Who’s on the right track & who’s not in 2023?
We’re kicking off the year sharing a round-up of what we consider Wins & Wrecks for the U.S. Vision Zero movement. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a cross-section of bright spots – some that are already yielding positive results and some that we’re optimistically projecting will do so – and some disappointments, or shall we say, opportunities to do better. We hope this will, in some cases, inspire. And, in other cases, serve as warnings to change course. Making a breakthrough for safe mobility will take real change, and we can’t start soon enough.
Transportation-reform advocates in Denver are on a winning streak, having scored several notable successes lately. Last spring, the Mile-High City made national news when it launched a rebate program on the purchase of electric bikes, triggering a flurry of other initiatives. This past November, Denverites approved the grassroots “Denver Deserves Sidewalks” voter initiative. The impressive citizen-led measure will generate approximately $40 million annually through new property fees for sidewalk construction and repair (take note, pedestrian advocates elsewhere!). Also, the City has initiated a public process to make some of its pandemic-era “shared streets” permanent. Last but not least, the Colorado DOT and its regional Council of Governments heeded community-led pressure — and adopted a groundbreaking state mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation; and pulled the plug on two proposed highway expansions, including that of Interstate 25 through central Denver. Combined, these efforts will yield traffic-safety and environmental dividends well into the future by reducing car dependence and shifting travel to more safe, sustainable modes. Vision Zero champions: please steal these ideas!
It’s telling that, until just a year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) had never had a national strategy for roadway safety. Instead, our nation’s transportation system – critical to everyone using it on a daily basis, yet also the basis of tens of thousands of preventable deaths annually – has been run in a fickle, fragmented fashion that is clearly failing. That could be changing with the leadership of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who recognizes that the status quo is, literally, killing us (especially kids, seniors, people of color and people in low-income areas).
The new, first-ever (!) National Roadway Safety Strategy calls out many of the problems in the everyday transportation system and proposes many well-proven, absolutely do-able solutions. One year in, though, USDOT’s record is mixed. Noteworthy achievements include some encouraging new policies promoting Complete Streets and greater accountability at state and regional levels for safety, and, of course, the exciting Safe Streets & Roads for All grant program, which is poised to invest $1B/year in Vision Zero efforts at local, regional and tribal levels.
Unfortunately, progress is inexplicably stalled on major fronts that threaten to quash other admirable, on-the-ground safety efforts. The biggest menace is the USDOT’s very own National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) sluggishness. As argued convincingly by University of Iowa College of Law Gregory H. Shill, NHTSA is “the sole agency that can dictate universal safety standards in the U.S. market for vehicles themselves — yet it is also the only important player that has failed to even notionally prioritize the protection of pedestrians.” Unlike at least 44 other countries that have adopted a safety standard for people walking, according to Shill, NHTSA is failing on this front.
Secretary Pete: You can be the champion for safe mobility that our nation needs. This is one time where we urge you to put your foot on the gas!
With the federal government AWOL on the lethal proliferation of super-sized trucks and SUVs on our streets, one jurisdiction is taking a small but notable step toward filling this safety policy vacuum. Last spring, the Washington DC Council approved a budget provision that raises the annual registration fee for heavier vehicles. Under the provision — set to take effect in 2024 — the fee for the lightest vehicles ($72) will remain unchanged, while owners of heavier vehicles will see their fees jump significantly. At the top end, owners of vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds will pay $500 annually – more than triple the current fee ($155) and almost seven times more than the lowest fee.
According to the Councilmember who sponsored the change, the funds raised will be devoted to Safe Routes to School projects and activities. While higher fees are rarely popular, it’s only right that drivers of the heaviest trucks and SUVs pay more for the disproportionate damage they cause to roads, the environment and, most importantly, the safety of other roadway users.
“The Liberation of Paris From Cars Is Working.” “How Paris became a cycling success story—and built a roadmap for other cities.” These almost breathless headlines announce that something big is happening on the streets of the French capital. Namely, Paris is proving that a city can change its auto-dominated status quo in order to make room for people walking and biking and to improve civic space. The force behind this transformation is Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, first elected in 2014. Her administration’s priorities are clear: it has installed bus lanes and cycle tracks on hundreds of streets, lowered the citywide default speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour (just under 20 mph), begun establishing car-free zones outside schools, turned a highway into a car-free park along the Seine, phased out diesel cars, and raised parking-meter prices to reduce the demand for parking.
