Takeaways from the Vision Zero Cities Conference

by Jessica Vargas on May 19, 2017

Lessons learned from other cities can help Denver achieve Vision Zero

Just over one year has passed since the Denver Vision Zero Coalition came together to support the City and County of Denver’s commitment to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. During this time, the Coalition has been working with the City to develop a Vision Zero Action Plan that outlines strategies for making Denver’s streets safer, which will be finalized later this year. The third annual Vision Zero Cities conference in New York City earlier this month therefore presented a timely opportunity for WalkDenver’s Associate Director Jill Locantore to learn more about best practices from cities around the world that are leading the Vision Zero movement. Below, Jill shares some of the highlights from the conference.

We know the solutions, we just have to be bold

Vision Zero has its roots in Sweden, going all the way back to the 1990’s. Over the past 20 years Sweden has had tremendous success in reducing traffic fatalities to approximately 2.5 per 100,000 residents, about a quarter of the U.S. fatality rate. Many of the strategies that have proven successful in Sweden are applicable here as well: the rules of geometry and physics that differentiate a safe road from a dangerous one are the same across the globe. The problem is not so much a technical one, but a political one.

Overcoming political resistance to strategies known to improve traffic safety, such as road diets, can be particularly challenging in growing cities like Denver. Even if the city doesn’t make any changes to the streets, traffic and congestion will increase. Therefore it’s easy for residents to conflate, for example, the introduction of protected bike lanes with increasing congestion. Denver’s own experiment with the Broadway Bikeway, however, showed a negligible effect on vehicular travel speeds.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio advised leaders from other cities to expect opposition, but not to waver. “As you make changes,” de Blasio noted, “facts will be on your side.” Indeed, 2016 saw the fewest traffic fatalities in the recorded history of New York City, which goes back over a century, with a decrease of 22% in just the past three years since the city adopted Vision Zero. “We know the solutions, we just have to be bold in implementing them,” de Blasio said.

If you don’t have speed management, you’re not serious about Vision Zero

Speed was a consistent theme throughout the conference. “Everywhere is safe with low speeds, and everywhere is unsafe with high speeds,” explained Claes Tingvall, the former Director of Traffic Safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, who has been involved in Vision Zero since the very beginning. “If you don’t have a speed management program, you’re not serious about Vision Zero.”

Tingvall went on to assert that simply going out to the public and telling them to slow down is a “complete waste of resources.” Instead, the most effective strategies promote safe speeds through street design. For example, a well-designed roundabout encourages everyone to go slowly, making the intersection safer “even if people are doing stupid things.” By contrast, at an intersection controlled by a traffic signal, some of the drivers are at a standstill, and some may be traveling at high speeds, creating a particularly hazardous environment for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The Denver Vision Zero Coalition’s Safe Speeds for Denver campaign calls upon the City to take steps to address the inherent dangers of unsafe speeds, and speed management is emerging as a key theme the City’s Vision Zero Action Plan will likely address.

You can’t lead with enforcement

Traffic enforcement was also a hot topic at the conference. While engineering changes may require a lot of time and resources to implement, automated enforcement through speed cameras can be a relatively quick and cost-effective way to promote safer speeds, especially if the cameras are highly visible. “You don’t want to fine people,” Tingvall said, “you want people to slow down. A camera that catches a lot of people is a bad camera.” He reports that people hated Sweden’s speed camera program at first, but now they are clamoring for more widespread use of the technology.

Relying primarily on enforcement to increase traffic safety comes fraught with its own perils, however. While Mayor de Blasio asserted that people who are not speeding or failing to yield to pedestrians don’t have to worry about getting stopped by the police or being ticketed for a traffic violation, Tamika Butler from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition countered that is not always true for people of color. Referring to the “three E’s” of engineering, enforcement, and education, Butler noted that “not all E’s are equal – you can’t lead with enforcement,” and must consider the larger context in which enforcement occurs, including community concerns about racial and social injustices.

The Denver Vision Zero Coalition acknowledged this context when it adopted a set of Core Principles earlier this year, including Principle #7:

Enforcement Cannot Correct for Dangerous Street Design. Traditional officer-initiated enforcement should be a last resort, not the primary tactic. Over-reliance of enforcement can exacerbate racial and social injustices and erode mutual feelings of trust and safety between our police officers and the communities they serve.

The Coalition will be drawing upon the lessons learned from the Vision Zero Cities conference as we work with the City to finalize a Vision Zero Action plan that promotes safe streets for everyone, regardless of how they travel, and regardless of age, income, race, ethnicity, or ability. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming months. You can continue to support WalkDenver’s work with the Vision Zero Coalition by signing the safe speed petition and buying your early bird ticket for our July 20 gala at the Square on 21st.

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