Vision Zero: Morals vs Econometrics
The problem is the whole transport sector is quite influenced by the whole utilitarianist mindset. Now we’re bringing in the idea that it’s not acceptable to be killed or seriously injured when you’re transporting. It’s more a civil-rights thing that you bring into the policy. Matts-Åke Belin, traffic safety strategist, Swedish Transport Administration
One of the queasiest concepts in transportation planning is how the profession uses a cost-benefit analysis that assumes that it is okay that some people will die and/or get severely injured every year while traveling. Policies that promote high speed traffic, even in urban areas, as well as roadway projects with minimal sidewalks, no shoulders or bike lanes and widely spaced crosswalks, are justified by economic models that claim that a certain number of deaths and major injuries are offset by decreased travel times and/or saved expense. After all, time is money, right?
Sweden’s transport policy since 1997 has been based on a different approach–Vision Zero. Vision Zero holds that death and suffering are social “bads” to be eliminated, not “costs” to be offset by “benefits.” In an interview with Sarah Goodyear on Atlantic’s Citylab site, Mr Belin poses simple questions that aren’t usually asked in the US: is it right to design systems that we know will kill people based on economic assumptions of social benefit? This puts morality front and center and charges engineers with the heavy responsibility: protecting lives first, and moving traffic second.
In urban areas, Sweden imposes speed limits of 3o kilometers per hour, a little under 20 miles per hour. In contrast to previous limits of 50 kph (3omph), accidents at 30kph have a 10% chance of killing someone versus 80%. Sweden also doesn’t permit right turns on red, a major reason people get hit in crosswalks.
Transportation activists have pushed local governments in the US to adopt Vision Zero type policies, such as has happened in New York City this summer. But there is a long way to go, even in NYC, which seems a pedestrian city but where almost 300 walkers were killed in 2012. One of my biggest disappointments in my career as an elected official was being unable to stop the state department of transportation from teaming up with county road departments to steer $30 Million in federal transportation dollars away from a major new safety initiative to three freeway interchange expansions (in November 2012). Portland just adopted this in principle but is far from re-ordering spending priorities. Indeed, in a proposed package of fee and tax increases, the Portland business lobby is fighting against prioritizing sidewalk and other safety related components.
The price for travel shouldn’t be risk of death.