What Is Vision Zero? It’s About a Complete Change of Mindset

©. Vision Zero Initiative

Vision Zero is "the Swedish approach to road safety thinking. It can be summarized in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable." It is being adopted and adapted around the world, with some implementations better than others.

Watching the twitter feed from the City of Toronto’s debate on pedestrian safety (I couldn’t bear to watch the live feed) and reading about what they pretend is Vision Zero was alternately depressing and hilarious, but mostly the former. The meeting devolved into the usual blame-the-victim routine with a proposed ban on walking and texting “while on any travelled portion of a roadway.” Deputy Mayor Minnan-Wong nailed the biggest problem on Toronto roads:

As noted in an earlier post, the City of Toronto had a vision of cutting pedestrian and cyclist fatalities by a grand 10 percent over ten years. That shocked even Toronto politicians as insufficient so they changed it to 20 percent. When that got out into the public, hilarity ensued and they quickly changed it to Vision Zero, no fatalities, with no change in the budget (they did eventually increase it a bit). That and the victim-blaming episode make it totally clear that they have no idea what Vision Zero actually is, which is a completely different approach to thinking about traffic, safety and most importantly, design.

The basic idea that design matters most started in Europe long before Vision Zero; in the Netherlands they have been thinking this way for decades. In Utrecht, the police commissioner noted back in 1980 that law enforcement doesn’t work.

“If something doesn’t work, it is usually wrong”. Meaning that streets where too many people speed are probably designed the wrong way. In a national newspaper he was quoted: “Before we start enforcing, we first count how many people break the rules. If the percentage is too high, enforcement is pointless. It would be much more meaningful to make speeding impossible in such locations.”

vision zero people are part of the equation

Vision Zero/Screen capture

As developed in Sweden, Vision Zero builds on this idea and changes the way people think about the issue. The most important point is the recognition that nobody’s perfect and just passing laws doesn’t make them so.

Our road systems are based on all the factors long known to pose hazards. They are allowing drivers to take risks way beyond our human capability. And our road systems have an unclear responsibility chain, at times, blaming victims for crashes and injuries.... We’re also naturally prone to be distracted and have our attention diverted by music, phone calls, smoking, passengers, insects, or events outside the car. On top of this, we just make silly mistakes. The human factor is always present – 365 days a year. An effective road safety system needs to take human fallibility into account.

Vision Zero thinking

© Vision Zero

So instead of trying to pass silly laws that ban texting and walking, to “perfect human behaviour,” they try to get to the root of the problem: humans are fallible, everybody has responsibility, there are no such things as accidents but in fact solvable problems.

Vision zero deaths

© Vision Zero

And as the numbers show, it works.

New York vision zero

© New York Vision Zero

In New York City, they are trying to take Vision Zero seriously. However they are not just working on the designs of the streets, they are also assuming that people are not only fallible but they are often jerks, driving too fast and not looking when they turn. So they are putting law enforcement up there above street design, and have reduced speed limits throughout the city.



But as the shape of this BMW that killed a pedestrian last week attests, law enforcement is a poor substitute for design. The driver of this car was on what is almost a highway, ten lanes wide, with a speed limit of 25 MPH. At that speed the risk of death is supposed to be about 15 percent. How fast was this guy going? This is why enforcement is a poor substitute for design; if the road is engineered to for people to drive at 60 MPH they will. If you try and change it with speed cameras, they will vote you out of office.

redesigning new york streets

© New York Vision Zero Initiative

They do get this in New York and are trying to address the problems of integrating people and cars. People will cross streets where it is logical to cross rather than walking half a block to a traffic signal. Pedestrians, bikes and cars should have their own safe space. Old and infirm people need pedestrian islands.

urban redesign

© New York Vision Zero Initiative

And here is one that Toronto should learn: there should be a separate signal for turning.

In Toronto, a city administrator actually said in public that the reason right turns are allowed on a red light (a major cause of pedestrian injuries and deaths) is because drivers might get mad if they couldn’t turn. This is the kind of thinking that has to change if the city is even going to think about Vision Zero.

To achieve Vision Zero, everything has to be on the table. And before all the commenters attack me for defending the right to walk and text while crossing the street, I am not. I am simply saying that you can’t legislate against stupidity; probably just as many people are driving and texting as there were before, I see it all the time. You might as well ban driving and talking, or walking while old, since older people often have poor vision and hearing and go more slowly, much like those kids with headphones, and who make up 65 percent of the victims.

Ghost Bike

Lloyd Alter/ Toronto's latest ghost bike/CC BY 2.0

The problem comes from basing everything on getting drivers home three minutes sooner instead of getting everyone home alive. In Toronto, they still believe in the former, which is why they will never understand or implement Vision Zero.