Vision Zero Network Hires Big Gun To Focus on Slowing Drivers Down Already

About 30 U.S. cities have committed to Vision Zero, but that's the easy part. Map: Vision Zero Network
About 30 U.S. cities have committed to Vision Zero, but that's the easy part. Map: Vision Zero Network

It’s too early to tell whether Vision Zero will ever reach the goal implied its name, but there’s one way to give it a good chance: getting drivers to slow down.

That’s emerging as a crucial goal of the Vision Zero Network, a national group that help cities implement safer street practices. The non-profit organization, which gets funding from Kaiser Permanente and restaurateur Bill Russell-Shapiro, is ramping up for a new speed-focused campaign, having just hired Veronica Vanterpool, former director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in New York, as deputy director.

Veronica Vanterpool is the new Deputy Director of the Vision Zero Network. Photo: Vision Zero Network
Veronica Vanterpool. Photo: Vision Zero Network/Joseph Cutrufo

Vanterpool and Director Leah Shahum talked with StreetsblogUSA about the Vision Zero Network’s vision going forward. The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Streetsblog: So you’ve made a big new hire. What’s next for the organization?

Leah Shahum: We’ll continue to promote Vision Zero and defend against those places where they’re treating it simply like a tag line or a PR campaign. To actually make progress or commit to Vision Zero, it will really take a transformative shift in how your city is prioritizing safe mobility.

We’re also going to be focusing more on the importance of speed management. We, as a society, need to be paying as much attention to the issue of managing speed as many communities have done around drunk driving. The level of change in government over the last few decades, thanks to groups like MADD, has resulted in a sea change in how people think about drunk driving. We need to have that same sort of focus on managing unsafe speeds. 

We’re going to try to help cities actually move forward with strategies that effectively reduce speeds in their communities, whether that’s lower speed limits, more automated enforcement or engineering changes.

Another big focus is equity. There are some positives in the sense that Vision Zero is very data driven and can help highlight systemic inequities in our transportation system and beyond. More and more people are recognizing that not all communities have been treated equitably when it comes to safe transportation investments.

At the same time, there are real worries about the role of enforcement in this county today. How do we help Vision Zero not become an opportunity for over-policing in certain communities that are already under duress in terms of racial profiling and police bias? That is an important piece that we want to help cities improve through their Vision Zero efforts.

We’re also getting ready to release a set of standards for Vision Zero this fall. How do we help people understand what Vision Zero entails? This will be the first time there will be guidelines that explain this for U.S. communities. 

Can you provide an example of what that would entail?

Shahum: One of them is: System designers and decision makers advancing cross-cutting measures to reduce car dependence, improve transit, and promote walking and biking. This is an area where the Vision Zero movement in the U.S. has not been as strong as we could be. Some of the strongest predictors of traffic fatalities are Vehicle Miles Traveled and Vehicles Per Capita. It’s not just about making trips safer. Cities also need to be serious about growing the non-auto trips, which are, by their very nature, safer.

London’s new Vision Zero plan is the best I’ve seen in terms of this. They’re saying, “Yes, we want to make current driving trips safer. But if we’re going to get to zero deaths, we need to be reducing the number of car trips also. That means we need to be growing other kinds of trips.” So you need to have carrots and sticks. Examples of carrots include building out a great, interconnected bike system network and complete, safe walking conditions. Then there are sticks, including things such as:
congestion pricing and, smart parking prices.

I know it’s very early. And it’s sort of hard to tell. Do you think Vision Zero is working?

Shahum: It is early. The longest-running two Vision Zero cities in the U.S. are 4.5 years in. I would say it’s very encouraging that these cities, New York and San Francisco, are seeing notable improvements, [though] the rest of the country has trended in the opposite direction, with more traffic deaths.

Veronica Vanterpool: In New York City there has been a significant reduction in traffic fatalities, they’ve decreased 28 percent. And there’s been a 45 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities.

