Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

In 2012, Chicago ventured where no other big U.S. city had. Under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city set a mission of eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries in 10 years. The city didn’t mention “Vision Zero” by name, but its ambitious goal took inspiration from that road safety policy platform enacted 15 years prior in Sweden, leading to one of the lowest national traffic mortality rates in the world.

The basic logic of Vision Zero is that any traffic collision that results in death or serious injury—whether for a pedestrian, cyclist, motorist, or any other road user—isn’t an unavoidable “accident,” but a tragedy that could be prevented through smarter engineering, education, and enforcement.

Seven years later, dozens of U.S. cities have hopped on the Vision Zero bandwagon, pledging to stop traffic fatalities in ambitious time frames. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, rebuilding streets to calm traffic and reduce driving, lobbying for speed limit reductions, launching public awareness campaigns, and retraining police departments.

Yet while some places have managed to bend their traffic fatality curves, others have struggled to budge a transportation status quo that prioritizes the ease of driving over the safety of other people on the road. Since 2013, the numbers of deaths among U.S. pedestrians and cyclists have risen by nearly 30 percent and 14 percent respectively, nationwide.

That pattern is shared in several cities wearing the Vision Zero mantle, according to a CityLab analysis of traffic fatalities in five major cities that were among the first in the U.S. to establish Vision Zero targets. Three of the cities, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., have seen fatalities rise or remain relatively flat. Two others, San Francisco and New York City, have made headway towards zero, but are seeing pedestrian and cyclist fatalities creep up more recently.

Most of these cities have fatality rates below the national average, and it’s possible to see substantial, non-linear changes in the total number of fatalities from year to year. But based on their rate of change to date, none of these five cities are on pace to reach zero traffic fatalities for decades, let alone by their ten-year targets.

These five early adopter cities were selected by CityLab for analysis because of their size and geographic diversity. Other cities that were among the first to embrace the zero-casualties platform are also unlikely to meet their targets, including Austin and San Jose, which have seen an upturn in fatalities since launching their programs in late 2014 and mid-2015 respectively. The roadside death toll in Seattle, which announced its plan to end traffic deaths and injuries by 2030 in early 2015, has stayed flat for years.

Several factors are fueling this disconcerting trend, from low gas prices that make it easier to drive, rollbacks on state-level traffic safety laws, the ongoing prevalence of digital distractions, and the rising popularity of ride-hailing services and heavy-duty SUVs. Such factors are frustratingly beyond the control of local leaders. But mayors, city councilmembers, and safety advocates have often struggled with local politics and state preemptions to make as much headway as they hoped. What seemed like a universally unassailable goal, ending preventable deaths, has proven a sticky political quagmire in many cities—one that hardly moves until someone else dies.

Chicago: Set the trend, but not the budget

The first city to “envision zero” wasn’t the first to follow through on it. The city of Chicago didn’t draft an action plan for how it would eliminate traffic casualties until five years after it first declared its intentions in 2012. And while the Chicago Police Department has aggregate crash numbers reaching back many years, the city only started collecting granular fatality and injury data in 2017, which means there is much less information available about its progress than for many other large Vision Zero cities. (This also prevented CityLab from creating a comparable map of its traffic casualties.)

In 2016, pressured by local advocates, Chicago reset its ten-year countdown, laying out an interdepartmental action plan the following year to stem the tide of death. That included improving 300 intersections to make them safer for pedestrians. The city also published a number of analyses that showed how traffic violence disproportionately affects African-Americans and other communities of color in Chicago. Kyle Whitehead, spokesperson for Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, said that this pushed the city to direct resources towards transforming dangerous corridors in those neighborhoods which might otherwise be overlooked, especially on the West Side of the city. That’s particularly important, he said, since traffic safety enforcement can also disproportionately harm people of color.

Whitehead is also reassured by signals from newly elected mayor Lori Lightfoot that she plans to make Vision Zero a priority as well, quelling fears of a potential lapse in attention to the issue between mayors. In September, the mayor announced $6 million for traffic safety improvements on the West Side. “We are acting with urgency because it is unacceptable that, if you are poor or low-income, you are more likely to be involved in a fatal traffic crash,” Lightfoot said at the time.

