ASK STRONG TOWNS QUESTION #14

We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, John from Portland asks:

What is the Strong Town thinking on Vision Zero? New York, Seattle and Portland have recently announced programs. 

We absolutely support the concept of Vision Zero, the notion that our transportation system should have zero fatalities and zero serious injuries. While some may say this is not an achievable goal, I disagree, particularly within urban areas. If we commit to this, we can do it. It is possible.

Where our mindset needs to change is how we respond to traffic accidents (and yes, I used the word accident, but I don't want to fight about it). We have come to accept a certain level of attrition when it comes to automobiles in particular that we don't accept anywhere else in society. 

For example, when a plane goes down, we mobilize a federal agency to do a thorough investigation of what went wrong. Even if it is just a two-seater, there is an evaluation, conclusions and recommendations. Every plane crash that takes place is used to make the next plane ride safer.

What if we did this for automobiles?

What if every time there was an accident we not only took insurance information, wrote up a report with some check boxes and called a tow truck but we actually did an investigation as to the underlying causes of the accident, be there mechanical, physical, psychological or whatever. And what if we then took that information and used it to change our approach in ways necessary to systematically reduce injury.

There is one thing that would happen immediately: we would identify that stroads are the most dangerous environment for automobiles to operate in and we would be compelled to eliminate them. Whatever positive economic benefit they are perceived to have (and it is all perception with no reality), it would need to yield to a Vision Zero approach the same way I've adapted to body scans at the airport and airlines accepted cockpit doors. We adjust.

And that highlights the only mild critique that I have of some Vision Zero efforts, namely those that focus on lowering speed limits as a major part of the solution. I'm convinced, for many reasons, that artificially low speed limits do more harm than good and cause more serious accidents than they prevent. They make us feel good -- PEOPLE SHOULD DRIVE SLOWER -- but they don't address the core problem, which is an incorrect design.

My Vision Zero strategy would be to have no speed limits for local streets. I would place the burden on the design to ensure that the environment was safe. The Dutch call this a self-explaining street, a street where the design communicates intuitively to the driver what is a safe speed and how to safely navigate.

Then law enforcement can focus on deviants -- truly reckless drivers -- and we can increase penalties to deal with them since we won't be entrapping people with over-engineered streets that make them feel safe at high speeds.

I'm really excited to see how Vision Zero spreads across this country.