A People-Centered Approach to Street Safety

By Julia D. Day, Mayra Madriz, and Ewa Westermark

One of the strengths of the Vision Zero initiative is its clarity of purpose: eliminate traffic deaths — period. This ambitious yet tangible goal has been adopted by municipalities around the United States and Europe, and is making its way across the globe as a policy driver. Considering that 90 percent of deaths due to road crashes occur in developing countries, this drive is welcome and needed.

However, while this narrow focus on safety is needed, and has been key to communicating a complex idea like Vision Zero in the U.S. and Europe, it is essential that the professionals working to implement Vision Zero initiatives approach mobility and streets in a more holistic manner.

What if the question Vision Zero posed was about more than eliminating death, but identifying how safer streets could promote greater connection and quality of life? What if we saw Vision Zero as an opportunity to promote happiness, not just prevention? And what if we put people — their desires, travel patterns, stories, and lived experiences — at the heart of the campaign?

By focusing on the interplay between human behavior and urban design, and analyzing what people do in streets and other public spaces, Vision Zero professionals can develop design solutions that improve safety as well as quality of life, without ignoring the behavioral insights that indicate how people will really use redesigned streets.

More Than Safety

About 50 million people worldwide will be injured in road crashes this year. It is estimated that these crashes will cost low- and middle-income countries $65 billion, more than they receive in development aid. This is a crisis that needs attention, and also recognition that safety alone is not enough. Research shows that 80 percent of health is determined by environmental and behavioral factors. Safety is one of those factors, but so are physical activity and social cohesion — two things that streets designed for safety and well-being can support. Vision Zero needs to be combined with a very clear priority for the most vulnerable travelers: children, seniors, pedestrians, bicyclists — not only to keep them safe, but also to consider their needs for health and well-being. Are there places on the street where they can rest or converse? Be separate from loud noises? Or simply to look at interesting things? In failing to consider these qualities, safe streets are built that protect from vehicular traffic, but don’t necessarily create opportunity for social connection or a stimulating experience. A Gehl study of two Copenhagen streets, each with 8,000 pedestrians a day, found that the higher quality street, Strædet — which had little vehicular traffic, slow car speeds, and places to socialize in both the shade and sun; was protected from noise, was well-connected to the existing street network, and had interesting things to see — had 258 people staying at a time. In comparison, the lower quality street, Kay Fiskers Plads, despite having sidewalks, bike lanes, and slow car speeds, had only 19 people staying at a time due to its environment: blank ground-floor facades, no trees, no opportunities for interaction, and nothing interesting in one’s line of site. While physically designated walking and biking space is essential to safe streets, infrastructure alone will not make streets places people want to be.

The public health possibilities are infinite if we can re-imagine Vision Zero to be as much about streets built for human connection and inclusivity, where more people walk and bike, as it is about preventing deaths and serious injuries. Even more lives could be saved through the increased health benefits that result from more active transport, time outside, and socializing.

Study Human Behavior to Develop Better Solutions

If a city is serious about implementing Vision Zero, the study of pedestrian and bicyclist behavior needs to be taken much more seriously than it is today. Around the world, ineffective design solutions disguised as safety are installed without consideration of how people actually navigate streets.

