My friend asked me once, “Why do you talk about danger when you’re trying to get more people to walk? Isn’t that approach going to scare people away from walking?” And he asked me this prior to Vision Zero ever happening in the U.S. He advocated for summoning the joy of walking to motivate others to walk more, to build a movement, and to convince decision makers to support more walking.

Perhaps it does seem counterintuitive to talk about the dangers of walking as a way to promote safe, active, healthy communities. But when people walking repeatedly get hurt and killed in traffic crashes, and those numbers continue to rise, we have to talk about it, and we have to think big to fix it. That’s the motivation behind Vision Zero, and the folks who potentially benefit are not just those who walk, but everyone.

Vision Zero first landed in the U.S. via New York City’s mayoral race in 2014. Since then, the movement has spread to 30 cities and continues to grow. The nonprofit Vision Zero Network was established in 2015 to support and advance this growth, and, most importantly, to work with cities to ensure that as policies and goals are adopted, actions follow, so that Vision Zero is not just a slogan. This often means encouraging cities to take the time to build understanding and buy-in for how Vision Zero differs from the traditional approach to traffic safety, one of the most important elements of our work at the Network.

In addition to the fundamental principles of Vision Zero, two critical areas of focus for the Network today are promoting safe speeds for safety and integrating equity into all actions, and both are directly related to improving walkability.

Managing Speed for Safety

Reducing speed to save lives and eliminate life-altering injuries is a cornerstone of Vision Zero.

One of the trends Vision Zero cities are uncovering as they dig into data is the relatively small number of streets that contribute to the overwhelming majority of fatal and serious injury crashes.

For example, San Francisco found that 70% of serious injury crashes occur on just 12% of their street network. Since then, other cities have found similar results: in Denver 50% of traffic fatalities occur on 5% of streets. In Philadelphia, 50% of all traffic deaths and serious injuries occurred on 12% of streets. And most of these high-crash corridors share similar traits: they were designed for high speed ‘collectors” or “arterials” to move a lot of cars. Yet, over the years, these corridors have started to change, transitioning from areas intended for pass-through traffic, to more active commercial corridors with more local stores, housing, frequent transit routes, and subsequently, places where more people want to walk.

This deeper understanding of the data is prompting cities to improve safety for everyone traveling along these corridors, through both a complete streets design approach, as well as working toward legislative changes to lower speed limits to safe levels.

Some of the cities successful in lowering speeds through road design are Seattle and New York, where speeds were reduced up to 20% one year after the projects were completed. Fremont, California is an example of a medium-sized city that changed road design to lower speeds from 40 mph to 35 mph, and from 35 mph to 30 mph on its high-injury street network. The city is working to further reduce speeds.

Cities that have been successful in lowering speed limits include Boston, Seattle, Portland, and New York City, among others.

These strategies were recently validated and supported by a national study released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the preeminent authority on safety in the U.S. Their study calls speeding an underappreciated problem and urges action to change – at local, state, and the federal levels. More on this study and cities’ reactions can be found on our website.

Centering Equity: Safe Mobility is a Right

Vision Zero is based on the premise that all people have the right to move about their communities safely. Equity, then, must not only be an outcome of a Vision Zero strategy, but an integral component to all related decisions.

As cities dive into the data, they not only identify the high-injury streets, they also discover that a disproportionate number of children, older adults, people living with physical disabilities, people of color, and lower income communities bear the brunt of traffic crashes. These data finds are not new: they echo data published by the National Complete Streets Coalition, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, and America Walks.

Vision Zero should help transform these broken systems into safe systems. This entails recognizing that many communities have been systemically discriminated against in transportation policies and practices, and that not all communities are starting from the same place, in terms of safety investments. In addition, problems of racial bias in policing raise urgent questions about how we must use Vision Zero to improve – not inadvertently exacerbate – negative, unintended consequences, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities.

Given these challenges, the Vision Zero Network works to advance three broad goals for integrating equity into the fast-growing commitment to Vision Zero:

  • Invest where needs are greatest – Prioritize funding and engagement in those communities that bear the brunt of serious injury and fatal traffic crashes.
  • Engage the community – Don’t rely on numbers alone – seek the input of community members to learn about and understand valuable human experience. We recommend partnering with community-based organizations who are already active and trusted in a community, and compensating these groups for sharing their time and expertise.
  • Examine the role of enforcement – Vision Zero does not call for more Before launching a Vision Zero enforcement strategy, thoughtfully consider the risks of over-policing and concerns related to racial bias in police actions. In Vision Zero, we lead with safe street design (or Complete Streets) and a focus on policies that prioritize safety over speed.

At the Vision Zero Network, we greatly appreciate our partnership with America Walks in this shared work. Our intent is to harness the momentum of Vision Zero and the emphasis on safe speeds and equity to create safe, active, and healthy communities for all. We look forward to continued work together to advance Vision Zero and healthy communities where everyone has the freedom to walk safely.

This is a guest blog post from Vision Zero Network, partner of Every Body Walk! Collaborative and lead organization for November’s monthly theme.