During Mayor Hidalgo’s time in office, Paris has done more than any other big city in the world to reclaim space from cars. The mayor, reelected in 2020, has claimed a mandate for reform: quite simply, it became impossible to ignore the many negative impacts of cars-run-rampant. Change may be hard, but in the City of Light, leaders understand that defending the old status quo would be harder.
It's time to move beyond ineffective, finger-wagging ad campaigns urging people to “Slow Down,” and instead put more energy toward convincing policymakers, engineers and car manufacturers to implement proven, upstream speed management strategies. Here are a few of our favorite, recent, local efforts prioritizing safety over speed:
New York City is piloting a first-in-the-nation program to install intelligent speed assistance (ISA), or speed limiters, on its city-owned fleet. The technology, which deters drivers from exceeding the speed limit, is being made mandatory for all new car models in the European market. We expect NYC’s pilot will be successful and be expanded to the 30,000-vehicle city fleet.
Seattle is taking a refreshingly holistic approach to managing speeds in true Safe System fashion – not the painstakingly slow, piecemeal steps that most communities fall back on. When Seattle’s Vision Zero team identified high speeds as the leading contributor to serious injury and fatal collisions for people walking, they acted. After their pilot project lowering speed limits effectively slowed average vehicle speeds by 2mph and reduced injuries by 20%, they lowered speed limits across the entirety of the city – reducing residential streets to 20mph and arterials to 25mph. Seattle DOT also found that lowering speed limits and increasing sign density - even absent other changes, such as marketing campaigns, additional enforcement, retimed signal progressions or engineering changes to the street geometry – resulted in lower speeds and fewer crashes. With minimal cost, the city is seeing big safety benefits. Why aren’t we all doing this?
Cincinnati, Ohio and Carmel, Indiana are reminding us that design matters most when it comes to managing speeds for safety. Cincinnati is effectively slowing speeds and making roads safer by installing speed cushions in areas with high concentrations of pedestrian injuries and near schools, recreation areas, business districts, and busy bus stops. Analysis on one city street showed that 95% of drivers were speeding before the speed cushions were installed and only 11% after, and that average speeds were reduced to 20mph from 37mph. Meanwhile, Carmel has become the roundabout capital of the U.S. Over the past two decades, this suburb north of Indianapolis has replaced nearly all of its traffic signals with an estimated 140 roundabouts, effectively slowing drivers and reducing injury collisions by about 80% and overall collisions by 40% at the locations. Safety by design works!
Unprecedented amounts of federal funding to boost local, regional and tribal roadway safety also offer much-needed opportunities to address inequitable strategies and results of our nation's longtime safety approach. Front and center is the work to acknowledge and repair transportation policies and practices that have caused (and continue to cause) disproportionate harm for people of color and people in low-income communities. This includes leveraging funding and policy directives to intentionally overhaul roadway safety efforts to be more effective and equitable. Vision Zero plans and actions can and should be vehicles for this change (stay tuned for our forthcoming resource on this very topic).
While this work is painfully overdue, there are encouraging signs of change. One is that more communities are working to change racialized enforcement practices that have been covered in a veil of roadway safety for too long. San Francisco became the most recent city to pass new policies banning some pretext stops – non-safety-focused traffic stops that are disproportionately applied to people of color. As in other U.S. communities, including Kansas City and Philadelphia, roadway safety advocates are joining forces with racial justice champions to work to decriminalize mobility. In another example, communities are increasingly using their Vision Zero planning processes to call attention to health inequities and to make change, including Tacoma, Washington and the Denver region. Whether you’re developing a new Vision Zero Action Plan or revising an existing one, this is a chance to start to evolve beyond the traditional E’s of roadway safety (Education, Enforcement, Engineering) and, instead, base efforts on a Safe System approach, one which focuses on designing roadways and vehicles for safety and de-emphasizes reactive, punitive enforcement efforts.
