Vision Zero By the People

By Leah Shahum

As new U.S. cities commit to Vision Zero, there is a trend in the arising skepticism; let’s call it “the Swedish problem.”

The problem is not the nation itself, of course, but the American interpretation that Vision Zero originated in a nation where everyone follows the rules. Americans’ doubts about Vision Zero being possible have their roots in the fact that, in the U.S., problem-solving is a lot more diverse, a lot less government-dictated and, quite simply, a lot messier than it is in Sweden.

And, the skeptics are right. No U.S. city will succeed in reaching Vision Zero by replicating the exact steps of the Swedish Vision Zero program. In Sweden, Vision Zero is governed by a topdown approach with strong leadership from the federal government. In the U.S., transforming “business as usual” in the world of traffic safety has been anything but centralized. Instead, it is sprouting from the most local level, as cities as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and Seattle are changing the game from the ground up.

In a democracy founded in revolution, and rather recently in geopolitical terms, America’s Vision Zero will be populist. Today, the best Vision Zero ideas are soaked in that U.S. entrepreneurial spirit, taking a proven concept that is cutting the traffic fatality rate in half halfway around the world and transforming it to reflect our needs, our culture, and our society’s values. It won’t be as tidy and methodic as in Sweden, but it will be Vision Zero for the people and by the people, exactly what it needs to be to succeed in America. With community input, a market-savvy influence placed on culture change, and inherent inspiration from advocates, U.S. cities are creating a decidedly American version of Vision Zero.

Seeking Community Input

Already, we are seeing a Vision Zero that requires extensive debates and community consensus. Boston’s Visioning Lab moved beyond the constraints of the public meeting last year, engaging people in interactive “Creation Stations” to visualize how they want to get around Boston in the future, using not just community mapping but also collages, models, poems and more. On bikes or in bright colored trucks, city staff traveled to different Boston neighborhoods to gather questions and ideas from community members where they actually live, work and play. They collected people’s stories to better understand their travel experiences through their personal perspectives, including following a blind man on his commute to understand his unique challenges. His story was shared, along with hundreds of others, with residents and decision-makers citywide.

In Washington, D.C., city officials are producing, analyzing and sharing more traffic safety data than ever before, but they are also intent on balancing that data-driven approach with personal experiences in an effort to be more proactive than reactive. District staff asked residents to identify those problem areas that may never show up on heat maps of collisions. These are the unreported crashes, close calls, and intimidating areas where people fear to travel in the first place.

These community engagement efforts are time-consuming but critical to success in a country where “everyone matters” is written into the national bylaws. By allowing the public to shape components of Vision Zero, we create a support system that will help it succeed.

Marketing Culture Change

In the nation that stretches from Mad Men on the East Coast to Hollywood on the West, the need to sell culture change is obvious. From attentiveness to language — like the campaign to shift from traffic “accident” to “crash” — to glossy marketing campaigns against drunk driving, we see a novel focus on how our movement looks and sounds. Unlike in Sweden, where culture change is expected to trickle down from changes to engineering and policy, Vision Zero leaders across the U.S. are consciously and dramatically shifting the way we talk, and ultimately think, about traffic safety.

In a paradigm shift unimaginable in America just a few years ago, cities from Bellevue, Washington, to San Jose, California, to Washington, D.C., are adopting resolutions and advancing plans that recognize traffic crashes as “unacceptable” and “preventable.” In Fort Lauderdale, transportation manager Debbie Griner made the distinction clear; “We are committed to changing the mindset that traffic deaths and injuries are ‘accidents.’ Instead, they are incidents that can be avoided.” Mainstream media is following suit. Last year the editorial board of the Boston Globe wrote that, “The culture of driving has changed over time, and so can the widespread acceptance of motor vehicle fatalities as an unavoidable fact of life.” News outlets from the Associated Press to Wired to Slate to the Washington Post have questioned whether, journalistically, “accident” is an appropriate choice of word anymore.

Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency publicly announced that “the words we use can have a powerful influence on the way we view traffic injuries, and calling them ‘accidents’ implies that nothing can be done to stop them,” pledging to ensure, “that our language reflects our core belief that no traffic fatality is inevitable or acceptable. By making this small change in our everyday vocabulary, we can all help spark a change in the way we talk and think about traffic crashes.”

Vision Zero will require a seismic shift in American culture, and words matter a lot in moving the needle. Given the outsized influence that the U.S. culture machine has on much of the world, affecting culture change here has the potential for ripple effects well worth the effort.

Leading with Grassroots

The silver lining to a less top-down approach is that in the U.S., well-organized social movements do indeed influence change. In New York City and Portland, Oregon, people who lost loved ones in traffic crashes are organizing under the banner of Families for Safe Streets. Last year, families and others impacted by traffic violence organized in more than half a dozen cities to commemorate the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, the widest-ever U.S. recognition of the 20-year-old international event.

In New York City, these same families led a successful charge to introduce automated speed enforcement cameras and to lower the citywide speed limit to 25 mph. Thanks to their against-the-odds successes, communities across America are considering similar efforts, often led by, and giving voice to, the people who have suffered direct losses.

In Seattle, a group of citizens calling themselves Neighbors for Vision Zero regularly organize memorial walks and bike rides, drawing political and media attention to preventable tragedies on their streets. These somber social gatherings coalesce a demand for change, and often result in direct interventions from elected officials to address streets where people are being injured.

Vision Zero will require a slew of small changes to Americans’ daily lives, from the width of their streets to the likelihood of their dangerous driving being punished. Those changes will be an easier pill for Americans to swallow if they know they are products of protest rather than government decree. The respect for people rallying together to advocate for what they believe in is as American as apple pie, and it is also inherently a barometer that Americans trust when change is down the road.

Vision Zero 2.0

Today, in Sweden, some officials are even looking to American cities for ideas about how to move Vision Zero forward. Thanks to a unique approach, led by multitudes, rooted in culture change, and founded by the outcry of the most affected in every urban center, the U.S. is providing a real example for how to save lives around the world.

Those who are skeptical about importing a Swedish traffic safety program are right about one thing: Vision Zero is an audacious idea. When we’re done Americanizing it, it will be a revolutionary reality that saves the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.

Getting there won’t be as simple as copy-catting across the pond or enacting a federal law outlawing unsafe streets and dangerous driving. Rather, the road to Vision Zero in the U.S. will be complicated, people-powered, and deeply democratic. It will be full of potholes but inspired and advanced by people ready and willing to help fill them.

Last year the editorial board of the Boston Globe wrote that, “The culture of driving has changed over time, and so can the widespread acceptance of motor vehicle fatalities as an unavoidable fact of life.” News outlets from the Associated Press to Wired to Slate to the Washington Post have questioned whether, journalistically, “accident” is an appropriate choice of word anymore. Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency publicly announced that “the words we use can have a powerful influence on the way we view traffic injuries, and calling them ‘accidents’ implies that nothing can be done to stop them,” pledging to ensure, “that our language reflects our core belief that no traffic fatality is inevitable or acceptable. By making this small change in our everyday vocabulary, we can all help spark a change in the way we talk and think about traffic crashes.” Vision Zero will require a seismic shift in American culture, and words matter a lot in moving the needle. Given the outsized influence that the U.S. culture machine has on much of the world, affecting culture change here has the potential for ripple effects well worth the effort. Leading with Grassroots The silver lining to a less top-down approach is that in the U.S., well-organized social movements do indeed influence change. In New York City and Portland, Oregon, people who lost loved ones in traffic crashes are organizing under the banner of Families for Safe Streets. Last year, families and others impacted by

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

Leah Shahum is the founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, a campaign supporting cities working toward Vision Zero — zero traffic fatalities and severe injuries. The Vision Zero Network helps communities develop and share best practices for safe mobility for all road users. As a German Marshall Fund Fellow, Leah researched Vision Zero strategies in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. Prior to that, she was the Executive Director of the 10,000-member San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which promotes bicycling for everyday transportation. Leah formerly served on the boards of directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District and of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

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An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.

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Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

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