Can a city reduce the number of deaths to zero?

What would happen if a United States city decided it was going to reduce the traffic deaths within its borders not by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or even 80 percent, but by 100 percent – all the way to zero. What would happen then?

In Chicago, we’re about to find out.

The city of Chicago’s transportation department, headed by commissioner Gabe Klein, has released a new “action agenda” called “Chicago Forward.” It contains a goal that, as far as I know, has never to date been explicitly embraced by a major United States city:

Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic crash fatalities within 10 years.

That is the first "performance measure” listed in the safety section of the Chicago plan, which also calls for a 50 percent reduction of roadway injuries to pedestrians, bicycles, and motorists in five years.

How are they going to do that?

There’s no single answer to that question. Instead, the city will be taking a multifaceted approach to traffic safety that includes engineering local streets to reduce car speeds; improving pedestrian and bike facilities; education; better data collection and evaluation; and increasing enforcement. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is strongly behind such measures even when they are politically unpopular, as was the case with a controversial speed camera bill that the mayor pushed through the City Council last month.

Commissioner Klein was not available to comment on Chicago's new plan, but Ron Burke, executive director of the city’s Active Transportation Alliance, said he and fellow advocates are optimistic. "There's a lot to like in the plan," says Burke, who notes that the city has already begun implementing many of the policies in the report. "It's encouraging that the city would create and publish a plan to begin with, one that lays out goals and objectives that can be tracked and monitored. It puts them on the record and holds them accountable."

The idea of aiming for zero traffic deaths may be novel in the United States, but in Sweden, it's national policy. In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed the Vision Zero Initiative, with the “ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.” Currently, the plan calls for an interim goal of reducing deaths and injuries to 50 percent of 2007 figures by 2020.

Has it worked? Zero is still some ways off – 2050 is the target date now -- but the absolute number of traffic fatalities in Sweden continues to fall even as traffic is on the rise. And compared to the United States, their numbers are impressive: In 2009, Sweden had 4.3 traffic deaths per 100,000 population, while the United States had 12.3 (the European Union average was 11 in 2007).

There is some reason to be skeptical. In Norway, a Vision Zero plan appears to have had little impact. And even in its home country, Vision Zero has not met always met its performance goals, with the numbers requiring adjustment and rethinking as time has passed.

Still, the very idea of "zero" could be radically powerful in the United States, where traffic fatalities and serious injuries have long been accepted as collateral damage. In the U.S. transportation system, success is usually measured in speed and “through-put” of motor vehicles rather than in safety.

Here’s the philosophy that Sweden has embraced, as stated in a video on the Vision Zero site:

There is no moral justification for any death in traffic.

In every situation a person might fail the road system should not.

A traffic engineer in the video puts the responsibility squarely on his own profession:

Every crash with serious injuries or fatalities is something you need to look at and ask, what was wrong here? What should I have done, not the citizen, but what should I have done as a responsible and professional person in the system?

Here's how Chicago’s new action plan formulates priorities:

Safety is paramount in a complicated transportation system where pedestrians share the right of way with fast moving vehicles, bicycles intermingle with delivery trucks, and roadways cross freight rail lines….

On average, Chicago experiences roughly 3,000 crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians resulting in 50 pedestrian deaths each year. This is safer than the 2003 to 2007 period when the city had over 3,500 crashes and more than 60 pedestrian fatalities a year, and a dramatic change from 1994 when 88 pedestrians were killed in that year alone. Chicago has been making steady progress to improve transportation safety for all users, and has had fewer pedestrian fatalities per capita than most of its peer cities.

But every life lost is one too many.

Chicago's commissioner Klein headed the transportation department Washington, D.C., for almost two years before he was let go in a change of administration in late 2010. There he presided over a number of initiatives similar to the ones in store for Chicago. He brought bike share to Washington, making it the first city in the United States to offer that transportation option (bike share is coming to Chicago later this year). He installed miles and miles of bike lanes. He improved pedestrian infrastructure and instituted education campaigns for drivers. He also introduced innovative public transportation programs like the Circulator bus.

And what does traffic safety look like in Washington right now? John Hendel of TBD recently reported on the numbers:

D.C. lays claim to just six traffic fatalities this year as of May 11, according to the police department, compared to 14 traffic fatalities at this time last year. That's a drop of 57.1% and an encouraging sign, quietly spotlighted in the department's weekly newsletter among many other crime statistics.

This drop in traffic fatalities suggests that perhaps all our initiatives, from traffic safety officers to better biking infrastructure to signs warning against blocking the box and educating drivers about safety through concerted local campaigns and broader regional efforts like Street Smart, may have an effect. Last year there were 32 traffic fatalities total, 25 the year before that, and 33 the year before that. Those numbers are already much lower than the numbers of killed commuters in years past — like the 69 D.C. traffic fatalities of 2003, for instance.

In Chicago, Active Transportation's Burke hopes the new policies will make a real change in safety - and in the attitude that zero fatalities is a utopian dream. "We think that these goals are achievable," he says. "Obviously, it takes a comprehensive approach. Unfortunately we've become so accustomed [to traffic fatalities] that we've become resigned. Like it's inevitable. But it's not. This is ambitious, but doable."

Photo credit: Larry St. Pierre/

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: bicyclists in Paris during a transit strike in December.

    Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'

    In her re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says that every Paris resident should be able to meet their essential needs within a short walk or bike ride.

  2. photo: a wallet full of Yen bills.

    Japan’s Lost-and-Found System Is Insanely Good

    If you misplace your phone or wallet in Tokyo, chances are very good that you’ll get it back. Here’s why.

  3. Equity

    What Mike Bloomberg Got Wrong About Redlining and the Financial Crisis

    Comments about New Deal-era housing discrimination made by presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg echo a familiar narrative about minority homeowners.

  4. Equity

    The Presidential Candidates that Mayors Support

    Big-city mayors favor Mike Bloomberg after his late entry into the race, while leaders in smaller cities have lined up behind Pete Buttigieg.

  5. Design

    How We Map Epidemics

    Cartographers are mapping the coronavirus in more sophisticated ways than past epidemics. But visualizing outbreaks dates back to cholera and yellow fever.