Are We Starting to See Progress Toward Vision Zero?

Traffic fatality rates for selected Vision Zero cities normalized to a 2010 baseline. Graph: Streetsblog
Traffic fatality rates for selected Vision Zero cities normalized to a 2010 baseline. Graph: Streetsblog

Cities are struggling to make good on their Vision Zero promises and, just maybe, starting to make progress toward the goal of zero deaths.

It’s too soon to say definitively for sure. But there are some encouraging signs in the fatality data from a handful of Vision Zero cities since 2010.

The above graph, compiled by Streetsblog, shows the rate of change in traffic fatalities using 2010 as a baseline. The national fatality trend is shown in black for reference. As you can see, there appears to be some progress happening since 2016 in at least a handful of cities. (Note: Each city started Vision Zero at different dates and the selection of 2010 as the baseline is arbitrary.)

Seattle, Boston, Portland, New York have seen fairly steady declines over the last few years — a good sign that their programs are starting to have an impact. But the trend is so recent that a single bad year could wipe out any sign of progress.

In at least two cities — New York and San Francisco — a pattern toward lower deaths seemed to be emerging when we checked in last year. The picture, however, looked a lot more mixed overall then.

New York’s progress is especially illuminating because, being such a large city, it mutes some of the noise that one or two random deaths could add to the overall trend. There is a lot more noise — variation year to year — in smaller cities like Portland and Denver (in brown and dark blue, respectively, on the graph).

Advocates in a variety of cities say they see progress, but are also quick to point out that not enough is being done to reduce traffic deaths to zero or to dramatically lower serious injuries.

Jonathan Maus, publisher of the advocacy news site Bike Portland, said the Rose City has made some admirable strides, including lowering the default speed limit to 20 miles per hour citywide, for example.

“But not nearly fast enough,” Maus told Streetsblog. “The only way we achieve Vision Zero is with a radical change to how we regulate, design for, and talk about cars and driving. I think the City of Portland understands this; but I don’t think they are strong enough politically speaking to make it happen yet.”

Randy LoBasso at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said so far that city’s effort has been underwhelming.

“Philadelphia’s current mayor came into office with a strong mandate for big transportation changes, but, at least in the short-term, has so far fallen short,” he said.

Mayor Jim Kenney promised 30 miles of protected bike lanes when he took office in 2016.

“We’ve got about 2.5 miles, so far. That’s not good,” said LoBasso. “But there are, by our count, at least 14 protected bike lane projects in the pipeline that’ve been approved to be installed on streets that are up for repaving in 2019 and 2020.”

Advocates in Washington, D.C., and New York also said their mayors are not doing enough. So far in 2019, traffic deaths in New York are up 20 percent over the same period last year. If fatalities continue at their current pace, the city will have 280 fatalities next year, StreetsblogNYC reports.

In D.C., where advocates complained Vision Zero was little more than a marketing slogan, a truly bold approach was recently put forth that would not only mandate the installation of protected bike lanes wherever the city’s master plan calls for it, but it would also ban the right-on-red, lower speed limits and even ramp up enforcement on bike lane parkers.

Leah Shahum, director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit that helps promote cities traffic safety efforts, says it’s always difficult to see the success of Vision Zero in snapshots like the one at the top of this story.

“Progress toward Vision Zero is not likely to be linear,” she said in a statement. “It will take transformative change — which is not quick or easy — to shift from the traditional, reactive approach focused on influencing individual behavior toward a new systems-based approach that gives the policymakers and system designers the mandate and responsibility to prioritize safety in all their decision making.”

But there is one thing that always matters, Shahum added.

“This will take time and leadership and the political courage to do what works,” she said.

7 thoughts on Are We Starting to See Progress Toward Vision Zero?

  1. We need to be extremely careful when we talk about traffic fatalities. Is it the objective of Vision Zero to reduce the number of driver and passenger fatalities by 50% even if it requires diverting funds from safety improvements for ped/bike facilities that leads to a 30% increase in ped/bike fatalities?

    Increasingly Vision Zero is being applied with a focus on vehicles over pedestrians and cyclists. Seattle is the perfect example.

  2. You mention Seattle as a Downward trend in the 4th paragraph down but Seattle is not listed on the graph.

  3. Is there a way you could show all the data prior to the implementation of Vision Zero? That way you could show if there is an impact post-implementation and it would give more data to help show trends better than this short time frame.

  4. Graph is confusing. It appears that all cities had exactly 100 fatalities in 2010.This can’t be, so the vertical axis must represent something else. I assume 100 is the “base” line for the cities, and that percentage changes are then shown, ??? Thus, the big spike for Portland does NOT mean it had more fatalities than any other city in 2017

  5. The graph is poorly done – the left axis isn’t defined. If it’s that year as a starting point and a relative weight of 100% just for that city – why?

    In either case – absolute numbers would also be useful. Is Portland’s 100 base score based upon 2 fatalities? If we’re comparing actual rates by cities – shouldn’t the rate be per say 100,000 of population? Otherwise – you’re not comparing these cities to each other at all.

  6. I think the Philly bike group should start PAYING for the stuff it wants, rather than being freeloaders off of drivers, whom they despise anyway.

  7. The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.

    The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.

    Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.

    Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.

    Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.

    There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.

    One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)

    Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.

    Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.

    Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.

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