Sunday, January 26th, 2014

New York: Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero

One of the proposals from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that received a lot of positive attention is his so-called “Vision Zero” plan. The goal is to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes within ten years. As he acknowledges, this idea was copied from a similar goal set by Chicago.

For too long we’ve basically accepted a gruesome death toll from car crashes as the price of doing business in a modern society. The very word “accident” suggests something we simply can’t do much about. But in the same way that Rudolph Giuliani and others questioned the inevitability of sky high murder rates, a new generation of leaders is questioning the premise behind large numbers of deaths from car crashes, deeming them unacceptable.

The Vision Zero report lays it out:

In New York, one person is killed in a car crash every 30 hours. Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury, and every two hours a traffic injury results in dismemberment or disfigurement. From 2001 to 2010, more New Yorkers were killed in traffic than were murdered by guns.

The consequences for New York families is tragic: being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1-14 years old, and the second most common cause among those aged 15 and older.

Enough is enough. There is no level of death or injury that New Yorkers should accept on our public streets.

As a starter set of proposals, de Blasio suggests redesigning 50 intersections per year, expanding 20 MPH speed zones, and stepping up traffic enforcement. All good stuff. You can read more about it and watch a Streetfilm of the announcement over at Atlantic Cities.

But while there’s a lot of goodness here, the idea of having a goal of “zero” needs to be rethought. I can appreciate the logic of saying any death is one too many. But there are some practical problems with it. Firstly, it’s unrealistic. The idea that in New York City you can completely eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries just isn’t going to happen. And by making that the goal, any sense of holding de Blasio accountable for results is forfeited. After all, everyone implicitly gets it’s only a feel-good aspiration. The stated goal allows the project to be judged on its inputs – intersections fixed, for example – rather than its outputs, namely the number of lives saved. What we ought to have the reverse.

I’d like to see some aggressive but realistic specific goals fleshed out. For example, continuous annual reductions in traffic fatalities at a rate 25-50% greater than the trend line. That way there can be accountability for actually achieving measurable and realistic targets.

Secondly, complete elimination of traffic deaths would likely entail trade-offs we don’t want to make. For example, the police on one local precinct just started a jaywalking ticketing blitz. An 84 year old immigrant was not just ticketed but bloodied by aggressive cops:

This is pretty ridiculous. As Nicole Gelinas put it, “Targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.” Streetsblog suggested a better approach is to apply strict liability in car crashes where the driver is always liable in any pedestrian crash, even if the pedestrian broke the law.

I certainly agree that going after jaywalkers is about the last place you’d want to start your safety campaign. However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then? Clearly if you want to continue making safety improvements, you’d need to enforce the same strict standards on pedestrians and bicyclists.

In a sense, by jumping the gun, NYPD revealed the inevitable end result of any policy that demands a zero risk, zero adverse event profile. Such things always end up going too far. That’s why we have to do the TSA shuffle at airports and the NSA is tapping every phone call in the United States, for example. The truth is, risk is genuinely part of life and we have to be willing to accept at least some of it to live in a functional society.

So while Vision Zero has a lot going for it and is a step in the right direction, I think the notion of “zero” needs to be rethought in favor of aggressive but realistic targets for which officials can be held accountable and which don’t demand ridiculous actions like jaywalking crackdowns. Even if traffic deaths aren’t totally eliminated, they can still be radically reduced. And as the murder rate declines show, even when you don’t get to zero, if you make step change improvements over time you can still drive huge improvements in the livability of the city.

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

11 Responses to “New York: Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero”

  1. Ziggy says:

    This is a huge issue.

    Any “Vision Zero” strategy must be looked at with a jaundiced eye in light of America’s endlessly expanding police state.

    Why not have checkpoints on every other corner to solve a myriad of potentially hazardous public safety issues?

    What we need right now is a radically more intensive, invasive and transparent monitoring of local, state and Federal law enforcement, not the other way around.

    Every cop, fireman and public official should be wired with audio and video while on duty, and their activities should be available to viewers online throughout the day.

    Why should they worry if they have nothing to hide?

    They work for us, not the other way around…

  2. gene says:

    I’m in wonderment at the phrase “Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury”. That’s 3 million traffic injuries a year, and that number isn’t plausible.

    I agree with Ziggy that Ground Zero may be a ploy to expand the police state. Bloomberg clearly hates guns, and he turned NYC into a large prison camp where non-whites were harassed endlessly via police stop-and-frisks.

    Streetsblog’s idea to assign blame to always hold the driver responsible is so extreme that it’s counter-productive. If a pedestrian walks into traffic cause they’re watching a movie in Google Glass, that’s not the driver’s fault. I’m pro-pedestrian, pro-walking, pro-bike, pro-moped, but I don’t want to pitch our legal system.

