Vision Zero and the Challenge of Culture Change

New measures supported by victims’ families and enacted by Mayor de Blasio aim to change cultural attitudes that accept traffic violence as an unavoidable fact of modern life. Photo: Stephen Miller

This is the first post in a two-part piece about how Vision Zero will have to change attitudes toward streets and driving in order to succeed.

City Council Member Mark Weprin’s Vision Zero moment came after watching video footage of the collision that killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Flushing, Queens, last October.

The driver of an SUV struck and killed Liao while she was crossing the street with her grandmother. They had the walk signal. Allison was dutifully holding her grandmother’s hand. Then the driver, making a left turn, knocked her grandmother down and dragged Allison under the vehicle’s wheel well.

“It was so graphic,” Weprin said, “It could happen to anyone. Some driver not paying attention can just snuff out a life just like that.”

Weprin admits that until recently he thought livable streets advocates were “crazy.” But after meeting with the families of victims of traffic crashes and hearing firsthand the devastating impact of acts of carelessness on the city’s streets, the eastern Queens representative became a supporter of Vision Zero.

“Pedestrians have the right of way, you don’t need to beat them,” Weprin said, “We all need to be calmer, we need to get you there safely.”

This is the central message of Vision Zero, that the human suffering caused by traffic crashes should not be accepted as part of daily life in the city. We as a city have a moral obligation to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“A life lost is a life lost,” goes Mayor de Blasio’s introduction to the Vision Zero Action Plan. “And it is our collective responsibility to save every life we can, be it a life taken in a violent crime or in a crash with a motor vehicle.”

To realize its Vision Zero goal — to eliminate traffic deaths in 10 years — the de Blasio administration will have to reengineer streets and step up enforcement. More than that, it will have to foster culture change.

“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,'” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”

In New York, a city defined by its hectic pace and pervasive impatience, the biggest obstacle to preventing traffic deaths will be changing a system of values that prioritizes automobile traffic, accepts traffic crashes, and condones aggressive driving.

Laying the Groundwork

Mayor de Blasio set his Vision Zero agenda into motion just two weeks after his inauguration. “This will be a top-to-bottom effort to take on dangerous streets and dangerous driving,” de Blasio said at the time.

Pushing Vision Zero so high up the agenda was not without political risk. “When I first heard of Vision Zero, I have to admit I was skeptical,” said Howard Wolfson, a former deputy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “I think the ground had been laid for it by many years of policy changes and policy success. But still, given the context this was a very ambitious program and an ambitious goal. Sometimes you have to shoot big, in order to capture people’s attention and make it clear what the stakes are.”

With Bloomberg’s support, former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan made bold changes to the streetscape. She oversaw the transformation of street space into pedestrian plazas, the rapid expansion of the bike network, the first Select Bus Service routes, and the introduction of Citi Bike.

By redesigning streets and dedicating space for bikes, buses, and pedestrians, Sadik-Khan challenged the prevailing values, beliefs, and expectations concerning who and what streets are for. “Twelve years ago streets were viewed mostly as asphalt and concrete corridors for moving cars as quickly as possible,” said Sadik-Khan. “Pedestrians and bicyclists were tolerated at best.”

“In this city we have a particular legacy both of an American culture that, let’s be honest, was very auto-centric for a lot of decades,” said Trottenberg, “and in New York we had the unique history of Robert Moses.”

The problem is that streets designed with only automobile traffic in mind are inherently dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Wide roadways encourage speeding and aggressive turns, the primary factors behind traffic fatalities. “You could see it in a street like Prospect Park West that looked like a runway and the message to drivers was, ‘Get ready for takeoff,'” said Sadik-Khan. “Our streets looked like the Wild West.”

Traffic was (and remains) among the city’s most prevalent threats to public safety, comparable to gun violence. But as the city moved to make streets safer, some public officials accused the administration of trying to “stigmatize car owners” by taking away parking (though very few spaces were actually removed) and narrowing lanes, giving more roadway space to bikes, pedestrians, and buses.

“I think people had this baggage, this cultural baggage, that streets are for cars,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “They saw this happening and thought it was outrageous that space could be taken away from them.”

The city wasn’t trying to stigmatize drivers, but it was trying to get them to slow down and be more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists. The goal was to save lives.

“People saw all these bike lanes go in, like pedestrian plazas, and there was a dislocation in their minds,” said White. “Even though safety was a reason why Bloomberg and Janette were pushing for these things, more often these projects were perceived as part of a health or environmental rationale. The mayor was also known as the health mayor — banning smoking, sugary drinks, calorie counts, trans fats.”

Turning the Corner

By all measures, the changes implemented by Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg were successful. “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used,” said Wolfson. “Then you had much less newspaper criticism.”

Proposals for new pedestrian plazas and bike lanes still draw detractors — New Yorkers have strong opinions about everything — but the backlash has quieted down. Commissioner Trottenberg gives credit to Sadik-Khan for “starting to not only reengineer streets but get the culture change going.”

That transition has continued during the first year of the de Blasio administration, and Vision Zero has been a powerful message, helping to frame successful efforts to lower the city’s speed limit and roll out a bigger speed camera program.

“He’s been using all the right language,” White said of de Blasio. “It’s unacceptable for this to happen, reckless driving is unacceptable. I think that has penetrated the public consciousness.”

The importance of advocacy by groups like Families For Safe Streets, who have shared their stories of personal loss with elected officials, cannot be overstated. Earlier this year the City Council passed a package of 11 bills to stiffen penalties on dangerous drivers and to ask Albany for the authority to lower the speed limit to 25 miles per hour.

