The Traffic Group

Vision Zero – Did It Hit a Wall?

In 2015, a local advocacy group in Los Angeles created a map of locations where drivers had struck pedestrians and where dozens of collisions occurred in a single year. Los Angeles was not the first U.S. city to sign onto Vision Zero – Chicago did so in 2012 and both New York City and San Francisco adopted the Scandinavian-born safety movement in 2014.

Like many cities, Los Angeles revamped corridors with Vision Zero safety countermeasures like curb extensions, protected left turn signals, removal of right turn on red, and removal of free flow right turn lanes.

In fact, in 2017, the prestigious Transportation Research Board (TRB) produced a report intended as a guide to help cities develop their own robust data-driven Vision Zero process. But, TRB does not control local budgets.

Even with all the efforts made in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, there is an increase in deaths in the streets than had previously occurred. WHAT?

A rare exception is Hoboken, New Jersey, which went three years without a single pedestrian fatality.

Unfortunately, Vision Zero’s track record in the United States contrasts sharply with Europe where road deaths have been drifting downward for years. In fact, in 2019, Helsinki, Finland had exactly three traffic fatalities – not one was a pedestrian or bicyclist.

Just in case you think that Helsinki, Finland cannot compare to U.S. cities, Helsinki has roughly as many residents as Las Vegas, a Vision Zero city (Vegas) where 304 people died on the road in 2019. Despite Vision Zero being one of the hottest ideas in traffic safety, its European success has not translated across the “the pond,” In fact, current trends suggest it is unlikely to change absent a fundamental rethink around policy implementation.

If cars are lighter, vehicles smaller, or moving at a slower speed, a collision is more likely to result in an injury versus a death. Separating cyclists from car traffic improves safety, blocking off a street or neighborhood from automobiles is even better. In the United States, we have traditionally emphasized an individual’s responsibility to travel safely while Vision Zero places responsibility for crash reduction squarely on society at large.

We must not give up! We must continue to do everything possible to make our streets safer for drivers, for bicyclists, and for pedestrians. Communities and departments of transportations (DOTs) cannot simply say that they are committed to Vision Zero without putting in the effort and the money necessary to make changes to their road system.

Remember that many of the core tactics of Vision Zero – installing traffic cameras, creating separated bike lanes, or imposing road diets – either force drivers to slow down or create safe space for vulnerable road users who have historically been overlooked.

Remember when there is a death, that’s it, the end of someone’s life – a tragic loss for the family involved that never goes away! That person and their family become a statistic often too quickly forgotten! Too many elected officials are worried about the backlash from removing streets, changing speed limits, road diets, and speed cameras. And constituents complain that speed cameras are just money makers for communities – they are NOT!

For decades, a cardinal sin of traffic engineering was slowing down drivers because that created capacity and traffic flow issues. That mindset needs to change! Public works officials and traffic engineering officials need to understand that capacity does not trump safety. You cannot reduce traffic delays and enhance safety at the same time because they are diametrically opposed.

It is going to be important to change the current paradigm that prioritizes speed and free-flowing traffic.