By Michael Schwalbe
The ruling idea in U.S. transportation culture is that roads should be built to allow drivers to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Putting this idea into practice has given us a roadway system that kills about 40,000 people a year.
Proponents of a movement that has come to be known as Vision Zero reject the idea that we must accept a high death toll as the inevitable cost of mobility. The only morally acceptable number of roadway deaths, they say, is zero.
First embraced by the Swedish government in 1997, the Vision Zero paradigm has spread across the world. Several major U.S. cities adopted Vision Zero goals years ago—Chicago in 2012, New York in 2014, San Francisco in 2014, Los Angeles in 2015. Today, over 86 cities in the U.S. have undertaken some kind of Vision Zero initiative.
Chapel Hill got on board in 2018 when it joined nine other communities in a national Road to Zero pilot program. Participation in this program yielded the town’s 2019 Pedestrian Safety Action Plan. In October, 2021, the Town Council formally adopted a Vision Zero resolution, part of which called for creating a Vision Zero task force.
The resolution asserts that “one death on Town streets is one too many” and that “the safety of all road users shall take priority over vehicular level of service and throughput, and safety of vulnerable road users [pedestrians and cyclists] shall be given top priority in transportation decisions.” The goal, the resolution says, is to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2031.
That’s a morally compelling ambition. It would take a hard heart to oppose it. So why isn’t the road to zero being built, here and everywhere, with all due haste?
Critics of Vision Zero have questioned its efficacy, pointing to a disturbing paradox: even as more U.S. states and cities have adopted Vision Zero goals, deaths from traffic accidents have risen. Nearly 39,000 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2020; the next year the number rose to 42,915. In Chapel Hill, according to the town’s 2021 crash report, there were 184 pedestrian and bike-involved crashes between 2017 and 2021, an increase of 11% over the previous five-year period.
In short, despite the increasing popularity of Vision Zero initiatives, the numbers have been going in the wrong direction.
This paradox has been taken by some to mean that Vision Zero is unrealistic—the changes required to achieve zero deaths on America’s roadways are unachievable given the power and wealth invested in maintaining the status quo, and the limited resources available to make costly structural changes.
Seth LaJeunesse, a researcher at the UNC-Chapel Hill Highway Safety Research Center, sees the paradox of rising death rates alongside adoption of Vision Zero initiatives as a result of coincident changes: more SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks that are heavier, taller, and deadlier; more distracted driving; more vehicles on the road; and more cyclists and pedestrians out there as well.
The problem, according to LaJeunesse, who also sits on the town’s Vision Zero task force, is not Vision Zero. Other choices and conditions—how we build vehicles; how we continue to build roads that prioritize speed; how our roads fail to safely accommodate the increasing number of vulnerable users—are behind the rise in fatalities.
Another paradox is that today we know more than ever about how to make roads less deadly. We need lower speed limits, smaller vehicles, physically separated bike lanes, road diets, no-right-turn-on-red laws in areas where there are lots of pedestrians, hyper-visible crosswalks, curb extensions, narrower traffic lanes, and parking restrictions near crosswalks to improve sight lines.
But infrastructure costs money. It can also cost political capital if elected officials anger drivers who dislike being slowed down, losing parking spaces, and being caught by anti-speeding cameras. Car and truck makers are another oppositional force, because larger vehicles are more profitable.
Funding is an acute issue for small communities like Chapel Hill. For some cycling advocates this has been a perennial concern.
Last year, in an open letter to the mayor and town council, John Rees, president of Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill, noted that the town has great plans for bike and pedestrian safety improvements, some of those plans a decade old, yet much of what is proposed “remains in a backlog, waiting for funds that never seem to be budgeted.” Rees went on to say that a similar fate will befall the town’s Vision Zero efforts unless the work receives steady budgetary support.
One hopeful sign is that the town’s 2022-23 budget is the first to include $50,000 for Vision Zero. “This is a recurring line item now, so we will have that going forward,” Bergen Watterson, the town’s transportation planning manager, told me.
Watterson added that a lot more money is needed to “move the needle on bicycle and pedestrian safety,” but that the amount now budgeted is “helpful for doing smaller, quick-build projects that can help in specific areas.”
Another problem faced by towns in North Carolina is NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT) control of local roads. These roads are often the most dangerous ones in a community. In 2020, 73% of pedestrian crashes and 93% of bicycle crashes in Chapel Hill occurred on DOT roads.
The problem of extra-local control is not peculiar to North Carolina. According to an analysis by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, in 2019 more than half of fatal crashes in U.S. cities occurred on roads managed by states.
So even when local leaders and citizens seek improvements that are known to work, jurisdiction can be an obstacle, particularly when motor vehicle throughput remains the priority of traffic engineers and politicians at the state level. But here again there might be cause for hope.
Ian Baltutis, Chapel Hill’s Complete Streets specialist and chair of the Vision Zero task force, sees signs of fresh thinking within NCDOT. Baltutis said that under its Complete Streets policy NCDOT has become more responsive when communities want to make infrastructure changes to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. It also helps that North Carolina’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan endorses Vision Zero principles.
By now it seems widely understood that the road to zero won’t be paved with lofty goals and good intentions. We need the political will to spend what it will cost to build roads that aren’t deadly when imperfect people make mistakes. That will won’t emerge from planners and politicians mulling accident statistics. Change will come only when the moral message of Vision Zero translates into public pressure.
As Baltutis sees it, part of his job is creating the awareness that will help this pressure grow. “We as a community are moving in the direction where we value human life,” he said about the changes required to achieve Vision Zero, “and everybody getting home at the end of the day is what matters most.” In this case, moving faster is the right thing to do.
Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.