Vision Zero: Where Do We Go From Here?

John Petro is a policy analyst for New York City affairs and the co-author of “Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio released his administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan earlier this week, following up on a high-profile campaign promise just six weeks after taking office. The Action Plan [PDF] offers dozens of initiatives and strategies that the new administration will employ to cut the high number of traffic deaths that plague the city.

Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office

The mayor pledged to use “the full weight of city government” to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.” In the Action Plan’s introduction, the mayor wrote, “The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable.”

But as the afterglow of the announcement fades, where exactly does the Action Plan leave us? It includes both new initiatives and a continuation of strategies initiated under the Bloomberg administration. What exactly has changed, and how can we be assured that the Action Plan will result in a dramatic reduction in fatalities?

The Action Plan represents a commitment from the mayor to keep street safety among his administration’s top priorities. By upholding Vision Zero, de Blasio has brought the issue of dangerous driving and its impact on life and death to the forefront of public discourse. The moral imperative ingrained in Vision Zero has begun to change the public’s attitudes toward street safety, which is the first step toward changing behavior on the street.

This isn’t to say that Mayor Bloomberg didn’t place great importance on reducing pedestrian fatalities. Bloomberg unflinchingly supported the DOT’s traffic calming initiatives even in the face of vitriolic tabloid screeds. But Bloomberg was unwilling to press his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, to prioritize the enforcement of dangerous driving behaviors like speeding, failure to yield, and distracted driving.

De Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan explicitly calls for increased enforcement of dangerous driving by the NYPD. The department will purchase more speed guns, expand the number of officers trained to use them, and increase the ranks of the Highway Unit (NYPD’s chief anti-speeding unit). The plan would also increase the penalties for certain infractions, such as driving without a license, and would amend the Hayley and Diego law in a way that would no longer require an officer to witness a crash in order to issue a summons (both changes would require state action).

Crucially, the Action Plan includes improvements to the way NYPD conducts crash investigations. Under Kelly, NYPD botched several high-profile crash investigations. Crash reports were unreliable, contradictory, and cursory. Now the plan states that police officers will receive enhanced training on vehicle crash reports and the preservation of evidence and, most importantly, the Collision Investigation Squad will investigate all crashes with critical injuries, rather than those that result in a “likely to die” scenario.

It is important to remember that the Bloomberg administration had also made pledges to improve enforcement efforts. The “New York City Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan” [PDF], released by the Department of Transportation in 2010, said that, “Using detailed crash data to identify locations and to inform enforcement strategy, NYPD will target speeding along major corridors and failure-to-yield prone intersections.” The 2010 plan talks about focusing on unlicensed drivers (or drivers with suspended licenses), distracted drivers, data collection with “multi-year crash trends,” and data sharing.

If enforcement was such a priority for the city in 2010, why have we not seen any corresponding change in the enforcement behavior of the police department over the past four years? What has changed under de Blasio? It remains to be seen exactly how “stronger enforcement” under de Blasio will translate into the day-to-day work of the NYPD. The mayor’s emphasis on street safety was initially met by a jaywalking ticket blitz. Clearly the message to focus on unsafe driving behavior has yet to consistently shape the way police officers and precinct commanders carry out their duties.

Significantly, however, there seems to be a greater commitment from new police commissioner William Bratton to redirect police resources to specifically address traffic safety issues. “We are going to use every tool we have — and push to get the additional tools we need—to prevent the needless loss of life,” the commissioner said on Tuesday. Bratton, like de Blasio, recognizes the moral imperative to act. This is a direct contrast to the comments of former police commissioner Ray Kelly, who last October essentially said there is not much the police department can do to prevent traffic fatalities. In such a large city, Kelly said, “You’re going to have a lot of traffic. And you’re going to have accidents.”

De Blasio also seems more willing to engage with Albany to move the street safety agenda forward than Bloomberg was. Bloomberg was burned after his request for congestion pricing was denied, and he lost his appetite for going up to the capital to ask for big-ticket items. De Blasio’s administration has a fresh start, and is not constricted by the adversarial relationship with Albany that Bloomberg was mired in when the subject of speed cameras was first introduced.

This freshness, along with the moral imperative that Vision Zero provides, has allowed de Blasio to be bolder, to call for city control of red light and speeding cameras, for example, whereas Bloomberg began with essentially a speed camera pilot program. De Blasio has also proposed a citywide reduction in speed limits, which will require authorization from Albany and is therefore a risk that Bloomberg may have been unwilling to make. The mayor’s willingness to have the TLC take a leading role on street safety is another encouraging sign.

Now I have some words of caution. First, there must be a distinct, dedicated Vision Zero budget. As Streetsblog reported, Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives asked, “Given the urgency of Vision Zero, will we see a commensurate urgency in the application of additional resources to fix those dangerous streets? We’re all hoping the answer to that is yes.” Without dedicated resources, agencies may be unwilling to divert staff and resources for goals that they feel are outside their jurisdiction.

Second, Vision Zero could easily drop off the mayor’s priority list. While there is a lot that the city can do on its own, the mayor is still relying on cooperation from the state to execute his vision. What’s more, without measurable targets or goals related to outcomes, the public has fewer means to keep the de Blasio administration accountable. The Bloomberg administration had the admirable goal of reducing traffic fatalities by half by 2030, but the Action Plan makes no mention of this outcome or any other, more ambitious goal.

De Blasio has said that his goal is to reduce fatalities “literally” to zero. I think this leaves too much unsaid. The “vision” of zero fatalities is different from measurable targets. The city must set many different benchmarks to assess its progress, like reducing the percentage of drivers who speed ten miles over the limit, for example.

Third, while the Vision Zero framework is powerful, it will not necessarily move us toward a larger discussion about what and whom our streets are for. Streets are public spaces, and it should be up to New Yorkers how we use that space. Vision Zero focuses solely on safety and sidesteps the crucial issue that for too long the streets have been the sole domain of automobiles.

For now, we have a mayor and police commissioner dedicated to reducing traffic fatalities. However, in the end it will be the people of New York who decide, by their actions and behaviors, whether we end needless traffic violence. The Vision Zero message is a good reminder that it is human lives at stake, and the Action Plan gives us a good road map on how to achieve it.