By Nicole Gelinas, June 21, 2014
Vehicle and pedestrian traffic converge on Wilshire Boulevard at the intersection of Veteran Avenue in Westwood.
New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has promised to make the streets
of his city safer for those who travel them, whether by foot, bicycle
or car. How? By following Sweden's lead.
Over the last 15 years,
Stockholm has cut pedestrian deaths by 31% and overall traffic deaths by
45%. Last year, the Swedish city suffered only six traffic deaths, or
about 1 per 150,000 residents. New York had nearly five times that rate,
and Los Angeles County, with somewhere around 600 traffic fatalities a
year, had roughly nine times the death rate of Stockholm.
Sweden's "Vision Zero" philosophy holds that human error shouldn't be
fatal. When a child runs after a bouncing ball and a speeding car
strikes and kills him, for example, that death shouldn't be accepted
simply as an unavoidable tragedy. Rather, it should be studied to see
how it might have been averted with better road design or behavioral
reinforcement or both.
We already think this way about aviation
accidents. When a jet crashes, no one shrugs it off by saying, "Well,
accidents happen." Instead, the government and the industry analyze the
contributing factors and do everything they can to prevent such an
accident from happening again.
De Blasio is confident he can reduce deaths, and that is in part
because previous New York mayors have already shown the way. Last year,
228 people died in crashes in New York, 170 of them pedestrians. That
sounds bad, and it is. But in 1990, New York had 701 traffic deaths,
with 366 pedestrians killed. And 20 years before that, the city saw
nearly 1,000 traffic deaths in a single year. It wasn't unusual to lose
500 pedestrians annually.
New York's current traffic fatality
numbers compare favorably with other American big cities. But it, along
with the rest of America, remains well behind many other global cities,
including Paris, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Successful programs need to address two main issues: speed and inattention.
speed has immediate effects for reasons that are easily understood.
Someone hit by a car going 20 mph will live 90% of the time. Someone hit
at 40 mph will live only 30% of the time.
Speeding also distorts the judgment of both driver and potential
victim. "Drivers overestimate their own ability to stop" and
"underestimate the impact" of a crash, says Rune Elvik, a civil
engineering professor at Denmark's Aalborg University. And pedestrians
can underestimate the speed of approaching cars, thinking they have more
time to cross a street than they do.
Inattention can be caused by distractions — phones, radios, passengers — or simply from a failure to focus on the road.
way of dealing with both problems involves redesigning streets, adding
pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, which make car and truck lanes
narrower and remind drivers that they're in a city where people live,
not on a highway where it's OK to drive fast.
Talk show hosts made
fun of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he added pedestrian plazas
and narrowed roadways at Herald Square (near Macy's) and Times Square.
But the redesigned streets make it absolutely clear to drivers that they
share the road, and require them to slow down and pay more attention.
De Blasio has promised more such design changes, focusing
particularly on dangerous intersections. This is good public policy. At
intersections where the city has changed the design of the streets,
fatalities have fallen by a third since 2005, twice the city's overall
The city is also focusing on ways to gather better data. It
intends to add speed cameras at key intersections. And it has directed
taxi regulators to explore outfitting taxis with "black boxes" that
could record data and sound warnings when drivers go too fast.
The devices would be used not only to deter drivers from breaking the
law but also to provide the city with more data on who speeds and where,
and to enable the city to crack down on lawbreakers. Police will be
able to use the information to deploy manpower, while the transportation
department can use it to pinpoint intersections in need of redesign.
Making the streets safer for people rather than faster for cars is
not simply a public health measure; it's also an important step in
helping cities to grow. Most cities really can't grow outward, at least
not without making multibillion-dollar investments in new public
transit. That means cities need to get denser, which makes it more
convenient for people to get around on foot or bicycle.
Snook, owner of Wabi Cycles, has lived in downtown Los Angeles for
nearly seven years. He notes that though downtown is adding people, the
streets have little capacity for more traffic.
Easing traffic requires
increasing the number of people getting around without cars — on bicycle
or on foot — and Snook notes that there has already "been an increase
in the number of cyclists."
Still, he says, "for the average
person, [cycling in Los Angeles] is very daunting." But L.A.'s new lane
markers and other measures for bicyclists are starting to change that.
Indeed, the L.A. County
Bicycle Coalition notes that bike trips in
the county increased 56% between 2000 and 2010, while the population
increased only 3%.
More bicyclists on the street is also good for
walkers, since the presence of bicycles forces car and truck drivers to
drive more slowly and pay attention.
"It's kind of goofy that we got ourselves to the point" th
at road deaths "are accepted," says Snook.
The good news, though, is we're less and less willing to accept them every year.