Vision Zero: Safer Streets for Everyone?

At the Corvallis City council meeting on June 3, Vision Zero was formally adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive traffic plan. Originating in Sweden in the 1990s, Vision Zero proposes, “to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” The “zero” is for a goal of zero fatalities and zero major injuries.  

Each community’s Vision Zero plan is designed for the community, but all are based on five principles: Leadership and collaboration; understanding trends; equity and engagement; accountability; and safe roadways and speeds. 

More than anything else, Vision Zero involves throwing out old assumptions people have had about accidents and replacing them with new facts. For example, the saying that “accidents will happen” would be replaced with the fact that every accident is preventable. 

Vision Zero also asserts that patterns of human behavior and rates of human error can be observed and predicted, and that safety doesn’t have to come at a high cost. Especially considering how much accidents can cost. 

Cities around the world have adopted and applied Vision Zero principles for decades, including places as large as New York City and as small as Caldwell, Idaho – a city about the same size as Corvallis or Eugene. In 2016, ten U.S. cities – Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, Austin, TX, Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Portland, OR – were named Vision Zero Focus Cities, where special emphasis was placed on accelerating their already-advanced Vision Zero programs. They could serve as examples to the rest of the country, and as test sites to find and solve specific problems in reaching Vision Zero goals. Between 1997 and 2014, US states that adopted Vision Zero reportedly saw a 25 percent decline in fatality rates faster than the national average. Success has varied in recent years, however, as New York saw a 30 percent increase in traffic deaths in 2019, compared to the year prior.  

The resolution adopting the Vision Zero principles placed special emphasis on the already high proportion of residents who walk and bike to work, and the extensive time and effort which the 509J School District has put into providing safe routes to and from school for public school students. This pre-existing situation is both a benefit to bringing about Vision Zero for Corvallis, and also a great challenge. 

It’s an unfortunate reality that, as more people travel on foot and by bicycle, the fewer destructive accidents happen between vehicles, as the majority of fatal accidents involve automobiles and bicycles. In fact, three of the five people who died in vehicular accidents in Corvallis in 2019 were bicyclists. If Vision Zero is to accomplish its goal of eliminating major human harm in traffic, profound change of some kind will have to be made. It will be up to Corvallis traffic planners to decide what that change will be, and how it can be brought about. 

By John M. Burt