Shahum: We’ve looked at the numbers for the first half of 2018 and it’s still trending down in both cities so that’s encouraging. Those two cities that have invested the most time and energy and political will into this different approach [Vision Zero] are seeing results.

What about smaller cities with fewer resources? I live in Cleveland. Do you think smaller cities with less experience on these issues can succeed too?

Shahum: It’s all scalable. For a much bigger city, it’s going to take more resources. For a Cleveland or a Durham or we have 100,000-person towns we’re working with in California that are committed to Vision Zero, you can be doing the same or very similar strategies, but they can be smaller scale. 

In some of these smaller cities, they have this one road or two roads that are problematic, which are state highways and often big arterials. If they just fix that one or two streets, they would be light years ahead in terms of safety. It would be dramatic improvement.

Vanterpool: The goal of achieving zero fatalities, it isn’t just achievable through funding. There are policy changes that are needed. In New York City, we lowered the speed limit.

Funding is necessary because we want to make engineering changes to our roads. But policy change is also needed.

A lot of communities don’t realize how fungible a lot of federal and state transportation [funding is] as well. How they traditionally used those funds are for road improvements. Most cities have not taken advantage of the possibility of using the funds to add bike or pedestrian infrastructure. Once they do, they start to see opportunities within their existing budgets. This is how communities across the U.S have made these changes.

Sharing those examples is what the Vision Zero Network has done. Communities can learn from one another.

  • Joe R.

    Some of the strongest predictors of traffic fatalities are vehicle miles traveled. It’s not just about making trips safer. Cities also need to be serious about growing the non-auto trips.

    This is the only thing which matters. All this misguided focus on speed is just pissing in the ocean. If we’re really serious about Vision Zero then that implies eventually reducing the number of vehicles on the streets as close to zero as possible. Nothing else is going to work. The speed of the vehicles is a second order effect. The number of vehicles is the primary determinant of how many people will die.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If a kid runs out in the street, or another driver makes a mistake, your speed will determine if you have a chance to stop before hitting them. Technology can help with reaction time, but speed is a big part of it.

  • Joe R.

    The whole point though is the speed is a second order effect. I often use gas molecules as an analogy. Think first of a very dense, very cold gas. The molecules are not moving very fast, but because the space between them is so small, they often collide. Now think of a very hot but very thin gas. The molecules are moving very fast, but seldom collide with each other.

    If you had a lot fewer motor vehicles chances are high another vehicle wouldn’t be in close proximity if a driver makes a mistake. Same thing if a kid runs into the street. Chances are very high no vehicles would be around. I won’t argue that slowing vehicles down makes things a little safer if there are lots of vehicles. However, livable streets advocates treat it as a panacea when it isn’t. You want a lot fewer deaths, the only answers are to either get rid of most motor vehicles, or completely grade separate them from pedestrians and cyclists. The former isn’t practical as it would require virtually rebuilding our cities from scratch. It’s a great approach though if you’re starting fresh. Put the vehicles in tunnels under the street, complete with parking and below grade entrances to buildings.

  • Slowing down the vehicles that ar eon the road now (like my Prius) is an achievable short-term opbjective on the way to larger ones such as reducing the numbver of vehicle miles traveled and the number of vehicles on the roadways. It is silly to criticize anyone for trying to tackle one particular goal in this huge and complicated Vision Zero campaign. (The Allies in World War II did not argue about which theaters in which to engage the Axis powers–they had to fight in all of them. The Vision Zero campaign is in the same order of magnitude.)

  • Joe R.

    The problem is we’re not tackling the other things at all. I don’t object to a focus on speed if it’s also coupled with efforts to reduce VMT, improve licensing standards, make large portions of cities car-free, and so forth. That’s what Vision Zero involves in Europe. Of course, being Americans, we think we can take shortcuts, only do the thing that’s easiest to implement, and expect the same results. It’s short of like how discussions on bicycle safety often begin and end with bike helmets.

