For San Jose, Vision Zero isn’t so much an innovative import, as it is a means to articulate and accelerate local success. Last week, the California city committed to a goal of zero fatalities, and if you ask Hans Larsen, the city’s Director of Transportation, San Jose isn’t just following the trend. They’re bending the curve — and using Vision Zero to meet an ambitious goal to slash the single-car commute rate from 80% to 40% by 2040.
“We feel there are some strong new concepts in Vision Zero — and a lot of power in adapting the strong programs we already have in street safety, to not only join the Vision Zero movement but really be a leader in it,” Larsen says. “What we’re excited about is pushing beyond the 4 Es and including a focus on policy, technology and partnerships.”
San Jose certainly has momentum at its back. Larsen points out that the city’s street fatality rate is half the national average and they’ve been practicing many of the components of Vision Zero for years. So, with the momentum in places like New York City and discourse in organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the transportation department decided to jumpstart the policy discussion by incorporating Vision Zero as the unifying principle in its annual safety report.
But Larsen emphasizes that San Jose didn’t simply follow the lead of San Francisco or Seattle — other cities that have released strong action plans for Vision Zero in 2015. The first notable distinction is somewhat subtle — an opening statement that includes the signature of Mayor, Police Chief and Director of Transportation. “We have a message from the city that’s signed by both political and administrative leadership, rather than a message from the mayor and then city staff,” Larsen says. “That’s really indicative of the shared leadership structure we have in San Jose.”
As Larsen describes it, that shared leadership is one of the key aspects in the city’s approach to street safety. “A lot of cities do have silo issues, where the police department or the Department of Transportation or public works don’t necessarily collaborate well with each other,” Larsen says. “That’s not an issue in San Jose. And our elected leaders have great confidence in the DOT and PD. They know we’re on our game and focused on this.”
You don’t have to take Larsen’s word for it, either. It’s right there in the data. Unlike other cities that might prioritize engineering, education, or enforcement, San Jose’s approach starts with evaluation. As Vision Zero emphasizes, traffic crashes aren’t an accident — they’re largely preventable with appropriate policies, enforcement and street design. To identify the most significant levers of change, cities must have the data to understand the root causes and dangerous hot spots to take effective action. San Jose has invested deeply in this area and created a longstanding collaboration and relationship between the DOT and the police department.
“What’s become more clear to me is that so many cities just don’t have the data or easy access to it,” Larsen says. “Working with the police department in San Jose, we get all the crash reports as they come in and put them into our database. We think it’s important to have that timely information — and that source of data helps us guide our safety programs… We’ve flipped things around: Our program starts with the data evaluation and what the needs are and then we align engineering, enforcement and education to follow that.”
For the May report the DOT did a deeper dive into that data and found that just 14 streets account for 50% of the fatalities in recent years. That allows both departments to focus its engineering and enforcement in effective ways. “We don’t need to overinvest in areas that are doing well,” Larsen says. “The power of this is getting the conversation out of the political knee jerk reaction and let’s us step back, look at the data and make smart investments.”
One of those investments, Larsen believes, should be in automated enforcement — and the Vision Zero plan highlights the need for policy changes to both allow safety cameras and reduce speed limits. “We can’t have cops on every street corner,” Larsen says. “We need to create a culture and environment where, if you’re speeding, you get a ticket in the mail. If you run a red light you’re going to get a ticket in the mail. That automated enforcement has proven to be one of the most successful things [in European countries] in eliminating reckless behavior and creating a culture of calm.”
But San Jose’s Vision Zero framework takes the focus on technology one step further, from cameras on the street to advancements in automobiles themselves. While research shows that 90% of traffic crashes are associated with human factors, errors, and poor choice, automakers have already created crash avoidance and self-driving technology that can be part of the solution.
“It has to be a national policy and you have to bring the automakers to the table,” Larsen says. “It’s no coincidence that Sweden [birthplace of Vision Zero] is known for having the safest cars in the world. We think that the fastest path to Vision Zero is to get the technology available for cars now mandated into vehicles like air bags and seat belts were. We’ve already seen that technology and policy interventions have been the greatest driver in increasing street safety in the U.S. since the 1970s.”
"Vision Zero is more than the engineers and the cops. It really is a culture change."
Hans Larsen, Director of the San Jose Department of Transportation
To make those shifts in technology and policy, it takes a third component highlighted in the San Jose plan: partnerships. In other cities that often means getting municipal agencies on the same page. But in San Jose it’s focused on the community. “We’re focused on how do we get more voices out in the community,” Larsen says. “How do we engage public health and educators and other community leaders in having a safety-first culture. Vision Zero is more than the engineers and the cops. It really is a culture change. What we’re hoping to do is take this out and have people focus on what are our problem behaviors, our problem locations and get community input on that culture change question.”
The success of Vision Zero ties directly to a larger, perhaps even more audacious goal in San Jose. Over the past several decades the city has evolved from a small bedroom community to one of the most populous cities in the United States — and it’s projected to add another 400,000 residents by 2040.
Today, 80% of commuters drive in a car alone. By 2040, we want to reduce that from 80% to 40%."
Hans Larsen, Director of the San Jose Department of Transportation
“We have a very, very bold and ambitious goal to change the way people travel in San Jose,” Larsen says. “Today, 80% of commuters drive in a car alone. By 2040, we want to reduce that from 80% to 40%. It’s probably the boldest mode shift policy goal I’ve seen anywhere. We’re getting BART [rail] extended in San Jose, we’re building our first bus rapid transit system and we have a very aggressive bicycle program that will be adding 50 miles of bikeways. There’s an important connection to Vision Zero too: To meet these aggressive mode shift goals people have to feel safe walking and biking around their community.”
Read more about San Jose’s Vision Zero plan here.