Monday, May 01, 2023

Flawed approaches to Vision Zero

This week I want to repost this note from Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter which explains how dogma rather than data is driving flawed approaches to Vision Zero. The case study focuses on Denver, but Houston is definitely at risk of falling into the same trap. Highlights are mine.

How is Vision Zero Doing in Denver?

By Baruch Feigenbaum

As cities across the United States grapple with traffic fatalities, many have adopted the Vision Zero concept. Vision Zero was started in Sweden more than 25 years ago. It is an effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by some future date. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. cities that adopted the policy don’t have good before-and-after data, so it is difficult to determine whether Vision Zero works.

Denver, in contrast, has robust data. The city adopted Vision Zero in 2017 and set a goal of zero traffic fatalities by the year 2030. Yet a new report by Randal O’Toole for the Thoreau Institute examining the impacts of Vision Zero policies on traffic fatalities in Denver found that the city’s plan has so far failed to meet most of its goals.

The report begins with an analysis of Denver’s 48-page Vision Zero Action Plan. The plan seems to be full of platitudes instead of policy solutions. In the third section, titled, “What We’re Doing,” two of the three pages discuss what steps the city is taking, such as:

  • Adding flashing lights to alert motorists of a pedestrian crossing;
  • Reducing speed limits on a street that had seen several accidents; and
  • Changing a traffic signal to include a protected left turn to minimize conflict between pedestrians and automobiles.

The report’s biggest criticism of the action plan is that while it does list the changes the city is pursuing, the plan does very little to show that these changes will reduce traffic fatalities, especially by enough for the city to meet its 2030 target of zero fatalities. In addition, the vision does little to address motorcyclist safety, despite motorcyclists being the most at-risk group on Denver streets.

The report delves into traffic fatality trends in Denver. While there were zero bicycle fatalities in 2020, the report stresses that that’s not necessarily thanks to Vision Zero changes. Denver also had zero bicycle fatalities in 2006, 2009, and 2013. O’Toole found that a five-year average is a far better indicator of actual trends. Likewise, the report notes that the 33% increase in fatalities during the five years ending in 2020, has not been caused by Vision Zero. The real problem is that Vision Zero is not addressing the factors that lead to fatalities.

Next, O’Toole breaks down fatalities by mode of transportation. The report found that pedestrian fatality rates were 50 per billion pedestrian-miles, bicycle fatality rates were 25 per billion bicycle-miles, motorcycle fatality rates were 130 per billion passenger-miles, and automobile fatality rates were 1.3 per billion passenger-miles. Motorcyclists are 100 times more likely to die in traffic accidents than auto users, pedestrians are 40 times more likely, and bicycle riders are 20 times more likely. O’Toole stresses that these are “rough approximations.”

To provide a fuller picture, the report reminds readers of the benefits of the automobile. From the automobile “democratizing mobility” thanks to the affordability of Henry Ford’s Model T, to the increased number of jobs accessible to workers, automobiles brought a host of benefits to the country and the world. The development of highways and streets also has benefits that aren’t just for automobile users. Roads are essential for emergency services and freight, but the former is most relevant to Vision Zero’s goal of saving lives. O’Toole cites a University of Colorado-Boulder study, which found that “for every pedestrian whose life is saved by slowing of auto traffic, 85 people would die due to delays in emergency services.

In order to reduce pedestrian fatalities, we need to understand that most such fatalities happen at night because pedestrians are intoxicated, cross away from crosswalks, or are among the homeless suffering from mental illness.

O’Toole offers specific suggestions for policies that Denver’s Vision Zero Action Plan fails to include. Each of the suggestions is based on Denver data, and most rely on separating different modes from one another, via methods such as pedestrian barriers to discourage crossing away from crosswalks, separate bicycle boulevards, and a law mandating that motorcyclists wear helmets.

Most critically, the city should start to use a data-driven approach based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool, which would prove invaluable as a means of finding where Denver’s problems lie.

Automobile users have become something of a scapegoat for traffic fatalities. Both the report and Vision Zero advocates are right that roadway design is an important aspect of any move to protect non-automobile users; but O’Toole is also right when he says that Denver’s attempt at Vision Zero seems like little more than an attempt to get fewer people driving. Cities that try to encourage a modal shift for citizens often accomplish little more than creating an automobile-hostile environment.

The city of Denver has a lot of work to do to come anywhere near its goal by 2030 since its current Vision Zero approach is not going to reduce traffic fatalities to anywhere near zero.



At 1:43 PM, May 02, 2023, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

In any auto-pedestrian, auto-cyclist or auto-motorcyclist collision, both parties could have done something to mitigate the effects of the collision before impact. The fact that there is no push to make pedestrians, cyclists and motor cyclists use more caution and obey traffic laws suggests that vision zero plans don't look at the whole problem. How many times have you seen a cyclist or pedestrian get cited for running a stop sign or red light? How many times have you seen a cyclist get cited for traveling the wrong way or failure to yield? When is the last time you saw a citation issue for Jay walking? Start issuing citations as a part of Vision Zero and maybe I will support it.

At 7:39 PM, May 02, 2023, Anonymous GMcK said...

It’s easy to tell whether a traffic. engineering department is taking vision zero seriously: look at their approach to low-volume intersections. It’s well known that roundabouts reduce the risk and impact of collisions by as much as 70% over four way stop signs. However, roundabouts consume more area, and in Texas at least, property rights and budget considerations override life and safety. As long as design improvements save money or at best present only trivial cost increments over conventional designs. then, and only then, will they be implemented.

You can see the same lack of seriousness about safety in the “85% rule” that designs highways with the assumption that 15% of drivers will ignore posted speed limits, with the result that everyone speeds because the roads are actually designed for the speeders.

At 3:21 PM, May 09, 2023, Blogger TheCastle said...

Lets be candid here. Vision zero is just a war on cars and meant to make motorists lives worse. Since driving is clearly the safest mode of transportation, lets get people into cars instead of resisting it. Oh wait, this is a war on cars, in the name of safety!

At 3:51 PM, May 09, 2023, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Completely agree!


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