    To a first approximation the causes of traffic deaths are in order of importance as follows:

    1) Density of vehicles on the road
    2) Training level of the average driver
    3) Type of vehicle being driven (i.e. SUVs are a lot more dangerous than subcompacts)
    4) Infrastructure and whether or not it’s designed to avoid conflicts
    5) Enforcement and sensibility of rules (motorists are more likely to obey rules if those rules really are designed to improve safety, and not just for revenue)

    Included in #5, and to some extent in #4, is the speed vehicles travel on roads. If the roads are sensibly designed and drivers are well trained, they won’t want to go at a higher speed than is safe or sensible for the situation. Here in the US we’re just doing things like slapping down lower speed limits regardless of context, doing absolutely nothing for the first 3 things, and only minimally doing anything about the fourth.

    I predict in ten years Streetsblog will have an article titled “Vision Zero and Why It Failed” which will bring up most of the same points I just did.

  • roberthurst157

    I think you are wrong about the focus on speed, on a few levels. First, while you are right that reducing the number of cars is important, speed is a critical factor no matter how many cars there are. As speed rises the chance of collision rises, and the severity of collision rises. In Europe they have lowered speed limits on central streets and residential streets to 15-20 mph, used various methods to enforce and it works beautifully. Yes they also reduced number of cars. There is a mountain of evidence that shows this speed reduction is a critical factor for safety, even if traffic volumes stay the same.

    You say “here in the US we’re doing things like slapping down lower speed limits…” Can you give an example of this please because I can’t think of a single instance of speed limits being lowered in the US as part of Vision Zero.

    Robert

  • jcwconsult

    Zero traffic deaths are possible ONLY where there are no moving vehicles.

    There is only one effective way to manage speeds if you mean having most vehicles go slower than currently. Example: If the slowest 85% of the cars are now at or below 35 mph (which means most will be between 26 and 35), and you want the slowest 85% to be at or below 25 mph (which means most will be between 16 and 25), then you re-engineer the street so the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable ONLY at speeds up to about 25 mph. This is very effective, virtually no enforcement will be needed because the re-engineered road no longer feels safe and comfortable at speeds much above 25 mph. The negatives include expense, potential congestion on what used to be more efficient collector & arterial streets, and possible diversion to smaller roughly parallel streets that were never designed to carry the higher traffic loads of the larger collector & arterial streets.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Flatlander

    I actually think you’re actually completely wrong about this. Fewer “molecules” moving at a higher speed means that when the collisions occur, they are more likely to be catastrophic. Research bears this out, if you look at the fatality rate for 20 MPH vs 40 MPH. Vision Zero isn’t about stopping fender benders, it’s about stopping fatal injuries.

  • Joe R.

    Speed isn’t involved in every or even most fatalities. For example, in NYC most fatal collisions involve a turning vehicle failing to yield going well under the speed limit. People easily get crushed by trucks or buses going 3 mph. The problem here is people looked at the research on fatalities versus vehicle speed and made the erroneous assumption that every single fatality could have been prevented had the vehicle been going slow enough. Granted, you could probably have a statistically significant reduction in fatalities by lowering speed limits from a very high value like 50 mph to a very low value like 10 mph, assuming they’re enforced, but this is NOT the place where all the focus should be.

    Apparently you didn’t understand what I’m saying. I’m not against reducing speeds where appropriate, which is mainly in pedestrian-heavy areas. I just think we shouldn’t expect more than slight changes in the number of fatalities if that’s all we do. Point of fact, in places in Europe where they’ve done literally everything I’ve suggested, except completely remove motor vehicles, you still only cut the fatality rate by 1/2 or so. So obviously just lowering the speed limit while doing nothing else will have much poorer results, probably on the order of a few percent reduction in the fatality rate. A big problem with lower speed limits but no street redesigns is enforcement. Camera enforcement is mostly a nonstarter in the US, and police enforcement of speed limits, which by definition involves the police chasing down speeders, kills more people than it saves. Therefore, a lower speed limit is just a feel good measure. It doesn’t change the speeds people actually drive at.

