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Traffic and pedestrian safety require realism, not slogans

Although the Vision Zero program sounds like a good idea to make roads safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, governments should still measure its trade-offs.

  • By
  • | 4:45 p.m. August 17, 2022
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Too many drivers, passengers and pedestrians are killed and injured in accidents involving autos. We can and should be doing more to dramatically reduce those numbers. Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office data show 41 deaths from more than  9,000 crashes in just the first nine months of 2021, up from previous years.

Nationwide, an increase in traffic fatalities in 2021 led transportation agencies at all levels to begin looking for new approaches to traffic safety. One increasingly popular approach has been adopting a Vision Zero (VZ) program. Sarasota city and county staff have studied this approach and recommended it to their commissions. The concept originated in Sweden in 1997 and sets a goal of zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries. VZ was adopted by Chicago in 2012, San Francisco in 2014, and Los Angeles in 2015.

Examples of VZ measures that cities have taken to reduce fatalities include:

  • Requiring safety skirts on the side of the street;
  • Adding buffer zones between bike lanes and traffic lanes, often narrowing or outright removing a travel lane in the process;
  • Closing travel lanes during peak hours;
  • Identifying locations with possible conflicts between pedestrians and cars to lessen injury severity.

In 2012, Chicago launched its program with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel stating a goal of “zero traffic deaths by 2022.” The city’s approach was outlined in a 100-page Action Agenda, which was little more than a statement of principles. Five years later, the city started work on VZ implementation and reset the 10-year counter from 2022 to 2027. Chicago aimed to improve some “300 intersections to make them safer for pedestrians.”

In September 2019, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that $6 million was being allocated to the city’s West Side VZ plan, a stark difference from a statement she made as a candidate when she said she would, “reallocate $20 million from existing Chicago Department of Transportation funding” towards VZ projects. For a city frequently finding itself short on funds, especially for projects this transformative and wide in scope, VZ’s costly approach makes little sense. Even after all of that money was allocated, Chicago’s 2020 traffic fatality rates remained about the same as in 2012, before VZ was implemented.

In 2014, San Francisco announced and implemented its own VZ program. The program, which has been relatively successful in reducing traffic deaths, began with a comprehensive push for more accountability and better data-gathering to help paint a clearer picture for policymakers looking to address traffic fatalities. With San Francisco’s clearly defined High Injury Network — defined as areas where fatalities are disproportionately high — and the city’s Quick-Build program, San Francisco was able to make changes relatively quickly and cheaply. San Francisco’s fatalities decreased significantly in 2019 and 2020. Overall, San Francisco has been more successful than other major cities in lowering fatalities.

Los Angeles’ VZ program was started in 2015 and has been the least effective at reducing fatalities. In 2016, Los Angeles’ pedestrian death rate “was twice that of San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and four times that of Seattle,” per Bloomberg. In the 3 years following VZ adoption, pedestrian fatalities increased by 75%. Things didn’t look good for drivers either: In 2017, Los Angeles ranked as the “most congested city in the world,” the sixth year in a row it received that ranking. Conditions for drivers were already nightmarish, with drivers spending hours upon hours in congestion, but fatalities remained high on top of those conditions.

Los Angeles did implement some changes, such as exclusive pedestrian traffic signal phases, which halt all vehicular traffic for a time as a means of lowering fatalities. While fatalities have been decreasing, they are still above the 2015 numbers, when the program started.

Most VZ policies in the U.S. have been expensive failures, with negligible effects on overall traffic fatalities. Outliers such as San Francisco have a few advantages that made a VZ approach more realistic — namely less reliance on driving to commute. In San Francisco in 2018, 40.2% of people drove to work, whereas in Los Angeles in 2015 nearly 80% drove alone and 10% carpooled, and 77.4% of Chicagoans in 2018 relied on automobiles for their commute. In Sarasota only 0.5% of commuters use transit, and over 90% drive alone.

The problem with Vision Zero is it wants to pretend there are no limits on resources and we can achieve zero deaths if we are just willing to spend enough. But you can never realistically eliminate, for example, bad driving. You can, however, mitigate and reduce its impact with good design and safety measures. The key is lies in data-gathering, local partnerships, community education and re-engineering when necessary.

The VZ approach calls for discarding cost-benefit analysis and the “whack-a-mole” approach of fixing one intersection at a time. Instead, it calls for making sweeping changes to all of a city’s high injury network. Claiming that no price can be placed on human life is a noble approach but one that is unrealistic in a world where policymakers have limited resources to solve problems.

Many of VZ’s proposed changes, such as limiting lane use during peak hours, would slow traffic and worsen conditions for drivers and lower-income commuters in these cities. By increasing the duration of commutes and making some people late for work, cities inadvertently reduce the economic well-being of lower-income people. Instead of making roads worse for drivers, the goal should be to make them safer and more efficient for everyone involved — be they a driver, a cyclist or a pedestrian.

While auto-averse solutions may work in cities that are not so reliant on cars (such as San Francisco), making conditions worse for drivers in other cities is often met with political pushback. In Los Angeles, for example, drivers are already spending massive amounts of time in slow-moving traffic. Some streets need to keep their higher speeds to allow for a shorter, more efficient commute through cities. Making the mostly lower income Sarasota residents who have the longest commutes to affordable housing to suffer more in congestion and slower travel is not a fair way to improve traffic safety.

To reduce traffic fatalities more effectively, we should begin with detailed analyses of our high-injury networks instead of heavy-handed reform for every part of the road system. In Orlando, drivers were failing to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks. After a partnership with local law enforcement, officers started issuing warnings near crosswalks during a 3-month enforcement period. It was determined that a few low-cost engineering solutions would be sufficient: moving yield signs 30 feet, adding medians and refuge islands and some other changes. Following two rounds of enforcement and re-engineering, driver yield rates went from 5% to 28% for a price far lower than most VZ projects.

Cities do not need to take the Vision Zero all-or-nothing approach when a more customizable set of solutions is available.


Jay Derr is a policy analyst and Adrian Moore is vice president at the Reason Foundation.


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