How many more people have to die or get injured on the streets before officials recalibrate?
The headlines from around the country are grim. “Vision Zero desperately needs help,” says San Francisco Weekly. In Oregon the Willamette Week declared, “Blindsided: Portland spends millions to stop cars from killing people. It’s not working.” According to the Austin, Texas Statesman, “Austin traffic deaths up 30%, police say.” At the end of last year The Washington Post reported, “D.C. Mayor Bowser unveils reset of her Vision Zero campaign as traffic deaths surpass 2017 total. The Los Angeles Times reports, “More People are dying on L.A.’s streets despite a push to eliminate traffic fatalities.” Up in Toronto, an editorial in The Globe concluded, “Toronto’s road safety program, Vision Zero, is a failure.”
Four years into one of the most radical experiments in the modern history of transportation and public safety, Vision Zero – which, as its name suggests, promises to eliminate traffic fatalities – is failing nationwide. So are similar initiatives with euphemistic names like “Complete Streets,” “Livable Streets,” “Safe Routes to Schools,” and others. In fact, a compelling argument can be made that those initiatives not only aren’t saving lives as promised by politicians and activists, but are costing them. Innocent pedestrians and cyclists are dying on the alter of progressive ideology.
After hitting a 49-year low in 2011 annual traffic deaths in the United States have increased every year since, topping 40,000 in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Those were the first full years of Vision Zero in scores of cities and towns. Even more distressingly, Vision Zero not only has failed to staunch the rise in pedestrian deaths, it seems to be accelerating it. After a steady 20 year decline, pedestrian fatalities have spiked more than 20% since 2014, the year cities began rolling out the program in earnest. Over the last three years more than 6,000 pedestrians have been killed on the streets, for the first time since 1990.
The dangers are in the deltas
The activists and politicians offer various explanations for the dramatic increases in traffic fatalities. They point to factors like distracted driving/cycling/walking, the presence of more and bigger cars and SUVs on the road, substance abuse, and road rage. While those factors obviously cause and contribute to accidents, they don’t explain why the increases in pedestrian and cyclist deaths around the country have happened so suddenly. If they were the culprits one would expect to have seen a gradual, sustained increase in accidents and fatalities. After all, smart phones have been around for more than two decades, the country’s vehicle fleet grew by a quarter in that same period, and states have been loosening their marijuana laws for nearly as long. In fact, despite the increasing pervasiveness of smart phones, SUVs, and legalized pot, and even as the number of miles Americans drive skyrocketed, the overall number of traffic fatalities had been dropping nationwide for decades, until very recently. These facts cast serious doubts on the conventional wisdom.
A more plausible explanation is the simplest one: Collisions are more likely and frequent when different vehicles traveling at different speeds share the same space. The safest state is a uniform, constant velocity for as long as possible. Bike lanes, bus lanes, road diets, and other physical modifications allow for a variety of transportation modes to share space. Thanks to Vision Zero and other similar programs major thoroughfares now carry not only cars, trucks, and buses but bicycles, e-bikes, standing scooters, sitting scooters, pedestrians, skateboards, even unicycles. All of them travel at different rates of speed and according to different patterns. These variations, which engineers call deltas, radically reduce drivers’, riders’, scooters’, and walkers’ margins of error.
Worse, many traffic calming features give the most vulnerable of those cohorts a false sense of safety and encourage unsafe behavior. Bikes and scooters have become commonplace even on major thoroughfares that lack any accommodation for them, as seen in the picture below. Worse, cyclists routinely flout even the most basic traffic laws (like stop signs and red lights) with sometimes tragic consequences. In July a cyclist riding down a sidewalk in New York City sped into an intersection against the signal without so much as slowing down. She was hit and killed by a cement truck. No amount of street engineering can prevent those kinds of terrible decisions. Bike lanes can encourage them, though.
A 15mph scooter ridden by a teenager without a helmet listening to music on wireless earbuds has no business on a state highway, at any time of day or night. Likewise, forcing bicycles and scooters to coexist with cars, trucks, and buses on major thoroughfares is inherently dangerous. Yet Vision Zero not only encourages but mandates that coexistence. Coupled with the increasing aggressiveness of cyclists (which is well-documented even in pro-Vision Zero publications) and the reasons for increased traffic fatalities start to come into focus.
Even when everyone obeys the law, accidents are inevitable when so many kinds of vehicles are vying for road space. Earlier this year a teenage cyclist was hit by a Santa Monica city bus, suffering a broken jaw. As a Los Angeles firefighter told The All Aspect Report, “Green paint won’t stop a Metro bus.”
Well-funded special interests are obstructing critical appraisals of Vision Zero
L.A.’s experience is depressingly typical of cities that have experimented with Vision Zero. A relatively flat data curve of pedestrian deaths for 14 years turns into the proverbial hockey stick in 2016, the first full year of Vision Zero, with pedestrian deaths nearly doubling between 2015 and 2017. Likewise, 2016 and 2018 saw the largest number of cyclist deaths in at least 15 years, with 21 riders killed.
It’s clearly time for cities to reexamine Vision Zero, the philosophy behind it, and its execution. Unfortunately, the necessary conversations are frustrated by the bike activists and other pro-Vision Zero groups who dominate the conversation (and the search engines). Collectively they have adopted the no compromise position of “all bike lanes, all the time, cars are evil, drivers should be in jail.” Suffice it to say, it isn’t the best way to win hearts and minds. Yet because groups like the Los Angeles Bike Coalition, the San Francisco Bike Coalition, Bike Baltimore, the Bike Alliance of Minnesota, and literally hundreds of others are funded by some of the country’s wealthiest corporations, foundations, and individuals, they can drown out opposing – or even slightly contrarian – voices.
To cite one of innumerable examples, here is a Complete Streets “Implementation Plan” from Smart Growth America and the Florida Department of Transportation. The plan was produced with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition has received more than $750,000 in the last four years from a billionaire hedge fund manager in New York, Aaron Sosnick. Through his La Vida Feliz Foundation he also has contributed millions to Transportation Alternatives, a New York organization that effectively sets the city’s transit policies, which in turn have significant influence on policies nationally. What’s more, the LABC has been awarded dozens of city contracts worth more than a million dollars for things like bike safety courses. Here’s a 2017 contract for more than $323,000 for the LABC to conduct “bike rodeos” at public schools. Given that the LABC spends heavily on lobbying the city for more projects, the conflicts of interest are egregious.
Organizations like the Vision Zero Network and Safe Routes to Schools, along with outlets such as Streetsblog and Curbed, use this money in part to demonize the 90% of Americans who by necessity or choice get around by car. Activists even suggest that parents to treat toy cars like toy guns. This one-sided assault sets the entire movement back and creates conflict and enemies where there should be cooperation and allies. Last October, members of a group called Keep L.A. Moving gave a brief presentation at the L.A. Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) about the impacts of road diets on emergency response times. The usually staid meeting was attended by more than 30 activists. After the ten-minute presentation the activists spent more than an hour accusing the presenters of supporting “traffic violence.” One individual, holding his infant child in his arms, accused the presenters of “not caring if my baby dies in the streets as long as they can drive as fast as they want.”
Unfortunately, for the time being the politicians and activists have the loudest voices. They shout out anyone who dares point out the obvious: Different modes of transportation require different types of infrastructure, and they cannot coexist in the same places at the same times. Unless and until reasonable voices gain a seat at the table, thousands more people will die unnecessarily. And the activists and politicians will continue to pat themselves on the back for their enlightenment.