a big-tent approach to traffic safety work, with the goal of vision zero being safe mobility for all, whether you’re walking, biking, driving, waiting for the bus,” said Shahum. Shahum speaks of injuries and deaths not so much as “crashes” or “accidents” but rather as “traffic violence.”
Many early adopters are those that, statistically speaking, need Vision Zero the least. Boston and Seattle are already the country’s two safest cities for pedestrians, with fatality rates south of one per 100,000. The country’s highest pedestrian-crash rates are in Florida, where the metro areas of Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami all have pedestrian fatality rates above two per 100,000.
Some of these cities have already adopted Vision Zero strategies or integrated Vision Zero-inspired goals into their mobility plans. Others are grappling with it at a conceptual level: they know they have problems but have yet to arrive at solutions.
Causes of vehicular violence vary among cities. Vision Zero acknowledges that solutions must also vary. While crashes depend in large part on technology (of vehicles) and their environment (road design), Vision Zero takes an expansive approach to safety.
Vision Zero calls for cities to treat road safety not as a back alley but rather as a major arterial, engaging a diverse array of city departments, including some that rarely, if ever, concern themselves with mobility. The movement asks police to enforce speed limits, transit agencies to attract riders, public works to keep sidewalks maintained, planning departments to promote walkable neighborhoods, and health departments to view cars like they do viruses.
In many cases, Vision Zero compels cities to throw out engineering paradigms to view vehicles and streets not as vectors of mobility but rather as merely one part of an urban ecosystem—a part that does not deserve privilege over any other.
“It captures the full spectrum of the things that need to be addressed to address pedestrian safety,” said Vineet Gupta, director of Policy and Planning at the Boston Transportation Department. “It’s not just a matter of changing traffic signal timings or changing the geometry…it also requires enforcement by the police department, it requires an education campaign.”
The rise of the Vision Zero movement has coincided with the rise of a host of other progressive notions of urbanism and mobility associated with the now decade-long resurgence in urban living. Complementary trends include bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, mixed use and infill development, tactical urbanism, New Urbanism, adaptive reuse, and, most importantly, Complete Streets.
“All those things have brought a lot of attention to the urban areas,” said San Antonio City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, who sponsored the city’s adoption of Vision Zero. “After 50 years we’ve seen this turn…there is kind of a movement of people moving back to the inner cities. We want to be able to walk to our churches and grocery stores.”
“We planners talk about walkability in the broadest sense, so safety is actually only one of four components: for people to choose to walk, the walk must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting,” said Jeff Speck, an urban designer, city planner and author of the book Walkable City. Of those four, Speck said safety is “the easiest thing to fix quickly.”
In some ways, the Complete Streets movement is the hardware component of Vision Zero. It calls for cities to redesign streets to serve multiple constituencies—including pedestrians, streetside businesses, and public transit riders—rather than traditional automobiles. Complete Streets often include narrow lanes, protected bike lanes, enhanced and bulbed-out crosswalks, and traffic-calming measures like speed humps and roundabouts.
“While we’ve seen improvements to vehicle safety…we haven’t seen those same improvements to street design or the way that we build our roadway network,” said Atherton. “At the same time there’s an increase in people wanting to walk.”
In many cities, a small minority of roads and intersections account for a disproportionate number of accidents. One of the first steps is to identify those roads and devise fixes quickly.
One such quick fix is a road diet, or reduction of lanes, which is meant to slow vehicles and improve pedestrian safety. Research suggests that 30 kilometers per hour—just over 18 mph—is the threshold between injury and death when a car collides with a pedestrian. For many planners, Complete Streets also meant to undo the damage caused by myopic planning principles.
“Separating walking from driving results in the city of the 1960s, where cars end up driving much faster creating an environment that is more dangerous for all,” Speck said. “Any street made just for cars becomes a highway.”
At the same time, some interpretations of Vision Zero seek to reduce driving-related deaths in the most obvious way: by reducing driving itself.
Todd Litman, Founder and Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute and author of several reports on road safety, including “The Hidden Traffic Safety Solution” published in September, notes that conventional measures of driving-related deaths are comically flawed. They typically measure deaths according to miles traveled rather than per capita. A city with a low death rate per mile can still incur unthinkable carnage if it’s a city with high rates of driving. Litman advocates traffic demand management—in layman’s terms: less driving.
