Road to Vision Zero

In a 2015 speech to Yale’s graduating class, then Vice President Joe Biden got personal: “Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever. While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call. My wife and three children were Christmas shopping, a tractor trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter. And they weren’t sure that my sons would live.” President Biden was referring to his 1972 election to the Senate, representing the state of Delaware. Biden did not make it to his swearing-in ceremony 16 days later in Washington; instead, he was sworn in next to his sons’ hospital beds. While this devastating tragedy forever altered their family’s lives, Biden’s sons both recovered from their injuries, and Biden chose to commute daily via train to DC from his home in Delaware in order to spend more time with his boys.

Joe Biden is not the first American president to lose loved ones to tragic automobile crashes. Bill Clinton’s father died three months before his son was born when his car tire blew out and he was thrown into a drainage ditch. Barack Obama’s father lost both legs in a car crash and later died when his car hit a tree. Like many of us, our leadership knows firsthand the unintended consequences of a transportation system that is built for speed and convenience and the tragic impacts of user error. Nearly 40,000 people lose their lives on our nation’s roads annually, and many more are seriously injured. Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 25, and the United States ranks the 42nd worst out of 51 high-income nations in per capita traffic fatalities.

To date, the US has never developed a comprehensive plan for addressing and eliminating roadway deaths, and in 2020 the previous administration distanced itself from the Stockholm Declaration, a global agreement signed by 140 countries to cut roadway deaths in half by 2030. Unsurprisingly, our most vulnerable road users, pedestrians and cyclists, bear the biggest burden. In the decade between 2009 and 2018, traffic deaths for motor vehicle occupants declined by 1%, but pedestrian deaths increased by 53%, and deaths among cyclists increased by 36%. While roadway safety for all road users is a stated priority of many state and federal agencies, glaring inconsistencies in policy make it difficult to take our country’s commitment at face value. The Federal Highway Administration has allowed states to set their own safety targets, and a recent report by Smart Growth America identified that a third of all states are setting goals that would allow more road user deaths. Included among the worst and most dangerous of these 18 states is California, where an average of 10 people are killed using our roads per day. California has set a target that allows annual increases in road user fatalities. “We can and must raise the bar by requiring states to set safety targets that reduce rather than increase the number of people killed or seriously injured while walking or biking on our streets, ultimately working toward eventually eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries,” Smart Growth America shares in their report. “However, to make this vision a reality, we need a strong federal policy with binding enforceable requirements that hold states to higher safety standards.”

In other countries, plans to reduce roadway deaths are working: Norway and Finland reported no pedestrian fatalities in Oslo and Helsinki in 2019. Norway also reported no cyclist deaths in Oslo in 2019, a remarkable feat for a city of 680,000 residents, and no children under the age of 16 died in traffic crashes in the entire country. Both countries are implementing Vision Zero policies, aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all serious injuries and deaths related to traffic crashes and the transportation system. Vision Zero proponents argue that, despite past approaches to transportation planning that prioritize speed and convenience over safety, traffic deaths are preventable and roads can be designed to protect all users, especially the most vulnerable.

Based on “systems safety” principles from Sweden and the Netherlands, Vision Zero asserts that good roadway and street design can positively influence the behaviors of all users and should be the first step toward goals to change behavior and enhance safety. “There is a maximum safe speed for every type of roadway conflict, for instance, between cars and crossing pedestrians,” Dr. Peter G. Furth, Professor of Civil Engineering at Northeastern University, shares in a YouTube introduction to systems safety and Vision Zero. “Roads should be designed to either separate users so that conflicts don’t occur, or else to limit traffic speed based on the conflicts that will occur,” Furth continues. “Where people might cross the street anywhere, and where bicycles are in mixed traffic, the target speed is at 20 MPH.” Furth explains that, at speeds higher than 20 MPH, the chance of surviving a collision exponentially decreases. In the systemic safety model, posting lower speed limits is not enough: additions to the built environment like narrowing automobile lane width and using raised crosswalks and speed humps or non-linear street layouts like chicanes are de facto barriers to higher automobile traffic speeds. On larger streets with higher speeds, the systemic safety approach calls for the separation of more vulnerable road users via separated or protected bike lanes and pedestrian amenities such as refuge islands at crossings.

