Vision Zero NYC: Ending the Body Count

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Vision Zero is about more than looking both ways.

The following article, "Ending the Body Count," appears in the upcoming fall edition of Transportation Alternatives’ Reclaim Magazine.

Last year, I wrote a letter to the NYC Department of Transportation asking for traffic calming on 65th Street near my home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Several elderly pedestrians had been struck and killed by cars nearby. This is a street where I grew up and where my parents still live. A traffic employee was sent to monitor the speeds of passing vehicles, and I received a letter shortly afterward stating that careful analysis had led to the conclusion that no calming measure was justified. This seemed perverse. How many dead or tragically injured bodies does it take to put in a speed bump, neck down or stop sign on a street? Isn’t one enough?

New York could use some lessons on Swedish transportation ethics. Eleven years ago, the Swedish Parliament passed a bold transportation bill based on a road safety philosophy called Vision Zero. The road transport system in Sweden is already one of the safest in the world, but even the low number of fatalities is viewed as unacceptable. Based on a zero tolerance attitude, Sweden has strategized to eliminate all fatalities and serious injuries on its road transport system by 2020.  

Vision Zero is founded on the ethical premise that society can never exchange life or health for other benefits. Under the current transportation paradigm in New York, human life and health is traded for mobility, economics and other factors. An optimally designed road system should not lead to death or life-long physical impairment. Streets are engineered so as to make traffic fatalities impossible, most often through designing lower speeds into the roadbed. Better sight lines, traffic calming and public education all play their part in eliminating fatalities, and ensuring that the remaining crashes don’t result in serious injury.

The origins of Vision Zero and the zero tolerance mantra can be traced back 100 years to industrial safety standards and the chemical industry. Workers were protected under zero tolerance from noxious chemicals, heavy injury or risk of death. It wasn’t easy, but laws eventually forbade industry from placing profit and expediency above the lives and safety of workers.

The road transport system needs safer engineering and needs to be more forgiving of human error. The Stockholm Environment Institute, an independent research center focused on sustainable development, argues that the road environment should not deliver a death penalty if someone makes a mistake. Streets must allow for human error without it leading to serious injury.

When a car in New York jumps a curb or makes a right turn that results in the injury of a pedestrian, it is usually reported as an accident, alluding to the unexpectedness of the event. Streets where cars can drive at speeds of 30+ mph are bound to have a crash at some point according to the laws of probability. Low speed limits, separated bike lanes and well-designed shared spaces are sample infrastructure changes that can help reach a Vision Zero performance target. When it comes to road safety, crashes should be viewed as mistakes in street design rather than unavoidable accidents.

More than 250 New Yorkers are killed in automobile-related crashes every year, and it’s not unusual for City officials to tout these historically low numbers as evidence that they are doing their jobs well, as if exchanging 250 lives is a reasonable trade for mobility. Only in transportation is this somehow acceptable. This past spring, two construction cranes toppled over in separate incidents, killing six people and injuring several others. This prompted the Department of Buildings to declare war on falling cranes. Clearly, objects crashing down on city streets are a serious hazard to people, legitimizing such a hard stance. Automobiles moving at high speeds are the horizontal counterparts of falling cranes and building debris.

Sweden has seen a steady decline in crash fatalities in the ten years since making Vision Zero the cornerstone of its road safety plan. The success is influencing several other countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Britain, The Netherlands and Germany to consider the policy.  A dense urban locality has yet to implement Vision Zero without a federal directive, and New York would be an ideal testing ground. All that is required is a shift from the current policy of crash reduction to the elimination of death and serious injury. A civilized society should not treat crash victims as collateral damage.

Michael Kodransky is an urban planner at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy – Europe, which is based in Germany.

Photo: wallyg/Flickr

  • People are so used to cars having “accidents” that the word has come to mean something that is inevitable, unavoidable and a simple fact of life. This is plain wrong. Most accidents happen for a reason, whether it’s poor street design, poor vehicle design, or poor judgement on the part of driver, cyclist, pedestrian, skateboarder, whatever. These incidents should all be avoidable, and should not be called accidents. A tree falling during a high wind and landing on a vehicle – that’s an accident. A deer running out in front of you – that’s an accident. A driver or cyclist running a red light and colliding with another driver or cyclist should NOT be called an “accident”.

  • That was a very incoherent rant. Please change the first sentence to read “People are so used to cars having “accidents” that these incidents are too often seen as events that are inevitable, unavoidable and simple facts of life.”