Who thought that reform of minimum-parking requirements would ever be the hottest thing happening in urban planning? The requirements, which stipulate the minimum number of car parking spaces that a new development project must provide, have been in widespread use in the U.S. for at least 70 years. During that time, they have wrought havoc on our cities – encouraging more driving and auto-dependence, promoting sprawl, inflating the cost of housing and leading to the hollowing out of once-dense downtowns, paving them over with parking lots.
Fortunately, the tide is turning: in recent years, a host of cities across the country — including Buffalo, Burlington, Chicago, Hartford, Minneapolis, Raleigh, Saint Paul, San Francisco and Spokane — have done the previously unimaginable and rolled back, or altogether eliminated, the requirements. The biggest prize so far is California, which as of January 1, 2023, has essentially banned parking minimums for developments near major transit stops statewide. As the patron saint of parking reform, UCLA professor Donald Shoup, put it: parking spaces are a fertility drug for cars. If so, abolishing minimum-parking requirements will curtail the overpopulation of cars, making for safer, healthier streets and cities.
Most people have probably heard about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the independent federal agency that investigates high-profile tragedies, usually in the air, at sea or on railroads. Now, thanks to the leadership of Chair Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB is drawing long overdue attention to fixing the transportation mode that kills and injures far more people than any other. She is unabashedly championing the cause of Vision Zero as the only responsible and ethical approach. And she’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes we’ve made and the urgency for change.
Homendy declares: “We need a paradigm shift in how we think about road safety and how we address road safety.” We couldn’t agree more. And part of that shift is more such straight-shooting, clear-eyed calls for change aimed at all responsible parties, including political leaders and auto manufacturers. We particularly appreciate this compelling call for action, in which Homendy reminds us that “hopes and prayers” are not enough: we need action!
Recent years have seen the proverbial blooming of a thousand flowers in the realm of micromobility. Motivated by congestion woes, environmental concerns and high costs of living, consumers have been looking toward not only conventional bicycles but also other emerging modes and lightweight forms of transportation.
The options are overwhelming and sometimes overlapping: electric bicycles (which outsell, yes, electric cars), electric trikes and unicycles, kick and electric scooters, mobility scooters, golf carts, quadracycles, “onewheels,” segways, “autocycles” (three-wheeled minicars), and much more. Could these humble vehicles provide one way out of our deadly arms race with super-sized SUVs and monster trucks? After all, micromobility devices weigh a fraction of a passenger car and generally travel under 25 mph. Seeing their promise, some forward-thinking cities have made strides toward integrating them into their transportation networks by developing common-sense policies and regulations, and by designating more cycle tracks, wider multi-use paths and on-street parking corrals.
The next step is for cities to repurpose general travel lanes on certain streets for shared use by these slower, smaller vehicles – or by creating more slow streets! Despite some rough starts and growing pains in the sector, micromobility can provide an alternative path toward a safer transportation future.
If certain features of airplanes caused crashes killing more than 100 people every day in the U.S., wouldn’t we expect airlines to ground flights until they fixed or replaced those faulty features? And wouldn’t we expect that federal regulators would make sure the deadly problems were addressed? Of course. Yet, this tragic insanity is happening every day -- in your community -- with the supersizing of motor vehicles.
Research (and common sense) show that SUVs, pickup trucks and passenger vans are 2-3 times more likely than regular-sized cars to kill someone walking in a crash. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that “America’s love of SUVs is killing pedestrians.” The 2019 analysis shows that federal safety regulators have long known that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill people walking, yet have done little to promote or prevent the problem. And, these large vehicles, which some drivers cannot even see over the hood of, are exactly what manufacturers are selling the most in what feels like a perilous arms race. As the logic goes: If everyone around me is getting a bigger vehicle, then I should get a bigger vehicle to protect myself from them. The biggest losers in this war? Everyone outside those big cars walking, biking and riding in smaller vehicles.
Are large vehicles, in some cases, merited? Sure, and those can and should be required to have safety features that mitigate their outsized danger. But in the U.S. today, car manufacturers are largely ignoring the safety of people outside the tanks, we mean cars. And, more surprisingly, our nation’s top “safety” agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is missing in action. We need NHTSA to do its job, which is, first and foremost, to “protect the public against unreasonable risk.” Is that too much to ask?
