August 8, 2023 BY Tiffany Smithin News

Institutionalizing Health Equity in Vision Zero: From Planning to Practice

Note we have a resource, Prioritizing Health Equity in Vision Zero Planning, outlining more actionable steps to integrate equity priorities in Vision Zero planning, decision-making, strategies, investments and more. 

With growing focus on Vision Zero – safe mobility for all people – there is an important opportunity to align the goals of roadway safety with addressing health disparities that result in some people in our communities suffering disproportionately on our streets, sidewalks and bikeways. Specifically, we see that Black people are struck and killed by drivers at a 82 percent higher rate than White, non-Hispanic Americans while walking. For American Indian and Alaska Native people, that disparity climbs to 221 percent, while people living in low income areas are three times more likely to be hit and killed while walking.

U.S. traffic deaths disproportionately affect Black and American Indian people. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2016-2020 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates; Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS): 2016-2020 Final File and 2021 Annual Report File (ARF)

As part of our Fundamental of Vision Zero Action Planning series, we hosted a discussion with Vision Zero practitioners in the communities of Minneapolis, MN, Arlington County, VA, and Clackamas County, OR to learn how they are working to center equity in their planning and ongoing roadway safety work.

We recognize that communities are at different stages of exploring and integrating  equity in their work, and  we encourage you to start from wherever you are today.  Here are some of the ways that communities are taking actionable steps in their Vision Zero efforts and may be models for your work. 

Acknowledge & Contextualize Harms

Roadway safety disparities do not exist in a vacuum nor are they statistically random. It is essential to acknowledge and contextualize the role that various policy decisions in our country have played in causing, or exacerbating, deeply unfair and inequitable outcomes.  

For example, part of the Vision Zero planning process should be exploring what has happened in your community that may have caused harm, such as acknowledging  whether there are neighborhoods that suffer from the racist legacy of “redlining.”  See the statement below from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Equity Action Plan as an example of a place to start. 

USDOT's acknowledgement of past harms in their Equity Action Plan

Develop a Framework for Equity

Simply listing equity as a focus area in your Vision Zero Plan is not enough. It is important to be specific about the equity focus areas, sharing context and committing to specific actions to address disparities. Learn more about how communities and agencies can develop equity frameworks unique to their community context. 

An excerpt from Portland’s Vision Zero Action Plan that highlights the three main equity focus areas of the Plan.


In the webinar discussion we learned how the county of Arlington, Virginia recognized the relationship between roadway deaths and injuries and equity indicators during the development of their Vision Zero Plan, but also saw the need for a deeper dive into this important area. Following the launch of their Action Plan, they developed a Transportation Safety Analysis Report. This included convening a multi-departmental team to explore hospital reporting data, systemic crash patterns, community-reported concerns, and driver origin data to provide additional context of how inequities showed up on their roadways and  to inform how they prioritize projects. Learn more about how Arlington is using the findings of their Transportation Safety Equity Report to inform their ongoing work. 

Establish New Relationships

Because transportation decisions intersect with so many consequential aspects of our lives – including access to employment, education, healthy food and other critical destinations such as  healthcare – Vision Zero work should include non-traditional stakeholders. 

This can start with building a Vision Zero Task Force that moves beyond traditional collaborators to include representatives from realms such as public health; housing/development; environmental justice; impacted communities; youth and advocates from community-based organizations, amongst others.

In Clackamas County, OR, for example, Vision Zero team members shared the power of starting meaningful conversations with the county’s depression and suicide prevention team. They worked to contextualize  the overlapping risk factors and demographics associated with injuries, risk taking and safety. The county’s transportation division also jointly funds a position with their public health department that shares data and communicates on overlapping work between the departments. 

It is important  to engage with the community in ways that are not extractive but rather that recognize and value their lived experiences and perspectives. This also means engaging with your community members early and often enough during the planning process, rather than waiting until a draft of the Plan has already been developed. 

As Minneapolis updated its Vision Zero Plan, they hosted focus groups in close partnership with connected leaders and residents of communities who were experiencing a disproportionate burden of serious roadway injuries and fatalities. They conducted  on-street surveys along their High Injury Network areas that overlapped with equity emphasis areas. And they are moving away from solely using community requests for safety investments, as they have found equity emphasis areas to be underrepresented in community requests and reporting.

Another idea emphasized during the webinar is the importance of compensating community members for their time and perspectives. While it can be challenging for jurisdictions to directly compensate people, Clackamas County has found success integrating compensation to community members as part of their consultant contracts. In some cases, specifically, they require consultants to not only work with and compensate community based organizations, particularly those that focus on BIPOC or more rural communities, but also require them to have core competencies in cultural and emotional intelligence.

