Vision Zero is a strategy. Vision Zero is a commitment. Vision Zero is—yes, you guessed it—a vision of a community where no fatalities or serious injuries result from traffic accidents. For an overview of what Vision Zero means and what it is intended to accomplish, you can read this past Safe travels.® blog entry. For a deeper look into how communities can implement Vision Zero into their transportation system, read on.
Vision Zero starts with the individual and expands outward. But ‘individual’ doesn’t just mean drivers. It is vital to include pedestrians, bicyclists—everyone, really, who goes from place to place—in the Vision Zero process. After all, people outside of cars are the most vulnerable travelers on our streets.
Vision Zero goes even deeper than the individual—it goes inside, where a person’s capacity for error lies. Everyone makes mistakes: it’s a cliché, something we teach our children, because it’s true. Laws, signs, lights, pavement markings—no matter what methods we use to make traffic safer, drivers and non-drivers alike will still make mistakes on the road. And because mistakes lead to accidents, the common wisdom holds that traffic fatalities and serious injuries are inevitable.
Think about transportation differently
Vision Zero rejects the acceptance of death and injury as unavoidable byproducts of the need to get around. True, everyone behind the wheel can make a mistake with the potential to cause harm; but there are measures that can and should be taken that can prevent human error from causing the hurt and heartache of serious traffic accidents.
Before Vision Zero efforts can get off the ground, a fundamental shift in thinking about roadway design must take place. The traditional approach centers on motor vehicles. The Vision Zero approach focuses on people. In a Vision Zero community, making people safe is more important than making a driver’s commute to work as quick as possible. Street networks are conceived, designed, built, maintained, and patrolled with the understanding that even though "to err is human," deaths and serious accidents on the road are preventable.
The idea of Safe Systems, one of the foundations upon which Vision Zero is built, is to create layers around the individual to protect him or her, whether riding a bicycle, walking, or traveling in a motor vehicle. And the responsibility rests not only with drivers but also with planners, engineers, builders, community members, and especially government officials to design and build transportation systems that do not sacrifice safety for speed and flow.
Build your Vision Zero team
Given the need to make fundamental changes to a transportation system, the first step an aspiring Vision Zero city should take is the formation of a high-powered task force to oversee the process. Without the authority of high-level decision makers, Vision Zero will be little more than a slogan and a hope. This task force should be more than an advisory board, but one with real power to make changes. Diversity should be another emphasis when putting a team together, to ensure that traditionally underserved populations have their voices heard.
What the Vision Zero task force should focus on is data-driven decision making. Where are the “hot spots” where traffic fatalities and serious injuries most often occur? Traffic engineers need to address those areas and offer specific solutions, from reduced speeds to curb extensions to leading pedestrian intervals at crosswalks. Projects should be scheduled with specific timeframes, and follow-up studies conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.
But a systemic approach is also vital. The Vision Zero Network states that “Vision Zero has the potential to galvanize a thorough and lasting shift in how we design and use our transportation systems to prioritize the preservation and quality of human life” (Vision, Strategies, Action: Guidelines for an Effective Vision Zero Action Plan, 2017). Interdepartmental cooperation is key, between government officials, city planners, community members, and emergency personnel. Desired outcomes should be specified beforehand and results made readily accessible to all stakeholders, including the public. Accountability is key if Vision Zero is to have lasting effects on the safety of our streets.
One strategy more and more cities are using—or getting ready to use—is Smart City technology. As it applies to traffic safety, vehicles wirelessly connected to infrastructure and intelligent warning systems will soon be on the road, adding another layer to the prevention of serious traffic accidents. To find out more about so-called Connected Vehicle technology, check out this recent Safe travels.® blog post.
Focus on equity
The truth is, not all neighborhoods are starting from the same place when it comes to safe streets. Historically inequitable investment has resulted in low-income people and people of color being hurt and killed in traffic accidents at a proportionally greater rate than other sectors of the population. According to a 2014 study, African Americans and Latinos were twice as likely as whites to be killed while walking. The same study found that low-income pedestrians were also twice as likely to be killed as people with high incomes. A 2012 study reported that ninety percent of high-income neighborhoods had sidewalks, compared to just 49% of low-income neighborhoods.
This disparity underscores the importance of equity in a Vision Zero strategy. It takes political courage to insist on large capital investment in areas where the tax base is not as high as others, but zero means zero and everyone has a right to move safely about their community.
While being especially cognizant of the needs of low-income neighborhoods and ones with a high percentage of people of color is important to the success of a Vision Zero program, the practice must be careful to avoid the pitfalls of racial profiling and selective enforcement. This guide from the Vision Zero Network provides a wealth of suggestions on how the goal of safe streets can be achieved without increasing the inequities that already exist in society.
Take a “less is more” approach to traffic
One straightforward way to reduce traffic accidents is to have fewer cars on the street. Therefore, public transit must be a big part of a Vision Zero plan. And people will only walk somewhere if they feel safe doing so, meaning that safe pedestrian routes are important. Likewise, bicyclists do not want to take their lives in their hands whenever they push off and start pedaling, which suggests that bike lanes should perhaps be more than a white stripe on the pavement.
Having fewer cars on the road leads to a multitude of other benefits too: less emissions and air pollution, less dependence on fossil fuels, a healthier environment, and more physically active citizens.
Despite generations focused on education, regulation, and enforcement, at least 32,000 and as many as 51,000 people have died every year since 1975 in the U.S. because of motor vehicle crashes (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). It will take a holistic approach to transportation—backed by political will, cooperation, and inclusion—to make the vision of zero traffic fatalities a reality.
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