But in a city that teeters on bankruptcy and faces other grave challenges, such as a recent spate of serious gun violence and a rising homicide rate, dedicating adequate revenue and staff for traffic safety remain a challenge. That makes it harder for advocates to count on major changes they’d like to see, such as the city putting in a budget line item for Vision Zero initiatives for the first time, ideally to the tune of $20 million, said Whitehead: “We’re encouraged by having a plan in place and the general acknowledgment of where we need to focus investments. But we’re not encouraged by the lack of resources that are committed to this.”

Indeed, although the city funds several millions of dollars for “traffic safety” every year, and receives federal and state traffic safety grants, it’s difficult to account for how much is spent on a yearly basis on projects that prioritize saving lives over, say, improving commute times.

The upshot: the Windy City doesn’t appear much closer to its target than when it started, with little measurable change in its rate of fatalities between 2012 and 2018. But the symbolism of being ground zero for Vision Zero can’t be discounted. By setting a concrete target, the city set up a mechanism for holding itself accountable to what would otherwise be a vague promise. “Before Vision Zero we had a mushy goal of ‘safer’ streets,” said Leah Shahum, the executive director of the Vision Zero Network, a national nonprofit that promotes the policy. “There wasn’t this clear line to help show who was doing what and what strategies were working to meet the goal of safety.”

Washington, D.C.: Fits and starts hurt black residents most

In late 2015, Washington, D.C., released a promising action plan to eliminate traffic casualties by 2024. Based on the city’s relatively low traffic death toll at that time, that target seemed “totally within reach” according to a CityLab article published shortly thereafter.

Perhaps an overabundance of confidence prevented the city from putting its words into significant action. In the four years since, the city never adopted a formal master plan for its transportation vision, and several attempts to reengineer streets for safer passage have been stymied, either due to opposition by community groups or simple inertia by transportation officials. Only recently did Mayor Muriel Bowser appoint a proper task force to take charge of meeting the city’s target—after traffic fatalities started ticking up in the years following the city’s Vision Zero declaration. In 2018, 36 people died on D.C. streets, the worst year in a decade. And most of the growth in both fatalities and injuries since 2014 has been borne by predominantly black neighborhoods, as the second chart below shows.

A map of injuries and fatalities in Washington, D.C. shows persistent hotspots in predominantly black neighborhoods in southeast parts of the city, as well as in the densest parts of downtown and the touristed National Mall. Zoom in and stop the animation to look at particular neighborhoods in particular years. Note: not every crash in Washington D.C.’s database has information about its location. The above map shows only those crashes that could be placed in a Census tract.

Last fall, Mayor Muriel Bowser promised to refresh D.C’s Vision Zero efforts. And this year, after another spate of deaths and an outpouring of outrage and protests by transportation advocates, there are signs that the city is picking up its feet. For example, it began to experiment with the sort of quick-build pilots that San Francisco and New York City have pioneered, experimenting with new bike lane barriers, speed bumps near school crossings, and bus-only lanes on busy downtown corridors. D.C.’s city council is also considering several bills in support of street safety, including a mandate to complete a network of protected bike lanes, a citywide ban on right turns on red, and dropping speed limits to 20 miles per hour on most streets.

Bowser also announced plans this month to increase staffing for parking enforcement along bike lanes. “By investing in and deploying additional resources and working together as a community, we can make the District’s bike lanes safer and more efficient,” she said in a press release. “In building safer bike lanes we can keep our roads and sidewalks safe for all who use them, encourage residents and visitors to explore alternate modes of transportation, and work toward our Vision Zero goals.”

Still, political will remains a major barrier to progress, said Gregory Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. With many bike-lane and traffic calming projects facing fierce opposition by neighbors—whose concerns about losing parking space can be laced with gentrification fears—the work of insulating D.C. residents from deadly crashes can be a tough row for elected officials to hoe, especially without sustained pressure from other constituents.

Part of the challenge, said Billings, is the timeframe behind Vision Zero: Although 10 years turns out to be not very long to eliminate fatalities once and for all, it is a long time to maintain attention and momentum among local leaders. “That’s why it’s so important to keep things moving expeditiously so that people can see the result of their advocacy,” he said.

Los Angeles: Sprawling politics hinder progress

Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the U.S. and famously built for the automobile, has a death toll to match: As of 2016, its pedestrian death rate was twice that of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, and four times that of Seattle. And those lost lives have been overwhelmingly concentrated in black neighborhoods in South L.A. Of the five cities considered in this analysis, it is the only one with a metro area that exceeds the national average for pedestrian deaths.