Use an Equity-Centered Approach to Data

Using crash data to identify and prioritize a community’s High Injury Network (HIN) is important, but crash data alone does not paint the full picture as it pertains to equity. We know that some communities are under-counted in traditional police-collected crash data.

It is important to include an array of data sources – including but not limited to those related to demographics, housing, employment, or other data sources that most relevant for your community – and to map these on the High Injury Network to illustrate the relationship between the most dangerous locations and current inequities. Layering these data sources can also be helpful for systematically prioritizing areas most in need of improvements and attention.

In Arlington County, they initially planned to utilize the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) data on equity indicators to help shape their focus areas, but found MWCOG’s equity emphasis data to yield limited information, as Arlington is more affluent relative to the DC area. In response, they tailored and scaled the MWCOG equity indicators to better capture how inequities show up relative to their community.

Arlington’s Transportation Safety Equity Report defined equity emphasis areas

Shift to a Safe System Approach

Historically, transportation planning has used the Es’ approach (education, engineering, enforcement, etc.), emphasizing strategies addressing individual behavior and overemphasizing traditional education and enforcement efforts. However, this misses the fact that many people are moving about in systems that are not designed to cultivate safety in the first place, or perhaps even designed to be less safe in order to prioritize faster speeds or greater perceived convenience for others. Learn more about how to prioritize safety interventions based on the Safe System approach principles of prevention.

An important step to integrating equity in your Vision Zero plan and ongoing work is shifting to a Safe System approach – one that recognizes that people make mistakes, that not all systems have been created to prioritize safety and that we can design our roads, policies and vehicles to be safer. This means right-sizing the role of the traditional Es, assessing whether they are truly effective and equitable. And it means focusing more on upstream, preventative strategies that more proactively integrate safety. For instance, too often communities criminalize people for not using crosswalks  to cross the street, but more analysis shows that many of these are neighborhoods that lack sufficient, safe crosswalks – and other safety needs, as well. These are structural problems that need to be addressed, not individual behavior issues deserving of criminalization.  

In Minneapolis, following the death of George Floyd in 2020, there has been a bright spotlight on enforcement, including what its role should be in roadway safety efforts, such as Vision Zero.  For the city’s Vision Zero planners – as in a growing number of cities in the U.S. – this has meant intentional consideration of the impacts of Vision Zero work beyond the realm of traditional roadway safety, such as who is involved in crashes. Currently, the City is exploring how to modernize or transform the role of enforcement within Vision Zero and roadway safety through a multi-pronged approach including, but not limited to: studying alternative traffic enforcement strategies, focusing enforcement on moving violations, launching inclusive and robust community engagement efforts, and working to create a victim-centered restorative justice option for cases where charges are being considered in traffic crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists.

Track & Share Progress

Building accountability and transparency into a Vision Zero Plan entails making evaluation part of the ongoing work to ensure that equity goals and outcomes remain front and center in the work. 

A first step to setting and  measuring equity-related goals in your Vision Zero work may be collaborating with other agencies, such as the public health department. Opportunities exist to use additional, more equitable data sources to improve upon police-collected crash data; setting up prioritization systems that factor in various inequities beyond direct crash injury information; and measuring health equity outcomes of various Vision Zero strategies.  

Oakland, CA established a framework to assess efficacy and equity in their safety countermeasures

As we work to advance Vision Zero and health equity, remember that there is no single, perfect approach to this work. Every community's needs, resources and starting points may vary, but we hope the strategies highlighted here can serve as a catalyst for meaningful conversation starters, new approaches, and, ultimately, an institutional level shift in roadway safety that is both effective and equitable. 

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:

Missed our previous series installments? No problem - check out our recordings, recaps, and resources on our new Fundamentals of Vision Zero Action Planning webpage where we cover the following topics:

  1. Fundamentals of Vision Zero Action Planning
  2. Building a Safe System Foundation for Your Plan
  3. Critical Collaboration & Commitments for Vision Zero Action Planning
  4. Prioritization: Data, High-Injury Networks, Equity Emphasis
  5. Prioritizing Speed Management in Vision Zero Planning
  6. Institutionalizing Health Equity
  7. Performance metrics: transparency, accountability, evaluation, evolution

Learn more about How to start on the road to Vision Zero and see our other Vision Zero resources. Stay up-to-date on our and other groups’ work for Vision Zero, sign up for our monthly Vision Zero Network e-newsletter.

Learn more: equity, public health

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