Vermont and New York City have very different transportation systems, but a life-saving innovation implemented on the streets and highways of Gotham could readily be applied in the Green Mountain State.
Traffic-related fatalities have gradually declined in New York City in the five years since a local pedestrian and cycling advocacy group began campaigning for adoption of a Vision Zero plan. It seeks to prevent all road deaths in the city by 2024.
In 2013, a total of 286 motorists, walkers and cyclists lost their lives in crashes in the five boroughs. The toll fell to 255 in 2014 and to 233 last year.
Vermont, meanwhile, has been going in the opposite direction on traffic fatalities. Five pedestrians and four cyclists were among the 57 people who died on the state’s roads in 2015. There were 13 fewer fatalities the previous year.
Transportation Alternatives, the NYC nonprofit that promotes greater safety in all modes of mobility, modeled its Vision Zero initiative on Sweden’s pioneering quest to eliminate traffic deaths. The Swedish Parliament adopted Vision Zero as national policy in 1997. There were 541 road fatalities in the country that year, and in 2014 there were 264 — fewer than half as many. Sweden will probably not reach its goal of preventing all such fatalities by 2020, but Vision Zero has clearly saved hundreds of lives.
A March conference in Manhattan assessed the progress made in New York since TransAlt launched its Vision Zero campaign in 2011. About 300 participants discussed gains and setbacks at a two-day gathering featuring a range of officials and experts from New York and other cities around the country.
“It all boils down to the mayor,” declared one of the speakers, Seattle Transportation Dept. director Scott Kubly. With support from the top municipal leader, cities can make big improvements in their cycling and walking infrastructure while also enhancing motorist safety, Kubly said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has provided that sort of leadership. Building on the historic advances in pedestrian and cycling amenities achieved by his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio put forward a 63-point plan for carrying out Vision Zero shortly after taking office in 2014. The official city goal of experiencing no traffic-related deaths by 2024 would likely not have been put in place without the bottom-up push set in motion by TransAlt.
The Vermont uptick roughly correspondents with a 10 percent increase in road deaths in the United States in the past year. The rise can be attributed mainly to the drop in the price of gasoline, suggested Janette Sadik-Khan, the Bloomberg administration’s transportation chief from 2007 to 2013. She said at the conference that cheap gas has encouraged U.S. motorists to drive millions of additional miles.
Sadik-Khan oversaw a transformation of New York City’s streetscape during her years in office. She noted that the city added 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 pedestrian plazas as part of a transportation safety and climate protection program that made Sadik-Khan a hero to many local cyclists and walkers — and an enemy to some drivers.
In keeping with Kubly’s formulation, she said Mayor Bloomberg deserved credit for the profound changes in the city’s surface transportation network. Speaking of the frequency of fatal or disabling traffic crashes, Sadik-Khan told the conference that Bloomberg “saw systemic problems like this as a public health crisis.”
Despite the militant opposition she faced in a few neighborhoods, Sadik-Khan said initiatives aimed at improving biker and walker safety took hold because they came to be seen as beneficial to motorists. “You need to develop an agenda people can say yes to,” she advised her audience in a conference keynote speech.
Vision Zero is based on a similar approach. Ticketed motorists are obviously not be happy about stricter enforcement of traffic laws, but others recognize that summonses are intended to make the streets and highways safer for everyone, New York City Police Commission William Bratton said in an address at the TransAlt event. He noted that speeding tickets are up by 28 percent, those for running red lights by 38 percent and texting-while-driving violations by 47 percent. Those numbers reflect increased deployment of police officers on the city’s highways as part of the strategy for achieving Vision Zero, Bratton said.
In Vermont, the Governor’s Highway Safety Plan for 2016 includes in its mission statement a commitment to “working toward the goal of ‘Zero Deaths’ by promoting highway safety awareness through education and enforcement, thereby reducing crashes, saving lives and improving the overall quality of life for those using Vermont’s roadways.”
The state has recently taken important action in that regard. Early in April, the Vermont Agency of Transportation started displaying on electronic message boards a count of the number of deaths in road crashes this year. The signs are being updated and posted every Wednesday at locations around the state to encourage safer driving.
But Vermont has not yet undertaken a concerted, coordinated Vision Zero campaign of the sort that has proved effective in New York City. VTrans officials say they have no objection to launching such an effort. Implementation may have stalled, they suggest, due to concerns that the goal of zero would be impossible to reach.
NYC Police Commissioner Bratton drew criticisms following the TransAlt conference for saying at the event that “you’re not going to get to zero.” In a city of 8.5 million residents and 60 million tourists per year, the degree of congestion is such that crashes, some of them fatal, will be inevitable, Bratton argued. He added, however, that Vision Zero is “still a great goal.”
That perspective, while perhaps a product of hard-headed realism, lacked the persuasive power of a presentation given at the conference by Amy Liao and Tsi-Pei Liao. The couple’s three-year-old daughter was killed in 2013 when a driver failed to yield at a pedestrian crosswalk in Queens. The Liaos chose to channel their anger and mourning into an organization, Families for Safe Streets, that TransAlt helped form.
It lobbies for infrastructure improvements and tougher policing that can save the lives of other New Yorkers and possibly inspire other states and cities to strive toward a Vision Zero of their own.
As former Commissioner Sadik-Khan proclaimed at the conference, “Change the street and you change the world.”
Kevin J. Kelley is the US/UN correspondent for Kenya’s Nation Media Group and an occasional contributor to Seven Days.