Why Vision Zero Failed

Why Vision Zero Failed. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo by Shutterstock

Vision Zero, a road safety program that originated in Sweden in 1995, set out with the long-term goal of achieving zero road fatalities and zero road injuries. The Swedish Ministry of Transport and Communications adopted the Road Traffic Safety Bill in 1997, stating, "It can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system." Numerous other countries, including the United States, have adopted Vision Zero and its ethos to eradicate all road injuries, particularly for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. In the early years, there was a lot of enthusiasm among bicycle advocates for Vision Zero. Many community leaders jumped on the bandwagon, adopting the radical idea that it should not be acceptable to sacrifice tens of thousands of American lives every year in order for people to get to work or drive to the grocery store. Unfortunately, Vision Zero has failed dramatically.

Case Studies: Denver, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Countless Other Cities

Roughly 50 cities across the country have adopted Vision Zero, and few, if any, have produced solid results in reducing traffic injuries and deaths. In Denver, traffic deaths have risen every single year since Vision Zero began in 2017, according to StreetsBlog. In Los Angeles, another city that has a Vision Zero program, road fatalities just reached a 20-year high. Washington D.C. has seen similar results. According to a 2023 audit by the Office of the District of Columbia, the three main reasons for the failure of Vision Zero are:

  • Lack of funding
  • Inconsistent oversight
  • Inadequate law enforcement

The Auto-Industry's Stranglehold on American Minds and Municipalities

Vision Zero has been somewhat successful in Sweden, where traffic deaths have been cut in half since it was implemented, though for a program that has ‘zero' in the name, even Sweden is falling short. However, car culture here in the US provides an additional speed bump that Sweden does not have. Virtually all trips are made by motor vehicle in the United States, where cities, states, and the federal government prioritize highways and large, fast surface streets—speed over safety—that bisect communities and make it extremely difficult to get around without a car. Instead of funding public transportation, we fund highways and large surface streets. On top of this, we expect the average citizen to dish out roughly $12,000 a year, on average according to the New York Times, to own a vehicle.

Most US cities have a bare-bones public transportation system—buses are slow and infrequent, and light rail is almost non-existent compared to many European cities. The US auto and oil industries have, for decades (particularly in the first half of the 20th century when cars came onto the market), fought anything perceived as a threat to their revenue. This has not only resulted in little to no public transportation infrastructure, including safe pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, but it has permeated the very state and local ordinances governing our roadways. For example, in Seattle road engineers cannot install new traffic lights or pedestrian crossings unless there have been at least five crashes resulting in injury, death, or significant property damage within a 12 month period. According to road engineer Bill Schultheiss, "I can't install a signal at an intersection that I know is dangerous and has near-misses all the time. I have to wait for five people to be killed or injured first."

And even if a city is fully behind shrinking a particular road from four lanes to two, or has the desire and means to reduce the speed limit from 45 to 35, it may not be able to do so if that road is state-owned. As such, even if a road runs through a city, the city might not have any say in its design, speed limit, number of lanes, etc. State and municipal laws have to change to allow cities and engineers the freedom to prioritize safety over speed. This is a problem area in which Vision Zero has not made significant inroads.

Inadequate Enforcement

In the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, and countless other murders of Black people committed by police, traffic enforcement is on a major decline throughout the country, even as reckless driving and road rage explode to record levels. Traffic citations are down by 86 percent since 2019, according to NPR. Much of this is due to a large contingent of retirements following the COVID pandemic and backlash from the Black Lives Movement. While there are fewer police, and in some places fewer funds to pay for traffic police, another reason for reduced citations is policy changes. In many municipalities, there is public and political pressure for police departments to reduce traffic citations, and to fully discontinue certain types of traffic stops. Some studies indicate that police traffic stops statistically target minorities at an unfair proportion.

An unproven hypothesis among many police officers is that the lack of these minor infraction traffic stops, such as pulling over someone for a broken taillight or a missing license registration sticker, creates the perception that the police aren't pulling anyone over for anything, making drivers more confident that they can get away with speeding in school zones or running red lights. Whether this hypothesis is true or not, reduced enforcement is a serious problem when it comes to safer roads, particularly for people who walk or ride bikes.

Ironically, people of color are more likely than White people to fall into this vulnerable road user category, meaning that Black and Brown drivers might be safer when it comes to fewer police interactions, but are now at an increased risk of getting run over while walking across the street at a crosswalk.

Miscommunication and Overpromises

According to Leah Shahum, the founder and executive of the Vision Zero Network, "Every single city. . . is up against a century of decisions and policies and designs that have really prioritized the fast movement of cars above the safe movement of people. If anyone thought that turning around a century of investments in speed over safety was going to happen in five or six or seven years, they were sorely mistaken."

However, this short time frame is exactly what many cities promised. In Portland, Oregon—a city that has invested a considerable amount of money and energy (by American standards) in creating safe bike infrastructure—Vision Zero was adopted in 2015 with the commitment to eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2025. This incredibly short ten-year turnaround is a timeframe that many other cities have adopted as well. Portland, like virtually every other US city, has actually seen an uptick in vulnerable road users deaths in the last 20 years, despite Vision Zero. In 2008, the city had 20 total traffic deaths, according to Bike Portland. In 2022, 31 pedestrians alone in Portland were killed, not including car occupants, motorcyclists, and cyclists.

Portland, like other US cities, is going in the wrong direction, and is nowhere near achieving its goal of zero road deaths by 2025. Countless municipalities and politicians likely adopted Vision Zero because of the good optics. It makes them sound progressive when it comes to city design, walkability, noise reduction, and safety. Yet, few cities and few mayors and city council members are willing to make the hard decisions necessary to enact true change: create bike boulevards by blocking access to through-traffic, removing driving lanes to create protected bike lanes, reducing speed limits, and using the millions of city dollars allocated for pothole repairs instead for off-street shared use paths.

Many municipalities that adopted Vision Zero over-promised when it came to results, and it is time for these municipalities to put their money and effort where their mouths are. Signing on to Vision Zero is not enough if there is poor oversight and follow through with implementing sound traffic calming infrastructure, reduced traffic enforcement, and not enough funds to pay for it all.

Contact Colorado Bike Crash Attorney Brad Tucker Today

If you are the victim of a Colorado bike crash, either in Denver, Boulder, Broomfield, Aurora, or anywhere else along the Front Range or in the mountains, you owe it to yourself to seek the most experienced legal counsel possible. Attorney Brad Tucker takes on serious personal injury cases involving bike collisions, and can help you secure the type of life-changing compensation that your injuries deserve. Call Brad Tucker at Colorado Bike Law today at 303.694.9300 to schedule a free consultation.