Vision Zero marks a milestone, but the goal of ending traffic deaths is still far off
Queens Boulevard in New York City used to be called the Boulevard of Death, and with good reason.
Lizi Rahman still puts silk flowers on the white-painted "ghost" bicycle that marks the spot where her son Asif was killed in 2008, riding home from the school where he worked in Queens.
"I didn't really understand why there was no bike lane on this vicious and dangerous and busy road," Rahman said. So she tried to get changes, including a bike lane, on Queens Boulevard, a 12-lane speedway where more than 100 pedestrians had been killed since 1990.
Rahman's efforts stalled for years — until then-Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled into office in 2014 with an ambitious road safety agenda. A few years later, Rahman found herself celebrating a new bike lane on a redesigned Queens Boulevard.
"If my son were still alive, he would be riding, biking happily on this street," she said. "But he is not here. He gave his blood. His life. And it's not in vain."
It's been a decade since New York became the first U.S. city to officially adopt Vision Zero — a road safety approach from Europe that aims to eliminate traffic fatalities completely. It's based on the principle that traffic deaths and severe injuries are preventable.
The Vision Zero approach acknowledges that some crashes are inevitable. But it aims to make them less deadly by lowering speed limits and making automobile lanes narrower, while adding protections for pedestrians and cyclists.
More than 40,000 people are killed on U.S. roads each year, and tens of thousands more are seriously injured. So it seemed bold when city leaders across the country began to set such a lofty goal. But dozens of other U.S. cities have now signed on to the Vision Zero approach.
Even U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg considers himself a "convert."
"When I first heard of the concept, I feared that it was running the risk of being counterproductive because zero is so far away from where we are now," Buttigieg said in an interview.
"The thing that really got my attention was seeing how many places had done it," he said, including major European cities like Oslo, Norway. "What that told me is that this can, in fact, be done."
Still, a decade after Vision Zero arrived in the U.S., its goal seems more elusive than ever. There have been some successes, including Queens Boulevard in New York. And a few U.S. cities have seen a remarkable drop in roadway fatalities.
But many others have not.
Traffic deaths are still rising dramatically in much of the country — including Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C. Nationwide, traffic fatalities are up more than 30% since 2014.
An "uphill" fight in many communities
Even Vision Zero advocates concede that the numbers are not great.
"We've not anywhere in the U.S. truly committed to a real Vision Zero shift," said Leah Shahum, the founder of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit in California that works to reduce traffic fatalities.
Shahum says it's easy for cities to adopt Vision Zero as a slogan. But actually changing the status quo on the streets is proving much more difficult.
"The main reason that communities are failing, there's not the will to make changes that are, in the end, probably going to slow people down driving," she said. "And there's probably going to be pushback."
Often, that pushback comes from local residents who complain about losing parking spaces for a new bike lane or from drivers who already have long commutes and don't want to make them longer.
"There's no reason we can't be making Vision Zero work in this country. But it's going to take a lot more than press releases and platitudes," Shahum said. "It's going to mean really prioritizing safety over speed."
Even when cities want to implement Vision Zero, they're often blocked by state rules.
"Vision Zero is working, but it's working uphill where other policies in Texas are making it worse still," said Jay Crossley, the executive director of Farm and City, a nonprofit in Austin that's focused on land use and transportation.
Texas cities like Houston and Dallas are blocked from lowering their own speed limits, Crossley says — even though speeding is a huge factor in traffic fatalities in Texas, and nationwide. Meanwhile, Crossley says the state is busy adding more lanes to major roads.
"We're just throwing money into building concrete," he said. "And one of the regrettable outcomes is that focusing on speeding up travel is actually very dangerous."
Speeding is not the only reason traffic fatalities are up. Drivers are more distracted. Cars are bigger and heavier — and therefore more deadly for pedestrians and cyclists.
Still, there are some bright spots.
Buttigieg notes that traffic fatalities in the U.S. may have peaked. The numbers have been declining slightly for about a year. And the DOT has begun handing out billions of dollars in grants to redesign dangerous streets and intersections.
"Just about every community knows where their trouble spots are," Buttigieg said. "What they've been seeking is the support on how to address those trouble spots, to follow the data, follow the dots on these awful maps that show you where all the fatalities and injuries are."
And there are a few places in the U.S. where Vision Zero does seem to be working.
Where Vision Zero has worked
You don't have to go far from Mayor Steve Fulop's office in Jersey City, N.J., to see the principles of Vision Zero in action. Right in front of City Hall, traffic engineers converted a two-lane road into a one-way street with room for outdoor dining and a protected bike lane.
"If you just do a resolution and say 'we are supporting Vision Zero,' you could expect no results from that," Fulop said in an interview. "But if you are committed to it, you will save lives."
For a full year, Jersey City had zero fatalities on streets that it controls. It's one of a handful of cities around the U.S. that can make that claim, along with neighboring Hoboken, and Edina, Minn.
"We really built consensus with the community early on that helped them trust the city," said Barkha Patel, the director of infrastructure for Jersey City. Patel says one of the keys to building that trust is what's known as "guerrilla urbanism" or "tactical urbanism."
"We would go in with a little bit of temporary paint and some traffic cones," she said, and redesign an intersection, extending the curb toward the middle of the street.
Sometimes there was opposition from local residents, Patel says. But it helped that people could see the changes in action immediately.
"It's the city itself saying we have to be very, very flexible and nimble and treat our streets as living, breathing things that are not just static," Patel said. "We can't treat our transportation problems like things that require years and years of planning and millions of dollars."
Last year, Jersey City saw a small uptick in fatalities — though only on streets that hadn't been redesigned yet.
"We haven't gotten to every single high-injury street that we need to," Patel said. "But the streets where we have made improvements, we haven't seen any of the same types of crashes or any of the fatalities. And so when we have a year like this, it sort of helps ground us to say we know what works."
After 10 years of Vision Zero in the U.S., supporters say we know more than ever about what works. But the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities still feels far away.
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