  • I agree, Andy, but I’d go further. My dad used to say that there are no accidents. A tree falling during a high wind can be the fault of poor tree maintenance. Drivers should be just as prepared for deer (and birds, squirrels, dogs, raccoons, etc.) as they are for pedestrians and cyclists.

    My high school history teacher went further and said, “there are no mistakes, only experiences. Just try not to make the same experience twice.” Sadly, he was killed by a drunk driver, and nobody had a chance to avoid that experience.

  • Greener Grass

    This is a classic of recent stuff out of T.A.:

    – Someone has a better philosophy, so they must be doing things much better than NYC is.

    – It has yielded impressive benefits, but we didn’t bother to actually dig up any information about what they are.

    – Sweden is far superior to NYC rhetorically and that is enough. That would make us feel better. Although if you did dig up Swedish numbers and compared them to the steep drop in fatalities here over the past decade and 20 years, it’s not clear you would see anything different.

  • Be careful, even Vision Zero can be perverted. It has been hijacked by talk of “dangerous roads”, airbags, and other devices which serve to pass the blame from drivers. Roads are not dangerous, speeding drivers are dangerous.

    The best safety device is to slow cars down, because it gives road users more time to react to a dangerous situation, and it also reduces the force of impact.

    This article discusses how France has reduced fatalities by 35% since 2001 by installing 900 speed cameras, tougher penalties, and more patrols.
    http://www.dn.se/DNet/jsp/polopoly.jsp?a=688601

    As Andy points out, the term “accidents” is problematic. Fatalities is better.

  • Oh, and it’s useful to compare car-related fatalities to fatalities in aviation and public transport, where Vision Zero already has been achieved.

  • Greener, you twice chide T.A. for not providing numbers, yet you provide none of your own. I especially love this passage: “Although if you did dig up Swedish numbers and compared them to the steep drop in fatalities here over the past decade and 20 years, it’s not clear you would see anything different.” Note interesting use of subjective mood and the weasel words “it’s not clear.” It’s not clear to you because you didn’t bother to come up with a single number or hard fact to counter T.A.

  • James

    I just don’t buy the idea that you can design your way out of something like this in a place like NYC. In a few places, yes: places like Grand Concourse and Queens Boulevard just beg irresponsible motorists to mash their feet on the gas pedal and thus could potentially be redesigned to bring speeds down. However, there is an awful lot of aggressive driving taking place on tiny neighborhood streets that already have a design speed of below 30mph. If we define “design speed” as the speed at which motorists feel comfortable traveling, then we have a big discrepancy between what the original traffic engineers believed to be a maximum comfortable velocity and what motorists in 2008 believe this to be.

    IMO, it comes down to the NYPD doing their job. There’s a culture of reckless driving and a law of the jungle mentality among motorists here. We all know this. When coupled with the absence of traffic enforcement, you get what we have now. I’ve seen motorists pull stuff in plain sight of the police here that would be tolerated for about 0.3 seconds elsewhere. They have no fear of any consequences, and why should they?

  • Oh, it’s certainly possible. We can mandate that no car be capable of going more than 30mph. We can ban cars from the city. We can position a police officer on every single street corner. If people NEED their cars to be capable of 180mph (I can see it – they might go to the track at weekends), we could install devices in cars that talk wirelessly to speed limit signs. These devices could either limit the speed automatically, or give speed info to the police to automatically issue speeding tickets. All these things can be done. It just depends how much we’re willing to spend, how much freedom we’re willing to give up, and basically how much we, as a society, really want it.

  • In the post above, I said “subjective mood” but meant “subjunctive mood.” I will now borrow an SUV and run over my proofreader.

  • brent

    When it comes to traffic calming, heavy handed enforcement is the way to go. In fact, ever since the NYPD has kept an officer stationed on the pedestrian walkway of the 59th St Bridge, Vision Zero has been achieved. As a cyclist, constantly being yelled at to “dismount and walk your bike” and “slow down” and “don’t veer a half inch into the pedestrian lane even though there aren’t any pedestrians within 100 feet of you” has made this NYC’s safest stretch of pavement. This experiment in enforcement is showing real results- now let’s try it with cars sometime!
    OK sorry for that- I’m just so fed up with having to walk my bike so as to not travel at dangerous speeds of 12 mph while a few feet away cars zoom past at about 45 or so.

  • Streetsman

    “When it comes to road safety, crashes should be viewed as mistakes in street design rather than unavoidable accidents.”

    In our litigious American society, there is not enough money in all the city’s coffers to address the liability implications of that statement. It would simply bankrupt the city government overnight.

