Last month, we were excited to join hundreds of Vision Zero leaders in New York City for the third annual Vision Zero Cities conference, hosted by Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets. It was an especially exciting time for me to attend my first event as a new addition to the Vision Zero Network team. I’m so happy to be part of this national movement that is clearly developing momentum across the country to make our communities and cities the safe, welcoming places we all want them to be.
While the conference was a whirl-wind two days jam-packed with presentations and discussions, the Vision Zero Network organized two of our own convenings to take advantage of this special gathering of Vision Zero leaders: the first included 35 representatives of the 10 Vision Zero Focus Cities to dig deep into successful strategies and ongoing challenges in their cities, and the second was with a few dozen Vision Zero advocates to discuss ongoing challenges and successes from their perspectives as on-the-ground community organizers.
The main themes at the conference and these smaller convenings reflected what we consider the most urgent and important topics that Vision Zero leaders – both inside and outside government – are working on at the local level. For those who couldn’t attend, we are pleased to share our top takeaways from an impressive gathering of passionate and committed Vision Zero leaders across the country.
#1) Zero is the right number.
In his opening remarks, Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, set the tone, stating that Vision Zero is a movement that prioritizes lives ahead of expediency. In short, he reminded us that there is no acceptable goal other than zero. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the conference later in the morning and emphasized the same sentiment: “The year before I came into office we had the highest number of traffic deaths in a decade. I knew it couldn’t go on.” He went on to add, “The status quo is causing us to lose children and seniors and tearing families apart.” This recognition that we have to shake up the complacency that allows 40,000 traffic deaths a year was repeated throughout the event, from government and advocacy staff alike.
We also heard clearly that as local Vision Zero stakeholders establish and measure against the common goal of zero, they are uniting diverse disciplines toward a common purpose like never before. It is the goal of zero that is driving a long-overdue transformative shift in how we approach safety on our streets, sidewalk, and bikeways. So, the goal of zero is not only morally right, it’s also a far more effective organizing strategy to make change.
#2) Equity is not just a goal, it is integral to a successful Vision Zero movement.
The theme of equity was underscored throughout the day: from data showing that disadvantaged communities, including people of color, are disproportionately represented in traffic deaths; to concerns about Vision Zero leading to over-policing and inequitable traffic enforcement; to strategies to create inclusive engagement strategies.
The highlight, in my opinion, was the passionate keynote speech by Tamika Butler, Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Tamika spoke eloquently of her personal experience living in L.A., working on Vision Zero, and the need to think about and act on the intersectionality of safe streets with other issues facing communities, especially racism. For me, her speech was a game changer for how we approach Vision Zero work. During the Vision Zero Network’s convening with local advocates, we heard that Tamika’s speech sparked interest in integrating equity not only as a Vision Zero program goal, but also within our own institutions doing the work of advocating for Vision Zero. We discussed the desire and need to integrate equity into all aspects of our own organizations internally, in order to affect and more fully participate in the change we want to see happen.
Read more on this subject. We share the Vision Zero Network’s recent thinking and recommendations on centering equity in Vision Zero work in our report released during the conference.
#3) Not all E’s are created equal.
Many transportation safety efforts are based on the three traditional E’s of Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. The Network and others also emphasize the importance of other key E’s such as Equity, Engagement, and Evaluation. While useful in some ways, this framework of E’s obscures several important realities. One is that Engineering, the action of physically designing (or re-designing) roadways to encourage safe behavior, is paramount, as this built environment is the base of everything else and influences behavior the most.
As cities work to redesign for safety, they are tapping into the power of a Safe Systems approach to ensure safe travel for all, by designing for safe speeds, and creating safe spaces for people walking and bicycling, rather than focusing on changing individual behavior with education campaigns alone. The phrase, “Not all E’s are created equal” was reiterated numerous times throughout the conference. This not only emphasizes the importance of Engineering, but also flags urgent concerns that Vision Zero could lead to over-enforcement and harmful racial profiling in communities where distrust with police is already commonplace.
At the Network, we are acutely aware of the limitations of the traditional “E’s” and are re-assessing the framework. Some of our thinking is shared in our report Moving from Vision Zero Action: Fundamental Principles, Policies & Practices to Advance Vision Zero in the U.S. And stay tuned for more on this in future months.
#4) Managing speed is critical and possible.
The imperative to reduce speeds continues to take root in many cities. Members of Families for Safe Streets have poignantly advocated to reduce speed limits in New York City from 30 to 25 mph and are now advocating for the addition of safety cameras around all 2,000+ NYC schools as part of its #EverySchool campaign. The city of Seattle even more recently succeeded in reducing arterial road speeds to 25 mph and neighborhood street speeds to 20 mph, and Boston also succeeded in lowering local speed limits from 30 to 25 mph. Washington DC is looking to add 100 new cameras around schools limiting speed to 15 mph, and Portland’s Department of Transportation recently won state approval to permanently reduce the speed limit from 35 to 30 mph on one of its High Crash Network streets.
The bottom line? Managing speed is possible and one of the most effective ways to improve safety. Yet, many cities still face challenges in controlling speeds – including using cameras, lowering speed limits and re-designing roadways for lower speeds — because of the need for state legislation or skepticism from the public, but those barriers are being overcome. Speed management is a critical issue to Vision Zero and we will continue to raise up best practices and thinking in this arena.