A Vision Zero policy “often marks a city’s first real commitment to protecting the safety of all road users, and officials’ first real recognition that some people — people of color, children, older adults, people who walk and bike — are more vulnerable than others,” says Tamika Butler, former director of the LA County Bike Coalition and transportation policy and planning consultant. Effective Vision Zero campaigns involve ongoing coordination and collaboration between traditionally siloed groups and public health agencies, transportation departments, advocates, and civic leadership. Interagency transparency, communication, and accurate reporting of safety statistics and crash data are key components of making sure that safety infrastructure and other interventions are implemented where they can do the greatest good. “One way Vision Zero differs from the traditional approach to traffic safety is that it focuses on the policies and street designs that have the greatest impact on safety,” says Leah Shahum, National Director of the Vision Zero Network. “One example of this is that, by looking at crash data, city officials can be more proactive in preventing deaths and severe injuries.” By analyzing the most dangerous intersections or the most frequent types of crashes, cities can custom-tailor interventions for problematic areas while working toward systemic, community-wide solutions. This targeted approach can ensure that cities and smaller communities get the most return on their often-limited transportation funds.

To many, Biden’s pick for Department of Transportation lead positions has signaled an interest in addressing transportation systems safety: Secretary of Transportation and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the only 2020 presidential candidate to propose a national Vision Zero policy, and the Biden team has recruited Polly Trottenberg for Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Trottenberg is the former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation and implemented Vision Zero programming during her seven-year tenure. NYC is one of over 45 communities nationwide that have formally adopted Vision Zero policies, and while many Vision Zero cities have seen varying degrees of success, national data supports the claim that the system’s safety principles and interventions do save lives and can protect vulnerable road users.

Recently, Road to Zero, Vision Zero Network, and numerous other advocacy organizations sent a letter to President Biden calling for a federal commitment to zero roadway deaths by 2050. “Ensuring safe mobility for all community members should be a core component of President Biden’s commitment to Build Back Better,” said Leah Shahum about the letter. “Now is the time to recognize how interconnected traffic safety goals are with the critical national priorities of overcoming the pandemic, advancing racial and economic justice, and investing in the health of our planet.” Interested individuals or organizations can sign the letter here or share their own stories and hear from others about why they support the call for #ZeroTrafficDeaths.

While Vision Zero may soon take the national stage, many communities are grappling with the legacies of inequitable transportation policies and investments and the crippling effects of systemic racism. Marco Conner, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, has this to say on how Vision Zero intersects with equity and the legacies of racism:

Equity in Vision Zero is the fair and just implementation of transportation safety measures across all populations, including race, age, gender, geography and socio-economic condition. Where inequities exist in cities, there is also the greatest and most disproportionate rates of traffic deaths and injuries. In U.S. cities, 89% of high-income communities have sidewalks, while only 49% of low-income communities do. At the same time, black and Latino Americans, who live in low-income communities at higher rates than white Americans, are twice as likely to be killed while walking. These deaths are not accidents, but the result of inadequate and inequitable engineering and transportation policy. They represent the biases that Vision Zero has inherited, and which we must address.

While Vision Zero’s systems safety approach prioritizes upstream solutions like design and engineering over downstream interventions like traffic policing and enforcement, street safety strategies in the US have often highlighted the role of law enforcement, which disproportionately impacts low-income and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Programs designed to help with street safety like anti-jaywalking and sidewalk riding laws and investigatory traffic stops are disproportionately enforced in BIPOC communities, sometimes with deadly consequences. The deaths of Philando Castile, Maurice Gordon, Walter Scott, Samuel Dubose, and Sandra Bland all started with routine traffic stops for minor offences, and a Stanford Policing Project study of 100 million traffic stops in the US found that “police require less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers. This double standard is evidence of discrimination.”

Some Vision Zero advocates believe that automated enforcement such as speed and red-light cameras provide a more equitable and race-neutral form of enforcement. However, in a study of Vision Zero programs across four major US cities authored by UCLA Urban Planning grad student Rabi Abonour, Abonour found that “racial justice remains a concern even after a citation is issued. Traffic tickets are regressive; a flat-rate fine hurts lower-income people more than higher-income people.” A ticket that a higher-income person may be able to easily pay off may be insurmountable for a poorer person, leading to increased fines, license suspension, or imprisonment.

