What’s top of mind for hundreds of Vision Zero leaders working across North America? We found out last week at the fifth annual Vision Zero Cities conference. Hosted by Transportation Alternatives in NYC, the two-day event brought together leading advocates, policy and technical experts, elected officials, and industry partners to share lessons learned, look ahead to what’s next on the Vision Zero agenda, and, notably, to remind each other that we’re not alone in this challenging and life-changing work growing across the nation and the world.
The convening came on the heels of some notable recent successes in New York City, the nation’s first adopter of Vision Zero. This includes continuing to lower speed limits on dangerously high-speed roads; passing a bold congestion pricing plan that promises to calm streets and improve safety; and opening a major transit-only route in the middle of Manhattan that has improved transit travel time by 30% in its first week.
Conference participants from across the nation shared additional signs of progress, including the growth of Vision Zero pledges to more than 40 U.S. communities; increased commitment to manage speed for safety in places such as Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Philadelphia and Tampa; and growing political engagement, evidenced by the notable number of elected officials traveling to the conference. Also notable is the recent Vision Zero commitment by Houston, Texas, which claims one of the worst traffic safety records in the nation, with 640 traffic deaths a year. (Let that sink in.)
Signs of progress could not hide the inescapable reality that change is tragically slow and, as a nation, we are heading in the wrong direction, as evidenced by the U.S. hitting a new low of the highest number of pedestrian traffic deaths in three decades, and a disturbing uptick in traffic deaths in some Vision Zero cities, such as NYC and San Francisco. This heaviness and urgency was underscored by active participation and leadership by members of Families for Safe Streets. The tone of the conference varied between instructive panels to heartfelt rallies for change to cathartic therapy sessions for those working in the trenches to change streets, policies, hearts, and minds — all in the name of Vision Zero, safe mobility for all.
For those who couldn’t participate, we have summarized our top takeaways from last week’s impressive gathering of more than 400 Vision Zero leaders -- from 70+ cities from 25 states (the most ever) and multiple countries.
1) Redouble Efforts for Transformative Change, not Business-as-Usual
Vision Zero leaders must recognize that to be effective we need to make deeper, systemic changes to transform the way we design our streets, set policies, decide on funding, and work towards safe mobility big-picture. In short, we’re not talking about business-as-usual here. And that will take time; substantive, lasting change won’t happen overnight.
As NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner shared at the conference: “When we started Vision Zero in NYC, we talked to our counterparts in Sweden. They saw deaths go down, and then up again... and they’ve said you need to stick with it. We have to redouble our efforts.”
We must persist in pushing for near-term, on-the-ground change, while also looking upstream to identify and uproot the long-time systemic failures that kill people on streets, sidewalks, and bikeways every day. The reality is that there are deep, systemic problems and injustices in the policies and street designs that brought the United States to the point of accepting 40,000 preventable deaths a year. We won’t reverse this problem on a dime and, as in most transformative change, progress is not likely to be linear.
2) Support Strong Advocacy
If anything is clear from the (generally) encouraging story of Vision Zero in NYC in its first five years, it is the power of combining political will and public sector leadership with strong community advocacy. Groups such as Transportation Alternatives in NYC, Walk Denver, Bike Cleveland, Livable Streets Alliance in Boston, and WalkBike Tampa -- are emboldening electeds and empowering public sector staff to move beyond business as usual.
When a conference participant asked: “How do you roll out Vision Zero in the absence of political will?”, NYC’ Commissioner Trottenberg replied: “You need to have an active and engaged advocacy community... you need that grassroots advocacy. It’s the X-factor in NYC.”
And the growing movement of Families for Safe Streets is a game-changer in the struggle for safe mobility for all. A record number of activists from Families for Safe Streets from across the continent -- Toronto to L.A. to Austin -- participated in this year’s conference, including a day of sessions focused on supporting their vital role in bringing in more personal experiences and voices to the movement.
3) No Excuses: Manage Speed for Safety
We’ve shared this takeaway after every year’s Vision Zero Cities conference -- and pretty much every event we participate in -- because we are increasingly understanding how fundamental speed is to safety. Speed kills, plain and simple - it sounds obvious, but the reality is that most communities have not been focusing nearly enough attention to this core Vision Zero strategy.
NYC’s focus on managing speed for safety as part of its extensive Vision Zero program includes a vital range of proven strategies, including redesigning streets, lowering speed limits citywide, and growing its successful safety camera program to discourage dangerous speeding. And NYC is not alone; cities ranging from Denver to Durham to Washington D.C. are significantly increasing their focus on speed management strategies to save lives. See examples of these and others’ efforts here.
4) Equitable Planning, Equitable Engagement, Equitable Outcomes
Elevate Equity is another takeaway that has been constant as Vision Zero grows in the U.S., though today holds even more urgency as communities struggle with gross inequities in their transportation systems and in other realms with which it is intertwined.
Recent findings from an L.A. Times investigation intensify racial bias concerns about the LAPD’s traffic stops; and this is just the most recent danger signal in the rising tide of data and experiences reminding us that Vision Zero advocacy work has a role and responsibility in working for racial justice.
Read more in our Vision Zero Cities Journal article, as well as the Vision Zero Network’s Equity Strategies for Practitioners resource here. And we highlight Dr. Melody Hoffmann’s Journal article, The Case Against Law Enforcement, which further underscores the complexity, risks, and urgency of this issue. We need our Vision Zero demands to include transparency and accountability from the police, as well as from planners and decision-makers who influence the design of street designs, policies, and programs that have been historically inequitable.
5) Shift Out of Silos
Key to systemic safety progress in early-adopter Vision Zero cities are efforts to move key stakeholders out of the traditional, confining silos to a more cross-organizational approach that values shared goals measurements and results. (Two related case studies here and here.)
As was emphasized throughout the conference, 40,000 traffic deaths each year in the U.S. is not transportation problem; it is a far deeper public health crisis that needs cross-sector leadership and collaboration, as evidenced by Los Angeles here.
The Vision Zero Network was proud to lead a conference panel focused on intergovernmental coordination, which raised the need to not only move past agency-to-agency silos, but also vastly improve on local-state coordination and support. When asked if they were experiencing hurdles at the local level in winning state-level support for proven Vision Zero strategies -- including setting safe speed limits, utilizing safety cameras, and sharing traffic injury data more fully and efficiently -- the vast majority of participants in the room shot up their hands in response.
Other important and timely focus areas of the conference included focusing Vision Zero efforts in smaller-sized communities, strategies for meaningful community engagement, and thinking BIG and learning from other efforts, including the environmental movement.
Whether your community is in Day #1 of its Vision Zero commitment -- welcome Houston, Texas -- or more than five years in -- such as early-adopters NYC and SF -- this theme remains constant: Vision Zero is not a slogan nor even a program; It is a transformative shift in how we think about and implement safe mobility. We need both a sense of urgency and an understanding that it will take long-term commitment to make substantive change.