Vision Zero, because a little bit of death is never acceptable

“In most road transport systems, road users bear complete responsibility for safety. Vision Zero changes this relationship by emphasizing that responsibility is shared by transportation system designers and road users,” from a paper presented by Ingvall and Haworth at the 2016 6th International Road Safety & Traffic Enforcement Conference.

After I saw the movie “Inconvenient Truth” at the Santa Monica Pier in 2006 I decided to give up my beloved Mini Cooper convertible. I felt that I was killing the planet with my car. I felt that I alone could save the planet with this one act.

As I began my journey of being carfree in Los Angeles I discovered many things. One thing I discovered was that my individual changes were not enough. I could ride my bicycle from Hollywood to Compton everyday. I could write 10 posts a day on pedestrian accessibility. I could have 20 rides a month. I could be the perfect example of a carfree lifestyle, but I alone could not make the streets safe for a person in a wheelchair.

Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to be in the world.” The change you want to see must also be supported by the system.

Too many people are dying on US roads. They are dying, because in this country we accept crashes as accidents. We accept that some people have to die. We accept  injustice.

Vision Zero does not accept injustice

If we want a world that has complete streets, if we want streets that are just and fair we must have street design and technology that supports those streets. We must have cycle tracks, we must have safe crosswalks and we must have pedestrian plazas.  We must also have reduced speed limits, good public transit, streets that are accessible for the disabled, the elderly and the very young.

We must have these infrastructures in every community.

In African-American, Latino and working class communities street design, technology and systematic change is historically not prioritized.  In these communities safety in regards to urban planning and transportation is put almost exclusively on the individual through education and the police via punitive individual consequences.

For communities of color the police have been a huge part of enforcement in regards to safe streets policy and in many communities of color they have been the only component of safe streets policy.

Vision Zero is a chance to turn the tide against punitive enforcements on communities of color. Vision Zero is a chance to make real fundamental change to the infrastructure of all communities.

Vision Zero began in Sweden in 1997. In Sweden getting to work as quickly as possible is no longer prioritized over safety.

In 2014 Vision Zero came to the US. In 2014 New York City had the fewest pedestrian deaths in its recorded history.

This year in New York City over $400 million has been allocated to complete street infrastructure owing to Vision Zero.

But for Vision Zero to work in bringing down deaths in the US it can’t stop in metropolitan cities. It can’t stop in New York City. It can’t stop in Manhattan and it can’t skip communities of color.

Vision Zero needs to be adopted across the US. Vision Zero needs to continue to be embraced as it was intended with the four principles Vision Zero adopted from the World Health Organization:

  • Ethics: Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system
  • Responsibility: providers and regulators of the road traffic system share responsibility with users;
  • Safety: road traffic systems should take account of human fallibility and minimize both the opportunities for errors and the harm done when they occur; and
  • Mechanisms for change: providers and regulators must do their utmost to guarantee the safety of all citizens; they must cooperate with road users; and all three must be ready to change to achieve safety.

Those of us in alternative transportation can not let this conversation become about enforcement. Vision Zero is not about enforcement.  Vision Zero is about cities adopting a holistic approach to transportation.

The focus of Vision Zero is street design, technology and the policy of shared responsibility. We have the technology to mitigate human error and we have the money to create complete street infrastructure in all communities. Communities of color can not be short-changed on the infrastructure and technology part of Vision Zero.

The most economical solution, which are police and education can not be the only tools used in communities of colors.

The police cannot be used in communities of color.

Roads in Sweden are built to prioritise safety over speed or convenience. Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bicycles,” from the Economist.

Infrastructure, technology and smart policy are all keys to the success of Vision Zero.

Bed-Stuy and Brownsville can not just get more police enforcement while Williamsburg and Fort Greene gets cycle tracks and pedestrian plazas.

Fatalities of pedestrians in communities of color continue to remain high and the building of complete streets infrastructure in those same communities continues to remain low.  Communities of color deserve equity.

Vision Zero was about equity in its inception and it continues to be about equity.  Policies are only as fair and just as the people implementing and interpreting those policies. Those of us in alternative transit, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy need to continue to be in the conversation for Vision Zero. We must continue to advocate for road diets, technology, cycle tracks and pedestrian plazas, because if we do not the the only tool communities of color will get will be punitive, which is the same tool that has always been used in communities of color.

Vision Zero is about not accepting a little bit of death and a little bit of injustice, just so some people can get to where they are going a little bit faster.


Teka-Lark Lo is a journalist, bicycle advocate and the publisher of “VELO my name is: Cycle Tracks” a literary print publication that publishes philosophical stories about the journey people take on their bicycles.