“Many factors affect traffic fatality rates, but for given population, per capita vehicle miles traveled has a huge impact on traffic fatality rates,” said Litman. “Traffic safety professionals need to think more comprehensively. Every time you tell somebody ‘don’t drive’ or ‘avoid driving,’ [you] have an obligation of providing viable alternatives.”
For Litman, the safest drive is one that doesn’t happen at all—especially if it’s one that might have involved alcohol. “My definition of a truly healthy neighborhood…is whether people can walk to their local pubs,” said Litman.
Litman noted that, in many cities, bars and restaurants have some of the highest parking requirements, thus encouraging driving and making many of them economically infeasible in dense neighborhoods with high real estate costs. Vision Zero might thus create an about-face in the urban experience: from the tragedy of death and injury to the pleasure of socializing and carousing.
“You’re basically telling people not to drink or to stay home, and that’s no fun,” said Litman.
Others maintain more sober perspectives on traffic safety.
James Moore, professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California, rejects the idea that safety requires a wholesale redesign of streets or the implementation of new policies. Rather, technology may come to the rescue long before pubs can be built. At the same time that planners are advocating for old-fashioned urban models, the rise of robotic safety features and, possibly, fully autonomous vehicles promise to neutralize the most dangerous component of any car: the driver.
“People are such miserable control systems,” said Moore. “We are the weakest link in the chain.”
Even without incurring the expense and effort of redesigning streets, slowing vehicles, and, potentially, increasing travel times, Moore says that technologies that avoid accidents and even those that map optimal driving routes can benefit drivers and bystanders alike.
“A gut response: people want to make themselves safe. It’s hard to make yourself safe without making others safe,” said Moore. “It takes two to tango when it comes to accidents…it’s hard to develop technology that avoids only single- vehicle collisions.”
Until someone invents an inexpensive self-driving system that identifies and avoids every bodily hazard known to humanity, one thing is certain about the effort to achieve zero driving deaths: it will not cost zero dollars.
More capital-intensive strategies, such as the implementation of Complete Streets or expansion of public transit systems, can cost into the billions of dollars per city, depending on their extent and ambition. Lest public officials blanch, supporters of Vision Zero suggest that cities can implement many strategies in the context of ongoing street improvements, with funds that cities are likely to spend anyway. Expenditure plans need to account for safety and shift funds accordingly.
“It’s not so much the cost, it’s the value behind the investment that we are doing,” Gupta, from the Boston Transportation Department, said. “We’ve increased a little bit our budget, but it’s a budget that we already had. …In many ways, it’s shifting the focus on infrastructure funding that already existed as opposed to a whole new stream of funding.”
Moreover, many Vision Zero strategies don’t merely prevent tragedies. They can enhance urban life too, providing potentially quantifiable benefits that have nothing to do with safety.
“The traffic safety professionals are asking, what’s the cheapest way to reduce traffic accidents?” Litman said. “And they’re ignoring the co-benefits of walking, cycling, public transit, and smart growth.”
“I think Vision Zero is helping assess the true costs of traffic violence on our streets. For a long time these have been mostly hidden costs,” Shahum said. “When we compare these to the proactive upfront costs of investing in safe street design, investing in policy changes,…safety cameras to promote safe behavior, we find that those proactive costs are far less.”
Even so, Vision Zero’s lofty namesake goal could incur nearly infinite expenses, if taken literally. At some point in the process of implementing Vision Zero goals, cities and agencies have to do some grisly cost-benefit analyses to decide how much money to spend to save each additional life.
“The cost of going from many deaths to few deaths will be nontrivial but probably worth it,” Moore said. “The cost of going from few deaths to zero would be enormous.”
Vision Zero’s supporters say that this prospect should not deter anyone from pursuing reasonable goals. Though even one needless death may be too many from an emotional standpoint, from a practical standpoint they view the goal of zero as an inspiration rather than a mandate.
Are “zero” deaths possible? “Not in the U.S., but who cares?” Speck said. “It’s a metaphor, and a powerful one.”
Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.