InTrans / Oct 28, 2015

Creating active communities: The Vision Zero initiative

Go! Magazine

Highway trafficposted on October 28, 2015

This series is dedicated to “movements,” which are identified as people working together to advance a shared political, social, or artistic idea. In this series, we’ll discuss a few social movements focused on transportation alternatives.

In the previous article, “Creating active communities: Open streets movement,” we talked about what an open street is, a few examples of the movement happening today, and why they are so successful.

In this article, we will be tying together both the Open Streets and Complete Streets movements and talking about the Vision Zero initiative, which can be summarized in one sentence: “No loss of life is acceptable.”

Every year, 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic accidents. Before what is now known as the Vision Zero initiative, the common response to each roadway death was to look at what mistake the driver made to cause the fatality. Today, there is a new approach: for every traffic fatality, look at what could have prevented the death from a road design standpoint. After all, the road system needs to keep us moving, but it must also be designed to protect us at every turn.

Who started it?

The Vision Zero initiative began in Sweden in 1997 as a way to publicly reject the belief that with increased mobility comes increased traffic deaths. As such, Sweden has set specific goals in order to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2020. The country believes that by understanding the human factor in crashes, a lot of future crashes can be prevented through the safe designs of roadway infrastructure.

The Vision Zero approach is a complete contrast to the conventional approach to road design; instead of designing roads for maximum capacity, the roadways are designed for safety first. Vision Zero activists argue that the main burden for safety should be put on road system design rather than relying on humans alone.

What does a “Vision Zero” street look like?

In Sweden, they have integrated safe speeds with different road uses. For instance, roadways with pedestrian traffic have maximum speed limits of 19 miles per hour (mph), because that is the maximum speed tolerance pedestrians can be hit by a moving vehicle and live (See “The more you know: What technologies can help reduce road fatalities”). Additionally, drivers involved in head-on collisions can only sustain speeds of up to 43 mph, and drivers hit from the side can only withstand speeds of 31 mph. With this knowledge, Sweden has put in place strict speed limits along roadways with different potentials for crashes. For example, crash barriers have also been added on two-way roadways, which helps reduce the chance of head-on collisions in the first place.

Crash barrier in Sweden
Crash barrier in Sweden. Photo from Wikipedia.

Vision Zero in the United States

Chicago, Illinois, signed on to the Vision Zero initiative in 2012. In a big city like Chicago, with a population of 10 million people in the metro area alone, there are many instances where pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and vehicles all interact. Given that Chicago has roughly 3,000 crashes—50 of which end in death—between motor vehicles and pedestrians each year, there is room for improvement (that is more than eight crashes between pedestrians and motorized vehicles per day!)

Although crashes involving bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians only make up five percent of the total crashes in the US, they account for almost 50 percent of the fatalities. Chicago has acted to reduce car speeds, reduce bike and pedestrian facilities, raise awareness through education, increase red light camera enforcement, and prioritize better data collection (i.e., the more you know, the easier it is to prevent road fatalities).

Red light camera
Red light camera. Photo from Wikipedia.

Los Angeles, California, is another city that has implemented the Vision Zero approach in 2014 as a way to reduce fatalities. Given that vehicle crashes are the greatest cause of death for children ages one to four, there is an increased concern for safety in the city. Specifically, fatal pedestrian collisions account for 82 roadway deaths each year, or 44 percent of all traffic fatalities. However, unlike Chicago’s 2012 strategic plan, Los Angeles’ 2015 strategic plans to decrease the overall number of single passenger drivers by 2017 and increase public transit or other forms of commuting. Thus, there is a reduction in congestion from car traffic, which could make the city a safer place for all road users.

Does Vision Zero really work?

Obviously, no one wants any deaths on the roadways. But is it as simple as signing on to the Vision Zero initiative? Can cities really reduce all traffic-related deaths to zero?

Well, Sweden, the instigator of the initiative, has seen a 50 percent reduction in fatalities of unprotected pedestrians in the last five years. Next, activists in Sweden are pushing to reduce roadway fatalities from not wearing a seat belt, speeding, and drunk driving from 5 deaths per 100,000 accidents to 0.5 deaths. Sweden continues to put in place infrastructure for safer roadways, even while the traffic volume has increased. The US has a lot to learn from Sweden! In 2008, Sweden had 4.3 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, while the US had 12.3 (World Bank, 2008).

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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