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What is Vision Zero?

4 minute read

First adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1997, Vision Zero is a strategy aimed at eliminating pedestrian deaths by improving road design and infrastructure with a focus on safety.

Pedestrian Crosswalk

Vadim_Key / Shutterstock

As vehicles became faster and more affordable for many Americans, transportation engineers began to center the movement of traffic as the overarching goal of road design. This, in turn, led to a steady growth in traffic deaths and pedestrian fatalities as larger vehicles, high-speed roads, and inadequate or absent pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure create deadly conditions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 31,720 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first 9 months of 2021, up 12 percent from the first nine months of 2020 and the highest number during that time period since 2006. By and large, policymakers and the public historically view these deaths as unfortunate but inevitable collateral damage.

Vision Zero repositions traffic "accidents" as preventable tragedies that can be reduced or eliminated through improved urban design and transportation policy. Vision Zero programs take aim at a broad range of topics from street and sidewalk design and bike infrastructure to public transit investment and emergency response.

A key component of Vision Zero design is the acknowledgement that humans will make mistakes, and it is the job of engineers and planners to design public spaces that minimize the potential for severe injuries and fatalities. The approach mirrors the 'Safe Systems' philosophy that has been adopted in other industries, where worker safety is prioritized and worker deaths are not deemed acceptable as part of the cost of doing business. Vision Zero advocates argue that, for too long, road design has viewed traffic deaths as an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of car culture.

Adopting Vision Zero as a formal goal can help cities and agencies prioritize pedestrian safety and public health rather than accepting traffic deaths as an inevitability. The Vision Zero Network provides resources for planners, traffic engineers, policymakers, and civic organizations to help them collaborate and develop strategies for prioritizing safety in road design.

To achieve Vision Zero, countries and cities have taken a number of approaches. While Norway makes curbing the use of private vehicles a cornerstone of its policy by investing more in public transit and pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, The Netherlands has highlighted speed reduction and traffic calming. However, Vision Zero advocates broadly agree on a number of strategies, including:

  • Speed reduction on dangerous streets
  • Safer street design that accommodates mistakes and provides safe, efficient, connected infrastructure for people walking and biking
  • Safer vehicle design that helps drivers avoid crashes and have accurate visibility
  • Education campaigns to promote safe behaviors
  • Improved trauma care to reduce the number of deaths after traffic crashes

Investment in public transit that reduces vehicle miles traveled, insurance incentives for safer cars, and improved driver education for young drivers can all cut down on traffic deaths.

To date, in many cities, Vision Zero remains more a catchy public relations slogan than a concrete strategy. However, some communities have achieved impressive results by refocusing road safety on eliminating traffic deaths and positioning pedestrian fatalities as an unacceptable outcome.

In 1997, Sweden became the first country to adopt "Vision Zero" as a formal policy, and cut its road deaths in half by 2019 by installing medians to prevent head-on crashes, automated enforcement cameras to boost enforcement of speeding laws, and roundabouts that improve the flow of traffic. In 2018, the European Commission adopted a Vision Zero framework to address road fatalities, including new safety requirements for vehicle manufacturers.

Stateside, Hoboken, New Jersey recorded zero traffic fatalities for three straight years after committing to Vision Zero and adding small but significant streetscape improvements such as bike facilities, curb extensions, and recalibrated traffic signals. Fremont, California also drastically reduced its traffic deaths and injuries in five years, bucking the trend of rising deaths in many other cities. Fremont strategically used relatively inexpensive projects that could be deployed quickly and serve as pilot programs for permanent installations. In 2015, Los Angeles introduced an ambitious mobility plan that prioritized Vision Zero goals, but the city has seen little progress in reducing traffic fatalities. To force the city's hand, safe streets advocates have proposed a ballot measure, known as Healthy Streets L.A., that would require the city to implement the actions and goals in its mobility plan any time they work on a street project.

In early 2022, the federal government, under the new Biden administration, acknowledged the epidemic of traffic deaths and announced it would direct resources specifically to improving roadway safety.

Advocates for pedestrian safety argue that far from being an unattainable goal, aiming for safe streets improves mobility and therefore access to opportunities and improved economic outcomes, particularly for low-income workers who rely on walking and public transit for daily activities. Safe streets can also improve public health by providing more opportunities for people to safely walk and ride bikes in their communities.

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