For Walkers and Cyclists, A Swedish Road-Planning Strategy Helps Save Lives

Utah, Minnesota, and Washington have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent. Here's how they did it.

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed and more than 68,000 are injured by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors, and people of color.

A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition found that from 2003 to 2012, more than 47,000 people were killed crossing the street. That's 16 times the number of people who died in natural disasters over the same period.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets.”

The pedestrian safety crisis is even more dire internationally. Worldwide, more than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year—that's 22 percent of a total 1.24 million yearly traffic fatalities, 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,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. “We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency.”

Unfortunately, pedestrian 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,” observes Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization that's working to make streets safe for people of all ages.

Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer. 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 had remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it.

Sweden paves the way for zero traffic deaths

From Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon, campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country.

The campaigns are based on a new safety strategy called Vision Zero, which is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden. Pedestrian deaths in Sweden have dropped 50 percent since 2009, and overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000—making Swedish streets the safest in the world, according to the New York Times.

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country.

The Economist reports that Sweden accomplished this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design, and attributes the impressive drop in traffic deaths to improved crosswalks, narrowed streets, lowered urban speed limits, and barriers that separate cars from bikes and pedestrians.

Sweden took a far different approach than conventional transportation planning, where “road users are held responsible for their own safety” according to the Vision Zero Initiative website. Swedish policy 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’ Forgiving Roads policy, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s. In comparison, there's been less than a 20 percent reduction in the U.S. over the same period.

Utah, Minnesota, and Washington have adopted aggressive measures that are similar to Vision Zero to cut traffic deaths. All three states have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent or more—25 percent better than the national average.

Streets of New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths 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. “They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians—especially our children and seniors.”

To save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist, and walker errors: “We are human and we make mistakes.”

Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under 14 in New York, and the second highest cause of fatal injuries for people over 65.

In May, New York’s city council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments.

The plan includes teaching street safety in schools; allowing the city legislature to lower speed limits to 25 mph; increasing police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, and dangerous driving; and creating a permanent Vision Zero Task Force at City Hall.

According to walking and bike advocates, one of New York’s biggest problems is that the police department focuses more resources on street crime than on street safety—even though in 2013, there were 356 traffic-related deaths (half of those killed were pedestrians or bicyclists), compared to 333 murders.

Advocates cheered when de Blasio chose as his police chief William Bratton, who has spoken out about the need to curb traffic injuries and deaths.

“It’s really impressive what Mayor de Blasio has done,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “He has put his money where his mouth is” by finding funding for street safety projects and increased police enforcement in an era of tight budgets.

Streets of San Francisco and beyond

After New York, San Francisco has advanced the farthest with Vision Zero planning. The city saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities last year. To combat the rising number of fatalities, Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District 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 with walkers and bicyclists;
  • Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets,” wrote Nicole Schneider of Walk San Francisco and Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicyle Coalition. “[It] is also about empowering historically under-represented communities that are disproportionately burdened by traffic injuries.”

The plan has already been endorsed by the San Francisco Police Department.

A number of local advocacy organizations around the country are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative. The collaborative will push for these policies across the nation.

America’s emerging walking revolution

America is on the verge of a walking revolution. After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and recreation, there’s growing interest about restoring walking as a way of life.

A diverse network of organizations came together last year at the first-ever walking summit to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases); as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security); and as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions).

“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,” said Katherine Kraft, America Walks’ National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!

Vision Zero, Kraft says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.