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Hitting the Books: ‘Vision Zero’ could help reclaim roads from American car culture Leave a comment

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Despite decades of focusing our national infrastructure on personal vehicles (often at the direct exclusion and expense of other modes of transport), modern folks gets around on far more than planes, trains and automobiles these days. With our city streets and suburban neighborhoods increasingly populated by an ever-widening variety of vehicle — from e-scooters to city bikes, to autonomous EV taxis and internal combustion SUVs. The task of accommodating these competing priorities ensuring that everybody in town, regardless of physical or financial ability, can get where they’re going is growing ever more challenging. 

Inclusive Transportation: A Manifesto for Divided Communities, by civil engineer Veronica O Davis, highlights the many failings (both procedural and structural) of America’s transportation infrastructure and calls on city planners to reexamine how their public works projects actually affect the people they are intended to serve. Davis deftly agues in favor of a systemic revolution to the transportation planning field demanding better and more functional training for civil engineers, more diverse voices in transportation planning projects, and undoing at least some of the community-dividing harms that America’s past love affair with freeways has wrought. In the excerpt below, Davis examines the relative successes of Washington DC’s Vision Zero road safety program.  

It's an intersection

Island Press

From Inclusive Transportation by Veronica O. Davis. Copyright © 2023 Veronica O. Davis.


Reevaluating Transportation Policies

Policies lay the foundation for many decisions. For example, I worked with a city that had a policy that the curb-to-curb space could not be expanded unless there were extenuating circumstances, and even then the answer was no. That meant the roadway could not be expanded, but we could do a “road diet,” or narrowing of the roadway. As an example, if a road was sixty feet wide from curb to curb, all we had was sixty feet to work with as we developed alternatives to move the growing number of people moving into the corridor. The city’s policy decision was “Work with what you have, and if we are going to spend money to reconstruct the road, it will not be to widen it.”

Vision Zero could be a path forward as an overall framework for changing policy priorities, but it needs to be more than a plan, and it needs to be crafted with the people. Vision Zero is a concept from Sweden that recognizes we are human and we will make mistakes, but our mistakes should not lead to serious injuries or fatalities. One thing that gets muddled as people in the United States attempt to adopt Vision Zero is conflation of the total number of crashes with the total number of crashes that lead to deaths and serious injuries. Vision Zero does not demand perfect records, and it recognizes that crashes will occur because we are human. Instead, it argues that the focus should be on deaths and serious injuries. The distinction is important because crashes generally happen all over a community and people walk away from fender benders and sideswipes with minor or no injuries. Other than having a bad day, everyone is alive to recount the drama with their family and friends. But the more severe crashes tend to cluster in certain communities. If you focus on crashes regardless of the resulting injury, you may move resources from communities that need them more because they are where people are dying.

The Vision Zero plan of Washington, DC, is a great example of both successful interactions and some shortcomings. In 2015, only a few US cities embraced Vision Zero. DC’s plan was one of the first in the United States that included extensive outreach during the plan’s development. Over the course of a summer, we had ten meetings on street corners around the city, a youth summit with over two hundred young people, two meetings with special advocacy groups, and meetings with over thirty-five city agencies. We did not just inform people; we also engaged with them and used their feedback and stories to shape the plan. As an example, after talking with a group of young Black teens at the youth summit, we removed all enforcement related to people walking and biking. The young people conveyed to us that sometimes crossing the street mid-block got them away from a group of people who may want to cause them harm. The teens weighed their risk of being targeted by violence as higher than their risk of being struck by someone driving a vehicle.

In addition, we heard from people that having police enforce laws related to walking and biking put the community and law enforcement in conflict with each other. Charles T. Brown has documented in his research for his podcast Arrested Mobility how laws such as those prohibiting jaywalking are disproportionately enforced in Black and Brown communities, for men in particular. In DC’s Vision Zero plan, enforcement was instead targeted to dangerous driving behavior such as excessive speeding, driving under the influence, distracted driving, and reckless driving.

In a world where we are examining policing more closely after George Floyd’s murder, I think plans that reexamine equity in this way should take one more step. DC’s Vision Zero plan correctly focused on behaviors that lead to deaths and fatalities. However, the plan should have recommended a comprehensive evaluation of all the transportation laws and the removal of any that were not supported by data or did not lead to safer streets. If we are discussing data-driven approaches, the laws should target behaviors that lead to crashes that result in deaths and serious injuries.

Moreover, this plan offered recommendations and strategies and did not go further. After the Vision Zero plan was shared, communities were all demanding safer streets. This calls to mind the discussion [in chapter 2] of Montgomery County and the tension about who would get resources. All streets could be safer, even if incrementally, and without guiding principles for more of an “emergency room” structure. DC’s Vision Zero program led to resources going to where there was advocacy but not necessarily to the areas that needed the investment the most. If you have an opportunity similar to this, I emphasize the importance of putting in a framework that allocates resources to communities and areas experiencing high rates of fatalities and serious injuries, which tend to be the areas with high numbers of Black, Latino, or low-income residents or all of these.

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