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Rachel Zurier via Flickr

Vision Zero: The ‘fanatical’ movement to make Philly’s streets less deadly

Urban planners for years have pushed local governments (including Philly) to adopt a plan called “Vision Zero” for safer streets. Some of its loudest defenders are also bicycling advocates. They’re vocal about more and better bike lanes, arguing the city would be better off in the end with fewer cars and more bikes.

So it’s easy to think that Vision Zero — the idea that all traffic deaths are preventable and cities should aim to have zero traffic deaths per year — is all about cyclists, bike lanes and making cars drive slower. But the initiative that last week won proposed funding from Mayor Jim Kenney is more complicated.

Proponents of Vision Zero-related efforts say the engineering, enforcement and education portions of a comprehensive Vision Zero plan like ones that have been adopted in other cities around the world will, in the end, benefit drivers and pedestrians — maybe even more than cyclists.

“This is something that gets lost and misconstrued a lot of the time,” said David Curtis, co-founder of Philadelphia’s urbanist PAC 5th Square. “It’s not exclusive to bicycles and people who ride them. It’s really focused on everyone. All modes. All users.”

What Vision Zero is

The movement began in Sweden in the late 1990’s when the Scandinavian country adopted a plan to reduce traffic fatalities. It later set a goal in 2007 to cut fatalities in half by 2020.

After designing streets with the first priority of safety rather than convenience, it changed policy and infrastructure. Officials decreased speed limits in urban areas, added bike lanes that had physical barriers between bike and car traffic and created larger zones for pedestrians to use and cross the streets.

If current trends continue, Sweden will exceed its goal and decrease traffic fatalities in the country by 65 percent by 2020.

Here in Philly, about 100 people die every year from more than 10,000 traffic crashes. Some 70 percent of those who die are drivers, while pedestrians make up most of the rest. In the last few years, two or three cyclists have died annually in traffic crashes here in Philly.

But between 2009 and 2013, pedestrian fatalities rose 15 percent, while deaths via car crashes dropped 15 percent. Compared to other cities our size, you’re more likely to die after being hit by a car during a walk in Philadelphia than anywhere else.

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Via 2015 Vision Zero report

Vision Zero’s goal: Better enforcement, engineering and education can reverse trends and ultimately decrease the number of people who die each year after being involved in a traffic accident. It works to account for human error in the designing of streets, not ignore it.

Stephanie Weber, a field policy organizer with the national organization Safe Routes to School National Partnership, said her organization looks out for vulnerable pedestrians like children making their way to school. Pushing for Vision Zero initiatives that slow drivers and improve conditions for walkers is part of its mission.

“[Vision Zero] definitely is not just for cyclists,” Weber said. “It really is a transportation initiative that aims to reduce traffic fatalities for everyone from motorized transportation users to pedestrians to bicyclists.”

And it turns out there’s one easy way to make crashes less deadly: Slow everything down. According to the Bicycle Coalition, at 20 miles per hour, the survival rate for a pedestrian is over 90 percent. At 40 miles per hour, the survival rate drops to 20 percent.

Some urban planners argue the engineering of the streets themselves can usher in higher speeds, but that can be remedied with traffic calming infrastructure changes like speed bumps, roundabouts, bike lanes and “road diets,” which narrow streets or decrease lanes.

It sounds counterintuitive, but Curtis, of 5th Square, said that in some cases narrowing of roads or decreasing the number of lanes actually improved the driver experience. Andrew Stober, a former employee of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, pointed specifically to Walnut Street in West Philadelphia as an example.

He said since a bike lane was added, traffic flows there “just as well.” And less lane-changing means fewer chances to crash. 

Critics: Vision Zero’s ‘fanatical’

Above is a protected bike lane in Chicago.

Above is a protected bike lane in Chicago.

Creative Commons

So why, when you think “Vision Zero,” do you think “insufferable cyclist”? Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, suggested that the reason why bicycling advocates have taken the lead on this issue nationwide is not because other groups don’t care about it, but because cycling advocacy is just more organized.

“We’ve taken the lead on the issue because we think that traffic safety is of paramount importance,” Stuart said, “and by making streets safer for all users, many more people will be affected and will benefit from it.”

Others agreed, saying that especially in Philly, the large network the Bicycle Coalition has created has been one of the biggest advocates of Vision Zero — but they’re not the only ones who stand to benefit.

Vision Zero efforts as often championed by bike and pedestrian advocates don’t have full public support, though. John Baxter, a member of the National Motorists Association and a critic of Vision Zero efforts, called advocates of the plans “fanatical” and said those touting Vision Zero aren’t looking for the “least obtrusive” options.

“Instead of trying to stop people going really too fast, they want to slow everybody down,” he said. “Like, give me a break.”

Baxter, a Downingtown resident who considers himself a Philadelphian, and some other members of the NMA say better enforcement on the streets to nab the speeders could suffice instead of changing the engineering of the streets themselves.

Denise Goren, a 30-year city transportation expert working in the Managing Director’s office, said that unless it’s well targeted, enforcement is an expensive option. Police in Philadelphia can’t reasonably patrol every intersection at all times.

She said more effective enforcement is a part of the city’s Vision Zero plan, but the flawed engineering of certain streets makes it easier to speed. It can even promote aggressive driving.

“The question is: In a densely populated urban area, are we moving cars or moving people?” Goren said. “And I think we’ve gotten past the point of saying a street is successful given how many cars get through and how fast.”

Philadelphia’s plan for the future

Some point to the famously bike and pedestrian-friendly San Francisco as a model for what Philadelphia could become. The West Coast city is far ahead of Philly in its implementation of Vision Zero-related efforts. Still, it’s an ongoing process.

The local bike coalition wants the city to set a goal of decreasing road deaths and severe injuries by 50 percent by 2020. Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who has championed Vision Zero efforts in Council, is on board.

Kenney’s administration plans to fund and staff a new Office of Complete Streets, a multi-agency office that will keep track of street projects across the city and implement principles of “complete streets” design along the way. It will also likely commission a Vision Zero Task Force and a citywide Vision Zero Action Plan.

Goren said before drafting such a plan, the first big step is data collection. The city has brought the Temple Institute for Survey Research under contract to measure Philadelphians’ traffic behavior and attitudes. The office is also collecting crash data from 2015 and analyzing cause, location and more.

“Groundwork and establishing your baseline is critical to long term success,” she said. “Even in Sweden they didn’t have enough of a ‘before picture.'”

Even within the community of Vision Zero advocates, everyone has different ideas for what improvements need to be made first. But most agree that with more city funding and new ways to consolidate traffic safety efforts, the city is better off now than it was a decade ago.

Stober said one of the city’s most urgent needs is to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, whether that’s through bump-outs, medians or bike lanes. Stuart said she’d like to see plans for Philadelphia to add more protected bike lanes that separate cyclists from motorists. Curtis said he’s interested in how the city can make some of its most dangerous intersections safer for everyone using the streets.

“Whether you’re riding SEPTA, you’re behind the wheel of a car or you’re on a bike, at some point of your day, you’re a pedestrian,” Stober said. “If you’re someone who predominately drives, you should have a real interest in Vision Zero. Our priorities are about making the road safer.”

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