NMA Reboot: The Streets of San Francisco Meet Vision Zero

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: San Francisco is taking a page out of New York’s Vision Zero playbook by considering dropping the speed limit in the city to 20 mph. The measure, proposed by San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, would be one of a number of command-and-control policies ostensibly designed to reduce the city’s pedestrian and bicycle fatalities to zero by 2024.The misguided Vision Zero movement originated in Sweden and moved to New York with the election of Mayor de Blasio. For more on Vision Zero, check out this e-newsletter.


NMA E-Newsletter #262: Vision Zero Equals Zero Vision

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was never a friend of the motorist. He famously stated his desire to put red-light cameras “on every corner” and led the charge to bring speed cameras to the five boroughs.

However, his zeal for “traffic safety” pales in comparison to that of his successor, The Honorable Bill de Blasio. During his campaign, de Blasio outlined his “Vision Zero” initiative which seeks to eliminate all traffic fatalities from the streets of New York in 10 years.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding and has vowed to fulfill that campaign promise. Vision Zero calls for the usual complement of traffic safety interventions:

  • Road “improvements” including narrower streets, wider sidewalks and medians, and more bicycle lanes
  • Quadrupling the number of 20-mph slow zones throughout the city
  • Stepped-up traffic enforcement particularly for speeding and failure to yield
  • Expansion of the city’s nascent speed-camera program

The goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities is of course completely unrealistic, and every stakeholder in the traffic safety community knows it. Why? Because people are people, and people make mistakes. Safety improvements are always possible, but not through the command-and-control, vehicle-hostile tactics the plan calls for. Vision Zero is nothing more than political theater as well as a tool to escalate the assault on driving.

Another safety initiative with the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities comes from Sweden. Coincidentally, it’s also called Vision Zero and grew out of a partnership between the Swedish government and Swedish business interests.

With its motto, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not,” Vision Zero Swedish edition at least acknowledges the human element but conveys the belief that human fallibility can be overcome with enough intervention. Here’s more from the website:

Transport systems are traditionally designed for maximum capacity and mobility, not safety. This means road users are held responsible for their own safety. The Vision Zero Initiative takes the opposite approach. We place the main burden for safety on system design because we recognise human weaknesses and low tolerance to mechanical force. Ultimately, no one should die or suffer serious injury in traffic.

No one should die or suffer serious injury in traffic, but shouldn’t drivers bear some responsibility for their own safety and by extension, for their actions on the road? And aren’t the highway safety systems that Vision Zero Swedish edition puts so much faith in designed and implemented by fallible humans?

It’s similar to the discussion we’re having in this country about the future of self-driving cars. Supporters tout the safety benefits of driverless cars because they react more quickly than humans, don’t get distracted and always follow the speed limit.

But what happens when the human-designed software that controls the vehicle suddenly crashes? Will the passenger be prepared to take control of the vehicle? Will the passenger even know how to drive? Or will the vehicle simply stop, leaving the passenger stranded and helpless?

This scenario is reminiscent of a scene from an old movie in which people get stuck on an escalator after the power suddenly goes out. They keep waiting for the escalator to start up again, too clueless to move on their own. They’re stranded and helpless.

Maybe Vision Zero works in Sweden, where the cradle-to-grave social welfare system promises to protect people from the harsh realities of life. But don’t count on it working here. In fact, we might take a lesson from another European country, Holland, which was the site of an enlightening traffic experiment a few years back.

Officials in the city of Drachten removed all traffic signs, controls and markings from the city center. Despite this free-for-all design, traffic flowed smoothly, pedestrians walked the streets safely and accidents plummeted. Motorists actually had to think about what they were doing and be mindful of others.

As the traffic guru behind the Drachten experiment commented: “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

In the end, driving safely comes down to taking responsibility and paying attention. If we do, we will never be stranded and helpless.

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