As More Cities Adopt 'Vision Zero,' a Grand Experiment Emerges on U.S. Streets

Seattle has joined a growing list of major American cities trying out the Swedish approach to reducing traffic deaths.

Image Accord / Shutterstock.com
Accord / Shutterstock.com

When it comes to traffic fatalities, Seattle is already one of the safest cities in the United States. But last week Mayor Ed Murray stood up at a press conference, alongside Seattle’s chief of police and department of transportation director, and declared that the city's official policy will now be to make it even safer, by implementing what's known as “Vision Zero."

The announcement makes Seattle just the latest U.S. city to adopt a Vision Zero approach, styled after the Swedish policy of the same name, in pursuit of an ultimate goal of zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries. The others are Chicago; New York; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco. These cities have all set different timelines for achieving zero, with Seattle setting its sights on 2030.

Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, says he likes his city’s chances of reaching what might seem to some to be an unattainable milestone. “We’re probably positioned to be one of the first ones there,” says Kubly. “We’re starting from a very good place.”

In 2012, 20 people were killed in traffic crashes on Seattle streets, a rate of about 3.2 per 100,000 population, which compares quite favorably to the nationwide rate of 11.6 per 100,000. (In Sweden, a nation of 9.5 million, the rate is now at 3.0, a number that accounts for both highway and city driving.) In 2013, 23 people died in Seattle crashes, and more than 150 suffered “life-changing” injuries. Crashes involving people on bikes, people on motorcycles, and people on foot make up only 5 percent of the total collisions, but account for almost 50 percent of the fatalities.

Kubly says that, as in the other U.S. cities that have taken on explicit Vision Zero policies, Seattle will be attacking the problem using a strategy widely referred to as “the three E’s”: engineering, enforcement, and education. On the engineering side, for instance, the plan includes redesigned streets, timing for signals that better protects pedestrians at some intersections, and the elimination of right turn on red in certain key locations. Speeds on some arterial roads will go down to 30 miles per hour or lower, and the speed limit throughout downtown will be reduced to 25 miles per hour, a response to data showing that speed-related collisions in the downtown area have been on the rise. (Crashes at higher speed are exponentially more likely to kill or gravely injure people walking or biking.) Enforcement is already being stepped up, and police have already issued hundreds of warnings and dozens of citations, says Kubly, who adds that the city’s police chief is strongly supportive of the Vision Zero concept.

As for education, he says that outreach will try to break down the “war on cars” rhetoric that has been pervasive in Seattle (and that advocates for safer streets are already actively working to change).

“Nobody is really monomodal,” says Kubly. “There are very few people who are who are only driving a car. Everybody’s walking. Everybody has ridden a bike, or has kids that ride bikes, or grandkids.” The education campaign will also emphasize that the change in the speed limit will only reduce travel time through downtown by one minute. “Spare a minute, save a life,” says Kubly. “I don’t know many people who cannot spare one minute.”

Christian Mueller / Shutterstock.com

In New York City, where Vision Zero has been official city policy for just over a year, traffic deaths did decline in 2014, to 260, compared to 293 in 2013. The overall trend has been downward since 2001, so it’s hard to say if Vision Zero is responsible for the drop, and advocates are keeping pressure on the administration.

“2014 was about commitment to Vision Zero,” advocates wrote in an open letter to the administration. “2015 must be about accountability, as the de Blasio administration works to rebuild the city’s most dangerous streets and improve traffic enforcement.”

A recent incident in which a 15-year-old girl was struck by a public bus driver in a crosswalk shows how politically complicated the enforcement side can get. The girl, who was crossing with the light, was pinned beneath the bus and her leg was severely injured; she may lose it. Cops at the scene arrested the driver on a misdemeanor charge, under a new law designed to hold drivers accountable for crashes that kill or injure pedestrians who have the right of way, and handcuffed him. It was the second time a driver had been arrested in recent months, the previous occasion being a fatal collision. Eight New Yorkers were killed in crosswalks by MTA bus drivers in 2013.

The second arrest led to statements of outrage from the bus drivers’ union, whose president wrote that drivers were being “disgracefully and unfairly scapegoated and targeted” under the Vision Zero plan, and who called a leading safe-streets advocate a “phony progressive intellectual jackass” for praising the way cops handled the collision, according to the Daily News.

“We all know that Bus Operators prevent thousands of accidents every day, not cause them, as we navigate through the busiest and most dangerous streets in America,” wrote union president John Samuelsen in a blog post.  “We are the safest Bus Operators in the world. But the new rule under Vision Zero is ‘perfection.’ So let’s be perfect. If the conditions are not perfectly safe, do not move your bus!” His remarks were widely interpreted as the threat of a slowdown, although some advocates pointed to it as proof that the law is working to make drivers behave with greater care. The union is now calling for the city council to pass a bill exempting bus drivers from the law.

In Seattle—a much smaller city, and one with a very different street culture—Kubly says he is hopeful that the rollout of Vision Zero will go more smoothly, and that despite highly charged rhetoric over street-safety issues in the past, drivers will understand the rationale behind the new speed limits, enforcement efforts, and design modifications. “Nobody wants to hurt somebody,” says Kubly, noting that crashes are traumatic for drivers, even if they are not injured themselves. “Nobody wants to kill somebody.”

Most important, says Kubly, is changing the overall mindset in Seattle and bringing home the idea that people don’t have to take traffic fatalities as inevitable. “No one would accept a homicide as a byproduct of living in the city,” he says. “No one should accept a traffic fatality as a byproduct of our commute.”

Top image: Accord / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.