In 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive, calling on city departments to pursue a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2025. But its efforts haven’t resulted in fewer deaths: Deadly car crashes have increased by more than 30 percent since the city initiated its zero-lost policy. As the L.A. Times reported earlier this year, more people have died in traffic collisions in L.A. since 2015 than were shot to death. And the toll has been hardest for people on foot, with a staggering 75 percent increase in the number of pedestrian deaths between 2015 and 2018.

A map of injuries and fatalities in Los Angeles shows persistent hotspots in densely populated, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, sections of downtown, South L.A., and the San Fernando Valley. Zoom in and stop the animation to look at particular neighborhoods in particular years. Note: not every crash in L.A.’s database has information about its location. The above map shows only those crashes that could be placed in a police district.

The loss of life is not for a lack of effort. Since adopting Vision Zero, the city has been analyzing crash data and introducing hundreds of safety fixes to the streets where the highest concentration of lethal crashes occur, introducing pedestrian scrambles to allow diagonal street crossings, curb bump-outs that force drivers to slow down, and signal upgrades in risky intersections. A large number of these interventions target corridors in South L.A.

The city has increased local speed limits so that the L.A. Police Department can enforce them, a counterintuitive policy that highlights a flawed system for setting speed limits under California law, which a newly appointed state task force is now reviewing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has stood up for the city’s efforts to curb traffic deaths. “I would love to see double digit [reductions] each year, but if we’re getting between 5 and 10 percent reduction per year, within a few years you’re going to have a third cut. Keep that going, and it’s going to be a decade-long success,” he told Curbed earlier this year.

As in communities around the U.S., some of the factors behind L.A.’s bloody increase are beyond municipal control, including state speed limit laws, increases in driving overall, and declines in transit ridership. Some residents have also criticized L.A’s corridor-based approach to street safety improvements, where short segments of improved bike paths or sidewalks can abruptly dump commuters into potholed chaos. Others disagree: John Yi, the executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group L.A. Walks, thinks that corridors are as good of a starting point as any.

But L.A. leaders have also given in to opposition by a few community groups to their fatality-curbing tactics. For example, an attempt to put Temple Street in the heart of downtown L.A. on a “road diet”—shrinking space for cars to slow drivers down—was met with such fierce resistance by pro-driving groups that local leaders simply added crosswalks and sidewalk repairs instead. Another lane reduction project on L.A.’s West Side led to multiple environmental lawsuits against the city and a campaign to recall Mike Bonin, the city councilmember who authorized it.

Garcetti has ardently stood up for these traffic-taming street transformations. But L.A.’s municipal power structure favors the feudal-like powers of dispersed city councilmembers over a relatively weak mayor, which poses a challenge to creating concerted political will. “It’s been really hard to organize in a city as large and sprawling in LA, and things can get watered down easily,” said Yi. “You can have a small group of vocal homeowners so opposed to something that it sends a chill throughout the city council,” he said, pointing to the Bonin example.

Part of the answer for L.A. may be to come up with new strategies for engaging residents, so that outraged NIMBYs no longer dominate street safety discussions. Driving habits may die hard in an auto-oriented city like L.A., but the success of Measure M—the $120 billion transit ballot measure that passed in 2016 with an emphasis on congestion-calming and safer streets—is a sign that Angelenos desire better mobility options. “Everyone agrees that the roads need to change,” Yi said. “Why that energy doesn’t translate to policy change comes down to politics.”

San Francisco: A street fight pays off, but faces headwinds

Halfway through its 10-year goal to eliminate street fatalities by 2024, “transit-first” San Francisco has made some encouraging progress. Even with more car traffic on the roads, fatalities declined overall between 2013 and 2018, and particularly for pedestrians. Cyclist fatalities, meanwhile, were basically flat.  

As in New York, San Francisco’s momentum has benefited from collaboration across city agencies, said Jodie Medeiros, the executive director of SF Walks. For example, San Francisco public health workers systematically link data from trauma centers around the city with police department data, yielding a more detailed picture of where and when critical injuries result from crashes. Although it’s still an incomplete representation, that interdisciplinary approach to data puts San Francisco “lightyears ahead of others cities” on using evidence to drive policy decisions, Medeiros said.

