Vision Zero in the United States is growing up and, not unexpectedly, is experiencing some growing pains. While it is not surprising that the new-to-the-U.S. approach has displayed a mix of both advances and setbacks, an analysis of the movement so far shows that the long-term viability of Vision Zero depends on big, bold changes in thinking and action — and soon.
Nationally, after a decades-long decline, traffic fatalities are on the rise. Much of this deadly growth is seen in cities and is borne on the backs of people walking and biking. A few years in, early-adopting Vision Zero cities, including New York, San Francisco, and San Antonio, are running into challenges. Having moved through much of the “low-hanging fruit” strategies and street redesigns, these cities are now confronting tougher, more meaningful changes that challenge the status quo more directly. The conversation is shifting to politically thorny issues like the necessity of removing parking or altering driving expediency to save lives. How these cities decide to proceed will make all the difference.
The State of Speed
Chief among these shifts in the status quo are debates about how to reconfigure limited resources, the math of divvying up the street, and the challenge of long-time disinvestment in neighborhoods that have historically lacked political clout or connections. The challenges facing early-adopting Vision Zero cities also go beyond the local; many cities are campaigning to win state approval to reduce speed limits, use automated speed enforcement, and redesign streets to encourage slower, safer speeds. These campaigns — in which cities need to ask permission of state leaders to make conditions safer on the local level — are an apt example of the time-consuming and often thorny nature of meaningful Vision Zero transformation. These are not quick-and-easy changes, but they are essential.
Unfortunately, it is precisely at the state level that some Vision Zero cities are losing ground. The Texas Legislature recently repealed the use of red-light enforcement cameras, despite clear and overwhelming evidence of their effectiveness, and raised speed limits to as high as 85 mph, despite similarly clear and overwhelming evidence of the dangers that will bring. There are brighter spots in the local efforts of Austin, Texas, which aims to defy the statewide policy trends by developing and funding its own robust speed management program, including traffic calming measures and dynamic signage.
Many early-adopting Vision Zero cities are using state-level policymaking to their advantage. For instance, in early 2017, Boston and other Vision Zero cities in Massachusetts successfully won approval from their state legislature to lower default city speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph. Recent studies show these lower speed limits are encouraging slower, safer travel by drivers. In 2016, state-level Vision Zero efforts in Seattle, Washington successfully lowered speed limits in the central city from 30 mph to 25 mph, and in residential areas from 25 mph to 20 mph. In 2018, Portland, Oregon went through the state legislature to reduce the speed limit to 20 mph on all residential streets, which make up 70 percent of the city’s streets. And within the past few years, both cities have emphasized the proven effectiveness of speed cameras, with Seattle expanding its program and Portland launching a new one.
It is no coincidence that all these efforts are focused on speed. Studies show speed is the most significant factor in fatal traffic crashes, and cities like New York that have lowered their speed limits are among the few that are seeing significant reductions in traffic fatalities. Outside the state level, cities as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, and Philadelphia are doing what they can locally toward speed management efforts as part of their Vision Zero commitments, including road design changes, lowering speed limits, and strengthening the case for using safety cameras to manage speed. These cities recognize that they will not be successful reaching zero without managing speed for safety.
This concern with speed management is trickling upward from cities to the federal government. As transportation professionals increasingly recognize that long-held standards for setting speed limits on U.S. roads — dating back to the 1940s and largely based on rural driving conditions — are outdated and counterproductive to safety goals, we are seeing stepped-up national leadership on the critical issue of speed management. This year, the Federal Highway Administration is expected to consider a strong recommendation from its advisory group to modify the U.S. Department of Transportation’s technical design manual, updating the much-maligned 85 percent speed setting standard to consider other road users, such as those walking and biking, as well as land-use and crash history. We can only hope that states will follow suit.
Vision Zero 2.0
Where do we go from here? As Vision Zero and speed management become more commonplace in American cities, it is time to consider a framework for safety that can guide changes beyond the low-hanging fruit. We can call this stage Vision Zero 2.0.
In this world of Vision Zero 2.0, champions of meaningful change must understand and embrace the importance of a Safe System approach, which focuses on designing a forgiving transportation system where inevitable human error does not result in loss of life or severe injury, particularly for the most vulnerable road users. We must pivot from the strategy of trying to influence every individual to behave perfectly all the time to accepting some level of human failure and incorporating this into decision-making and design. We must develop policies and physical environments that make mistakes less deadly.
The reality is that there are deep, systemic problems and injustices in the policies and street designs that brought the United States to the point of accepting 40,000 preventable deaths a year. It will take systemic, transformative change to turn the tide.
Consider the fact that people of color and people in low-income communities are twice as likely to be killed while walking as white people and people in higher-income communities. The call to invest more resources in places where data and experience show us that safety is most sorely lacking is long overdue. People walking and bicycling in the U.S. make up 18 percent of traffic fatalities, yet states report spending less than one percent of their federal safety funds on improving safety outcomes for pedestrians and bicyclists. Correcting these inequities must define Vision Zero 2.0.
As we attempt to rectify these inequities with a focus on redesigning streets and setting speeds for safety, we cannot ignore the toll of enforcement on vulnerable road users. Bicyclists are outsize targets of punitive enforcement efforts, and people of color doubly so. This puts the onus on Vision Zero 2.0 leaders to help change racially biased law enforcement policies and practices. As advocates for Vision Zero, we cannot pretend that racial justice is outside our wheelhouse and wait for other social justice activists to do the heavy lifting. We need our Vision Zero demands to include transparency and accountability from the police to ensure Vision Zero does not cause harm.
This effort will be boosted by data. But the police-collected data many cities use today as the basis for decision-making undercounts and undervalues some community members. For instance, a recent analysis in San Francisco showed that local police data can miss 24 to 39 percent of severe injuries suffered by pedestrians and bicyclists, later captured at a trauma center or hospital. This is foundational to all else, because this data defines everything that happens next. We must demand that everyone is counted, whether walking, bicycling, riding in a car or on a bus; whether an immigrant or a U.S. citizen; whatever their race or ethnicity.
Even for the counted victims, the system requires a transformative change. Today, still, in the era of Vision Zero, the justice system sees people who kill with their cars as hapless victims, rather than owning the responsibility that should be inherent in driving. This will be one of the most challenging areas to change, because driver-oriented biases run so deep in our culture, but we must try.
From New York to Durham to Minneapolis, Vision Zero is advancing. People are surviving crashes because of lowered speed limits, innovative street designs are rewriting our impression of what is possible, and the Federal government is turning our examples into national models. This is the moment to rise from our laurels. Vision Zero 2.0 will require more complex strategies and a strong commitment to ensure our safe right to the street and the future of our cities. To succeed, our advocacy must persist in pushing for near-term, urgent, on-the-ground change, while also looking upstream to identify and uproot the long-time systemic failures that kill people on streets, sidewalks, and bikeways every day.
[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2019.]
Leah Shahum is the founder and Director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit project working to advance Vision Zero nationwide (visionzeronetwork.org). Before that, she ran the 10,000-member San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.