  3. SFB says:

    “If a pedestrian walks into traffic cause they’re watching a movie in Google Glass, that’s not the driver’s fault.”
    If engineers observe that pedestrians are regularly wandering into traffic because they’re watching Google Glass, they can put up a fence on the edge of a sidewalk to stop it happening. That way, you eliminate the risk of a casualty. If this sounds crazy, bear in mind that it is standard practice in London and many places in the UK.
    However, 57% of pedestrian deaths happen in signalized intersections, which suggests that the biggest problem is that drivers just aren’t driving with due care and attention. That is standard, because the legal consequences of maiming somebody with your car are low or non-existent. THAT is the place where the legal apparatus should be focusing, not on going out and beating up some pensioner.

  4. Rod Stevens says:

    I can’t imagine being liable because some person suddenly walks out between two cars in the middle of the block. If we create the safe zones, walkers should use them.

    The bigger point here is setting realistic goals. Things take on an “emperor’s new clothes” loss of credibility when people read things like this. They immediately think, “there’s another government program that will never go anywhere.” Goals like that undermine the credibility of government itself. It also puts off the day of reckoning, by saying, “this is so aspirational that you don’t have to worry about more immediate results. We’re planning for something really big, so just give us time to get that to work.”

    In the world of urban development, most of us have shifted over to a model of “tactical urbanism”, making small, low-cost changes that work today and get the ball rolling for more change later on. That’s what Bloomberg did with a lots of the streets changes in New York, notably in Times Square where his “experiments” became permanent. How about some more of that?

  5. Citybeautiful21 says:

    “However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then?”

    I think the key point behind Vision Zero is that despite all that Janette Sadik-Khan accomplished, the City of New York could probably triple her level of effort and not reach the “what then” moment for over a decade.

    I say this as someone who looks to NYC as a leading city in tackling this problem in the USA, not a following city.

  6. wkg in bham says:

    The city of St Peterburg has a nifty “how are we doing” site.

    Sometimes just keeping track of things results in things improving. I don’t know if other cities do this sort of thing. One of the things tracked is roadway fatalities by type. This however hasn’t shown much of an improvement.

  7. Alan Robinson says:

    @ Rod Stevens and gene
    I believe that strict liability (as it has been implemented by the Dutch for instance) isn’t in place for criminal liability but rather insurance liability. Even then, it doesn’t make the motorist completely liable if it can be proven that the pedestrian or cyclist was in some way at fault (however it still gives the motorist’s insurance partial liability).

    On the criminal side, one still has to rely on enforcement of existing traffic laws, especially those regarding recklessness and undue care and attention.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Aaron, I question how you can call your blog “urbanophile” and yet advise against policies to encourage pedestrian activity, generally regarded as the hallmark of great cities worldwide.

    I suggest imagining yourself with a frail dependent, like an older parent or grandparent or a small child, and rereading your last paragraph. I am the parent of a toddler and when I read (sadly all too often) about kids killed in traffic, I imagine my kid taken from me.

    The value of “Vision Zero” as a concept is that (to crib from Michael Connolly) everyone matters. The death of a child is a tragedy, not a statistic that can be managed with your “aggressive but realistic targets.”

  9. Rod Stevens says:


    The question is realistic versus unrealistic goals. Of course we don’t want grandparents and children mowed down in the streets. Even an old line traffic engineer, one who gives first priority to vehicle flow, agrees with that. But a realistic goal is more likely to yield results.

    For one thing, think about lumping everything together: it begs the question of how and where. If you have a realistic goal with a short-time frame, then the engineers need to identify how they are going to get that result. That means finding specific intersections or roadways and talking about specific interventions there, with specific time frames for the results. Wouldn’t you rather have the accountability?

  10. AIM says:

    “Even an old line traffic engineer, one who gives first priority to vehicle flow, agrees with that.”

    No, those engineers don’t believe pedestrians should be in the street in the first place. Why build streets for anything but cars? If you think I’m being cynical, you haven’t met enough of these engineers.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Mr. Stevens,

    Your reluctance to disturb the status quo while posting on a blog called “The Urbanophile” is bemusing. I believe that you and I agree that current methods are insufficient to achieve Vision Zero. One approach then is to settle for pedestrian plazas here and there and accepting a certain number of tragedies. Another approach, that I prefer, is to devote more municipal resources to reducing the tragedies.

    And to go back to your original post, where you state, “I can’t imagine being liable because some person suddenly walks out between two cars in the middle of the block.” You wouldn’t be liable because there would be no injury because you would be walking.

    I leave for others to explain why you remain belted inside a metaphorical motor vehicle even as you post about pedestrian safety.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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