And the city has put its money where its mouth is. San Francisco’s municipal transportation authority has 10 “quick build” engineering projects slated for completion by the end of this year, with another five for the end of 2020, and plans to add 20 miles of protected bike lanes. Interventions like painted bike lanes, traffic signal adjustments, and bus boarding islands target corridors with high injury rates. Inspired by New York City’s pilots, they are designed to be fast, reversible, and adjustable, allowing the city to skip long public engagement processes that can slow the delivery of impactful projects. Longer-term capital improvements, such as bike safety enhancements along Octavia Boulevard and the recently approved plan to eliminate personal cars to make room for transit, pedestrians, and cyclists from Market Street, are also designed to align the city’s safety goals.

All told, some 40 percent of the city’s high-injury network—the 13 percent of streets where 75 percent of harmful crashes occur—are at some stage of being redesigned to prevent casualties from occurring, Medeiros said.

“This year we have been reminded far too often that we have so much more work to do to reduce traffic fatalities in our city and make our streets safe,” said Mayor London Breed after announcing a package of pedestrian safety improvements at intersections in August. “[U]ntil our streets are safe we need to keep doing more.”

Despite its efforts, San Francisco is facing headwinds. By October of this year, the city had counted 25 crash-induced fatalities, already higher than last year’s total. And a majority of the city’s traffic deaths are people of color and seniors, two groups that are less likely than the general population to own cars, highlighting the imbalances of its transportation networks.

Earlier this month, San Francisco’s county supervisors responded by officially declaring a traffic safety state of emergency. Medeiros hopes this will push the city to redouble its life-saving efforts with an eye towards speed-related crashes, which are responsible for 25 percent of all fatalities; this could mean pushing the state to authorize the use of automated speed enforcement cameras, and reengaging the San Francisco police department’s focus on traffic safety enforcement, which lagged this past year.  

More broadly, Medeiros said, “I’m hoping we can get momentum in the next five years and shift how our streets are structured, so that they are prioritizing people.”

New York City: A built-in constituency for reform

The city that never sleeps is the one coming closest to “zero,” ever since Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a citywide policy in 2014. The number of traffic fatalities fell to an all-time low of 202 in 2018, breaking the 2017 record low and consistent with a five-year decline since 2013. “Vision Zero is clearly working,” de Blasio told the New York Times this year.

Among NYC’s policy changes: 82 new miles of protected bike lanes, thousands more pedestrian-friendly traffic signals, leveling up penalties for dangerous drivers, convincing state legislators to reduce speed limits, speed enforcement cameras in schools, and other street safety upgrades—many of them starting as can-of-paint pilot projects.

There is much that sets New York apart from other U.S. cities from a traffic safety perspective, starting with the fact that roughly 60 percent of trips are already made on another mode of transportation besides a car. A city where a majority of people rely on the sidewalks may have more of a built-in constituency for widespread pedestrian safety improvements and relatively modest speed limits. Projects like banning cars from a major downtown artery to make way for faster buses, or charging a fee to vehicles entering downtown to mitigate congestion and raise revenue for transit, may not be politically easy to accomplish, but they’ve become possible in the New York of 2019: Just look at the 14th Street Busway, and the passage of congestion pricing.

A map of injuries and fatalities in New York City shows persistent hotspots in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in southeast parts of Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough. Zoom in and stop the animation to look at particular neighborhoods in particular years. Note: not every crash in New York City’s database has information about its location. The above map shows only those crashes with an identifiable ZIP code.

But other distinctions are less about the city’s traffic landscape than they are about its internal processes, said Liisa Ecola, a senior policy analyst and transportation planner at the RAND Corporation, who studied national Vision Zero efforts. Ecola praised the interdisciplinary task force the city created from the start to tackle engineering, enforcement, and policy changes: “They’ve really tried to bring together different city departments so that it’s not just about traffic engineers, city planners, or bike lane advocates making traffic safety decisions,” she said. “It’s also the police force, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the city’s commission on aging,” among other local and state agencies.

