Pump the brakes: Cities aim to eliminate traffic fatalities with Vision Zero goals

Vision Zero, started in 1990s Sweden, is catching on across the US as cities look to make their roads safer

When it comes to smart cities, less is usually more.

That’s especially true when it comes to traffic crashes. And now, a number of cities are seeking to eliminate the worst ones entirely.

Vision Zero is a goal to end all traffic fatalities, a challenge that dozen of cities around the world have made.

In 1997, Sweden became the first place to introduce a Vision Zero program, with a goal of reducing fatalities and serious injurious to zero by 2020. Autonomous vehicle deployment could go a long way to making roads safer, with 90% of accidents caused by human error. In the meantime, new technology and data is making it easier than ever for cities work towards their own goals.

"The massive amounts of data are making things categorically different," said Jonathan Matus, the founder of Zendrive, a company that uses the sensors on a smartphone to collect information on driving behavior.

Distractions from smartphones are a big part of the problem. Zendrive conducted a distracted driver study and of 3 million anonymous drivers, covering 5.6-billion miles over 570-million trips and found that on 88% of those trips, drivers used their phone. A two second distraction increases the chance of a crash by a factor of 20.

“It’s an epidemic,” Matus said. "The study has shown that it’s a much bigger problem than people think."

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) yearly study estimates an 11% increase in the number of persons on foot killed on U.S. roadways in 2016 as compared to 2015. GHSA points to smartphone use as one of the reasons for the increase.

Technology will be part of the solution solving this technology problem. In Boston, Verizon started a pilot program at end of last year at an intersection where they installed over 30 traffic sensors and 15 cameras.

“It’s a logical extension of our smart city capabilities,” said Steve Smiley, Verizon’s executive director for enterprise product development.

The intersection is at a busy crossing. In fact, one of the poles that with a camera on it was hit by a car within 12 hours of installation. Verizon is looking to get a baseline of data and then try out different changes at the intersection, like flashing lights when people are in the crosswalk or slowing down speeds, and comparing the data afterwards. They plan to do similar projects at different intersections in Boston for even more data. Eventually, there will be enough data where not all intersections will have to be wired up with so much technology to figure out the changes needed to make it safer.

D.C. sees progress

D.C. made a commitment to Vision Zero in 2015 as part of the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets, a nationwide program.

“We are promoting new smart cities concepts, such as testing vehicle-to-infrastructure technology with our traffic signals,” said Jonathan M. Rogers, a policy analyst for the District DOT who is leading D.C. Vision Zero. “But we are also using technology that is already available, because Vision Zero is such an urgent goal.”

Upwards of 30 different agencies aim to implement D.C.’s Vision Zero by 2024. So far the collaboration has been working. 2016, the first full year of D.C. Vision Zero, was the safest year for pedestrians in the city since 2012, according to the most recent progress report.

The city is using a range of counters, sensors, video analytics, acquiring signaling data from cellular networks and collaborating with apps such as Waze to share data. That data is published online for the public to see and engage with.

“When we know who is traveling where,” Rogers said. “We can better measure different locations’ safety performances.”

Seattle takes on Vision Zero

Seattle’s Mayor announced the city’s Vision Zero efforts in 2015.

“We’re very much a data-driven organization and have been for some time,” said Jim Curtin, a Senior Transportation Planner for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “In everything we do, we make sure that data is referenced before we go out.”

The DOT maintains, codes for type of crash and geocodes the police data. They can use it to perform spatial analysis and help prioritize where they go to promote safety.

Seattle’s DOT partnered with Microsoft and Datakind, a nonprofit that works with data scientist to come up with solutions for social problems, to develop a model that can predict problem areas that might otherwise go unnoticed. The model normalizes data that can better target areas that might have lower traffic but contain higher risks than other areas.

“We refuse to use the word accident,” Cummin said. Instead, they use crash. There is almost always human error involved and Cummin said they have the data to prove it. Seattle wants to

redesign streets so when people make mistakes, it doesn’t result in death.

Already, an intersection in West Seattle that has a lot of bikes coming through is getting a dedicated turn signal for cars. On-site observations saw a lot of near missions and the data had said to expect it.

"We feel like we are going to make major strides in the next few years,” Cummin said.

Los Angeles car culture gets a tune up

In April of this year, Los Angeles became one of the most recent cities to release an action plan to get to Vision Zero by 2025. Currently, more than 200 people are killed on the city’s streets each year.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has identified a collection of streets that make up only 6% of streets but cause nearly two-thirds of serious injuries and deaths. The DOT has labeled these dangerous streets as the High Injury Network (HIN), where the city can direct investments that will most help them get to Vision Zero. The city also has a site that shows where deaths have occurred in the city.

“One of the things that you have to do is look at the data,” said Tamika Butler, the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler points out enforcement wasn’t a main tool when vision zero was implement across Europe but slowing down speeds and building bike lanes. Writing tickets will not get you to zero, Butler said.

Los Angeles could build more bike lanes. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition does a biker and pedestrian count every other year and in 2015, the numbers stagnated as the city slowed at building new bike lanes. The study found that on the new bike lanes, ridership increased on the road by 62% after installation. After accounting for increases in ridership, new bike lanes reduced bicycle crash risk by an average of 42%.

“We’re really excited about Vision Zero but we want the city to take a hard look at the engineering piece of the puzzle,” Butler said. “You have to build the infrastructure."

Filed Under: Transportation Policy & Planning
Top image credit: Flickr; Joiseyshowaa