Families For Safe Streets then went up to Albany, backed by Trottenberg and several members of the City Council, to push for a bill to lower the city’s default speed limit. At one point, it seemed the bill wouldn’t come to the floor for a vote — the usual Albany drama. But state legislators eventually got around to approving a 25 mph speed limit.

“It’s incredible to see the public coming together around safety, the public and government coming together on a shared vision,” says Sadik-Khan. “I see a great moment in Vision Zero… It has been years in the making, where the politics and the personal are united on this issue.”

Coming up in part two: culture change and NYPD.

  • Mark Walker

    Perspective is good. We certainly shouldn’t interpret every setback as the death of Vision Zero. At the same time, the backlash has to get the right kind of measured and constant response.

  • Ace

    let’s get our government employees out of their cars! Anyone spending any time as a pedestrian will gain an appreciation for the constant state of lawlessness on our streets. This includes our employee Mayor de Blasio.

  • Yes! Our traffic engineers need some skin in the game:

  • stairbob

    Great post.

    I was struck by this de Blasio quote: “And it is our collective responsibility to save every life we can, be it a life taken in a violent crime or in a crash with a motor vehicle.”

    Often, motor vehicle crashes are violent crimes and his administration still doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on this fact.

  • In most jobs people are paid based on what they accomplish—either how much work they get done or how well they do towards achieving goals such as reducing errors. What if law enforcement pay was based on how safe our streets are?

    Let’s give them a $2,000 per year raise but then deduct $2,000 for each fatality in their precinct. No fatalities and they’re ahead, one and they break even, more than one and they’ll be hurting and need to figure out how best to make the streets in their precinct safe.

  • JamesR

    I know you’re just posting this as a thought experiment, but the PBA would swat this down in a microsecond. “What If’, indeed.

  • At least it’d make a good headline: “PBA Objects To $2,000 Per Year Raise For Rank And File”. 🙂

    I wonder how many people would have said 8 years ago that everything JSK attained couldn’t be done?

  • Joe R.

    That might be good idea only if fatalities where solely determined by enforcement levels. As we’ve seen, it’s a combination of street design, licensing standards, available of alternate modes, enforcement, plus a little luck.

    Maybe take the same general idea but apply it to something directly under police control-investigation of fatal crashes. If such crashes keep getting the usual “no charges filed” while the body is still warm, then you start giving pay cuts. There may indeed be instances where no charges or fines are warranted, but that should only be the case after a lengthy investigation. After all, police generally don’t find a dead body, then declare minutes or hours later “no foul play suspected”. No, they have a full investigation to determine the cause of death.

  • Bob Hop

    DeBlasio and City Council never justified 25 MPH limit (to go into effect Nov. 7) with facts. How often is speed a factor? When is pedestrian on a phone documented? Are distracted drivers under the speed limit the problem? Seems like an easy way to summons drivers. Taxes don’t go up but fees and fines are quick ca$h in this administration.

  • Elmhurst Tanks

    Now all we gotta do is UNDO everything JSK rammed into place. Merging bike lanes with sidewalks has been disastrous at best, and Times Square has once again a place to avoid at all costs.

    Epic fail. No wonder she’s disappeared.

  • walks bikes drives

    Search out the statistics. Speed, locally, is one of, if not the, primary factor in traffic incidents. By simple physics, the faster you are traveling, the greater your stopping distance. The faster you are traveling at impact, the greater your force at impact. 8th grade physics. Trust me, I’m an 8th grade teacher!

  • lop

    KSI crash numbers are more consistent. If you have decent numbers for traffic counts you can come up with a rate. The precincts with the most improved rates receive a bonus, the ones with the worst do not. You can base that off of prior years, or modify it to come up with an expected rate based off of street redesigns, economic factors etc…Or if the NYPD took street safety seriously, it would affect advancement or replacement as needed of the top guys and possibly rank and file at the precinct, no new program needed.

  • dporpentine

    Your interest in “facts” Is clearly false but whatever, I’ll bite. Look at the very first roll out of Vision Zero:
    And you’ll see the De Blasio administration has clearly explained the factual rationale for lowering speed limits from the very beginning. Here’s a sampling:

    “Over the last five years, 70 percent of incidents involving pedestrian fatalities involve the issue of speed or failure to yield,” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said. “The department’s efforts going forward will focus very significantly on those types of violations.”

    Of course to people who think that they should be licensed to kill as many people as they want, there’s never sufficient justification for lowering a speed limit or–even worse–ticketing a parked car.

    Drivers are such special, special flowers.

  • J.r. Bomber

    imagine if a speeding bicycle messenger had struck and killed that poor little girl.
    The entire city would be calling for the cyclist’s blood and for a crack down on the devil’s conveyance that is the bicycle. (snark intended)

  • This might help explain why lower speeds are important, too.

  • Joe R.

    Those stopping distances seem kind of long to me. I’ve seen road tests which had some cars stopping from 60 mph in under 100 feet. Especially with antilock brakes, quickly stopping a car often no longer depends upon the skill level of the driver.

    FWIW, I can stop my bike from 20 mph in 20-25 feet. That includes reaction time. I’ve stopped short of doors which were opened about one car length in front of me.

  • neroden

    Most significantly, people hit at lower speeds generally survive. If you get hit by a car at 15 mph, you often just get bruised. So crashes just aren’t so bad in that case.

    If the car’s going 40 mph, you usually die.

  • neroden

    The problem is that this gives law enforcement an incentive to FAKE THE NUMBERS. To claim that people weren’t really killed, etc.

    “Pay for performance” is always bad and it’s bad for this reason: the corrupt, lazy swine will spend much more work faking the numbers than they will doing their job.

    Instead, you have to simply sack them when they don’t do their job. Firings work.

  • neroden

    The PBA is a Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization and should be banned.


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