Planning May 2015

The Safest Streets

Vision Zero aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities.

By Jay Walljasper

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of the U.S. — a national tragedy surpassing the worst natural or man-made disasters of the last 100 years, including 9/11. Another 68,000 walkers on average are injured every year. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors, and people of color, according to a recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition.

This pedestrian safety crisis is even deadlier internationally. More than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed," notes Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks (, a coalition of more than 500 local groups working to improve walking. "We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency."

Meanwhile, more than 700 bicyclists die in traffic crashes in the U.S. each year, and more than 45,000 are injured, adding to the body count on the streets. "Where's the moral outrage?" asks Katherine Kraft, a public health expert involved with two leading walking organizations, Every Body Walk! (, a collaborative network of citizens groups, businesses, and health care organizations, and America Walks.

Unfortunately, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths (and all traffic fatalities) are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life. "People accept this as normal, just as 100 years ago most people accepted that women could not vote," says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8–80 Cities (, an international organization working to make streets safe for people of all ages. Yet recent history offers genuine hope for safer streets. A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature. But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have shown remarkable results, offering evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (the former mayor of Charlotte) is making pedestrian and bike safety a major mission with his Action Plan on Bike and Pedestrian Safety. "This is the safest time for transportation in history, except for pedestrians and bicyclists," he said at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference last fall in Pittsburgh. Bicycling and walking, he added, are "as important as any other form of transportation."

"For years the message that bicyclists and pedestrians heard has been: You are responsible for your own safety. Walk at your own risk. Bike at your own risk," noted Foxx.

Pedestrian fatalities in New York City fell to a historic low after the city pushed to make streets safer

Paving the way for zero traffic deaths

Campaigns to eliminate pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths are now taking shape around the U.S. This new safety strategy, called Vision Zero, is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden, where overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000 — making Swedish streets the safest in the world, according to the New York Times. Pedestrian deaths there have also plunged 50 percent since 2009.

Sweden accomplished all this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design, including improved crosswalks, lowered speed limits, pedestrian streets, barriers separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, and narrowed streets, reports The Economist.

Sweden takes a different planning approach than many other countries, where "road users are held responsible for their own safety," according to the Vision Zero Initiative website ( Swedish policy by contrast believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist, and walker errors, "based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes."

This is similar to the Netherlands' policy of Forgiving Roads, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s, compared to less than a 20 percent reduction in the U.S. over the same period, according to Project for Public Spaces.

Making streets safe in New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office in 2013 and promised to reduce traffic deaths — a major concern in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average. "The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable," he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers.

A year ago New York's city council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio's
Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments, including: increased police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, and dangerous driving; a campaign in the state legislature to allow the city to lower speed limits to 25 mph (and 20 mph on some streets), which succeeded last June; safety improvements such as traffic calming, speed cameras, and "slow zones" on streets; stricter scrutiny of taxi drivers' safety records; and street safety curriculum in schools.

The results, so far, look promising. "In 2014 we had an historic low for pedestrian fatalities" — a 27 percent reduction, says Paul Steely White, executive director of the bike, transit, and walking advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives. Bike fatalities, however, were slightly higher.

One of New York's biggest problems, according to walking and bike advocates, has been the police department focusing far more resources on street crime than on street safety. But the city's Vision Zero campaign appears to be changing that. Last year, speeding tickets were up 36 percent.

This year the city's Borough Pedestrian Action Plans target 66 intersections, 17 corridors, and six square miles of other "priority" areas in Manhattan, which account for 70 percent of the borough's pedestrian deaths and severe injuries. Comparably dangerous areas were pinpointed in the city's other four boroughs as well.

"Vision Zero policies [have] an impact almost immediately — it's so results oriented," says Andy Wiley-Schwartz, a consultant with Bloomberg Associates and a former assistant transportation commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg. "It focuses police departments and public officials on safety."