For example, installing a pedestrian underpass or foot bridge, or placing a crossing in a less than convenient location for walking, creates long detours and can have serious consequences. On one London street, St. Giles Circus, a study by Gehl, Towards a Fine City for People: Public Spaces and Public Life, (2004), found that 72 percent of pedestrians chose not to use the underpass provided, but rather juggle their way through traffic at grade, simply to follow the more direct route, despite the danger presented by heavy vehicular and bus traffic. In Public Space, Public Life: Chongqing, China (2013–2014), we found 90 percent of the pedestrians “jay-walked,” running across four lanes of traffic instead of using the intended pedestrian footbridge — built for millions of dollars in the name of safety — but not connected to pedestrian desire lines, or how people actually travel or use a place. In the U.S., the Columbia, South Carolina Public Space, Public Life Action Plan (2016) found that over 1,000 people a day crossed against the walk signal, or mid-block outside of the pedestrian crossings, on downtown Main, Greene, and Assembly Streets. Crosswalks at intersections existed, but their placement without regard to walking patterns, as well as neglect for the surrounding pedestrian environment — blank ground-level facades, narrow sidewalks, no seating, and car-oriented way-finding — did not contribute to safer walking behaviors. We also see that when crosswalks are located in response to pedestrian desire lines, jaywalking and crashes decrease. In Moscow: A City for People (2018), Gehl found a reduction in jaywalking from 21 percent in 2013 to seven percent in 2017, after the installation of at-grade crosswalks at intersections where underpasses existed, at Pushkinskaya Square. As crosswalks aligned with walking patterns are being installed in multiple locations, fatal traffic crashes are decreasing citywide, from 313 in 2015 to 258 in 2016. While more specific before and after safety impact data is needed, these correlated trends suggest that improving the quality of the walking experience can come hand-in-hand with crash reduction. Stories like these are testament to the need to incorporate human behavior and desire into Vision Zero — ignoring it actually makes streets less safe.

Streets as Public Spaces

Outside of the suburban North American context, streets often hold an ample number of functions and activities beyond mobility. In rural, informal settlements in Latin America, the street serves as an extension of the living room, a place where families gather and children play, and of the market, a place where people make a living by selling, repairing, cooking, and connecting with opportunities. Such an intricate and complex environment requires more than safety from traffic; it requires sensitive solutions that balance mobility with the wide range of activities that take place there.

In the U.S., streets can also foster social interaction. In New York City’s public plazas — created in place of roads that once held car traffic — a joint study by Gehl and the J. Max Bond Center in 2015 found 75 percent of visitors to plazas in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn recognize or know more people since the street was transformed.

Reimagine What Streets Are For

Today, Vision Zero is characterized as an anti-death campaign with grim public service announcements: severed limbs, bloody asphalt, and somber faces — but Vision Zero can deliver so much more than safety. It can also make our streets more comfortable public spaces where all can spend time, engage in physical activity, connect with neighbors, play, or overall enjoy themselves. Streets where such activities are possible are safer by design — the space for and presence of people on the street signals to all, including drivers, that this is a place where pedestrians have priority. In this way, streets become places that improve traffic safety, not only through crash reduction, but also by improving other forms of safety by keeping more eyes and activity on the street.

In a globalized world, increasingly diverse cities need streets that can be platforms to engage with different people and places, building tolerance through exposure and interaction. A study to be published in a forthcoming report, Public Space, Public Life (2018) about a small city in Denmark, found that citywide, the spaces where all ages were best represented at the same time were most often streets. Having neglected pedestrians for decades, it is a victory when cities prioritize road safety. But a vision for safety should not lose sight of what makes streets thrive: their diversity of people and the various, spontaneous activities fostered on them.

Re-prioritizing Vision Zero around people’s experience is not as far off as it may seem. Vision Zero was first developed in reaction to human behavior. It is a recognition that humans, as a species, make mistakes and should not have to die from them. Designing for human behavior is at the heart of the policy. As Vision Zero is adopted around the globe, it should be celebrated as an initiative to create opportunities to put people, and how they want to live, at the heart of its agenda.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]


Gehl is an interdisciplinary urban design and research consultancy offering expertise in the fields of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and city planning. Gehl addresses global trends with a people-focused approach, utilizing empirical analysis to understand how the built environment can promote well-being, and applies this analysis to strategic planning and human-centered design to empower citizens, decision-makers, company leaders, and organizations. Julia D. Day is an Associate at Gehl New York, Mayra Madriz is a Team Lead at Gehl San Francisco, and Ewa Westermark is a Partner and Director at Gehl Copenhagen.