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The limits of Vision Zero

A long read about a tough problem.

Los Angeles was not the first U.S. city to sign on to Vision Zero: Chicago (2012), New York City (2014) and San Francisco (2014) had already adopted the Scandinavian-born safety movement. But L.A. moved quickly, revamping 18 corridors — including the Hollywood and Highland intersection — with “Vision Zero safety countermeasures” like curb extensions and protected left turn signals. In 2017 the prestigious Transportation Research Board cited the city’s effort as national model, producing a report intended “as a guide to help cities develop their own robust, data-driven Vision Zero process.”

But since 2015 the streets of Los Angeles have grown more deadly, not less. In 2021, 289 people died on L.A. roadways, a 20-year high. “Is Vision Zero a failure?” a headline in the Los Angeles Times recently asked.

Residents of other American cities might pose the same question. In New York City, traffic deaths in 2021 were the highest since committing to Vision Zero seven years earlier. Portland, Oregon, saw more traffic deaths last year than it had since 1990, and Austin set a new all-time record (both became Vision Zero adherents in 2015). Deaths are surging in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well. In fact, it’s hard to find any Vision Zero cities where traffic deaths have declined. (A rare exception is Hoboken, New Jersey, which went three years without a single fatality.)

While some have blamed Covid-19-related societal disruption for the growing toll, U.S. cities were already struggling to keep traffic fatalities from rising, let alone reducing them, before the pandemic hit.

Vision Zero’s track record in the U.S. contrasts sharply with Europe, where road deaths have been drifting downward for years. In 2019, Helsinki had exactly three traffic fatalities — and none was a pedestrian or cyclist. For comparison, the capital of Finland has roughly as many residents as Las Vegas, a Vision Zero city where 304 people died on the road that same year.

Despite Vision Zero being one of the hottest ideas in traffic safety, its European success has not translated across the Atlantic. Current trends suggest that is unlikely to change, absent a fundamental rethink around policy implementation.

“Vision Zero had something of a honeymoon phase,” said Leah Shahum, director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network. “Now we’re butting up against the system.”

The system, for US cities and road networks includes streets designed to maximize automotive traffic flow, national vehicle safety standards that don’t take pedestrian safety into account, local obstacles to implementing various traffic-calming projects (see, for example, the resistance to the West 11th Street project), a lack of speed and red light cameras, and more. The predictable result is more traffic fatalities than we should have. Go read the rest.

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