Vision Zero: Inspiring Ideas from the Big Apple

by Jill Locantore on March 25, 2016

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A Vision Zero themed mural in Brooklyn, NY, orchestrated by Groundswell

On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, WalkDenver and partners organized a Vision Zero Love-In where pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders rallied on the steps of the City and County building to demonstrate their support for Vision Zero and the goal of zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries.  Less than a week later, Mayor Hancock responded by announcing his administration’s commitment to ending deaths and serious injuries on Denver’s streets.

WalkDenver is now leading the development of a Vision Zero Coalition that will support the City’s efforts to implement specific, data-driven strategies to make our streets safer for all users, particularly the most vulnerable traveling on foot or by bike.

Thanks to a generous scholarship provided by Dekra through the Vision Zero Network, WalkDenver’s Policy and Program Director Jill Locantore was able to attend the Vision Zero Cities Conference in New York City earlier this month and learn from other cities that are part of this growing international movement. Below are just a few of the inspiring ideas Jill brought back from the Big Apple.  If you find these ideas as exciting as we do, make a contribution to WalkDenver to support our work on Vision Zero!

Peatonito

“Peatonito” – Mexico City’s masked defender of pedestrian rights – speaks at the Vision Zero Cities Conference

A Fundamental Shift in Philosophy

While traffic safety is by no means a new topic, Vision Zero does represent a fundamental shift in philosophy. Particularly in the U.S., traditional traffic safety initiatives have focused on perfecting human behavior: wear your seatbelt, don’t get distracted while driving, only cross the street at marked crosswalks, etc.  By contrast, Vision Zero takes a systems approach and aims to design streets for human beings with all their frailties and imperfections.  People will undoubtedly make mistakes from time to time; those mistakes do not have to be fatal. “We are not putting trained airline pilots on the streets,” noted Karin Hassner, a Road Safety Expert with WSP | Parsons Brinkerhoff. Streets can and should be designed to be safe for everyone from small children to the elderly.

Zero is the Right Goal

At first blush the goal seems audacious, but zero traffic fatalities may very well be within our grasp. Consider other leading causes of death from years past. In 1832,cholera killed 3,515 people out of 250,000 living in New York City at that time. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) The general consensus then was that if you got cholera, it was your own fault, the inevitable result of poor personal habits.  Scientific research eventually revealed the real culprit – private and neighborhood wells that were often polluted with human and animal waste – and pointed to systemic changes in how cities manage water and sewage. These changes subsequently eliminated the spread of cholera in the U.S.  Systemic changes in how we manage transportation holds similar promise for eliminating unnecessary traffic fatalities.

Autonomous Car Credit Google

Autonomous vehicles – the secret sauce for safe streets?  Photo: Google.com

An Intriguing Role for Technology

Many of the proven strategies for making our streets safer are decidedly low-tech, such as narrowing street widths and ensuring that all urban neighborhoods haveadequate sidewalks. Technology, however, also offers some interesting opportunities. For example, Zendrive is an app that uses the sensors on a smartphone to measure and improve driving behavior. Drivers receive feedback on dangerous activities such as rapid acceleration, speeding, and distracted driving. Jonathan Matus, Founder and CEO of Zendrive, reports that this coaching can reduce speeding and phone use while driving by up to 60%.  Perhaps even more beneficial, aggregate data collected through the app can help cities understand the locations where drivers are most likely to engage in dangerous behaviors and target engineering redesigns to these areas.

Thinking further outside the box, Rohit Aggarwala, Chief Policy Officer for Sidewalk Labs, posited that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may allow a return to an era before cars came to dominate our public thoroughfares. Prior to the rise of motordom, streets belonged primarily to pedestrians. Other road users included horses, which tend be very docile, and street cars, which are relatively slow and predictable. Autonomous vehicles, programmed to automatically detect and yield to pedestrians, will be similarly docile and predictable, potentially allowing people to roam the streets on foot in a carefree manner unimaginable today.

While we ponder this utopia of the future, Denver can take immediate actions that will make our community safer for all residents.  Cities throughout the U.S. and Europe are implementing changes to street design and enforcement strategies that are resulting in measurable declines in serious injuries and traffic fatalities. WalkDenver looks forward to building a strong coalition of partners to shepherd the implementation of similar Vision Zero strategies here in our city. Because even one death on our streets is one too many.

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