During the 1960s, Sweden, like other postwar European economies, experienced explosive growth coupled with improved standards of living, including increased mobility due to widespread access to automobiles. But there were unintended consequences behind this shiny totem of progress: death tolls on public roads rose in parallel with the increased use of private motor vehicles. “Vision Zero” emerged as a strategy to navigate the conflicting demands of valuing individuals’ lives and the desire to improve accessibility to car traffic, and the traffic safety campaign was launched by the Swedish government in 1997 with the novel goal of reducing the number of road deaths to zero. In Sweden, the campaign has been very successful in achieving its narrowly defined goals, and in its first 20 years, the number of people killed in traffic mishaps each year halved from 541 in 1997 to last year’s 270.
However, Sweden’s Vision Zero approach, and the implemented interventions, have been disproportionately car-centric. Improvements in traffic safety made during the Vision Zero era have almost exclusively benefited motorists: cars equipped with better active and passive safety measures allow motor vehicle occupants to escape even fairly serious crashes unscathed while vulnerable road users — the elderly, children, cyclists — continue, to a large extent, to die or get in collisions with motor vehicles at the same rate as before.
In particular, in the past two decades, traffic safety for occupants of motor vehicles has improved at cyclists’ expense. New cable road dividers — wire ropes attached to weak posts used to divide highways — are a case in point. The use of wire cables to divide roads has contributed to a reduction in collisions for motorists, but at the same time, has made it impossible for cyclists to fully utilize the Swedish road network. This has had the direct effect of decreasing cycling in rural areas of Sweden, and guaranteeing that no motorists in rural areas switch from driving to cycling. Similar results are found nationwide where the number of children who walk or cycle to school has been cut in half, from 94 percent in the beginning of the 1980s to 30 percent in 2007.
In 2016, the Swedish Transport Administration published a 20-year review of Vision Zero, describing many successful strategies for preventing mishaps for motorists. For cyclists, however, traffic incidents are considered “inevitable.” Recommendations for the alleviation of injuries and minimization of damage to cyclists are considered the responsibility of the cyclists themselves, who are encouraged to slow down and wear fluorescent clothing and protective equipment. The requirement that cyclists should protect themselves from dangerous roads and drivers risks discouraging people from choosing to ride bikes and leading to decreased cycling in general.
In actuality, there are a multitude of measures that can be made on a systematic level to decrease the incidence of serious mishaps for cyclists. The Swedish Transport Agency’s own calculations show that safer cycling infrastructure would lead to 78 fewer seriously injured cyclists per year. Decreased traffic speeds in urban areas and better winter road maintenance for cyclists would lead to 48 and 38 fewer serious injuries, respectively, per year.
Vision Zero’s main principle is preserving life without the negative consequences, both social and economic, of decreased mobility. Subsequent to the launch of Vision Zero, increasingly sedentary lifestyles and new research about the positive health benefits of physical activity have made it all the more clear that improvements in traffic safety must not be made at the expense of active mobility, either.
Every person who chooses to ride a bike instead of taking a car saves lives. The health, economic, and social benefits of increased walking and cycling exponentially exceed any associated risks. Europe’s Physical Activity Through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project recently published results of a study concluding that cycling was the mode of transportation with the greatest health benefits: cyclists exhibited better general health as well as better mental health and lower levels of stress than people who traveled primarily by car or public transport. The PASTA project postulates that as many as 10,000 deaths per year may be prevented by improving Europe’s cycling infrastructure.
PASTA’s findings are supported by the research of Professor Peter Schantz from the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm. Dr. Schantz has calculated that if one-third of Stockholm’s car commuters switched to cycling, the resulting improvements in air quality would save 60 lives a year and improve living conditions for individuals with respiratory problems. In addition, 20 cases of early deaths would be prevented by the increased activity of the cycling commuters themselves.
On average, three cyclists die in Stockholm each year in traffic. Policies that lead to less dangerous emissions and congestion in our cities at the same time improve the quality of life of people with respiratory distress, while contributing to reversing the global climate changes affecting everyone’s health. In Sweden, 1,500 people die every year due to the effects of air pollution and road dust from traffic, and several thousand people die prematurely as a result of physically inactive lifestyles. Thanks to the growing trend of e-bike use, the potential for active mobility to gain modal share from motorized transport is greater than ever.
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the launch of Vision Zero, a new and updated version dubbed Moving Beyond Zero was presented by the Swedish Traffic Safety Council for Active and Sustainable Mobility. The goal of Moving Beyond Zero is to realize a transport system that promotes active mobility in the form of cycling and walking to improve quality of life and public health in addition to saving lives and reducing traffic fatalities and injuries. Vision Zero has been successful in many ways, and the objective of reducing traffic injuries and fatalities to zero should continue. At the same time, it is crucial for the further development of Sweden’s road safety and the international adoption of the Vision Zero approach to allow the campaign to evolve. Promoting active mobility can reduce the number of road deaths while simultaneously improving quality of life and health.
To organizations just now endeavoring to implement Vision Zero strategies, we offer this advice: measures to improve traffic safety must not be made at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians. Striving to achieve zero traffic fatalities is a noble and progressive goal, but this endeavor must be balanced with reflective evaluations to ensure that implemented traffic safety measures do not negatively impact the potential for active mobility.
[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]
Lars Strömgren was elected as President of Cykelfrämjandet in 2014, and is the youngest-ever Vice President of the European Cyclists’ Federation, serving as acting president during the beginning of 2018. He has been recognized with the Clarence Morberg Prize for Urban Planning 2015, and Communicator of the Year in 2016 by the Swedish Communication Association. Hans Stoops is a Project Manager at Cykelfrämjandet, working to improve conditions for cyclists in cities, wilderness, and everywhere in between. Born in the United States on the same day as the mountain bike, he now resides in Sweden.