#5) Personal Stories make it real: No loss of life is acceptable.
Families for Safe Streets started in New York City in 2015 with 11 dedicated founding members. Unfortunately, as traffic deaths continue, especially among children, the number of members and new chapters of Families for Safe Streets has grown. One of the founding members, Mary Beth Kelly who tragically lost her husband, Carl, in a 2006 traffic crash, introduced the conference opening panel by sharing her thoughts on Vision Zero: “It’s a vision to change a culture. I channeled my grief into activism.” Many people who have lost their loved ones to traffic violence have followed into activism, which is making meaningful positive change today.
Members of the growing number of Families for Safe Streets chapters met for the first time in person at the conference to share their stories, and strategize for the future. And, inspiring they truly were. In a special session dedicated to mobilizing the power of stories to affect change, four parents poignantly shared their personal histories. In addition to their heartbreaking losses etched through videos and photos, they shared their impressive advocacy and education stories in New York, New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Toronto, Canada. Members of the new New Jersey chapter have made hundreds of presentations and talked with more than 150,000 students about the need for safe streets. Julie Mitchell, who is one of the founding members of the San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Street and lost her son Dylan in 2013 in a traffic crash, shared how their organizing, with the support of Walk San Francisco, has helped elevate their voices and ensured they are heard by legislators who have the power to prioritize safety on our streets.
#6) Leadership matters – at all levels.
We know that leadership, particularly at the mayoral level, is critical. New York City, with leadership from Mayor de Blasio, has created one of the most robust and successful Vision Zero programs in the country, with a 30% reduction in traffic deaths in its three years of Vision Zero implementation.
In our meeting with the Focus Cities, we also heard that, in the best scenarios, leadership is manifesting at many levels, which is important to Vision Zero’s success. Transportation engineers are able to stand up to NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) resistance to street design changes because they can elevate the shared goal of safety. And they are evaluating and proving the impacts of their new designs in more effective ways too. At the community level, advocates are effectively organizing in support of funding to pay for Vision Zero projects. Also at the grassroots level, we are seeing the alignment of diverse community groups around the shared goal of safety, thanks to leaders recognizing the power of united voices.
#7) Recognize that a Safe Systems approach is transformative, not just more of the same.
Vision Zero is, at its core, about taking a new approach to traffic safety – a Safe Systems approach. As U.S. cities develop their local Vision Zero strategies, recognizing how this differs from the traditional approach to traffic safety is critical. Unlike the traditional approach, where the greatest attention and emphasis has been on individual road users, Vision Zero’s Safe Systems approach brings more attention and urgency to the role of the underlying systems – the built environment, policies, vehicle technology – as well as the system designers – transportation planners and engineers, policymakers, police, etc.
As in the case of other public health crises, which this certainly is given 40,000 traffic deaths a year, Vision Zero recognizes that we will not make lasting, meaningful change if we continue to try to influence behavior individual by individual. We need greater focus on addressing the underlying systems that most influence people’s behavior. For a great read on the Safe Systems approach, see Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries, produced by the international Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
#8) We must ensure that everyone has a voice.
Often-times the people with the most first-hand knowledge of how streets work – or don’t work — are the least likely to be at the decision-making table. This is something we need to be aware of and work to change, as part of Vision Zero efforts. Ideas on how to integrate meaningful community-level engagement towards Vision Zero was a popular topic at the conference. While there was agreement that Vision Zero’s data-driven approach is important, there is also need to better supplement numbers and maps with more listening and learning to people’s real experiences at the community level.
We know that leadership at the top level is important, but creating a Vision Zero program that truly meets the needs of community members, especially those most vulnerable, is essential to achieving a goal of zero traffic deaths. The Network highlights what three cities are doing to engage communities in our recent Centering Equity in Vision Zero report and will continue to elevate promising strategies.
In his closing remarks, Claes Tingvall complimented our nascent efforts here in the U.S., recognizing the benefits of more community involvement and on-the-ground shaping of this movement, “In Sweden, Vision Zero was top down. In the U.S. Vision Zero is bottom-up. It’s a grassroots movement.”
In short, the conference was both educational and inspiring. I am personally heartened by Mr. Tingvall’s assessment of the U.S. Vision Zero as a powerful grassroots movement. While we certainly have room to grow in this arena, we are on the right path.
For me, having worked during the last six years to advance successful active transportation projects in San Diego, the conference confirmed that Vision Zero is a departure from business as usual. In addition to straight up injury prevention, the movement is tackling the issues of social justice, public health, and the environment. Those involved have a fantastic level of enthusiasm and commitment. Our communities deserve no less. I have seen the ‘equal’ distribution of funding for safety projects, even amidst decades of historic underinvestment in older neighborhoods. The systems change approach with Vision Zero is meant to level the existing disparities while saving lives. But, as much as there are proven, effective strategies within Vision Zero, we are all still learning from one another, making adjustments, and improving. This is a good thing. I am honored to be part of the Vision Zero Network to help cities and advocates both deepen and broaden the movement.