Pushback on Vision Zero in Los Angeles

By John Russo, Co-Founder, and Director of KeepLAMoving and KeepTheUSMoving

Last week the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the failure of the city’s Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic deaths over the last four years. Since Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the initiative in August 2015, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are up substantially, with pedestrian deaths nearly doubling. Though the story ran on the front page, it was really an opinion piece that placed blame for the spike fatalities on “car culture” and distracted driving.

However, there is a simpler reason that Vision Zero hasn’t led to the promised drop in traffic deaths: City officials, particularly those who populate our public works departments, refuse to look at data. They do not perform even cursory analysis of the contributing factors in these fatal accidents. Instead, they impose measures such as “road diets” and lane reductions by fiat, not based on facts but instead on ideology.

We at KeepLAMoving look at traffic safety as an engineering and data problem, not an ideological issue much less a political one. We demand that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) do this as well. Any changes to our streets should be based upon proven engineering principles and detailed, data-driven analyses of outcomes. Until that happens, pedestrians and cyclists will continue to die needless and preventable deaths.

LA officials have reconfigured countless miles of streets, roads, and highways based upon an ideology—their belief that creating congestion will make streets “safer.” Yet, the evidence shows beyond a doubt, our streets are more deadly now than they have been in the past 20 years.

Vision Zero is a failure by every metric it claims to judge itself against. Look at the attached graphic from the LADOT. I call it the “Vision Zero Hockey Stick.”

The above graph shows pedestrian, cyclist, and driver deaths from 2003 to 2017 (the latest year data was available).

Notice how traffic fatalities were trending down slightly from 2003 to 2015. See that spike in pedestrian deaths—the red line towards the top of the graph? It coincides with the year Mayor Garcetti signed an Executive Directive declaring Los Angeles as a “Vision Zero City.” Pedestrian deaths have risen 40 percent since then.

Vision Zero activists claim that the increase in pedestrian deaths is due to the city’s failure to embrace Vision Zero and take “bold action to curb the city’s car culture.” Vision Zero is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which, regardless of its effectiveness, will always require more money for more road diets, bike lanes, and “traffic calming” measures, which create traffic and congestion all in the name of “safety.”

One such activist is John Yi, Executive Director of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization. In the LA Times article, he says the spike in pedestrian deaths is caused by LA’s failure to enact “a visionary plan that matches the scope of [the goal of Vision Zero].” However, if one looks at the data, it’s clear the spike isn’t due to the failure of LA’s leadership to embrace Vision Zero fully. The increased fatalities are due to the implementation of Vision Zero.

I want to ask John Yi if he has looked at the data the California Highway Patrol (“CHP”) compiles for these accidents. The CHP collects comprehensive data about all injury traffic accidents (and many non-injury accidents) in the state of California, standardizes the format of this data, and makes it publicly available online in the Statewide Traffic Reporting System (“SWITRS”) database.

A review of the data for fatal pedestrian and cyclist crashes in Los Angeles makes it crystal clear where the city should focus its efforts if the goal truly is to reduce fatalities: on education and enforcement, particularly of pedestrians and cyclists!

Look at these statistics for fatal accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists in Los Angeles from January 1, 2015, to December 31, 2018 (the last year for which complete data is available).

  • 453 pedestrian fatalities in 448 accidents.
    • 56 percent were the fault of the pedestrian according to CHP data.
    • Vehicle speed was only a factor in just 6 percent of pedestrian deaths.
  • 74 cyclist fatalities
    • 60 percent were the fault of the cyclist according to CHP data.
    • 20 percent of those deaths were the result of the cyclist failing to stop at a red light or stop sign

If Los Angeles officials, reporters at the LA Times, and folks like John Yi want to reduce fatalities, they would advocate for more education campaigns for all road users, especially pedestrians and bicyclists. They would also advocate for more and stronger enforcement of traffic laws by police.

However, they call this “victim shaming.” In their minds, no matter the circumstances, drivers always are at fault. By refusing to acknowledge the real causes of these fatalities, by failing to aim for what is by far the largest contributing factor, they doom the city of Los Angeles to keep repeating the same cycle over and over and over again.

Sadly the truth is clear—LA’s implementation of Vision Zero has nothing to do with “safety.” The real intention here is not to make our streets safer, but to “encourage” people out of their cars. LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds recently stated, “We want to make the personal automobile the transportation choice of last resort in Los Angeles.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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One Response to “Pushback on Vision Zero in Los Angeles”

  1. gerald serlin says:

    Perceptive article. I am sure that the same conclusion can be reached in nearly all other “vision zero” locations, if the data is similarly compounded.