  • You can design your way for a better city very easily. When all designs start and prioritize the pedestrian first, I think we would all be amazed at the results. This does not mean it will be easy, but with 2-30 years of the proper planning this might just be the greatest walkable city ever. It is sad that the shared streets design are just now starting to get attention and implemented in the US. We need more of these everywhere.

  • Greener Grass

    Mark, the fatality situation in NYC has been and continues to be heavily chronicled. You can even look it up here. But since facts aren’t the main currency here in the comment section, here you go:

    “The Mayor also released final 2007 traffic fatality data today showing that traffic fatalities in New York City dropped to the lowest level since records started being kept in 1910: 271 traffic fatalities citywide, down more than 30% since 2001. There were also an all-time low 136 pedestrian deaths last year-13% fewer than previous lows in both 2004 and 2005.”

    http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.c0935b9a57bb4ef3daf2f1c701c789a0/index.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&catID=1194&doc_name=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nyc.gov%2Fhtml%2Fom%2Fhtml%2F2008a%2Fpr033-08.html&cc=unused1978&rc=1194&ndi=1

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/stratplan_safety.pdf

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2008/01/18/bloomberg-touches-on-safe-streets-pricing-in-state-of-the-city/

  • fdr

    “All these things can be done. It just depends how much we’re willing to spend, how much freedom we’re willing to give up, and basically how much we, as a society, really want it.”
    You’re right, Andy – we as a society are not ready to spend, or give up freedom, nor do we “really want” to do the radical things you suggest.

  • Emily J.

    There are other ways, besides just better law enforcement, to slow drivers down. Speed bumps, traffic circles in place of regular intersections, and narrower roadways come to mind. I am not a traffic planner, and I’m sure each of these has plusses and minuses, but the point is that, even without NYPD cooperation, DOT could be redesigning roads to make them safer for everyone–pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

  • Yo Greener Grass:

    crash numbers, after years of decline, have leveled off. that is why we need a new approach.

    if T.A. and the City listened to those who have decried global best practice because NYC is a such a “unique context” then we would would not have summer streets, BRT, protected bike lanes, parking reforms, and a host of other great stuff that has been successfully adapted and adopted of late.

  • Greener Grass

    I said nothing about a unique context, and don’t disagree that adopting strong goals and a safety philosophy with a very clear public message are advantageous for NYC.

    I was simply pointing out that public advocacy with a credibility gap big enough to drive a Volvo through doesn’t do anyone any good. Claiming Sweden Good, NYC Bad without any supporting information or research is just that.

    Mark, the fatality picture in NYC has and continues to be very well chronicled. You can even look it up on Streetsblog.

    Anyway, a quick internet search yields this comparison:

    2000-2004 road deaths decline in Sweden: -19%
    2000-2004 road deaths decline in NYC: -28%

    Sure, any segment of time like this is subject to variations and change over the long run, etc., but it’s pretty clear that Vision Zero hasn’t led to real world safety gains that in any way put NYC to shame.

    So, Punk, what “global best practice” are you actually talking about?

  • JK

    It’s worth noting that Vision Zero in Sweden and Denmark is a statement of values by the national legislatures, in which they charge the road agencies and car builders to take more responsibility for reducing crashes. Our problem is almost the opposite. Our state legislature is far behind our local road agency (NYC DOT) and even our police on road safety issues. The legislature opposes red light and speed enforcement cameras, tougher driver testing and education standards, tougher penalties and greater accountability for drivers who kill and injure. The power of Vision Zero is one of the social and political consensus which the state or national legislature represent. The mayor and City Council could still adopt Vision Zero, but they do not control many of the laws and regulations needed for effective safety education and enforcement.

  • greener grass,

    we’re not saying “Sweden good, NYC bad” we’re saying that accepting several score deaths and injuries a year as business-as-usual is bad. and sure, sweden might have something to learn from NYC too.

    what is amazing is that the recent reduction in NYC has occurred with a piecemeal approach. only a relative handful of dangerous streets and intersections have seen improvements. imagine what a vision zero approach and the systematic application of ped safety measures (like LPIs for example) could accomplish.

  • Greg

    I find it rather perverse that the sign in the photo is addressed at pedestrians. Shouldn’t it be addressed to motorists, and read:

    “A pedestrian was killed crossing here, slow the fuck down.”

  • Emily J.

    Great point, Greg.

  • BernardMarx

    “There are other ways, besides just better law enforcement, to slow drivers down. Speed bumps, traffic circles in place of regular intersections, and narrower roadways come to mind. I am not a traffic planner, and I’m sure each of these has plusses and minuses, but the point is that, even without NYPD cooperation, DOT could be redesigning roads to make them safer for everyone–pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.”

