The Vision Zero Cult

The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.

The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.

Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.

Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.

Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.

There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.

One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)

Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.

Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.

Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.


5 thoughts on “The Vision Zero Cult

  1. FrancisKing

    “We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.”

    No, I don’t agree. The 20 mph speed limits apply on local roads. If one week the speed limit is 30 mph, the next week the speed limit is 20 mph, and the distance driven along such roads is 2 miles, the extra journey time is about 2 minutes.

    People spend a lot of time, often several hours, watching television. Does this reduce productivity? Or it is only slightly longer road journey times that reduce productivity?

    Cycling has real problems on 25 and 30 mph roads. The cars travel so fast that the cyclists end up forced out if the centre of the travel lanes, and so are less safe. The upshot is that more people drive, and the roads are more congested.

  2. Frank

    “The 20 mph speed limits apply on local roads. If one week the speed limit is 30 mph, the next week the speed limit is 20 mph, and the distance driven along such roads is 2 miles, the extra journey time is about 2 minutes.”

    This is true for local roads to a degree, and it’s an argument I often use. However, if the local road is an arterial, and the speed limit is somewhat arbitrarily set at 30 when it could be 40, and traffic volumes are higher than capacity, travel times will be impacted, especially over longer distances

    I was going to see Star Wars this morning eight miles away. Due to Seattle traffic, I decided to postpone my trip.

    In normal traffic, it’s 22 minutes. In current traffic, it’s 22 minutes, that two extra minutes referenced in the previous comment. In heavy traffic, it’s at least 30 minutes. If it were legal and possible to drive 40 miles an hour for most of that journey, it would take 12 minutes minimum. Instead, due to traffic and low speed limits, it takes twice as much or more. That’s nearly an extra half hour that I could spend commenting on this article or taking a dump, two very productive activities.

    It really comes into play on highways and freeways when commuting. Tons of lost hours and productivity when unable to travel at faster speeds due to capacity issues and low speed limits.

    Oh, and speaking of car safety, I just bought my first new car, a Subaru with five-star crash rating. That rating highly influenced my purchase, along with other safety features such as AWD and brake assist.

    Hopefully, I won’t need another new car until autonomous cars arrive on the market. (And go eff yourself, California!)

  3. J. C.

    Another side effect of reducing mobility is it also reduces people’s ability to commute to their jobs, either forcing them to relocate to higher priced in-demand neighborhoods or endure increasingly family disruptive commute times. This couldn’t be more evident than in Portland, where engineered congestion on the surface streets has promoted the Interstate freeway, even at rush hour, to be the fastest way to get from A to B.

    In fact, since just about everything “urban” planners have done in Portland over the years has had the result of drastically inflating property values, one has to wonder if that wasn’t the real objective all along.

  4. Frank

    Thanks! Got the Legacy Premium sedan with the winter package. My wife thought the Outback was too big for her normal city commute, and it was also about $5k more. Outback is a great car, though! We’ve already driven in ice and snow, and the Legacy handles wonderfully. So much better than the Chrysler product POS I’ve been driving for the last five years.

Leave a Reply