In response to approximately 4,000 New Yorkers being seriously injured and more than 250 killed in traffic accidents annually, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an ambitious program called Vision Zero — a Swedish traffic control strategy that has led to record low traffic deaths in Sweden and made the country's streets the safest in the world

Vision Zero across the country

After New York, Vision Zero planning in the U.S. is most advanced in San Francisco, which in 2013 saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities. The Vision Zero Coalition was launched last year by the citizen organizations Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and quickly endorsed by the city's board of supervisors, planning department, municipal transportation agency, police department, fire commission, school district, public health division, and more than two dozen community organizations. Their mission is to encourage city officials to fix dangerous intersections and streets; ensure "full and fair enforcement of traffic laws," with an emphasis on curbing dangerous behavior; invest in training and education for all road users, focusing on helping frequent drivers share the road; and eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

The essence of the plan is 4 Es and a P, says Tim Papandreou, director of strategic planning and policy for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: engineering, enforcement, education, evaluation, and policy.

One major goal for 2015 is fixing the most dangerous streets, since 60 percent of all bicyclist and pedestrian deaths and severe injuries occur on six percent of the streets, according to Tyler Frisbee, policy director for the San Francisco Bicycle
Coalition. SFMTA has committed to 24 projects on high-injury corridors over the next two years.

Another focus is stricter enforcement of the five traffic infractions that cause most bicyclist and pedestrian injuries: running red lights, running stop signs, violating right-of-way, turning violations, and speeding. The police department has committed to doubling the tickets issued for these violations from 24 percent to 50 percent of all traffic tickets by 2016.

"Most people see that these policies really do benefit everyone," Frisbee says. "When they think about it, they really would like their 11-year-old to be able to walk to the store or [for older people] to walk their grandchildren to the park."

Other cities pursuing Vision Zero strategies include Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Oregon.

Promote the lifestyle

The gravest danger to walkers as well as bicyclists and motorists is drivers who drive dangerously. According to data collected by the New York City Department of Transportation from 2008 to 2012, "dangerous driver choices" contribute to pedestrian deaths in 70 percent of cases. "Dangerous pedestrian choices" are responsible in 30 percent of cases, and joint responsibility in 17 percent of cases. As the old saying goes, speed kills. Two landmark studies, one from the U.S. and one from the UK, found that pedestrians are killed five percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 20 mph; 37 to 45 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 30 mph; and 83 to 85 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 40 mph.

In light of these findings, it's scary to realize that traffic on many American roads travels closer to 40 mph than 20 mph. "If we could do one switch to make safer streets, it would be to reduce car speeds to 20 mph," says Scott Bricker of America Walks, "which would reduce pedestrian fatalities by 90 percent."

But this means more than changing speed limits, according to Charlie Zegeer, project manager at the University of North Carolina's authoritative Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. He says, "Research shows that lowering a speed limit without other improvements like road design changes or improved police enforcement doesn't work to slow traffic — it's the roadway design that affects the speed."

Here are a few practical steps to slow speeds, deter distracted driving, and help make walking and biking safe, comfortable, and enjoyable for everyone. This is where Vision Zero's rubber hits the road, and it fits well with the complete streets strategy that has been adopted by a number of municipalities and states:

Reduce the number of travel lanes on wide streets wherever possible. Downsizing four-lane suburban and urban streets to two travel lanes with an alternating turn lane in the middle has become a popular trend across the country. Not only does this create safer streets, but it lessens noise for residents and creates an opportunity to add sidewalks, bike lanes, and landscaping. (This is known as a road diet, lane reduction, or 2+1 road.)

Six months after families of victims rallied to lower speed limits in New York City, the city reduced its speed limit from 30 mph to 25. The change is one of many outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero Action Plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities

Reduce the width of travel lanes. Wide lanes send an unmistakable message to drivers to speed up.

Make crosswalks and bike lanes more visible. Elevate them above street grade (known as speed tables), or mark them with bright, wide swaths of paint.

Separate bike lanes on busy streets. New York and Washington, D.C., are among the leaders in created protected bike lanes, and both saw bike commuting double in a short period. Protected bike lanes also create more comfortable, enjoyable trips for pedestrians.

Shorten crosswalks. A shorter trip across an intersection is a safer one. This is done most commonly by extending the sidewalk out into the intersection (known as a curb extension or bulb-out).

Add raised median islands in the middle of busy streets as a refuge for crossing pedestrians. This has been shown to reduce traffic accidents by 56 percent, according to Gil Penalosa of 8–80 Cities.

Give pedestrians and bicyclists a head start at traffic lights. Five seconds will allow pedestrians and bicyclists to enter the intersection first and be more visible to motorists, says Penalosa. Lining up waiting cars a few feet back from the intersection can also be helpful.

