Each year, 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed in traffic crashes. But, too often, the headlines fade and the life-altering consequences are borne privately by anguished families and shattered communities. These “accidents” are seen as isolated tragedies rather than a widening epidemic of preventable violence that warrants strong and urgent public intervention.
Thanks in large part to advocates in NYC, cities across the U.S. are rejecting that subtle acceptance of street casualties and embracing a new framework: Vision Zero.
Vision Zero is a concept created in Sweden and credited with dropping that nation’s traffic deaths by 30 percent over the past 20 years. The Vision Zero concept:
- Boldly declares that no one — not a single person — should be killed or severely injured on our roads.
- Shatters the myth that traffic crashes are accidents, that they just happen like a lightning strike or stroke of genius.
- Compels communities to commit to a specific date by which they will eliminate life-altering traffic violence on their streets.
To even the most ardent advocate, the most idealistic cyclist, that probably sounds like fantasy. But it’s become a pillar of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and a core campaign of Transportation Alternatives, driving highly visible changes in city transportation priorities. Continuing their leadership, T.A. will sponsor and top city officials, including Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, will attend the Vision Zero Cities Symposium in Manhattan next week. Now in its second year, the event will bring together advocates and city officials to share innovations and best practices.
‘Enough is Enough’
The founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, Leah Shahum, who will speak at the conference, has been at the center of the American movement to end traffic violence — and she credits NYC for putting Vision Zero on the map in the United States. Transportation Alternatives was the first advocacy organization to press for the Swedish approach to safe streets with a high-profile report in 2011, and in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio made it official.
“Political and community leaders in New York City deserve a lot of credit for being willing to commit to Vision Zero first in the United States,” Shahum says. “The fast-growing Vision Zero movement wouldn’t be where it is today in this country without the brave family members, advocates, elected leaders and city staff who are saying ‘enough is enough’ and changing the status quo.”
But what does it look like to change the status quo? What’s different about Vision Zero and what does it mean for New Yorkers?
Vision Zero calls out dangerous driving — but encompasses a variety of solutions
Vision Zero doesn’t dance around the issue that the decisions made when wielding a 2-ton metal box carry more weight than when pedaling a 20-pound bicycle with only a helmet as protection. Vision Zero talks squarely about dangerous driving behaviors as the primary culprit in undermining street safety. But it’s not just finger-pointing. It takes a more nuanced approach. Yes, we need to change individual behaviors, so that jerk that buzzed you knows better (or gets a ticket), but it also recognizes that the way our streets are configured accentuates problems like speeding. Vision Zero is about winning hearts and minds — but also providing education and building infrastructure that make it easy for everyone to arrive safely to their destination.
“The environment and systems and policies that are in place deeply impact what happens on our streets,” Shahum says. “Now, we know that we can control the severity of crashes and injuries if we design roads for safer speeds, and if we set and enforce lower speed limits, and if we create safe, designated places for people to walk and bike.”
It spreads responsibility AND builds accountability
Especially for folks accustomed to getting the run around, it sounds like a paradox: more cooks in the kitchen but a more focused menu. One of the strengths of Vision Zero is that it brings different, nontraditional stakeholders to the table. Sure, there’s going to be some very heavy lifting in the city transportation department, but Vision Zero requires tangible steps from the police, public health officials, the taxi commission — and other community partners. And it’s not just vague platitudes. The Action Plan sets specific, measurable goals across city agencies, and it’s all coordinated by the top dog: the Mayor.
“Traditionally, we’ve not seen meaningful collaboration between traffic planners and engineers, police officers, policymakers, public health professionals, and community members,” Shahum says. “The truth is that they weren’t working together on shared goals because they didn’t have shared goals. With Vision Zero, the goal is clear: We prioritize safety.”
It’s not a popularity contest
Even the most idealistic among us know that, in politics, money and resources often follow power. Whether that’s a well-connected elected official or a particularly vociferous neighborhood group, city improvements don’t always go to those most in need. Vision Zero prioritizes gathering the necessary data (a battle in itself) and using it to drive decisions. Now, that might mean a bike lane that makes your commute more comfortable takes a back seat to improving a sidewalk in a deadly corridor. But it also means that street improvements are dictated by need, and not so easily swayed by NIMBYism.
The clock is ticking
With Vision Zero, there’s built-in urgency. The concept itself is defined by having a due date. In NYC, the deadline to reach zero is 2024. So there’s no kicking the can down the road. And advocates and residents can easily see if the Vision is on course — or falling behind.
This isn’t to say that Vision Zero is a silver bullet. It’s not to say that NYC has traffic safety solved now that it’s committed to the concept. Yes, fatality and injury rates are on the decline, but there have been missteps (police cracking down on pedestrians instead of focusing on other more deadly infractions, for instance) and there’s still a long way to go.
But Vision Zero is a term that should be on the lips of everyone who rides a bike in NYC, because it’s the best shot in recent history to shift culture and politics to make cycling a safe, inviting activity for all.
Stay tuned for more in coming weeks…
Carolyn Szczepanski is a writer, advocate and communications consultant focused on sustainable mobility and social justice.