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Vision Zero is a project that sees any traffic death as unnecessary and that works towards building a road system that leads to no fatalities or serious injuries. Cities and countries around the world have adopted Vision Zero, and C-U should be among of them.

This isn’t our first time mentioning Vision Zero. We talked about briefly when we released our bike crash map and it’s also something that Jeff Yockey mentioned as a long-term goal. Following the hit-and-run death of Champaign resident Charles Roberts while biking last week, we thought it an important issue to bring up again.

What is Vision Zero?

Vision Zero‘s guiding philosophical precept is that “life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society.” When thinking about traffic and transportation this translates to: Just because it’s important for us to move goods and people across space doesn’t mean that it’s important enough to justify the deaths of people in the process. This challenges our traditional cost-benefit analysis which sees some deaths as a sort of inevitable collateral damage, i.e. worth it given the net gain. Less abstractly, it’s is an initiative that sees even one traffic death is unacceptable and preventable and challenges us to build a better road system. Vision Zero sees traffic deaths as a symptom of a bad roadway system and not as unavoidable element of it.

What Vision Zero tries to do is denaturalize the belief that traffic deaths are inevitable. We’ve all grown up with death-by-car being an ever-present potentiality. Even when people are discussing the upcoming Powerbowl, they like to throw out stats about how it’s more likely that you’ll die in a car crash tonight than win. Vision Zero challenges us to consider that these deaths are not something that have to happen, but that happen because we have an imperfect transportation system in need of improvement. It holds that just because traffic casualties are normal now, does not mean that this always has to be the case. And until we start viewing any death as a problem that could be solved, rather than something inevitable, we’re not going to be able to effectively work towards a system where deaths due to traffic are something that don’t happen.

Adoption of Vision Zero involves the creation of a Vision Zero plan. These plans involve steps that will be taken in changing and modifying infrastructure, technology, education, enforcement, and legislation that, together, are designed to create a road system that doesn’t kill people. Plans recognize that humans are imperfect, so any solution must allow sufficient room for humans to make errors. Plans include a target date for when these changes are expected to drop the number of traffic deaths to zero.

Transport deaths are not insignificant. In the US alone, 4,735 pedestrians and 743 bicyclists died as a result of crashes with motor vehicles in 2013. Projects like Ghost Bikes work to bring visibility to these lost lives, and they’re part of the solution, but what is really needed is an organized, actionable plan.

How has Vision Zero Been Adopted?

Sweden was the first adopter of Vision Zero in 1997. Their revised goals are to half the number of traffic deaths by 2020 and to bring them to 0 by 2050. So far, they’ve had significant success, over the 15 year period between 1997 and 2011 there has been a 42% decrease in traffic deaths. In human terms, this means there are a lot more people walking around and a lot less grieving families. To fully understand the extent of their progress, it should also be noted that during this period of time, traffic volume has increased substantially. Success, however, will only come once there are no traffic deaths. Sweden’s seen a lot of improvement, but a Mission Accomplished banner would not yet be appropriate.

New York City adopted Vision Zero in January 2014 and seems to be making significant headway. With the goal of ending traffic deaths by 2025, 2014 saw a 26% decrease in pedestrian deaths and the lowest on record since 1910. The full plan can be viewed here and includes comprehensive changes to roads, education, enforcement, and laws. This is not to say that NYC’s efforts have not come under criticism for still being insufficient.

Many other cities across the US have adopted Vision Zero targets including Chicago in 2012, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and Austin in 2014, and Portland, Seattle, and San Diego in 2015.

What can we do in C-U?

In our investigation of bike crashes in CU, we found that there were 167 incidents reported between October 2011 and September 2014. That averages out to 56 crashes a year. Ninety-six of these crashes were reported to the Champaign Police Department, with 49 and 22 cases reported to the Urbana and UIUC Police Departments respectively.

Charles Roberts’ death last week is not the only fatal incident involving bikes to happen in C-U in recent years. In 2009 a cyclist died at the intersection of Green and Urbana and in 2011, two cyclists were killed. One was killed in a crash at the intersection of Anthony Dr. and Market St. while another, Cindy Combs, was killed near Bondville. And these are just incidents involving cyclists, not pedestrians.

Although neither Illinois nor Urbana nor Champaign have adopted a Vision Zero target yet, that’s not to say that nothing has been done. There has certainly been a recent increase in the amount of bike infrastructure built. UIUC has a master bike plan. Urbana does as well and their new plan is up for review February 1. Savoy is now in the process of creating one. Champaign, the largest of all these entities, is still lagging.

That said, there needs to be a more concerted effort in dealing with cyclist and pedestrian deaths and injuries in the C-U area. All of these deaths are preventable, provided we create a better system. We have lots of examples to work from. The next step is for us to participate in this discussion with our neighbors, elected officials, community organizations, and local businesses to help give Vision Zero some momentum in our community. The more people who participate, the better our outcome will be. Neutral Cycle will be happy to partner with anyone in whatever way we can to move this forward.

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