The Political Will to Save Lives

By Shirley Gonzales

Streets are not safe in any large U.S. city, but equally troubling is that significant disparity exists between cities with the least and most dangerous streets. According to the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. cities with the most dangerous streets have traffic fatality rates 400% greater than those with the least dangerous streets. Disparity exists not because of some natural, unmitigated risk, but because of public policy.

Public policy that prioritizes the rapid movement of automobiles over the safety of people walking, cycling, and even driving has tremendous societal impacts that extend far beyond dangerous streets, degrading air quality, public health, equity, fiscal sustainability, and livability.

By shifting our priorities, and our public policy to follow, Vision Zero is absolutely achievable. To get there, cities will need elected officials who see Vision Zero as a moral imperative, and the will to rethink the very fabric, and culture, of our urban centers.

Speed Management

Traffic deaths and serious injuries occur on city streets not because of intoxicated driving, inattentive driving, or any other human error. Those factors are troubling, but they contribute more to crash probability than crash severity. It is crash severity that kills and maims.

The Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recognize speed as the crucial factor in crash severity. Achieving Vision Zero does not require some unresolved engineering challenge, or education to teach people how to walk safely. As expressed by the Commander of Joint Base San Antonio when explaining the outstanding traffic safety record on U.S. military installations in San Antonio, achieving Vision Zero requires speed management.

There is a distinction between speed management and managing speeding. Speeding is a major problem, but more significant are travel speeds that exceed safe crash speeds. The target speed that is considered a safe crash speed may be debated, but research and experience from Europe, Japan, U.S. military installations and even New York City suggest safe travel speeds do not exceed 25 mph in urban areas, and may be lower. Experience from cities with the safest streets in the world demonstrates that compliance with safe travel speeds is essential to achieving Vision Zero. Other elements may also be necessary, such as a large-scale shift from automobile use to safer transportation modes like walking, cycling and transit, but compliance with safe travel speeds remains the greatest obstacle to Vision Zero today.

Culture Change

Although the path to Vision Zero is clear, traveling that path remains difficult. Slowing traffic requires transformative change in American cities. Not just transformative changes to our street networks, but to the way policymakers view transportation and land use. Vision Zero challenges the very assumptions we make as a society about how our cities are built. Most importantly, Vision Zero challenges modern culture.

These problems are difficult, but they are not insurmountable. Achieving Vision Zero in any city requires an elected official to champion the idea. But a single public leader cannot alone deliver on that vision; committed staff, public support and other elected officials are also critical. I believe any city with an elected official willing to champion Vision Zero will find the support they need.

There is great inertia behind the way modern cities and transportation systems are built. The transformative change required to achieve Vision Zero will require more than one election cycle. To elicit support from decision-makers and the public, skill and steadfastness are needed because change is incremental, especially cultural change. Elected officials who champion Vision Zero must approach that incremental change in a way that makes meaningful progress, but also builds support for the long haul.

Building Consensus

In San Antonio, I worked with state legislators to make the most dangerous road in my district safer; gave municipalities a greater authority to reduce speed and use alternative roadway design standards; and most importantly, built awareness that traffic injuries and fatalities are a product of public policy decisions. I have found success by first building broad consensus on the vision and the outcome.

Consistent, honest messaging that Vision Zero is achievable, requires transformative change, and is linked to prosperity and quality of life is foundational to building consensus. Seeking endorsement from as many groups and organizations as possible is also constructive. I have brought universities, public schools, planning organizations, community advocacy groups, government and private employers, and nonprofits on board with Vision Zero. These endorsements are powerfully persuasive to other elected officials, especially in a city that lacks prominent transportation advocacy groups.

Achieving Vision Zero will require policy changes, legislative changes, and redesigning our dangerous streets. It will require solutions that are not palatable to the public. Marching forward with those solutions before consensus has been built is politically risky. The most ardent and courageous elected official cannot advance Vision Zero if they do not have sufficient public support. Relative to the policy, legislative, and engineering solutions needed to achieve the vision, communicating and gaining acceptance of Vision Zero is both less difficult and politically risky. However, building acceptance still requires persistence and patience. The deliberate effort to build consensus on Vision Zero will pay dividends when practical solutions are proposed, debated, and implemented.

A Movement Rises

Today, we are part of an important and powerful phenomenon. Vision Zero is becoming a national movement. The auto-dominant culture prevalent in San Antonio is not unique to San Antonio. It is deeply entrenched in U.S. cities of every size where pedestrians are required to yield the right-of-way to motorists by default. This unquestioned bias, that prioritizes motorists’ interests above all other road users, reflects our culture. However, culture can change.

A parallel is often drawn between adoption of seatbelts and Vision Zero, but the scale of change required for Vision Zero is far greater than seatbelt laws. The adoption of seatbelts did not require fundamental changes in society’s value system. The movement for Vision Zero is not the equal of the civil rights movement, but the cultural changes required for Vision Zero are closer in magnitude to civil rights than seatbelt laws.

Achieving Vision Zero requires public leaders to recognize that decisions made about land use and transportation over the past 70-plus years are killing and maiming people; that continuing to make the same decisions today will continue to kill and maim people; that leaders are culpable in tens of thousands of deaths every year. Achieving Vision Zero is dependent on the public recognizing that traffic fatalities and serious injuries in our cities are not inevitable, but the result of bad public policy. Achieving Vision Zero requires the public to see the connection between their transportation choices and the safety of their neighbors and families.

The coalition of cities adopting Vision Zero policies is beginning to build counter-inertia to the status quo. The progress being made in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles; the experiences from Europe and Tokyo; and the longstanding success from U.S. military installations are accelerating Vision Zero’s momentum. I firmly believe we are moving toward a watershed moment that will result in a national movement, possibly the greatest historical event of our generation. In our lifetime, if we want it, Vision Zero will be achieved.

[This article was first published in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2016.]

Shirley Gonzales was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, where she owns and operates a small business with her mother Eloise Gonzales. She has been working in her family-owned business for 20 years and enjoys being a strong corporate leader by supporting educational institutions and organizations making a difference in her neighborhood. She is the Council Member for San Antonio’s District 5. Shirley earned both a bachelor and master’s degree from the School of Business at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. She has two children, Ian and Zachary, and is married to Dr. Kevin Barton.

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