Zero Traffic Deaths: Aspirational or Attainable?

Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?


Metro North’s Hudson Line, taken near the site of 2013’s infamous Spuyten Duyvil derailment in the Bronx. While undoubtedly tragic, that derailment represented a system failure, rather than a system norm.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I believe that to answer this question, we must consider the ways in which systems are designed and optimized towards a particular objective. To illustrate this, we need not look beyond elsewhere in the transportation sector. Though it may not be referred to as such, industries such as aviation and rail have long enforced Vision Zero design principles. That is to say, fatalities and serious injuries of the users of these systems are regarded as wholly unacceptable. As such, the design of these systems and the protocols by which they are operated stem from this foundational design principle. And while the quality and reliability of service are certainly among the objectives of these industries, they do not supersede the primary objective of safety. This is why airports will suspend flights during inclement weather despite the financial and customer satisfaction repercussions they undoubtedly suffer. And as irritating as it may be for one’s flight to be delayed, it is one example of the way that all decisions are ultimately guided by the premise that it is simply unacceptable for any passenger to be killed by flying.

Of course this does not mean that no one has ever been killed, or will be killed, while flying or taking the train. But it is however exceedingly rare. And in those tragic cases were fatalities do occur, the circumstances are heavily scrutinized while great lengths are taken to remedy the antecedents of that incident by tweaking the system in order to account for a newly revealed mode of failure. Reports taking a year or more to prepare throughly document precise points of failure and recommendations are made to prevent similar incidents in the future. Put simply, death and serious injuries represent failures of the system, rather than the system’s normal functioning.

It is the very abnormality of these events that lead plane crashes and train derailments to be front page news, while motor vehicle fatalities are often passingly mentioned within the traffic report, if at all. And why should the media find the latter to be exceptional when our roads are designed to kill well over 30,000 people each year in the U.S. alone? Sadly, these deaths are not exceptions to the rule; they are the rule. Yes, improving safety is an objective of our surface transportation industry, but it is not the guiding principle towards which all design decisions are oriented.  In its current form, the system is built in such a way that over 30,000 traffic fatalities do not represent a failure of design, because eliminating traffic fatalities is not the ultimate design objective. It is difficult to conceive of such carnage being even remotely acceptable in any other transportation sector.

The incredible impact of orienting design towards the elimination of fatal incidents is borne out in the data. Considering only in-vehicle deaths occurring in the U.S. for a moment, airlines have 0.07 fatalities per billion passenger miles and railroads have 0.15 fatalities per billion passenger miles, while automobiles have a comparatively whopping 7.3 fatalities per billion passenger miles [1]! In other words, road fatalities are approximately 100 and 50 times more common than air and rail, respectively. As mentioned, not included in this figure is the number people walking and bicycling who are killed by motorists, which typically comprise about 15% of all road fatalities. This would imply a fatality rate of roughly 8 per billion miles travelled by motorists.

(Upon so blithely discussing such sheer magnitude of tragedy, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on Families for Safe Streets member, Amy Liao’s reference during her talk at the Vision Zero Cities conference.)

There are of course many differences between surface transportation and industries like aviation and rail. Chief among them perhaps is the institutional nature and professional operation of the latter, versus the independent nature and amateur operation of the former. Large institutional entities are far more effective at creating and enforcing best practices and protocols, while professional operators have the training and experience to follow them. Conversely, the overwhelming majority of road traffic is comprised of private drivers with no formal training beyond a farcical written exam and a couple of dozen hours of road test preparation. Professional drivers also have a level of accountability absent in amateur drivers, for whom there are very weak feedback mechanisms for correcting dangerous behavior.

Yet, this is all the more reason why our street system must be designed in such a way to minimize the possibility of fatal collisions. While motorists do have a responsibility to not endanger others through recklessness or negligence, and it is in the personal interest of pedestrians and bicyclists to do their best in avoiding being killed by errant motorists, a system premised on the absence of human error is bound to fail. If the only thing standing between a system’s normal functioning and catastrophic failure is unceasing human perfection, then that system is woefully inadequate, especially when that system is so heavily comprised of amateur operators. More bluntly, why is it that the transportation system comprised of the most fools is the least foolproof?

Back to New York

Under the administration of former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan set the first numerical target in the city’s history to reduce traffic fatalities by half before 2030. This was certainly a great step forward, and Sadik-Khan has arguably done more than any other to improve the design of New York City streets and to challenge the broader cultural acceptance of traffic violence. However I see this initial goal as different from Vision Zero not only in degree, but also in kind. By degree, Vision Zero is indeed more ambitious, seeking to entirely eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2024. By kind however, the former implies an additional objective to the set existing design priorities whereas the latter represents a fundamental shift in the principle design consideration of a city street. To me, this is what gets lost in arguing whether there will actually be zero fatalities, or if that number may fluctuate between zero, and say, one, from year to year. Vision Zero doesn’t necessarily mean that no one will be killed in traffic, ever; it means that no one will be killed by design. And in the event that tragedy does occur, the causes and remedies will be exhaustively studied, with the knowledge gleaned then reintegrated into the system. Whether the de Blasio administration and its constituent agencies are living up to this lofty goal is debatable, but I do believe that this is the true spirit of a Vision Zero policy.

With regards to law enforcement though, they, by definition, enforce the status quo. It should therefore come as little shock that Commissioner Bratton cannot envision a New York City without traffic fatalities. In a sense he is right—without changing the underlying system it will indeed be impossible. What he fails to understand however is that Vision Zero calls for a radical reshaping of our transportation system and the design principles upon which it is based. The guiding principle of policing is to preserve order, regardless of whether or not that order is just or equitable. It is therefore incumbent upon those of us who are fighting to end traffic violence to do everything in our power to reshape that order—to rebuild the system and orient it towards the just and equitable design of our streets. If that is within our ability, then Vision Zero is absolutely attainable.

[1] Savage, Ian. “Comparing the fatality risks in United States transportation across modes and over time.Research in Transportation Economics 43.1 (2013): 9-22.

Many of the salient points in [1] can be found outside the paywall in this summary.



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  1. Pingback: Autonomous Trollies: Ceding Ethics to Economics | Transpophile

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