Still, some observers believe that New York City isn’t pressing ahead as urgently as it should. In 2018, the number of pedestrian deaths increased to 114 from 107 in 2017. So far, in 2019, the number of cyclists who’ve been killed in traffic is already up to 23, according to the city’s public data dashboard—more than twice the total death toll from last year. (The activist group Transportation Alternatives has reported that that it is as high as 28.) Advocates complain that the the city isn’t doing enough to move more drivers out of cars, and that the pace of bike lane expansion is slowing. Earlier this summer, Transportation Alternatives called on the de Blasio administration to treat the increase as an emergency, and to step up its Vision Zero efforts from a piecemeal, street-by-street approach to sweeping infrastructure changes designed to reduce the most basic cause of traffic fatalities: too many people in cars.

“I think the mayor deserves credit for adopting Vision Zero as his platform and implementing it, which has helped New York buck the national trend,” said Marco Conner, the co-deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “But he personally has not been willing to really draw a line in the sand and say that we are going to prioritize safety and saving lives over the preservation of parking space.”

A new five-year transportation master plan gets close, though: Introduced by city council speaker Corey Johnson and signed into law this fall, the plan directs the city’s department of transportation to introduce 250 miles of protected bike lanes, 150 miles of dedicated bus lanes, and add 1 million square feet of public space. But it will be several years before those changes take effect, said Conner: after de Blasio leaves office in 2021, and past the city’s original 2024 Vision Zero deadline.

A challenge to change—and to measure

Politics may be the major root of the problem in every city. In the U.S., even the cities making the greatest strides to reduce traffic violence aren’t likely to meet their ten-year targets. That is largely because eliminating those deaths and injuries will require massive infrastructure overhauls and policy changes that dramatically reduce driving speeds and driving, period, which will take years of culture-change and constituency-building to accomplish.

And measuring progress remains a challenge, for even gathering accurate data about traffic deaths is difficult, let alone reducing them. For one, walking and biking rates aren’t tracked very often in most cities, which can lead to misleading fatality statistics, Shahum pointed out. For example, if a city has more cyclists and a slight increase in injuries and deaths among that group, the rate of safety may still have increased relatively. Some groups are urging state and federal leaders to measure those modes more carefully.

Then there can be issues with the data that is gathered. All five cities in CityLab’s analysis have detailed public information sets about every crash that occurs within their boundaries, usually gathered by local police departments. But we found that this data is often riddled with inaccuracies or missing information. For example, someone who is seriously injured in a crash who later dies from their injuries might show up in the data as an injury, rather than a death. To counteract this, many of these cities have to laboriously clean and update data for periodic reports, whose totals can be quite different from what shows up in the raw data.

For example, raw crash data released by the California Highway Patrol and official data from San Francisco’s Vision Zero office show close or identical fatality figures for many years. But in other years they diverge sharply, such as 2015, where the Vision Zero data showed seven motorists dying in traffic crashes, versus just one from the highway patrol’s data.

According to an SFMTA spokesperson, among the possible reasons for the discrepancy include some methodological differences, such as crashes where a bicyclist dies but no motor vehicle is involved; San Francisco counts that as a “traffic fatality,” but the California Highway Patrol’s data doesn’t include it.

And as for data about injuries—whose elimination is part of the Vision Zero goal—the raw, uncleaned data is often the only data available. That became a barrier to performing certain types of analyses of injury trends for this story.

Still, when we are able to track and chart this data, the gloomy patterns that emerge beg the question: Has Vision Zero been a failure? Or, is “eliminating traffic fatalities” the wrong framework, given how quixotic the quest currently seems to be?

Not for Shahum of the Vision Zero Network. “Vision Zero is not a slogan, tagline, or even a program,” she said. “It has to be a transformative shift in how you’re doing business on the issue of mobility.” To her, the first five years have been a starting point of a shift that will take years, which means that cities that were already further ahead on walking, transit, and biking will have more progress to show than cities with more driving DNA.

There is evidence that the shift is happening. Just ten years ago, projects like the Better Market Street in San Francisco or the 14th Street Busway in New York City would not have been politically feasible. The slow but growing momentum behind Vision Zero is also starting to align with the implications of climate change, pushing the notion of people-first streets into the political mainstream for those cities, said Shahum, and others are likely to follow.

“Even if a city isn’t trending perfectly to zero… was that ever going to be the case? No,” she said. “But at least we can track some of the work they’re putting into it and the changes they’re making. And those bigger changes are starting to happen.”

In the meantime, that big bold zero may help advocates keep pressing for more investments, better data, and bigger changes to their local streetscapes, and to keep holding leaders to account.

Get access to the data used in the story here.