Photo: Angie Schmit
Sometimes it's hard to imagine the road to Vision Zero being any steeper…and then, we see another good-intentioned but soul-crushing “safety” campaign. You know the ones: the playful reminder not to walk with earbuds in, despite the fact that those driving around us are distracted by in-car stereos and screens – far more dangerous than the supposed distraction of “distracted walking”. Promotion of bright orange flags to “help” us walk cross the street – at locations that clearly need more help than flags. Or the endless radio, TV and billboard campaigns reminding us to “Slow down,” while drawing attention away from the road. Defenders of these campaigns that are well-meaning but lacking evidence of lasting safety benefits will argue that they consume just a fraction of the funding dedicated to infrastructure and other safety efforts. That may be true, but there is an underlying harm to this corrosive, victim-blaming messaging.
We applaud USDOT leadership for (recently, finally!) dropping its adherence to the misleading 94% myth, which erroneously implied that 94% of crashes are caused primarily by human error rather than accounting for the burdens of the systems and environments that we all move in. But too many government-led “education” campaigns still rest on this outdated myth. Of course, there is a role for Safer People in the Safe System approach to advance Vision Zero, but it must be put in context.
We take it as a promising sign that the new USDOT National Roadway Safety Strategy’s description of Safer People marks a shift in understanding and messaging. Its Safer People objective reads: “Encourage safe, responsible behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed“(emphasis added). Adding the second half more appropriately recognizes that individual behaviors are significantly influenced by their environments and many factors, which we can, in turn, influence.
Look, we agree that electric vehicles replacing gas-guzzlers is, overall, a good thing. But…there’s one big problem: They’re still cars. And unless the critical goal of slowing climate change is married to other health and roadway safety priorities, we’re in for a world of pain. With dismayingly few exceptions, federal leaders are asleep at the wheel (again) by not seizing on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to link vehicle safety improvements with the massive overhaul from gas to electric. And, worse yet, leaders are ignoring mounting dangers on our streets posed by the widespread adoption of electric cars if left unaddressed. Let’s start with weight. Because of their hefty battery packs, electric cars are much heavier than their non-electric counterparts, so their mass brings more dangers, especially in crashes with people outside of cars. In an extreme example, the battery pack on an electric Hummer weighs about as much as a typical Honda Civic. And even a less aggro-version of an EV -- a more moderately sized electric Chevy Bolt -- weighs 829 pounds more than a gas-powered Nissan Kicks. That’s a lot! And electric-cars have the potential for extreme acceleration, some able to hit 60 miles per hour in under three seconds. Think about that the next time you are slow in walking across the street when the light changes.
So, while we are encouraged by the potential of EVs to improve the devastating effects of society’s over-dependence on cars (especially bigger, heavier ones), let’s not pretend they’re a panacea. And, let’s not pretend that automakers will address these deeply intertwined problems. Fortunately, we do have federal agencies – and leaders – whose jobs are to set policies and regulate on behalf of the public good. They should do that now, in order to both slow destruction of the environment and reduce the crash carnage on our streets. But, will they?
President Biden and Secretary Pete: You have the power to address intertwined health and safety crises by mandating that the nation’s shift to greener EVs is accompanied by commonsense safety requirements for all new vehicles.
We applaud signs of stepped-up safety leadership at the federal level and inspiring on-the-ground work by advocates and city leaders, but can't help notice that state-level efforts seem stuck in neutral. While many state leaders talk loftily about safety as their priority, their talk is too rarely converted to action. Case in point: North Carolina prohibits local communities from using state transportation funding (even state matches of federal funding) for independent pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure projects. This flies in the face of federal support for Complete Streets, belittles the efforts of local communities working to save lives, and ignores the fact that NC’s traffic death rates consistently sit above national averages.
We’d like to think this is just an innocent oversight by North Carolina leaders, but alas, the NC General Assembly has refused to change the policy, even as advocates, including BikeWalkNC and others, have proposed revisions multiple times since the ped/bike funding ban was put in place in 2013. Despite this, NC has the nerve to label itself a Vision Zero state! Our message: slogans and a pretty website are not the markers of real commitment to safety. North Carolinians deserve better. Troublingly, NC is not alone, as most states are not living up to their full safety responsibilities. Read more about how states can up the ante for roadway safety.