Some communities are reimagining the role of the police in traffic safety, such as Berkeley, California. The Berkeley City Council voted in July to redirect $9.2 million in police department funds to create an un-armed, non-police traffic enforcement division through their public works department. According to a report by the Center for Policing and Equity, Black drivers in Berkeley are 6.5 times more likely than white drivers to get pulled over. Following the protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Darrell Owens of East Bay for Everyone, an Oakland nonprofit that advocates for housing, transit, tenants’ rights, and equitable planning, proposed the idea to the Berkeley City Council with support from Walk Bike Berkeley. “The traffic stop is the most common and feared police stop for Black and brown residents, who fear they may be shot or arrested for accusations unrelated to the stop. As we’ve proven with parking enforcement, giving motorists tickets and moving on does not require a gun or a police officer,” Owens says.

Looking forward, numerous BIPOC urban planners, social justice advocates, and other groups have called for street safety planning and policies to take a more nuanced approach to the intersecting issues that face communities of color and for these planning processes to be truly equitable and inclusive. “Vision Zero is a policy that brings together a cross-section of people from different fields trying to save lives; however, this is still a cross-section of people from fields that have been historically dominated by white men,” says Tamika Butler, who, during her time as Executive Director of the LA Bike Coalition, worked to build an inclusive organization of Vision Zero advocates. “Traffic engineers and urban planners may design thousands of intersections every year while failing to understand how to examine social problems through a lens of intersecting frames of oppression,” Butler continues. Butler argues that the rise of Vision Zero policies nationwide is the perfect time to make the transportation sector confront racism and inequity. “This is the moment to look at the racism institutionalized into our nonprofits, planning firms, and government agencies and hire a workforce that reflects the diversity of our cities, at every level and in every position,” Butler concludes.

The Untokening is a collective of active transportation and mobility justice advocates who work to center the experiences of BIPOC and other marginalized communities. They have released multiple reports and recommendations to help advocates move beyond “tokenizing” marginalized communities and help guide the transportation system toward equity. “As we pass through public spaces such as streets, we experience multiple kinds of security and insecurity due to social attitudes toward race, class, gender, age, ability, and modes of transportation. The menace of aggressive driving is one problem, but not separate from these others,” states their 2016 report Untokening Mobility. Seen in this light, prejudice, racism, biased policing, gentrification, and community displacement all present interconnected barriers to safety for many communities that reach beyond the traditional frames of transportation planning and policy work. “We are what gets removed when spaces get safer for you. We’re either priced out or policed out. Because of this, we do not agree that street safety for all can be achieved through championing design changes that trigger urban renewal and displacement,” the report continues. “Making us safe will take different actions than what has made you safe. We need time and resources to develop these actions.” As Untokening member and former Equity Initiative Manager for the League of American Bicyclists, Dr. Adonia E. Lugo puts it:

I’ve seen a worrying tendency among bike advocates to dismiss those who disagree with them as NIMBYs, flattening opposition regardless of whether it comes from community members who lived through the ravages of urban renewal or privileged homeowners concerned about an influx of colored bodies into their suburban sanctum. Vision Zero strategists should show their respect for meaningful inclusion through welcoming intersectional perspectives.

Oakland-based anthropologist and urban planner Dr. Destiny Thomas runs Thrivance, a BIPOC-led consultancy working on “culturally restorative” community projects in California. “This is going to require a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to righting a centuries-long wrong and to actively working to heal ongoing harm while also asking communities to involve themselves in the solution-finding process,” Thomas says.

Together, let’s push for regional and national Vision Zero policies that work at the intersections of social justice, sustainability, and safety and inclusion for all communities, especially those that have been most impacted by our current and historical transportation systems.

Here in Santa Cruz County, our Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency staffs the Vision Zero Task Force and meets regularly to advance programs and policies that address traffic violence. Community members are invited to join the group and contribute to this vital work to make our streets safer for everyone. Those who are interested can email Lauren Freeman with County Health to learn more.

What you can do:

Sign the #ZeroTrafficDeaths letter to the Biden Administration or share your own story.

Support the implementation of an intersectional Vision Zero policy in your community.

Educate yourself and your community about mobility justice and transportation equity.

Watch this video on Destiny Thomas and Thrivance’s intersectional approach to planning and community engagement.

Follow Tamika Butler, Adonia Lugo, Darrell Owens, Marco Conner, and other BIPOC mobility justice leaders.