Vision Zero is Failing, Because No One Cares.
Solution: Give City Officials ‘Skin in the Game’
Cyclists can be a self-righteous bunch. Ride a bike down a major street in an American city for more than a mile or two, and you’ll join the chorus — or more likely, you’ll just swear to never do it again. People talk about not biking around a city lest they get sweaty, and it’s true. But most of that sweat is from sheer fear, and the ensuing frantic flight, from cars, not from spinning pedals.
Los Angeles has adopted the goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2040. Yet the car killings continue, with pedestrians and cyclists especially at risk. The L.A. Times reports that for 2017, “the number of pedestrians killed on city streets rose 17% over the previous year, and 82% since 2015.” Vision Zero has saved zero lives.
A new wave of slaughter has struck South LA, and took the lives of Frederick ‘Woon’ Frazier, Alfredo Ortiz, Gregory Moore and Christopher White. All were hit and runs. In New York, police refused to file any charges or tickets to a driver who ‘doored’ Juan Pacheco, who was on a bicycle, to death. And these are just the most recent examples.
The bleak reality: there’s no reason to think things will get better in Los Angeles. Or nationally.
Traffic Deaths in Cities With Vision Zero Policies
There’s at least one critical piece missing: no one cares. Not outside of the few people for whom walking and biking are their main way of getting around. As George Orwell wrote, “we value speed more highly than we value human life.”
If leaders are serious about stopping the killings, then they must do more than spout platitudes and throwing a few million dollars on concrete around. Change will only come when people in power actually care — and that means when they actually ‘walk the walk’ and bike in their own cities. When city stakeholders are just as exposed and vulnerable as pedestrians and cyclists are, change will happen.
How do we give city officials some ‘skin in the game,’ to eliminate car killings?
Change needs to start with the people meant to keep us safe, police.
People in Glass & Steel Boxes Can’t Throw Stones
As humans, we hesitate to punish someone for something we ourselves might do. Rank hypocrisy does not come easily to us. If you text and drive, you probably won’t campaign for laws against it.
When cyclists see a ghost bike, a memorial of a someone biking killed on the road, they think, “that could be me.” Unfortunately, drivers may think the same, in reverse— “*I* could be that driver who takes down a biker, so let’s not jail them and take away their license… it was an honest mistake.”
From Complicity to Justice
It took years of heavy-handed action from the federal government to get local authorities to punish drunk driving, and more importantly, to make drunk driving socially taboo.
Driving, and even walking and biking, remains a steady series of legal violations — not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, going over the speed limit, not keeping a 3 foot distance from cyclists as a driver, crossing a street without the ‘walking man’ graphic… these violations may be avoided by individuals here and there, but they are inherent and inescapable at a ‘system’ level.
As a driver, you may conflate all these violations, but some are more dangerous than others. That’s not something you fully internalize until you’re a frequent walker or cyclist. Being primarily on foot or on a bike radically changes your perspective.
If you’re walking and a driver takes a right turn into your path as you try to cross a street, it is incredibly dangerous and scary — yet that feeling of terror simply doesn’t resonate, with someone who doesn’t walk on streets much.
This reckoning is urgently needed for anyone tasked with enforcing our traffic laws.
I don’t claim to know how to get there, but I think we can take these few steps along the way.
Step 1: Reward city staff for opting out of driving. Especially Police.
Cars, not guns, are the biggest danger to police — Police need “Vision Zero” as Much As We Do
37% of police deaths between 2008 and 2017 were motor vehicle related, while 34% were from gunshots. Having more police on their feet, and not behind a wheel, may well save the lives of officers. (I also looked at deaths over time and didn’t see any noticeable trends.)
Police are a famously tight-knit group. When one dies in the line of duty, hundreds of fellow officers show up to the funeral to pay their respects. This unity could be leveraged to make streets safer, as police patrol specifically to keep their vulnerable colleagues safe. If foot and bicycle police are out of uniform, drivers will be even more cautious.
Having a quarter of police on foot and on bikes would do more than a thousand press conferences and directives, to change enforcement priorities, because every officer would know his or her comrades’ lives are on the line. At say, a quarter of the force, it would be too big to shrug off as irrelevant. It might even make police think twice about seeing helmets as a solution to criminally neglectful driving, as in the tweet below.
To most people who don’t bike or walk much, traffic deaths are regrettable, but not necessarily criminal. But, does it really matter if someone murders you, or only kills you because they “didn’t see you”? The result is the same. If anything, traffic deaths deserve more scrutiny, because we know how to prevent them. Having more police on bikes would foster this awareness — that a life lost is a life lost, whether it’s from murder or neglect.
Police cruisers cost some $10–15k per year to own and operate; officers could simply receive a pay bonus for choosing to patrol on foot or on bike, much like how California requires employers, under certain circumstances, to pay employees who forgo parking the cash value of the space they give up. The bonuses could be permanent or temporary (eg, 3 years), and limited to say, 50% of the force, to ensure the rest still have access to a cruiser. The bonuses would be paid out of savings on cars not bought. Electric bikes may appeal to officers skeptical of conventional bikes.
Parking enforcement officers could also be induced to switch to bikes or motorized kick scooters; this would also reduce the prevalence of these officers’ vehicles blocking bike lanes, as I’ve often witnessed in Santa Monica.
There are sure to be other staffers using city vehicles, that could use a combination of biking, transit and the occasional cab instead of driving everywhere.
In the long run, reducing crashes also means freeing up police and firefighters to address other vital issues.
Step 2. Limit paying staff to drive to work
When employers pay for parking, and then charge employees less or nothing at all to park at work, they are paying employees to drive. Ending that can be difficult, such as when the parking spaces are owned, or the spaces are leased in bulk. It would be questionable, however, to charge employees to park if the space would sit empty otherwise.
But some city staff parking is surely on properties that have promising alternative uses, or at least would garner more revenue if not limited to the public, security cautions permitting. Spaces could be rented out to the public and staff alike at the same rates, or the land could possibly be sold, leased or used for things like mixed income homes, parks or public space.
Step 3. Reward Staff for Walking & Biking
Some employers offer discounts on health insurance to employees for not smoking; others, such as the US Air Force, offer paid leave for time spent exercising.
Governments could take the best of both: offer staff a couple hundred dollars extra annually for walking and biking to work, beyond parking cash-outs, based on the savings they see savings from the better health and higher productivity of a more vigorous workforce.