Why Bill de Blasio’s ‘Vision Zero for the Nation’ Shouldn’t be Laughed off

Amy Cohen, holding a photo of her son Sammy Cohen Eckstein, stands next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Families for Safe Streets rally. Photo:  Families for Safe Streets
Amy Cohen, holding a photo of her son Sammy Cohen Eckstein, stands next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Families for Safe Streets rally. Photo: Families for Safe Streets

Political activists mostly scoffed when Bill de Blasio was quoted as saying he wanted to take New York City’s Vision Zero national. But isn’t it refreshing to hear a presidential candidate discuss one of the biggest preventable killers of Americans?

Granted, the Big Apple’s signature road safety effort isn’t perfect. There have been 18 bike fatalities so far this year — compared to just 10 in the whole of 2018. But de Blasio can take credit for the longer trend line: Road fatalities in New York City are down from roughly 300 when he took over to roughly 200 per year now. It’s not zero. But 100 lives is not nothing.

Certainly, no issue is getting de Blasio onto the marquee right now; he’s polling just the thickness of paint over 0 percent. But what other presidential candidate is even broaching the topic of traffic safety right now? What candidates have ever?

“There’s no reason Vision Zero could not be made national policy, to slow people down, to make sure there’s a lot more enforcement, to have things like speed cameras around schools,” de Blasio said on Monday, as reported by Politico. “I mean, these are all things that will protect lives, particularly protect the lives of kids and seniors. And I think that’s something that people could agree on all over this country.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Americans “could agree on” speed cameras at schools, New York City has made respectable progress in recent years. As traffic fatalities are down in New York, they up 13 percent nationally since 2010.

And there’s plenty of global precedent for de Blasio if he’s lucky enough to drive Vision Zero all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Nations with much better traffic safety records have presidents and prime ministers frequently make traffic safety a key part of their national agenda, said Neil Arason, a Canadian traffic safety expert and author of “No Accident.”

The most striking example is Jacques Chirac. The former president of France made reducing traffic deaths one of his top three national priorities in 2002. Now, France’s per-capita traffic fatality rate is about half of ours. If we were to match the Gaullist level of safety, about 20,000 American lives would have been saved last year.

“We can all think of millions of examples of things that get a lot of attention [in the U.S.] where a lot less people were killed,” he said. One example, he used was the 9/11 terrorist attacks where 3,000 people were killed.

These other issues are “also really important,” he said. “But 3,000 people are killed on American roads every month year after year and yet we don’t talk about that.”

What if Donald Trump was forced to answer for that in debates? Or if Elizabeth Warren unveiled one of her policy plans to address it?

“We might be inching in that direction,” said Arason, with mayors like de Blasio running for president from Vision Zero cities. “We might get there. I hope we will.”

7 thoughts on Why Bill de Blasio’s ‘Vision Zero for the Nation’ Shouldn’t be Laughed off

  1. Is there data on the correlated/causative factors related to the decrease in fatalities?

    I’d wager that a significant contribution to the decrease in fatalities is the decrease in average vehicle speeds due to increases in traffic… I know there are studies showing speed decreases for NYC buses through this year and all traffic through last year [http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/mobility-report-2018-screen-optimized.pdf].

    The point may be that overall direct fatalities are down, but environmental & social harm may be way up.

  2. I would welcome a national discussion if it would bring bipartisan support. It would be great if both the President and Congress could get behind a major safety initiative. However, in the current political climate, I would be a bit nervous about Trump randomly tweeting that Vision Zero is a liberal plot against American values, and suddenly it would be impossible to get anything through the Senate.

  3. In France they dont drive tractor trailers. They use smaller vehicles. I dont understand wwhy we all need hill Billie cars to use daily.

  4. Problem with vision zero is that it hasn’t worked. Has caused an increase in traffic which in turn has caused more pedestrian and bike deaths. Crowded rats make bad decisions. All vision zero has done is create more traffic and increase the ticket income for the city levied against bikers and drivers to the tube of a 40% increase.

    Anyone that believes tickets save lives is an idiot.

  5. 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.

  6. @Tom McCarey:

    You make some compelling arguments, but much of your point of view is summarized in the last sentence: “Let’s make roads safer.(…)”; and Vision Zero policies are much more focused in making streets safer… Livable streets for people not (or less) for cars.

    It is true that much of the policies have the intent of reducing and slowing traffic, but mobility must not be reduced if a shift to more sustainable and safer modes of transport is accomplished.

    As for economics impacts, local businesses thrive in city’s areas where road pavement is reduced to increase quality of public space. I’m from an european context, but from some interventions I saw from New York, I believe it is not so different there.

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