Many cities and states around the country have adopted a Vision Zero program which strives for zero traffic deaths, usually by a specific year. Some of the oldest programs, though, are finding that the ideal of zero traffic deaths is becoming ever more elusive and expensive over time. Instead of decreasing, traffic deaths involving accidents between cars and bicyclists/pedestrians have jumped even with the increase in protected bike lanes and other traffic calming VZ safety measures.
Every traffic death is a tragedy; there is no doubt about that.
Nearly all drivers, unless they’re psychopaths, never want to hurt or kill anyone while they are driving. Most are transportation hybrids: motorist/pedestrian, motorist/bicyclist, motorist/transit rider, etc. Motorists care about street safety, but many drivers do not believe that any transportation sector should be demonized in the traffic safety dynamic. VZ philosophy states that every traffic death involving a car is the fault of the motorist no matter what, purposely pitting drivers against other road users.
Terms such as traffic violence and tactical urbanism are now frequently used by VZ advocates. They continue to question the very nature of a “traffic accident,” insisting that “collision” is the more accurate description because of their view that an altercation with a car is not happenstance. Many want to know why a driver “who has killed” a pedestrian or bicyclist has not immediately been arrested and charged with murder.
In reality, every road user has the responsibility for safety—their own and any other person they come into contact with while on the road. The problem with Vision Zero programs is that they create an illusion of safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. Many times, road users, including motorists, don’t understand their own responsibility in the traffic safety paradigm.
This summer, articles began appearing from most major cities about whether Vision Zero programs are actually working on the local scene. City officials continue to throw money at VZ programs even though the intended results are not forthcoming. Many residents, even safety advocates, are becoming disillusioned.
Portland, Oregon’s Willamette Week recently posted Blindsided, a scathing investigation into the city’s VZ program. Intended to end all traffic deaths by 2025, it began in 2015. Already $100 million has been spent on road diets, additional crosswalks, flashing beacons, more streetlights, speed cameras and an educational campaign fueled by marijuana tax money. The VZ program has not made much of a dent in traffic fatalities. In 2015, 37 Portlanders died in traffic accidents. This year, that total was surpassed by the end of summer.
San Francisco wants to do Portland one better by eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024. That goal, however, seems further away than ever. Last year, 23 people lost their lives on the road in the metropolitan area. By August of this year, the city had already surpassed that grim statistic.
San Francisco officials continue to push a frenzy of VZ activities without a great deal of feedback. For example, SFDOT assembled a rapid response team. If a bicyclist is hurt or killed in a traffic accident, that street is deemed a VZ emergency and city workers quickly employ traffic calming measures in an attempt to make it safer.
Now, a city council member wants to close down the Tenderloin District to cars due to several deaths in the area. Pedestrian advocates want better Vision Zero police enforcement, and some residents are calling for on-call prosecutors who only deal with traffic accidents. Council members also maintain that speeding cars are the real culprit for traffic deaths and would like to lower speed limits throughout the city. Due to state law, cities are not allowed to arbitrarily lower speed limits because speed limits must be set to the 85th percentile, the speed under which 85 percent of free-flowing traffic is traveling.
Last year, the California legislature deployed a statewide Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force, which plans to issue its first report in January 2020. One of the likely recommendations will be to allow cities to set their own speed limits just as Massachusetts has done.
After an uptick of cyclist deaths across the five boroughs of New York City, an eruption of protests have inundated city hall. The VZ goal seems ever more elusive in NYC, which spends the most money of any community in the country. The War on Cars is at a fever pitch too.
In July, over 1000 bicyclists staged a die-in at Washington Square Park to protest the safety of NYC streets. Recently, even more controversy erupted when Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would soon make it mandatory for all bicyclists who ride a rental bike to wear helmets as a safety measure. Bicycle groups countered by complaining that would discourage bicycle use which in turn would lower ridership. They used the opportunity to then push all the blame back on motorists.
NYC bicyclists, though, are not blameless in the traffic safety paradigm. The number of pedestrians hurt by NYC bicyclists has risen 12 percent this year. Since 2011, 2,250 pedestrians (seven of whom died) were injured by on-street collisions with bicyclists.
The Seattle DOT announced that in the first half of 2019, 91 people were seriously injured and 10 killed in all traffic accidents, which is the highest number since 2010. Seattle road injuries and fatalities were essentially the same between 2017 and 2018, sparking concerns that the resources being poured into VZ efforts are ineffective.
Vision Zero programs are soaking up millions of taxpayer dollars in large metropolitan areas, and have produced, at best, questionable results. The only guaranteed way to eliminate all traffic fatalities is to eliminate all road user—driver, bicyclist, and pedestrian—interactions. The Vision Zero agenda, however, is focused on one aspect: getting people out of their cars.