    You’re looking for an easy, quick answer to a very complex problem. I’m giving you the reality of the situation. If you want to get to zero there are only three answers. One is to get rid of motor vehicles entirely anyplace there are cyclists or pedestrians. Two is to completely grade separate motor vehicles in such places. Three is automated control of all vehicles. Number three is what is most likely to get us to zero in my opinion.

  • If anyone is interested in drilling down on Vision Zero, the Swedish Vision Zero Initiative website (http://www.visionzeroinitiative.com) is a great resource complete with downloadable presentation materials.

  • Joe R.

    Since we’re talking about getting to zero fatalities, the only way you get there is to reduce speeds to zero. You may have statistically significant reductions in fatalities of a few percent if you lower speed limits, but you’ll hardly get to zero. The key problems here are enforcement and efficiency. A lower speed limit without a street redesign doesn’t change the speeds people actually drive at. Those places in Europe with 15 or 20 mph speed limits also had major street redesigns which forced drivers to slow down. In the absence of redesigns you need saturation enforcement. Police chasing down speeders will kill more people than it saves. Speed cameras are pretty much a nonstarter. Quite a few states have outlawed them.

    The second issue is efficiency. Lower speed limits affect not just people in private autos but also people using buses. If you’re talking about reducing speeds to 15 or 20 mph for a few blocks in a particularly pedestrian dense area that’s fine as you’re not really impacting travel times. On the flip side, if you reduce speeds to those levels even on major arterials it will be a nonstarter. Therefore, there are limits to how much you can reduce speed limits. Should we also have 15 mph speed limits on limited access highways to save the occasional person who wanders onto such highways? The fact is we can certainly reduce speeds to (mostly) nonlethal values in key areas but we can’t do it everywhere. This means we can’t come close to zero just by reducing speed limits. Also note even 5 mph can be lethal if the vehicle in question is a large truck or bus. Lower speed limits are part of a toolkit to reduce fatalities, not the sole answer so many Vision Zero advocates make them out to be.

    As for places which slapped down lower speed limits, NYC is one. We reduced the default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph. This includes many major arterials. Of course, the speed limit isn’t enforced, nor could it reasonably be given that chasing down speeders in a crowded city isn’t practical. Outside of a handful of mostly poor street redesigns the unenforced lower speed limit has been the city’s sole method of implementing Vision Zero.

  • Flatlander

    We get it, you like to drive fast.

  • Joe R.

    Wrong. I don’t even have a car or a driver’s license.

  • Lifetime Member!

  • jcwconsult

    We are a small but very well informed group of people that believe decisions about traffic laws, traffic flows, enforcement procedures, etc. should always be based on known science – NOT on wishful thinking.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    roberthurst157 said:
    You say “here in the US we’re doing things like slapping down lower speed limits…” Can you give an example of this please because I can’t think of a single instance of speed limits being lowered in the US as part of Vision Zero.

    Posting speed limits well below the natural, safe, current, 85th percentile speeds of traffic is the MOST common way that Vision Zero proponents try to improve safety. It doesn’t work, because posted speed limits have almost no effect on the actual travel speeds (plus or minus 0 to 3 mph in either direction). The only effective way to reduce speeds is to re-engineer the collector and arterial streets so that (example) the slowest 85% of the drivers who used to feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to about 40 mph, now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about 25 mph. This works to control speeds, but may create serious negatives of congestion, diversion to smaller rough-parallel streets that were never designed to carry the high loads of commuters, shoppers, tourists, and commercial vehicles that the collectors and arterials were designed to carry efficiently.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    The point of a speed limit, like any other driving law, is to modify behavior – to persuade people to act in a way that they might not otherwise be inclined to act. For a law to have an impact, it needs to be enforced. If a law is self-enforcing, that’s an indication that it doesn’t accomplish anything.

