New York City made international headlines earlier this year when traffic fatalities hit the lowest levels in more than a century. Five years into NYC’s adoption of Vision Zero, the statistic was heralded as a sign of Vision Zero progress in the nation’s earliest adopting city. Even as overall traffic fatalities decrease in some communities (for instance, new NHTSA data shows a 1% decrease from 2017 to 2018), there’s a disturbing trend of some road users being at greater risk of dying and being injured.
Recent research has shown a nearly 35% increase in pedestrian fatalities alone from 2008-2017. Federal data shows a 10% increase in bicyclists fatalities and 4% increase in pedestrian fatalities from 2017 to 2018. With the risk of death and severe injury growing for those who walk, ride a bicycle or wheel, communities are demanding action. And those calls are particularly loud in Vision Zero cities.
Recommitting to Vision Zero
In New York City, a significant uptick in bicyclist fatalities has enraged and mobilized advocates who want more protected bike lanes and increased enforcement of trucks and large vehicles on the streets. On July 29, yet another cyclist was struck and killed, marking the city’s 18th traffic-related cycling fatality in 2019, already surpassing the 10 bicyclists deaths in 2018. Amplified pressure from the safe streets advocacy community culminated in a "die-in" with nearly 1,000 participants in one of NYC’s most iconic gathering places - Washington Square Park - to demand safer conditions.
In response, the Mayor’s office released a new bicycle network plan called the Green Wave that appropriates $58.4M for 80 additional new staff, 30 miles of new protected bike lanes annually, turn calming treatments at 50 intersections this year and progressive signal timing to discourage speeding and encourage steady cycling speeds (the latter being the inspiration for the Green Wave moniker). Other notable actions in the plan include a new Vision Zero Truck Safety Task Force, expansion of Off-Hour Deliveries program and increased law enforcement of highest risk activities at 100 most crash prone intersections.
Similarly, after an increase in traffic deaths In Washington, D.C, Mayor Muriel Bowser "refocused" the city’s Vision Zero commitment earlier this year with new safety improvements, such as reducing the speed of deadly left turns, banning right turns on red at 100 intersections and lengthening pedestrian crossing times. A Vision Zero omnibus bill with more than 20 suggested improvements is up for consideration in the D.C. City Council. Changes would include a requirement for sidewalks on both sides of the street, reduced speed limits in some communities and a faster approval process for critical street safety improvements.
The City of San Francisco "renewed its vow" to eliminate traffic fatalities in response to a growing number of fatalities. This includes a commitment from Mayor London Breed and the transportation agency to advance quick, near-term safety treatments with paint, safety posts and temporary sidewalk extensions on high injury corridors. The Mayor has also directed the police department to increase traffic enforcement on the five driving behaviors most likely to result in a severe or fatal collision. The goal of this "focus-on-the-five" is to issue at least 50% of citations to these top five traffic violations.
And at the state level, a new California Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force held its first meeting in June 2019 "to review current methodology when setting speed limits, then to report and recommend to the legislature how fatalities as a result of vehicle related collisions can be reduced to zero."
What should cities be doubling-down on?
Prioritizing Protected Cycling Infrastructure
Protected bike lanes offer a physical barrier between people biking and those driving, giving both road users more space to operate and fewer chances to collide. As obvious as this sounds, there’s still a surprising amount of pushback despite data showing the safety benefits of bike lanes. Case in point - legal challenges over a disputed bike lane near Brooklyn, New York’s Prospect Park West (PPW) persist despite data showing the bike lane has reduced speeding rates on PPW from 74% to 20% and a 63% reduction in crashes resulting in injuries.
In addition to making roads safer, the physical separation of people biking from other road users also creates a sense of perceived safety. Research shows that many people who would like to bike more, but don't, are particularly concerned about safety. Protected lanes create a perception of safety that encourages more people to ride bikes - a virtuous cycle. As ridership increases, collisions decrease.
Focusing on Large Vehicles & Known Safety Risks
Conflicts between large vehicle traffic and smaller, less protected road users is a common problem on U.S. city streets. From waste disposal and utility trucks to delivery vans and buses, these large vehicles make up a small fraction of vehicles on urban streets, but they are disproportionately involved in fatal crashes, particularly involving people walking and riding bicycles.
According to the Green Wave, trucks have comprised over 50% of recent cyclist fatalities in NYC. To account for this, NYPD is placing a renewed enforcement on dangerous driving behavior that puts cyclists at risk, focusing on the 100 most hazardous locations across the city. Oversized and off-route trucks will be subjected to increased enforcement, as well as increased safety training for drivers, including instructional videos for New York’s large fleet, private sanitation and freight industry partners and reevaluated loading zones in both residential and commercial areas. This kind of focused enforcement and attention to heavy goods vehicles is desperately needed to ensure safe road conditions. As learned in our telematics webinar, oversized trucks suffer from blind spots that are directly linked to cyclist fatalities and injuries.
Early adopter Vision Zero cities such as New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and San Francisco have experienced some safety success among large vehicles in recent years, following cities in Europe, Asia and Latin America that have documented safety improvements after implementing similar policies. Read more about those cities’ efforts in our case study, How Can Cities Increase the Safety of Large Vehicles in Urban Areas.
Lastly, NACTO and the Volpe Center have provided guidance on best practices for re-designing large vehicles to operate safely on city street. Cities are grappling with how to balance commercial freight and municipal fleets on their streets with more people walking and biking. The outcome has not been good prompting a recent article in Gothamist, "How Large Trucks Became the Worst Vision Zero Offenders."
Managing Speeds for Safety
Speed is a factor in nearly 26% of all traffic fatalities (and that’s likely an under-count). Cities cannot meet Vision Zero goals without managing for safer speeds. One way communities can do this is by using automated speed enforcement. NYC just began a multi-phased roll out of the largest speed safety program in the world which will ensure all of NYC’s public schools are ticketing for unsafe speeds. Data showed that speeding in NYC zones with cameras declined by more than 60%, with over 80% of violators not receiving a second ticket - showing that these cameras are not about increasing revenue through tickets but about increasing safety.
However, many communities are prohibited from enforcing speed limits with cameras, based on outdated state policies. And similarly, many others are limited by states in their ability to reduce speed limits on roads that have inappropriately high speeds. But, communities that do reduce speed limits find that fewer people are driving at those speed thresholds (35mph+) that are most fatal. Other communities, like Portland, OR, serve as models for taming speed by working to modernize the state’s practices and policies that hampered their efforts to safely manage speed.
Looking Ahead: What Does this Mean for Vision Zero?
Increases in fatalities among the most vulnerable road users -- those walking, wheeling, bicycling or taking transit -- are distressing and tragic, but it shouldn’t discourage us from committing to Vision Zero. It means that cities have to continually re-evaluate their Vision Zero efforts and double-down on what works and ramp up the energy around what does work. We know protected bicycle lanes save lives. We know lower speeds results in fewer traffic fatalities and severe injuries. We know improved enforcement of reckless and illegal driver behavior is needed on our streets. This is not rocket-science. We know what works; we need to continue to demand that what works is the priority of decision makers and our public resources and that are community’s streets are not window-dressed with politically expedient and palatable treatments when lives are at stake.
Evan Mancini contributed to this post.