Ban right on red turns at busy intersections. Drivers, busy watching out for other cars, often don't see pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street on green lights.

Keep the turning radius 90 degrees at intersections. Rounded street corners tempt drivers to turn without stopping or looking for walkers and bikers.

Install traffic circles, roundabouts, speed humps, raised crosswalks, bike lanes, and other traffic-calming devices, which help motorists drive safely and be more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Convert one-way streets to two-way, encouraging safer, slower driving.

Pay close attention to road designs at bus stops. Pedestrians often rush across the street to catch a bus, not paying attention to oncoming traffic.

Create pedestrian streets, bridges, and underpasses in busy areas where other measures are not feasible; these help minimize conflict with traffic and make walking and biking more convenient.

Strictly enforce laws against speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, drunk driving, and reckless driving. Injuring or killing people with a car is no less tragic than doing it with a gun.

Install red-light cameras and other means of photo enforcement. It's expensive to station a police car at every unsafe intersection, but technology can nab lawbreakers at a fraction of the cost. Washington, D.C., now uses cameras to detect and fine drivers who fail to yield right-of-way to pedestrians as well as those who speed or run red lights, says Zegeer of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.

Establish Safe Routes to Schools campaigns, which bring educators, parents, neighbors, and kids together to find safe, satisfying ways for students to walk and bike to school.

Set up training programs about pedestrian safety for traffic engineers, transportation planners, police, city officials, citizens, and children. "All the kids in the Netherlands have three weeks' instruction in the rules of the road at school," notes Penalosa.

These pedestrian improvements also typically improve motorists' safety," Zegeer adds. "It's a win-win-win. Everyone's safer."

Jay Walljasper, the author of The Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks, and consults about how to create safer, sustainable, more enjoyable communities. His website is

Getting America Back on Its Feet

By Jay Walljasper

The number of Americans who regularly walk has jumped six percent since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, bicycling of all kinds rose 11.8 percent between 2006 and 2011 alone, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and bike commuting has jumped 60 percent since 2000, according to census figures.

This is good news because the CDC recommends that adults walk or bike (or engage in other moderate physical activity) 30 minutes a day, five days a week for better health. This goal is based on research showing that moderate physical activity reduces the risk of many major diseases. A recent large-scale study from the UK's Cambridge University finds that lack of exercise is responsible for twice as many deaths as obesity.

The U.S. Surgeon General's office is expected to soon release a call to action on walking and walkability, which some are comparing to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking as a potential game-changer in how Americans think about their health. Already a popular slogan now making the rounds warns us that "sitting is the new smoking."

Spurred by the impressive health benefits of walking, a diverse network of organizations stretching from AARP to the NAACP to the PTA came together for the first-ever walking summit in 2013 to champion walking as a solution to our health care crisis as well as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heightens the sense of community and security) and as a route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means fewer carbon dioxide emissions). The next summit will be held October 28 to 30 in Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest obstacles to walking is fear of being hit by traffic. "We won't increase walkability — which is good for people's and communities' health — until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking," warns Katherine Kraft, a public health expert involved with the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks. Vision Zero, she says, is the path toward a better life in our neighborhoods.

These views are confirmed by a detailed 2013 survey of Americans' attitudes about walking, conducted by the GfK research firm and sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit health care system that helped convene the Walking Summit and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative. The survey found that four-fifths of the respondents want streets to be designed for safer walking, and three-quarters want better enforcement of speed limits, even if both strategies result in slower driving.

Images: Top — Pedestrian fatalities in New York City fell to a historic low after the city pushed to make streets safer. Photo by Michael Appleton © NYT/New York Times Syndicate/News Service. Middle — In response to approximately 4,000 New Yorkers being seriously injured and more than 250 killed in traffic accidents annually, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an ambitious program called Vision Zero — a Swedish traffic control strategy that has led to record low traffic deaths in Sweden and made the country's streets the safest in the world. Photo by Damon Winter ©NYT/New York Times Syndicate/News Service. Bottom — Six months after families of victims rallied to lower speed limits in New York City, the city reduced its speed limit from 30 mph to 25. The change is one of many outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero Action Plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. "vision zero starts today" by dmitry gudkov, flickr (cc-by-nc 2.0).