    Which is of course exactly what you want: drivers should continue to do whatever the hell they feel like doing, and pedestrians who don’t want to be killed should just be very very very very careful and hope for the best.

  • Andrew

    There is of course another way to manage speeds: to post a speed limit and to consistently penalize drivers who choose to ignore it.

    You don’t approve of that approach, because it actually works, and you’d rather endanger other people’s lives than slow down a little bit.

  • jcwconsult

    I only deal with realities, things that actually work. If you want lower actual speeds, you must re-engineer the roads.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I don’t advocate that approach because cities will NOT do it. Enforcement that actually reduces the speeds of most vehicles is a cost item in the budget. Cities will regularly uses ONLY enforcement that makes a profit. Again, I only deal in realities – not wishful thinking.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    Enforcement works.

  • You are absolutely right; enforcement works.

    But what does not work is to try to have a debate with a troll. I ask that you desist in engaging with this dishonest apologist for terror.

  • LinuxGuy

    Maybe the “big gun” can lobby for 85th percentile speed limits and an elimination of speed cameras and other not so good things?

  • LinuxGuy

    Modifying roads may have negative side effects.

  • crazyvag

    A redesigned street is self-enforcing. A protected bike lane is also self-enforcing. Why waste resources on enforcement when we can get a better design that allows redeployment of resources other needs.

  • jcwconsult

    In the way enforcement is actually used by most cities, it does work for the primary purpose $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.
    it is an evil for-profit racket, but it does work for that purpose.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • John McKerrall Lambert

    As a road safety expert with 53 years of experience I cannot believe that so many are taking up the “Vision Zero” mantra. Where did the concept start? In Sweden in 1997. How has Sweden gone in reducing fatalities per 100 M km since? Well between 1997 and 2015 Sweden’s fatality rate per 100 M km was reduced 60.0%. What about the other OECD countries? Well Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland – 8 countries – achieved even greater reductions. And Australia, Belgium Iceland, Japan, The Netherlands and USA – 6 countries – achieved lower fatality rate reductions. The only conclusion from studying this data is that Sweden’s Vision Zero HAS NOT resulted in better road trauma reductions!

    Secondly Australian Road Safety people continually told me that the principal reason for Sweden’s low fatality rate was that they only had 110 kph speed limits and speed limits were closely enforced. In August 2015 I ahd the pleasure of driving from Malno to Stockholm, around Stockholm; to Uppsala and around the Uppsala region; across to Oslo in Norway and around that region; to Gothenburg and around that city, and then to Malmo and around that city. What did I find? Well Sweden also has 120 kph speed limit on rural freeways/ motorways. Traffic Police allow a 20 kph + enforcement limit so outside lane travels typically 20 kph above the speed limit – drove past traffic Police in a vehicle and on a motorcycle at these speeds. Advice from my long term friend in Stockholm is that you don’t get booked till you are doing at least 150 kph. We took 6.25 hours to travel from Malmo to Stockholm – 609 km. On 590 km of motorways our average speed was 125 kph. He does the same trip in 5.5 hours averaging 140 kph on motorways. So the speed limit/ enforcement myth is completely wrong!!!

  • T W

    It’s great to hear Ms. Vanterpool talk about defending against the many “Vision Zero Lite” policies we’re already seeing in the U.S. where some cities are calling educational campaigns Vision Zero.

    The issue of fairness and profiling in enforcement can be addressed by implementing 1. speed cameras and 2. income-based fines. Both these solutions are implemented in several countries in Europe. Vision Zero must include both heavy reengineering and heavy enforcement.

    Reducing VMT is obviously important for the well-being of human beings, including increased safety when traveling, but Vision Zero by definition does NOT include explicit policies to reduce VMT. Broading its definition will cheapen the movement because many cities will inevitably just continue their slow plans for a bike lane here, a private shuttle there, and devote very little towards significant reengineering for safety and enforcement for safety.

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