    DOT’s budget is small and shrinking. The idea that we can design our way to safety is utopian. We are in a built environment that is not going to see anything other than marginal physical improvements. The current DOT regime has lots of good ideas and is very good at generating PR about these ideas, but the reality is that they don’t have much impact at their current scale. The only real hope for safety improvements is to focus on behavior modification.

    “what is amazing is that the recent reduction in NYC has occurred with a piecemeal approach. only a relative handful of dangerous streets and intersections have seen improvements. imagine what a vision zero approach and the systematic application of ped safety measures (like LPIs for example) could accomplish.”

    What’s amazing is that people actually believe that the long-term (downward) trends (both locally and nationally) in accident and fatality rates are actually caused by these piecemeal changes. Safer cars, better trauma medicine, and major efforts to reduced drunk driving are much more significant factors.

    “crash numbers, after years of decline, have leveled off. that is why we need a new approach” First, there has been one year of leveling off of some categories of crashes, which does not a trend make. Second, the population has been increasing continuously, as has the number of people driving in NYC, so in fact rates of crashes and fatality are continuing to drop.

  • The only real hope for safety improvements is to focus on behavior modification.

    We’d all love to see the plan!

  • somebody

    heh… i can’t believe it took a full 24 hours until someone with Greg’s perspicacity showed up.

    Indeed, let’s have auto DRIVERS show some responsibility!! after all, they sign a piece of paper that basically says they know and will obey the road rules.

  • JK

    H’mm, yes, seems the point of Vision Zero elsewhere is that those countries have achieved a rough national consensus — as reflected by their legislatures — that reducing road deaths is more important than moving motorists. Without that consensus, as reflected by legislative action, it is harder for the road agencies to redesign roads for safety. In other words, Vision Zero probably works a lot better coming outside from a legislature than from inside a road agency.

  • gecko

    Vision Zero NYC is right on except that targeting 2020 seems to be a long time.

    A very aggressive local initiative will not only save a lot of lives but be crucial to a major transformation for New York City to meet the demands of modern civilization and lead the way in eradicating a key part of the structural violence of antiquated urban design.

  • Andy

    While I agree with Greg, pedestrians also bear some respsonsibility. As a daily cyclist, I don’t know why peds stand in the street, far from the sidewalk, 2 inches from cars and start walking the second they are able. when I’m cylcing pedestrians move in as close as possible leaving only inches for me to pass which can seem somewhat agressive.
    don’t get me started on jaywalking or joggers in the street whether they are running the right or wrong way. if everyone stayed in their assigned space and followed the rules, things would be safer, no?

  • “if everyone stayed in their assigned space and followed the rules, things would be safer, no?”

    We’ll never know, since the conditions of the hypothesis are impossible to satisfy. What we do know is that compliance in NYC is terrible among all modes of street users, resulting in gridlock for automobiles and death, injury, and frustration for everyone else. Even if compliance could be made perfect, by magic, I have my doubts that things would be so great for pedestrians and cyclists (or even cars) given our present streets and statues. We have to move forward with the recognition that those things are fluid, that it is our right and even responsibility as a civilization to think about how to make them better.

    And so it is that people who prefer the status quo (who are comfortable with their current set of privileges) will focus on compliance and law enforcement in order to dismiss new designs and programs that aim to fix problems at their source (poor compliance being merely a symptom). With congestion pricing the fake (and childish, really) alternative of $1000 double parking tickets was suggested to distract New Yorkers, but of course extreme penalties did not and SHOULD NOT come to pass, because in addition to not being London, Stockholm, or Paris, New York is not Pyongyang. Some people seem to be aiming for Mexico City, but I think we’re starting to find a path through the wasteland of automotive failure. Parts of it will be inspired by successes in the EU and elsewhere, and parts of it will be of our own invention.

  • gecko

    Vision Zero will save lives, enable much better transit systems, greatly improve local environments along with business, and be a shining example of high-quality multi-benefit eco-design.

  • Jessica G

    I would just like to say is that there must be something fishy going on in the DOT. I live in midwood that seems to be sprouting street lights faster than the lawns grow weeds. Now I recently inquired as to why my block was getting a light and was told that based on a study which i never saw and never will see my block required a light. Now being that there are hardly cars passing by and the school only causes traffic twice a day and there have been no fatalities for at least 20 years I just don’t see why we need a light and streets that have been proven dangerous can’t seem to get a light.

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