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Does Vision Zero Actually Work - And How?

Vision Zero Initiative, conceived in Sweden, works on two basic principles: a. “No loss of life is acceptable”, and b. “In every situation a person might fail - the road system should not.” You can read more about this approach in our recent article here.

While the philosophy behind this agency’s work may be compelling, does it actually work and what sorts of changes are needed to implement it?

First of all, it does seem to work. In Sweden traffic has increased steadily since the 1950s, yet traffic-related pedestrian deaths have decreased, reaching an all-time low in 2009. Sweden’s pedestrian death rate is currently lowest in the world (2.7 deaths annually per 100,000 people). In the US, for comparison, there are 10.4 traffic related deaths per 100,000 people every year.

So what sort of changes would it take for the US to approach this number?

Issues of speed and street design would be the first to address. In Sweden, this included lowering the speed limit to 18 mph in the city. It can also include simple solutions like placing barriers to slow and guide traffic, providing raised crosswalks and extended curbs so pedestrians are seen by drivers and drivers perceive the street as narrowing and slow down. Another solution is the so-called road diet, where four lanes are reduced to two traffic lanes combined with one turning and one cycling lane.

Further possibilities are the addition of speed bumps, roundabouts, high visibility crosswalks and flashing pedestrian crossing signs, giving pedestrians a head-start at lights, opening up intersections to enhance visibility, providing clear, unequivocal demarcation and signals (e.g., for merges) so it is absolutely clear who belongs where on the road, and so on.

Political and financial obstacles are all too real, but if we think of the immense emotional, financial and other cost involved in accidents resulting in fatalities or injuries, as well as the potential long-term benefits, the picture does change.

Also, 60.3% of pedestrian fatalities occur on arterial roads, and federal funding is available for the improvements of these. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/research/dangerous-by-design/dbd2014/national-overview

A number of the suggestions listed above were included in the Blueprint for the Upper West Side proposed for NY several years ago and in the NYC 2014 Action Plan.

The latter document quotes impressive data that show Vision Zero works in the US context as well, where it has been implemented in some states since the 2000s, leading to a reduction in traffic fatalities of 43% in Minnesota, 48% in Utah, and 40% in Washington www.nyc.gov/html/visionzero/pdf/nyc-vision-zero-action-plan.pdf

So, even if you may not subscribe to Vision Zero’s ideas about the system rather than the individual driver bearing the brunt of responsibility, some of the practical steps this model proposes do seem simple and highly efficient.

More comprehensive solutions, for which the agency offers consultancy to governments across the world, would include:

 

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