Rethinking Traffic Fatalities – Vision Zero

visionzero-logo-blue-500As grim reports released in October indicate a significant increase in traffic fatalities nationwide during the first half of 2016, citizens, advocacy groups, transportation planners, and policymakers have reached the conclusion that the only acceptable number of traffic deaths should be zero. This conclusion has led a growing number of agencies in the United States over the past five years to adopt a Swedish policy known as “Vision Zero,” which reorients the focus of roadway design from convenience and reduction of travel times towards safety with an emphasis on multiple modes of transit.

Initially developed as a policy in 1994, and approved as part of Sweden’s 1997 Road Traffic Safety Bill, Vision Zero set a goal of reducing traffic fatalities and life-changing injuries to zero in Sweden by the year 2020. While this ambitious goal has not yet been met, statistics have shown that Sweden is one of the countries with the lowest number of traffic fatalities. The policy has been successful in part because it assumes that people will make mistakes while using a transportation system. As Claes Tingvall, the main architect of the policy, noted in an interview:

“Today’s systems assume that humans don’t make mistakes. If you make a mistake for two seconds, you might be killed. We have effectively been forbidden to crash since the 1920s. But the system should tolerate mistakes, and this policy says explicitly that you should design the system on the basis of human failure.”

This acknowledgement of human error may seem straightforward, but it requires a complicated mixture of approaches to implement the policy – public education, increased enforcement of traffic laws, cultural changes, and redesign of transportation infrastructure. A 2015 paper from the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board proposing a Vision Zero Best Practices Matrix notes that in achieving the goals of Vision Zero, education is a tool to maintain existing safety levels, but changes to the built environment and transportation system design are necessary to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents.

Infrastructure improvements associated with Vision Zero involve intersection reconfiguration or conversion to roundabouts, improvements to bicycle, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure, and improvements to Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) with an eye towards the eventual emergence of autonomous vehicles as a mode of transportation. The emphasis on multi-modal transportation and pedestrian safety makes Vision Zero a counterpart to improvements cities are already working on to implement Complete Streets principles as well as the priorities of the National Safe Routes to School Program.

The emergence of Vision Zero into transportation policy within the United States has been relatively recent, with Chicago first adopting the policy in 2012. The Chicago Department of Transportation pledged to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2022 as part of its Complete Streets policy in the Chicago Forward Action Plan. The measures proposed included automated enforcement such as traffic surveillance cameras as well as improvements to bicycle infrastructure and intersection design. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CDOT recently renewed their commitment to Vision Zero, with a new 2016 Chicago Forward Action Agenda and a news release last month that announced a new Vision Zero Action Plan to be released later this fall that will outline strategies towards a new goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2026. The release notes that over the past year Chicago has committed funds to infrastructure improvements at more than 100 intersections and invested in Safe Routes to Schools projects. Over the next year, Chicago’s buying plan indicates they may be hiring consultants to design additional pedestrian safety improvements (IMS Advance No. 362435), transit safety improvements (IMS Advance No. 362345), and a new Chicago Bike Plan 2040 (IMS Advance No. 362187) that will emphasize biking as a safe mode of transportation in the city.

Since Chicago’s adoption of the policy in 2012, other major cities have adopted Vision Zero including New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Austin, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC. In 2015, the Vision Zero Network foundation was established, which offers resources related to Vision Zero and publishes a map of cities that have adopted or are considering adopting the policy.

Washington DC, which adopted Vision Zero in December of 2015, has implemented automated enforcement and ITS improvements to reach the Vision Zero goals. In 2015, the Washington DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) hired consultants to design and install CCTV cameras and vehicle detectors at various locations (IMS No. 324179). As the TRB paper notes, Washington DC has been ahead of other cities in implementing this technology: “DC utilizes five different types of automated cameras whereas the other US cities only employ red light or transition only cameras if they do so at all”. In addition, Washington DC has invested in new transit infrastructure. In February of 2016, the new DC Streetcar system began operation and DDOT has begun procuring consultants for expanding the system to new areas (IMS No. 359122).

In late 2015 and 2016, New York City release solicitations for consultants to design infrastructure associated with the Vision Zero program (IMS No. 328702) and specifically to implement Vision Zero safety improvements along Queens Boulevard (IMS No. 336106). Earlier this year NYCDOT also hired consultants to design improvements to the City’s transit signal priority and ITS infrastructure (IMS No. 335357).


As can be seen from the Vision Zero Network’s map, a significant number of cities in California are adopting Vision Zero or are considering adopting the policy. In October of this year at their annual conference, the California League of Cities adopted a resolution supporting Vision Zero. In addition, the League set increased funding for transportation infrastructure (along with water infrastructure) as their “number one strategic goal for 2016.”  Most recently, the City of Sunnyvale released an RFP for a consultant to prepare a Vision Zero Plan (IMS No. 362095), and the Cities of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo both officially adopted the policy at their respective council meetings on October 18.

In addition to metropolitan areas, Vision Zero is being adopted in smaller cities and rural areas in southern states, which have some of the deadliest stretches of highway in the nation. In the Southeastern US, Fort Lauderdale, Florida was the first City to adopt Vision Zero and developed the Vision Zero Fort Lauderdale Plan this year. In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory and the North Carolina Department of Transportation recently committed the entire state to reducing traffic fatalities to zero in the next 15 years. NCDOT and the State’s Vision Zero Initiative are working with public input to develop a list of “Spot Safety Projects” to reduce crashes at locations throughout the state.

On a national level, the US Department of Transportation and the National Safety Council recently announced a new Road to Zero Coalition that has adopted Vision Zero principles with the goal of ending traffic fatalities on all nation roadways within the next 30 years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held a Road to Zero symposium on October 5 to outline approaches to address a nationwide increase in traffic deaths since 2015, which was the deadliest year on record for traffic fatalities since 1966.

As more local, state, and federal agencies commit to the goal of zero traffic deaths and Vision Zero principles, pedestrian/bicycle safety projects, transit improvements, and ITS/automated vehicle infrastructure will likely be high priority investments in the coming year. IMS’ targeted research engine and daily project reports deliver the most up to date information on agencies’ transportation infrastructure investments and consultant procurement schedules, this allows IMS clients to look ahead as policies such as Vision Zero build momentum and are realized as capital projects.

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