How advocacy creates safer streets and saves lives: A Q&A with Paul Steely White
New York City’s Vision Zero approach to road safety makes streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists and serves as a best practice for cities around the world. Photo by Moe_NYC/Flickr.

New York City’s Vision Zero approach to road safety makes streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists and serves as a best practice for cities around the world. Photo by Moe_NYC/Flickr.

TheCityFix recently interviewed Paul Steely White – Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives – regarding the organization’s role in successfully advocating for New York City to adopt a “Vision Zero” approach to road safety. First adopted in Sweden, Vision Zero is one of the most ambitious road safety frameworks ever implemented, as it aims to eliminate all road fatalities or serious injuries. Each year, 1.24 million people die from traffic crashes around the world, and motor vehicle usage is increasing. Cities around the world can learn from the success of advocates like Transportation Alternatives in influencing the policies that shape our streets.

Q: What makes Vision Zero different from other road safety policies?

Paul Steely White: The two principles within Vision Zero that really stand out in addition to the central precept that traffic fatalities are totally preventable are the fail-safe approach and the six-sigma type of approach. The fail-safe approach means that even when a person makes a mistake, the system is designed in a way that ensures that these mistakes do not result in serious injury. The six-sigma approach means that we are going to look at every aspect of the problem, from system design, system usage, enforcement, and causal factors. We also measure the impacts of countermeasures. These types of approaches have historically been absent from the realm of traffic safety. When you look at plane crashes or train derailments or even elevator malfunctions, all of those tragedies are approached with fail-safe and six-sigma approaches.

With traffic safety however, there has always been an attitude of acceptance surrounding road incidents. It’s sort of treated as business as usual. There is really no reason why we can’t apply the same zero tolerance approach to traffic fatalities.”

Q: What role did advocacy play in New York City’s adoption of Vision Zero?

PSW: Vision Zero really wouldn’t be possible without several years of policy advocacy and victims’ families telling their stories of loss. Our first formal advocacy around Vision Zero was a report that we published in 2011, which brought the Vision Zero concept into the New York policy arena. Next, we conducted public opinion polls to show how popular additional measures to save lives would be in New York City. Whether it was polling questions related to automated enforcement, or questions about transformational street design, this polling data showed that these measures were strongly supported by the public. Also, the advocacy of victims’ families and average New Yorkers really communicated to all of the Mayoral and city council candidates during the 2013 election cycle last year that a Vision Zero approach was sorely needed for the city.

Q: What are some lessons from your experience that can be applied to developing cities facing similar challenges, like Mexico City or São Paulo?

PSW: Former Mayor Bloomberg showed that you can make quick tactical improvements to streets without having to go through a laborious multi-year capital reconstruction program. It’s possible with paint and flexible dollars to change road geometries to much safer configurations.

There are two big emerging lessons so far from [Mayor] De Blasio’s time in office. First is De Blasio’s embrace of survivors. Every time the mayor has held a press conference or signed a bill on this issue, he is standing hand in hand with New Yorkers who have lost loved ones. There is a tremendous gravity to that approach, showing that the Mayor means business and that we are not going to allow petty politics to stand in the way of life-saving measures. The other big shift that we are seeing lately is more buy-in from the enforcement sector. We now see the enforcement sector place primary focus on vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. For example, the reintroduction of cops on bikes is great because they get to see from the perspective of a vulnerable road user and that gets them more invested in enforcement.

Q: What can advocacy organizations in developing cities learn from your work?

PSW: We’ve learned that when streets are designed for vulnerable road users, they become much safer for everyone. For example, the best way to be an effective bike advocate is to be a safety advocate first. What keeps more people from cycling is most often safety. And the strongest common denominator that is going to grow the movement is in fact safety. When you’re taking care of safety, everything else falls into place.

Q: How does a Vision Zero approach impact other societal issues?

PSW: Equity is something that we have focused on. If you look at who is being killed or where they are being killed, it is disproportionately children, senior citizens, and low-income citizens. For example, New Yorkers who live in public housing are located on “super blocks” which lack mid-block crosswalks. These roads have heavy truck traffic that are more likely to kill pedestrians than other types of vehicles. Equity is inherent in Vision Zero.

There is definitely a public health synergy at play. A safe street is a healthy street. A safe street that invites walking and biking fosters more physical activity. And on the climate change front, a safer street that allows for more biking definitely plays a role in enabling lower carbon transportation. It’s all connected.

Transportation Alternatives will be hosting a Vision Zero for Cities symposium in New York City on November 14, 2014. See more information here

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